November 2018


Situation update: social housing

in Northern Ireland


The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, visited Belfast on 10 November 2018 and met with members of the Equality Can’t Wait / Build Homes Now! campaign. The group’s briefing note to him cover child homelessness, resources for social housing and the impact of inequality.

Child homelessness


According to Northern Ireland Housing Executive statistics, as of end March 2018 at least 13,636 children here were living in families considered to be in ‘housing stress’ while waiting to be allocated a home[i]. The families of at least 11,372 of these children were recognised by the Housing Executive as homeless -- ‘Full Duty Applicants’ to whom it owed a duty under homelessness legislation[ii].


Child homelessness is found throughout Northern Ireland, but there are areas where it is more acute: in predominately Catholic areas of West Belfast alone, for instance, Housing Executive statistics indicate that there are at least 1,145 homeless children[iii].  On 1 November 2018 Belfast City Council members tabled and seconded a motion identifying child homelessness as a crisis and calling for concrete actions in response[iv]. The motion is now before the council’s planning committee.

The Equality Can’t Wait / Build Homes Now! campaign, begun in 2012, is made up of families on the social housing waiting list, including some whose children have spent their entire lives waiting for a home. Over the last months they have been engaging with officials in the Department of Communities, the Housing Executive and Belfast City Council to shine a light on the situation they and others are forced to live in, and to ask what is being done in response.

Some of the children and their families made a film[v] about what being denied their right to adequate housing feels like, with interviews of teachers and other professionals about the impact of homelessness and housing stress on children’s learning and development. The film was aired at a Belfast festival in August; in September the group held a private showing for the Housing Executive chief executive and board, directly demanding concrete change.

Resources for social housing


Officials have talked about a number of blockages preventing them from building more new social homes, including money and land. The campaign, for its part, has considered these obstacles and has proposed ways around them.


On the finance side, research by economist Paul Gosling in 2016 found that, while Northern Ireland’s supply of affordable housing could be increased through local pension fund investment in mixed tenure schemes, the main barrier to addressing the housing crisis is the lack of political action to make land available[vi].


With regard to land, in 2015 Equality Can’t Wait campaigners published photomapping of vacant or unused land in and around their communities with potential for social housing[vii].  Since that time the campaign has carried on tracking what has happened to those sites and can report the following:


·         With regard to land in Sailortown and City Quays, officials have told the campaign that sites intended for residential development under the 2016 area masterplan had instead been allocated for new student housing and non-residential development. They added “no additional sites for residential use have been identified as yet but it is the NIHE view that any future residential development should include social homes”[viii]. The campaign calls on the Housing Executive, as a first step, to identify without delay alternative sites in the area to make up the social housing capacity lost in favour of other types of development, and then to begin building homes on these sites as a matter of urgency.


·         With regard to the 11.5 acre Hillview site in North Belfast, in 2017 Belfast City Council rejected proposals by homeless families, local businesses and political representatives to provide 130 social houses on the land, which is owned by the private sector; instead its planning committee again gave a green light to a non-residential commercial development. Officials have told the campaign that “the Housing Executive continues to support the acquisition of the site by a housing association for social housing but would be reluctant to consider vesting the site at this time”[ix].


Meanwhile, in May 2018 the Housing Executive announced a consultation process on plans to progressively demolish its stock of over 30 tower blocks, as they are considered to be financially unviable in the long term. The “redevelopment options” for the seven North Belfast tower blocks – currently home to 384 families – that were displayed to residents over the summer would reduce the number of units there by a minimum of 50 per cent, increasing the shortfall of social homes in North Belfast.    


·         Belfast City Council approved a masterplan for the private sector-owned former Sirocco site in August 2018, where non-residential development is already underway. Future phases include residential development; officials told the campaign that “the Housing Executive is in discussion with the Developer and a range of stakeholders to ensure the inclusion of social homes”[x]. The campaign awaits confirmation of significant social housing development on the site.

·         Much of a 20+ acre site in West Belfast, the disused former Mackies industrial area, is now owned by the Department for Communities. According to the Department, “Belfast Regeneration Directorate is liaising with [Belfast City Council] about its land at Springvale (Mackie site) and the creation of a shared civic space project”[xi] there. Despite the fact that it owns the land and oversees the Housing Executive charged with meeting the overwhelming demand for social homes in the area, the Department apparently has no plans to include housing on any portion of the extensive site.



The impact of inequality in provision of social housing


One reason the above sites are so important is that they would help to relieve the effects of persisting religious inequality in social housing provision in areas of high demand in Belfast. The failure to build homes in places where people have lived all their lives, on the other hand, raises serious questions about a lack of political will to tackle longstanding inequality. In April 2017 the Equality Commission reported that Catholic-headed households continue to experience longer waiting times than Protestant-headed householdsiv. While waiting times are important as an indicator, analysis of the Housing Executive (HE)’s measure of relative demand is even more revealing of the structural root of the problem.


The Housing Executive allocates housing to people on the waiting list using a points-based system: someone recognised as homeless, for instance, automatically receives 70 points, while anyone with 30 points or more is considered to be in “housing stress”. The number of people in housing stress in a given area, minus the average number of relets of social homes each year in that area, gives the Housing Executive’s measure of “residual housing need” v.


In North and West Belfast, where the Hillview and Mackies sites are located respectively, there is an enormous differential between the residual need in predominately Catholic and predominately Protestant areas.  Housing Executive data for 2017/18vi reveals that in predominately Catholic North Belfast 1 there is “residual need” for 883 homes, while in adjacent but predominately Protestant North Belfast 2, there is “residual need” for only 20 homes. Similarly, the three predominately Catholic areas of Inner, Middle and Outer West Belfast have a cumulative “residual need” for 2,137 social homes. Meanwhile, two of the five surrounding areas have a negative “residual need”, indicating a surplus of social homes; taken jointly, the five have a “residual need” for just 94 social homes, according to HE figures. 


Large sites like these matter, as they are the only way of making appreciable and timely headway in tackling the years-long waiting lists in these areas. Without such progress, children’s internationally-guaranteed right to adequate housing will continue to be denied.


[i] The phrase “at least” appears because the Housing Executive data analysed -- obtained through Freedom of Information request -- included some ‘less than or equal to’ and ‘greater than or equal to’ values. The figures here are the lowest totals possible.

[ii] NI Housing Executive response of 16 July 2018 to Freedom of Information request.

[iii] NI Housing Executive response of 10 Sept 2018 to Freedom of Information request (ref. EN/FOI/2018/20) and followup correspondence.

[vi] See Paul Gosling, “Funding for new social housing: research paper on public authority pension funds as a source of finance for new social housing”, July 2016 at–-an-additional-source-of-finance-to-build-new-social-housing

[vii] See “Surrounded by land but ‘no space’ for housing?”, 2015 at

[viii] Full cite: “Some residential sites highlighted in the [Greater Clarendon] Masterplan are now under development for Purpose Built Student Accommodation, with further sites along Corporation Street, purposed for residential development, now being adversely impacted by the York Street Interchange project”.  1 Nov 2018 letter from DFC Housing Policy and Performance unit.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.