Dr Jenny Muir is a member of the NIFHA Board. This article is written in a personal capacity.
Last Monday was Housing Day, as acknowledged on social media by many of our local housing associations – and by an acrimonious discussion on BBC’s Talkback about which ‘community’ suffered the most acute housing need in North Belfast.
Claims that on the surface appear contradictory are of course perfectly understandable with a little thought: 75% of housing need coming from the Catholic community in one part of North Belfast is perfectly compatible with a 50/50 split across the constituency as a whole. Ironically, last week was also Community Relations and Cultural Awareness Week.
Whatever about the figures, there is no doubt that our housing shortage causes misery on an individual level, as described by Nicola Mallon MLA in a recent Assembly debate on the allocations system: “… when I meet constituents who need help and they tell me that it is a housing issue, my heart sinks because I know that, no matter how hard I work on their case, I will not be able to deliver a timely solution for them”.
We should be glad that our politicians from all parties still support social housing and want to build more of it. However, they struggle with the fact that, with a shortage of supply, allocating a home to one household means another has to wait.
Any review of the allocations system needs to take into account not only how need is assessed and prioritised, but also how to use social housing supply more efficiently. The alignment of Community Relations and Cultural Awareness Week with Housing Day should remind us that one important way of doing this is to increase the number of areas where applicants feel it is safe for them to be housed – something that was not addressed in any detail in the Assembly debate.
There has been a political commitment to improving the amount of ‘mixed’ or ‘shared’ housing since the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement in 1998. But implementation is slow due to the sensitive nature of the projects.
The NIHE and housing associations have worked together very effectively, with the NIHE taking the strategic role as well as working in its own estates, and associations providing new build. Initiatives have included the Shared Future Programme (2006-2013: eleven new build developments); the Shared Neighbourhood Programme (2008-2010: integration of 30 existing NIHE estates); Shared Communities Programme (integration of a further 20 existing NIHE estates) and the housing component of Together: Building a United Community (from 2013: commitment to ten new build developments with one currently completed).
In every case shared housing has been delivered only where it was practical, desirable and safe. To return to the subject of Talkback on Housing Day, this means there are some areas which remain segregated, including most of inner North Belfast.
No amount of tinkering with the allocations system will meet need if vacant land suitable for much needed new social housing is in the wrong place (despite the recent efforts of campaigners), or relets are turned down for (entirely understandable) reasons of safety. Although arguably it is too soon for formal shared housing projects in contested areas such as North Belfast, more integration should remain a longer term objective for housing providers and should be supported by local politicians concerned about the volume of housing cases coming through their surgeries.
Shared housing should not only be supported because it is the right thing to do in our still fractured society. It also offers a practical benefit because those in the greatest housing need can be offered the most suitable property more quickly – wherever it is located.