Social Housing - Part 2

As discussed in last week’s blog we know that there is a huge need for social housing, and we aren’t building nearly enough to meet that need.  

Although a chronic problem particularly in North & West Belfast, it’s also a problem in many rural communities.  The Rural Residents Forum (RRF) is facilitated by RCN and has representatives from across Northern Ireland.  It meets to discuss issues related to the provision of social housing in rural communities.  The RRF has been concerned about the target for new build social housing in rural areas being missed in four of the last five years.  RRF representatives have been involved in a series of meetings with housing spokespeople from all political parties, with Housing Executive staff (including the Chief Executive), with Housing Associations and with Department for Communities officials trying to get answers on why the target has been missed. 

From these meetings the following issues were identified as making the development of new build social housing in rural areas more difficult:
  • Sites in smaller towns and villages can be more expensive as landowners are holding on to try and maximise profits now that the housing market is recovering.  The Housing Associations are saying that in many cases they are being outbid by private developers for sites. 
  • Sites in smaller settlements can be harder to access and more expensive to bring services to.  This makes some sites too expensive for Housing Associations.
  • Housing Associations tell us that, often, they are facing objections to social housing at planning application stage as other residents don’t want social housing built beside them.
The upshot of all this is that the target for new build social housing in rural areas is being missed and renters are faced with a choice of renting in the private sector, if those properties are available in their area, or moving to larger towns where some social housing is still available.  The private rented sector has grown significantly in many rural areas (albeit from a low base) and is often the only option for people needing housing who can’t afford to buy.  There are fewer protections for private rented sector renters and one of the main problems is that tenants are forced to move when short term leases end.

Tenants who opt for the private rented sector are no longer considered in housing need, they have been housed, so they come off the Housing Executive’s waiting list.  This transfers the provision of rented housing from the public sector to the private sector.  The problem with that is that low income renters will need help with meeting their housing costs through housing benefit.  So huge amounts of public money are transferring from the public purse to private landlords through housing benefit.  The alternative is to move to the towns where social housing may still be available.  That leads to smaller towns and villages losing young families with knock on effects on schools, GP surgeries and businesses and a “gentrification” of smaller towns and villages.

Issues like the increase in hospital waiting lists or cuts to school budgets are in the media constantly but the shortage of social housing isn’t getting the same coverage.  Why is that? In my view housing is different.  Housing and the land that it sits on are commodities that are traded, and profit extracted from.  Why wouldn’t a landowner hang onto a development site to try and make as much money as possible?  There are further steps that could be taken if the political will existed.  Both the Department for Communities and the Housing Executive have powers to vest land for social housing.  To our knowledge these powers are rarely used in rural areas.  An uplift in the Housing Association Grant could be introduced to incentivise Housing Associations to build in rural areas.  A Land Value Tax could be introduced which would prevent speculation on development sites.  These more radical approaches will not happen in the absence of a Minister who can make these decisions.  That’s little consolation to the families who languish on the waiting list and whose lives are put on hold.