Recently published figures from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive show that, as of December 2022, the number of homeless Belfast households had risen to 7,876, up 4.4% from March the same year. Two thirds of them live in West and North Belfast: over 2,100 in the West and over 1,100 in the North. Take Back the City regularly works with families who have been on the housing waiting list for years.
Business as usual – at all levels of government, commerce and civil society - has failed to provide the safe and sustainable homes the people of Belfast so desperately need. The old politics and institutions have created the perfect storm of bad ideas – points of failure in our current development plans – without learning any of the lessons from the same experiments carried out elsewhere.
Of course, part of Belfast’s problem with providing sufficient new homes is sectarianism, with elected representatives continuing to act in their own narrow political interests, rather than to meet their existing human rights and equality obligations; and officials continuing to be informed by a mindset that discounts the ability of communities to live together peaceably.
While the role of the NIHE is nominally to prevent these tensions, planning permission for housing developments remains in the hands of democratically elected but highly partisan politicians in committee. While no-one is suggesting that democratically elected politicians should not be the decision makers, their framework for making choices on new homes makes no reference to their obligations to consider equality and human rights outcomes.
The result? In Northern Ireland, since 2010, there have been only 941 social homes completed every year on average. By this rate of development it will take 50 years to deal with the current NI waiting list of over 44,000 households - presupposing that this number does not increase due to cost-of-living, political and climate crises.
Public housing has been de-funded and run down, as housing is increasingly viewed as a commodity to build wealth, rather than a home where families can flourish.
At the same time, the lines between what is social and what is affordable are increasingly becoming blurred, with elected representatives and officials taking steps to invest public resources in those who have sufficient funds to access ‘intermediate housing’ such a first-time buyers and returnees to the market. While there is no doubt that these families will face challenges, they are manifestly not those who experience the greatest need in relation to housing.
“Families on waiting lists see little benefit from private sector developments, which after all, are not meant to serve their needs.”
Policy makers argue that by adopting a model seen in other part of the UK - that all new build programmes larger than 5 units must have at least 20% ‘affordable’ housing – the number of available social homes will increase.
However, as other nations of the UK have also seen, developers will often choose to build more profitable intermediate housing rather than social, or buy themselves out of this obligation altogether with little impact on their bottom line, meaning families on waiting lists see little benefit from private sector developments, which after all, are not meant to serve their needs.
Simultaneously, in an attempt to mask growing numbers of homeless families and ever-increasing waiting lists, decision makers are introducing changes to the social housing allocations policy, for example, by reducing the number of offers a family can refuse before they can be frozen out of the list for a year.
The new policy increases the number of geographical areas a person can choose to be housed – without addressing the most dissuasive factors to moving out of your home area, such as threat from paramilitary activity. Future changes will broaden the Housing Executive’s options for housing homeless people to include private rentals as well as social homes, formalising the practice – already seen with single lets – of pouring increasing amounts of money into the pockets of private landlords without providing much-needed stable and secure tenancies to those in need.
All of these steps may hide the problem in government figures, but they won’t change people’s lives.
Decision makers responsible for our current development plans now risk doubling down on these unsustainable approaches, which ignore rising housing waiting lists, the impact of climate change and their existing human rights and equality obligations.
The stated objective of Belfast City Council’s newly agreed Local Development Plan is to provide an additional 31,600 new homes for 66,000 new workers, by 2035, with a particular focus on growing the city centre. The people on the current social housing waiting list are not a priority in these plans; although they will of course be impacted by planning decisions which keep them on the waiting list.
The LDP is not considering all of the available land and resources in the city to help guarantee safe and sustainable homes for all the current residents; the Mackie’s site is an enormous area of publicly owned land, equivalent to around 18 football fields - or 8 GAA pitches. Achieving the number of social homes required in the city will not be possible without it. And yet politicians of all stripes consistently and repeatedly chose to vote to convert the land to parkland, despite calls to the contrary from homeless families in the area.
And all the while that families are stuck on waiting lists, the impact of a changing climate worsens. It is well-established that house building and housing emissions make a major contribution to increasing greenhouse gases.
And yet the opportunities to build more sustainable, well-insulated and efficient homes in environments which can promote water conservation, increase biodiversity and provide people with opportunities to grow food locally are rarely embraced by public bodies; with extractive models which prioritise profit from the land still the primary development model.
We are at a crossroads now where change is still possible, if elected representatives and officials work with communities to harness our collective potential. The Take Back the City Plan, developed by families in need alongside experts in planning, architecture, design, climate, tech and human rights has the potential to cut through the points of failure which are currently consigning many to a life on the waiting list.