Residents deliver research to harbour commission Chief Executive

Today, another group of homeless families involved with Equality Can't Wait campaign posted evidence packs to the Minister For Social Development, Mervyn Storey MLA, detailing the human impact of the ongoing failure to address the chronic housing shortage in areas of extremely high demand.

Their letters were also hand delivered, emailed and posted to housing providers responsible alongside stark research carried out by the Equality Can't Wait residents group over the last three months. The research (click here to view), delivered to elected representatives and housing decision makers, highlights swathes of available land in Belfast where additional social housing could be built to address the housing crisis.

The action comes after the failure of the Stormont Executive to develop a strategy to tackle religious inequality in housing, most acutely concentrated in north Belfast, despite interventions from two United Nations bodies in the last five years and multi party agreement on the need for action being reached on the issue last year.

The research, highlights land and money available to tackle the crisis and points to a number of ‘windfall sites’. These include;

1.    The Sirocco works site – east Belfast

2.    The former Dunnes stores site  - north Belfast 

3.    The Monagh bypass and former Mackie’s sites -  west Belfast 

4.    The Belfast Harbour

Elinor, a mother of two from the west of the city has spent a lifetime in hostels and is now homeless again after the damp, two bedroom, fourth floor flat her family lives in was declared unfit for purpose by the Housing Executive.

She said - ‘We are always told the same thing ‘your area of choice is high demand’. In fact just last week we met with senior Housing Executive officials and they told us there is no land to build in north and west Belfast. That’s just not true and our research proves it. There is land. There is money. What we need is action to build quality homes for families instead of throwing people into short term fixes with flats and hostels’

Seán Brady, Development Worker with PPR stated that there is a general failure to accept religious inequality exists and take measures to fulfil obligations and responsibilities in respect of people’s right to housing. He outlined that ultimately there is a lack of political will to address the housing crisis;

“Some of the land identified by residents is already in public ownership – like the land at Belfast Harbour. Instead of using some of this land to address the housing crisis, the outworkings of the Stormont House Agreement will see it potentially sold off to the private sector.

In Belfast City Centre in the past year, we have seen the announcement of 2,000 student housing units on land adjacent to north Belfast. This is where the UN has called for additional social housing to be built. The resident’s research identifies that there is enough land and resources; what is required to address the housing crisis is political will.”

The research also highlights the stark difference in access to housing for the two main communities across Belfast. 17 years after Good Friday Agreement, Catholics wait significantly longer to be housed in comparison with their Protestant neighbours. However, the experience of those on the waiting list is that the figures mask an even greater problem.

In the north Belfast district area, where the Equality Can’t Wait campaign originated, religious inequality is most acute; Catholics wait on average 20.7 months while Protestants wait 11.5.

Martina’s north Belfast family have been made no offers in areas where they would feel safe;

She said ‘My family have been told we have no chance of a home in my area because it’s too high demand. But I’ve been made offers for Tigers Bay where I just wouldn’t feel safe. Families like mine are waiting and suffering. It is time for the politicians and housing authorities to act.’

Kerri, whose north Belfast family was rehoused into poor housing after many years living in high rise accommodation in the New Lodge, hopes other families won’t have to endure her experience;

“She said: If they built good quality homes on this land it would mean families like mine spending less time on waiting lists in overcrowded conditions and finding a proper home that is affordable in the end. The land is there. It’s time for change, not excuses.’

NIHE statistics confirm the experience of many in the Equality Can’t Wait group and show that this is only the thin side of the wedge with waiting times for Catholics in housing stress elsewhere in the city also significantly higher than for Protestants. In South Belfast, for example, the figures are 27.0 months (Catholics) and 17.5 months (Protestants) and in West Belfast 37.1 months (Catholic) and 19.5 months (Protestant).

Brendan and Fíona and their two children are currently living in a hostel. They are from the Markets area, which falls under the south and east district office of the NIHE. The family have identified considerable available land in their resreach, including the large windfall site at the former Sirocco works. They called on the Stormont Executive, the Housing Executive, Housing Associations and the Harbour Commisison to engage seriously with the findings;

Brendan said: ‘The impact of living in a hostel for over two years has been terrible for our family. We have been made 17 multi offers in areas, where loyalist flags are flying all the time, and not one in an area where we would feel safe. They need to build family homes where they are obviously needed. We hope the politicians and housing decision makers take a look at this research properly and stop denying the rights of families across the city.’