Northern Ireland needs housing commitments ‘implemented urgently’

New Stormont Communities Secretary faces record homelessness numbers and more than 26,000 people living in housing stress.

Stormont Parliamentary Building in Northern Ireland

Housing commitments in the new draft deal for a restored Executive in Northern Ireland must be ”implemented immediately” according to the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA).

Responding to the New Decade, New Approach draft power-sharing agreement, NIFHA chief executive Ben Collins warned there was no room for complacency.

He said: “With record numbers of homelessness and more than 26,000 people living in housing stress in Northern Ireland, there is an urgent need to stop the crisis from escalating further.

“It is vital that the necessary legislation to reverse reclassification and extend welfare mitigations is introduced before the looming March deadlines, otherwise thousands of people who are already struggling financially could face the added burden of trying to meet the additional shortfall in their rent, which totals £23m across Northern Ireland.

“In addition, if housing association debt is not reclassified, the number of new social homes built each year could be cut by as much as 50%, meaning even fewer new builds to deal with housing waiting lists,” he said.

Proposals in New Decade, New Approach reverse reclassification of housing association debt, extend welfare reform mitigations, include a specific housing outcome in the next Programme for Government, and move to multi-year social housing development budgets.

Welfare mitigations need to be introduced before the looming March deadlines. Otherwise, thousands of people who are already struggling financially could face the added burden of trying to meet the additional shortfall in their rent, which totals £23m across Northern Ireland.

“Only by going back into government can local parties ensure a higher level of new builds for social and affordable housing and continued welfare mitigation after March 2020. The consequences of not doing so will be disastrous for communities across Northern Ireland,”  said Collins.

Overseeing implementation of housing policy is Sinn Féin rising star – and former Belfast lord mayor – Deirdre Hargey, who will be communities secretary.

Only co-opted last month to replace former finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir in the assembly, Hargey had served on Belfast city council since 2010, where she was the party’s group leader.

Communities is billed among the Assembly’s most challenging briefs, but initial indications suggest all party support for tackling the risks inherent in Westminster welfare reforms.

Hargey will have to keep the New Deal’s promises of legislate changes allowing housing associations to keep borrowing to build new homes and investment and targets for “new social and affordable home starts”.

There is also a significant social housing maintenance backlog and need to examine the setting of sustainable long-term rent policy.

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