Research findings published in February 2023 by Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Trussell Trust have shone a light on the worrying gap in housing affordability in the UK, reflecting amongst other factors a shortfall between Universal Credit payments to families in need and their spiralling living costs.
Shortly thereafter Trussell Trust NI reported delivering the highest ever number of food parcels in Northern Ireland (over 81,000) over the preceding year. At the same time, the NI Department of Education was reported as having cancelled its Covid-era school holiday food grant for children from low-income families.
In this context, PPR submitted a Freedom of Information request to the NI Department for Communities referring to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Trussell Trust housing affordability research and asking for relevant NI data. The Department for Communities said that it did not hold any information on household food costs; but it did provide this table showing the average housing element component of Universal Credit for households receiving this benefit as at November 2022, by family type:
Image caption: Universal Credit rates (housing element)
PPR compared this information with the available data on average housing costs in different property types.
According to the Department for Communities Housing Bulletin, 9% of households live in Housing Executive social homes (p. 2). Housing Executive rents increased by 7% in April 2023, raising the average weekly Housing Executive rent from £69.49 to £74.35. This average weekly rent would on the face of it just be more or less covered by the housing element component of Universal Credit.
For Housing Association social rents – paid according to the Department for Communities Housing Bulletin by 4% of households here – the picture is more complex. The Department for Communities NI Housing Statistics 2021-22 (table 3.3c) places the average weekly Housing Association rent at £96.20; whether or not the Universal Credit housing element above would stretch to cover rental costs for the whole month would depend on household and property characteristics.
For the estimated 13% of NI households in private rented accommodation (Department for Communities Housing Bulletin p. 2), rents are higher. The NI Housing Statistics bulletin from December 2022 (p. 1e) placed the average weekly rent in the private sector at £114. This would clearly not be covered by the monthly housing element of Universal Credit.
A closer look at the situation in Belfast is instructive. The Housing Executive reported that in 2021 the average monthly rent in Belfast was £780 (p. 3). By mid 2022, it said, the average private rent in Belfast had increased by 9.9% to £853 (p.2). The rent level faced by the lowest income quartile was estimated at £650/month (p. 7), which is clearly not covered by the Universal Credit housing element - evidence here of a similar ‘affordability gap’ to that highlighted elsewhere in the UK by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Trussell Trust research.
PPR has shared this information with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, in response to that office’s global call for inputs on housing affordability earlier this spring. PPR’s submission to the UN Rapporteur also highlighted the concerns it had already shared with the relevant duty bearers here about the potential impact on housing affordability of recent NI policymaking such as:
- the Department for Communities’ redefinition of ‘affordable housing’ to include intermediate housing – for households with more resources – in addition to social housing for those with greater objective need
- the Department for Communities’ prioritisation of intermediate housing for rent – which its own consultation report described as “a fairly niche product” – in new policy-making
- Belfast City Council’s failure to explicitly address existing acute social housing need in its community planning (such as its initial draft local development plan (LDP) strategy) and its decision (in its draft supplementary planning guidance on affordable housing) to limit the Housing Executive – the body responsible for identifying and ensuring a response to acute housing need – to an advisory, rather than a decision-making, role in the management of future ‘affordable housing’ development
PPR’s concern is that the combined effect of these changes diminishes the emphasis placed on social housing as a direct policy response to homelessness and housing stress. Under the proposed framework, future new ‘affordable housing’ in Belfast may be planned, approved, built and sold/rented, with not a single one of Belfast’s over 7,500 homeless households being able to afford the new homes.