They're fiddling with the figures again... (pt.2)Since 2010 the collective effort of the housing workforce has completed an average of only 941 social homes annually
We are concentrating this month on the Housing Executive – the public housing authority overseen by the Department for Communities, tasked with solving the housing crisis in part by developing strategies to build and manage social homes in partnership with around twenty local Housing Associations.
The 2021/22 figures published by the Housing Executive tell us that there are 44,426 households on the social housing waiting list, of whom 23,978 are officially recognised as homeless. We had hoped to access updated figures this month - as we have done annually for many years – but have been told by NIHE that they have had to bring in reporting restrictions on Waiting List statistics. We don’t know with certainty how many children there are amongst these families – how many kids growing up without a stable home – because the Housing Executive don’t routinely say. How come that question is not at the top of the list of priorities? We also won’t know how many families struggling to make mortgage or private rental payments may be joining the tallies over the course of the next calendar year… but we know that they’re there.
Analysis of Department for Communities figures shows that, regardless of which particular Minister, Chief Executive or Permanent Secretary has been in the driving seat, since 2010 the collective effort of the housing workforce has completed an average of only 941 social homes annually. In 2021/22 the number was just 835 – 36% down on the previous year. At a rate of 900 odd new homes a year, it will take almost 50 years to house the nearly 45,000 households currently on the waiting list – assuming no future shocks to drive the number higher.
Thousands of people go to work every day to fix the housing crisis. Many are underpaid and overworked. Some have recently taken industrial action against the Housing Executive seeking fair pay and conditions. These workers are no more responsible for the housing crisis than nurses are for the health crisis. However, this scandal rivals the housing crisis in the south. How many people in official positions and in the social housing industry have access to this same information – and why are none of them telling this story? And why, rather than concentrating on providing more homes, both by pushing for more from the agencies responsible for building and by supporting community-led campaigns to transform vacant land – why have the powers-that-be decided instead to simply tweak the way they count the humans impacted?
Image caption: PPR housing rights campaigners protest at the Housing Executive’s central offices
When will they learn that fiddling with the numbers won’t work?
The Housing Executive’s and Department for Communities’ recently announced reform of social housing allocations – which impacts much more than it says on the tin – risks being the equivalent of taking the wheels off the trolleys in hospitals to reduce trolley waiting times (another gem of misdirection from the Tony Blair era).
It seems like a contradiction for homeless families to be told on the one hand, that building new homes on public land at interfaces is an impossibility; while on the other offering them unlimited area options, in communities where they would be at risk from paramilitary violence.
In the first phase of changes – happening now – the number of ‘reasonable’ offers people are due from the Housing Executive has been cut from three to two. So people are given fewer options; and the waiting list is potentially reduced artificially, as two refusals will apparently now see you out of the count 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. It seems like a contradiction for homeless families to be told on the one hand, that building new homes on public land at interfaces is an impossibility; while on the other offering them unlimited area options, in communities where they would be at risk from paramilitary violence.
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 to house vulnerable people. The new policies will also make it easier to withhold Full Duty Applicant homeless status from patently homeless people on the basis of ‘unacceptable behaviour’, giving broader discretion to housing officers and potentially increasing subjectivity and unfairness. But sure, the overall housing stats will look less punishing.
The bottom line is that without a rise in the number of available social homes – so that people without a permanent home actually get one – these changes risk simply disappearing people from the waiting lists, without reducing need.
This flawed kind of ‘decision based evidence making’ has been seen time and again from the institutions established to bed down our peace process. All too often it risks leading to tragic outcomes by focusing on repressing ‘evidence’ of suffering while leaving the harm itself unchecked. Everyone knows, but no one says. Someone somewhere in the Department for Communities and Housing Executive thought it was a good idea to focus energy and resources over many years and consultation exercises on measures to reduce the housing waiting list, irrespective of whether more homes are built or not.
Surely more can be expected from an army of intelligent people at Stormont, who presumably left school wanting to do more with their smarts than make silk purses from sows ears. Imagine what our society would look like if they concentrated their efforts on evidence-based decision making?
This is why we need more, not fewer, whistle-blowers, investigations, citizen journalists, Freedom of Information heroes – people who are not afraid to pull on the string of accountability and see how far it takes them, no matter whose feathers get ruffled. For our part, we will keep listening to the experts – that great mass of people whose rights are routinely denied every day. They know the truth and they aren’t hard to find.
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