When waiting lists are discussed and shouted about in Northern Ireland, we are usually talking about our disintegrating healthcare system. But there is a second waiting list crisis – that of households seeking social housing.
As at March of last year, there were 44,426 applicants on the social housing waiting list. Of these, over 10,000 were regarded as homeless and more than 31,000 were in housing stress. Nor is the situation improving. There was a 20% jump in applicants for social housing in Derry and Strabane last year.
House building is not catching up – instead it is increasingly falling behind. There were a mere 922 completions of social housing units of accommodation – houses and apartments – in the 2021/22 year across all of NI. At this rate, it would take four decades to meet the demand.
Meanwhile, the private sector has been exploiting the opportunity. There are now as many private sector tenancies as in the whole of the social housing sector – the Housing Executive and housing associations combined. And there are complaints that some private sector properties are of very poor standard.
Another symptom of the crisis is the massive increase in demand for temporary accommodation. Total spend across Northern Ireland has jumped from £5.8m in the 2018/19 year to £23.7m in the 2022/23 year. In Derry and Strabane this has risen from £930,000 to £5.8m over that same four year time period. The increase for Belfast is much smaller, having increased from £1.6m to £3.7m in that time.
In the latest Holywell Conversations podcast, housing campaigner Marissa McMahon, who works with both Participation and Practice of Rights (PPR) and the Simon Community, discusses the scale of the crisis and how this can be addressed. Paddy Gray, emeritus professor of housing at Ulster University and a seasoned housing association board director, considers how social housing providers can boost construction.
Despite the shortfall, there are significant development programmes being taken forward. Belfast city centre is awash with city centre apartment construction. In Derry, the focus is more on the suburbs, where some very large schemes are underway. A new Cashel estate on the Buncrana Road will eventually produce 2,500 new homes, including 800 social housing units. That is a joint scheme between private developer Braidwater and Apex Housing Association.
Apex has appointed Kevin Watson Construction to build out another new development of 250 homes at Springtown, which was approved against advice from planning officials. And Apex has led on the construction of more than a thousand new homes in the Skeogh area of Derry over the last eight years. Choice Housing Association is now to construct an additional 244 homes in the same area. Choice, in partnership with South Bank Square Ltd, is also building another 252 properties on the Waterside, by the Gransha roundabout.
It is too soon to determine what impact, if any, these new developments will have on community integration. The Housing Executive reports that social housing segregation remains most common in the urban parts of Belfast, Derry and Craigavon. But it is proud of its Shared Housing programme, which has grown to 69 schemes comprising 1,973 homes, delivered by 11 housing associations across all council areas.
The Housing Executive says that people want to live in mixed communities, pointing to the Life and Times Survey, which indicates that 79% of respondents would like to live in an integrated, non-segregated, housing community. But the main priority for tenants is to live close to relatives and friends, which creates a drag on cross-community integration.
There are other signs of progress, with a big fall in the number of households that have had to be re-housed because of sectarian and other intimidation. In 2002/3, there were over 1,000 households seeking assistance because of intimidation. By 2022, this had fallen to 171 households.
There has been a comparable fall in properties acquired after forced evacuation, under the SPED scheme, the use of which fell from 382 properties in 2003/4, down to nothing in 2021/2 and just one in 2022/3.
At least there are some positive signs of progress. The podcast is available at the Holywell Trust website.
Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.
Paul Gosling is editor of ‘Lessons from the Troubles and an Unsettled Peace’, author of ‘A New Ireland’ and ‘The Fall of the Ethical Bank’ and co-author of ‘Abuse of Trust’, the story of a child abuse scandal in Leicestershire. He is engaged by the Holywell Trust charity on peace and reconciliation projects.