'So important we explore the unique context of social housing in Northern Ireland.'
Following the launch of our Rethinking social housing Northern Ireland project, director Nicola McCrudden takes a look at the unique context in Northern Ireland.
This project is about Rethinking social housing, so from where did the term ‘social housing’ originate?
I remember life before ‘social homes’ when people lived in public housing, provided by the Housing Executive, or rented from community based housing associations.
Regardless of terminology, it is a long held belief of mine that the state has a vital role to play in the provision of housing to people who are most in need and who would otherwise struggle to access or sustain private housing. A key function of social housing is therefore to provide accommodation that is genuinely affordable to people on low incomes, including those in low-paid work. However, this isn’t its only purpose.
Coming from an advice and advocacy background, I am acutely aware of the needs of people who are homeless or at risk of losing their home. The importance of having a secure home cannot be underestimated. Loss of private rented accommodation has become a main cause of homelessness. Social housing tenancies provide families with security of tenure and with over 39,000 households on the waiting list for social housing it is still very much tenure of choice.
CIH is running a separate but complementary project in Northern Ireland. We have a very different political and policy context – in fact change generally happens at a much slower pace. I acknowledge that we still have a lot to do in terms of finding sustainable housing solutions for people locally; however there are positives in having a traditional approach to social housing.
There is broad political consensus in Northern Ireland in favour of social housing and relatively high priority is given to investment. Having a capital grant rate at around 50 per cent enables us to keep social rents affordable, in the true sense of the word, while adding to the social housing stock levels year on year. However, despite the programme for government commitment to reduce the gap between the numbers of homes we have and the number needed- we have to ask ourselves whether the level of funding is sustainable?
Social housing has, of course, particular significance in Northern Ireland. Two decades on from the Good Friday Agreement, it is deeply concerning that more than 90 per cent of social housing in Northern Ireland remains segregated. Community division impacts on many aspects of our lives and can prevent the best use of existing housing and land. With 80 per cent of people indicating they would live in mixed neighbourhoods if the circumstances were right - we need to rethink how we plan and provide for social housing in the future.
Interestingly, Northern Ireland is the only region in the UK and Ireland without a system of developer contributions for social and affordable housing. Despite the best efforts of our housing associations, our new build housing programmes remain largely single tenure. When building for the future, everything needs to be in the mix – including income, tenure and community background.
So when it comes to Northern Ireland, the rethinking social housing debate begins in a different place and will very likely end in a different one as well. We are keen to give people space to discuss ideas, explore options and help to create a vision for social housing – so please do get involved!
Nicola McCrudden is director of CIH Northern Ireland