The Christmas and New Year period often sees issues of homelessness brought to the fore through charitable appeals and media reports. In mid-December however, research reports commissioned by the Department for Social Development were launched, which could have significant consequences for those in most need of homes.
“The Final Report: Conclusions and Recommendations of the Research to inform the Fundamental Review of Social Housing Allocations Policy” was published alongside two other research reports on the same issue.
The press release which accompanied the publication of the reports, carried out by the University of Ulster and Cambridge University, states that “the research does suggest that housing need remains the primary factor in allocating social homes” but advocates that a “discussion” take place about how the state allocates social homes.
The issue of ‘choice’
A key proposal put forward is a ‘Choice Based Letting (CBL) System’ whereby housing waiting list applicants become “actively involved” in choosing properties to meet their needs and “bidding” for them. The property is then offered to the highest ranked applicant on the waiting list. The proposals reference research conducted in England which documented the CBL system as successful in changing the “mindset for many who previously would have only moved within a confined area”. Despite the research conclusions and recommendations being published on 10th December, the NIHE have already announced that they will be piloting this system in parts of Belfast (where there are ‘normally available’ homes) from January 2014.
Clearly the allocation of social housing is only part of the picture of meeting objective housing need and tackling inequality. It also necessitates considering the provision of new social homes – where they should be built, and how many are required.
PPR’s work with social housing residents in Catholic areas of North Belfast, where housing inequality is most marked, shows that their ‘choice’ of homes is already restricted due to the failure of the Department for Social Development to ensure homes are built to address the chronic and longstanding inequality in their area. However, rather than holding government accountable to this obligation, the proposals articulated in the research papers instead indicate that groups already disadvantaged in terms of housing should lower their expectations even further.
In reality, an applicant’s “choice” will be meaningful when government accepts the differing levels of need for social housing that exists for people with disabilities, Travellers, and for Catholics in places like North Belfast, and the impact it has on people’s lives when that is not recognised. International human rights law and indeed domestic equality obligations (contained in Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998) indicate that the existence of areas and groups of disadvantage should trigger extra effort on the part of government as duty-bearer to tackle this – not place an obligation on rights-holders to “change their mindset” and move away from family ties, support networks and facilities such as schools and places of employment.
The recommendations include an “assisted list” of people who may be disadvantaged by Choice Based Letting. This rightly envisages providing support to “vulnerable adults” who may not understand or be able to engage with the system. However, there is no corresponding recognition of the vulnerability of groups such as those experiencing housing inequality. Similarly, (in an echoing of the recently announced Housing Led Regeneration Pilot whereby the provision of new build housing will be directed at areas where there is low housing demand for the purposes of regeneration) Local Lettings Policies are recommended to take account of particular local circumstances, such as “stimulating demand in areas of identified low demand”. No similar local flexibility is prescribed for areas where there is well evidenced high demand and recognised inequality impacting particular communities.
The Final Report indicates that the Choice Based Letting system is needed to “empower applicants to take part in their own house search rather than be passive recipients of an offer and a home”.
The efforts made by residents in housing stress in North Belfast with whom PPR works contradicts the view of social housing applicants as “passive recipients”.
In the weeks prior to the Christmas break eight people on the waiting list in North Belfast shared with us their struggle for decent housing. They used Data Protection legislation to request copies of their housing files only to discover gaps and inaccuracies in the recording of their housing situation. They photographed and documented poor conditions, wrote to NIHE housing managers articulating the unsuitability of their housing, asserting their human rights and seeking information as to when they will be rehoused. They lobbied the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People who visited their homes and urged the government to take action. They spoke about their struggle for housing with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Ms Raquel Rolnik during her visit to Belfast in September. Many others alongside these eight have taken part in monitoring their human rights indicators, conducting surveys of 254 residents over 3 housing developments in North Belfast, as well as writing letters, making phone calls, waiting in long queue’s for hours and attending meetings with their housing providers to attempt to find a remedy.
These are not the acts of people who are “passive” about their right to adequate housing. However, due to the lack of available social homes. many remain in the same conditions,
The Final Report also includes a proposal to reduce the current maximum number of reasonable offers of housing to be made from three to two. If neither are accepted, the applicant is suspended from the waiting list for 1 year.
But who defines what is reasonable?
The recommendations in the final report do not make this clear. Over the last seven years, PPR’s staff have worked with numerous residents who have been made offers of “reasonable” accommodation from the Northern Ireland Housing Executive which are damp, cold and in poor condition. Indeed, official NIHE levels of housing “unfitness” have almost doubled in Northern Ireland since the recession began (from 2.4% in 2009 to 4.6% in 2011). The residents’ surveys found that 89% were unhappy with their heating system, and 38% had damp or mould in their homes. The report indicates however, that the onus is on the applicant to make the case that a housing offer was unreasonable and have it marked as such.
Discussion in the media around the launch of the research reports included the perspective that change leads to winners and losers. However, it must not always be the same people who lose.
People in North Belfast experienced the second highest number of deaths in Northern Ireland during the conflict, only exceeded in West Belfast, and have seen little in the way of a ‘peace dividend’. Those who lose should not be the ones already living with the legacy of decades of chronic housing inequality, only to be required to ‘change their mindset’ and exercise their ‘choice. International human rights law and the provisions of our own peace agreement require the reverse – policy proposals must recognise and take account of people experiencing disadvantage and inequality and develop a system to positively address these needs.
As the purpose for the Fundamental Review of Social Housing Allocation Policy includes making “most effective use of scarce resources”, it should be remembered that international human rights standards state that even in times of economic recession, a duty remains to give due priority to vulnerable groups
The “discussion” about the social housing allocations policy is due to continue through a series of consultation events through January. Human rights and equality obligations must be at the heart of the discussion for it to be meaningful. Most importantly, so must the people who are experiencing the most chronic housing inequality.
UPDATE: The Department for Social Development’s consultation closes on 4th March 2014, to read PPR’s response to the consultation and view an outline of our top 10 concerns with the proposals, please click here