Growing Public Awareness of NI’s Housing Crisis
Young #BuildHomesNow! campaigners teamed up with artist Anne Tallentire at the MAC to build a Cardboard Utopia, sharing their hopes, energy and innovativeness with the city of Belfast and its decision-makers; the campaign shone a light on some of Belfast’s landmark buildings to call for housing justice; and QUB’s StreetSpace project highlighted the building potential of the massive Mackies site in West Belfast to make a difference in the city’s the housing crisis.
The NI Assembly passed a motion recognising the severe impact of the housing crisis and calling on the Minister for Communities “to increase the supply of social and affordable housing in recognition that the security of a home has an immediate impact on the health and well-being of citizens”. At the same time, DFC figures revealed that due to the pandemic 65 social housing schemes – containing over 1,800 units – have been delayed. In response to one Assembly member’s question (AQW 25805/17-22) the Communities Minister gave figures about funding for new build social housing; in response to another (AQO 2835/17-22) she said that the local development plans of six councils contain draft planning policy requiring that a proportion of residential development is affordable housing (the Department has recently expanded the definition of affordable housing to include ‘intermediate’ products for households with more resources, alongside social housing for those in greater need).
In Belfast, the Housing Executive advised the Council’s People and Communities Committee that as of October there had been 78 new build social housing completions since April 2021, with another 1,170 social homes units under construction and 1,285 new social housing homes programmed to start through the Social Housing Development Programme (SHDP) 2021/22 – 2023/24.
Despite the then-Department for Social Development’s Northern Ireland Empty Homes Strategy and Action Plan 2013-2018, the number of NI homes registered as empty - 20,629 in 2016 - remains, at a minimum of 20,068, virtually unchanged today. The figures emerged following an MLA’s Assembly question (AQW 25567/17-22). Meanwhile another MLA warned that families were being pushed out of her North Coast constituency by people from elsewhere buying second homes.
Pressure on Private Renters across the UK and in the Republic
The Belfast Telegraph reported that the average private sector NI rent is currently £633, an increase of 5.8% on last year. The Department for Communities opened a consultation on notice to quit policies and procedures; and its bill on the private rental sector was under review by the Committee for Communities at Stormont. The bill’s provisions include restricting rent increases to once a year, making Covid-19 extensions to the notice to quit period permanent and other measures. In response to an MLA’s question (AQW 24996/17-22), the Communities Minister said, “as part of a programme of longer term work to reform the private rented sector, I will consider the possibility of creating grounds for eviction, upon which stakeholders will be consulted”.
Shelter drew attention to rising homelessness since the lifting of the ‘eviction ban’ in England and said "the government has to build decent social homes - it is the only solution to homelessness that will last”. Official figures reported by Inside Housing showed that bailiff-enforced evictions from rentals increased over 200%, to 4,853, in England and Wales in the first quarter after the end of the ‘eviction ban’. The head of Crisis commented, “these figures make clear how damaging it was for the UK government to end the eviction ban without providing sufficient support for renters who had built up arrears in the pandemic”.
A Bureau of Investigative Journalism project investigating possession hearings (where judges decide whether landlords or mortgage lenders can evict people), faced unexpected difficulties in gaining access to what by law are open hearings. They had begun the research after realising the lack of information and data available about the hearings, and found in practice that the most frequent resistance to scrutiny was – unsurprisingly – from legal teams representing mortgage companies. The head of the civil justice system in England and Wales ultimately wrote to judges with a reminder that journalists may attend all public hearings.
The first report of the Building Back Britain Commission drew attention to recent English Housing Survey findings that “23.3% of private rented homes failed to meet the Government’s Decent Homes Standard, along with 16.3% of owner-occupied homes and 12.3% of homes in the social housing sector”. It called for change in the way housing demand is assessed in future, to take into account the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda.
Research by Shelter found that significantly more women than men who rent privately feel anxiety about their housing – nearly one half of women renters versus one third of men. The head of Shelter said, “with a scarcity of decent social homes, women, and especially single mums, are more likely to be pushed into poor housing”.
Elsewhere, new measures in the Republic would, when passed, set a ceiling on rent increases of 2% or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. The Minister for Housing had faced calls for a lower cap but claimed it could have had “unintended consequences”.
Homelessness Response under Scrutiny as Numbers Rise
The NI Housing Executive’s ‘Ending Homelessness Together’ Draft Homelessness Strategy 2022-27, is up for public consultation until 25 January 2022. In response to an Assembly member’squestion (AQW 25616/17-22), the Communities Minister said that the Housing Executive would consider the recommendations from theKnowhere To Go? report by Northern Ireland Youth Forum in the consultation.
Giving the growing number of families affected by homelessness, Focus Ireland called for reform of national homelessness legislation to better meet children’s best interests.
As the government announced £66m in additional funds to house rough sleepers in England over the winter, Housing Justice, Homeless Link and others reported that many night shelters were having to cut beds due to Covid-19 outbreaks and the need to social distance. In parallel, the Big Issue’s Stop Mass Homelessness campaign continued to call for support for people affected by the end of the furlough scheme, the Universal Credit cut and the resumption of evictions. It reported on a commemoration service at St Martin in the Fields church for the at least 116 people who died while homeless in London over the past year. The ceremony, in which the people’s names were read out and loved ones paid tribute, was co-organised by the Museum of Homelessness.
Crisis reported research findings that EU nationals now make up 9 per cent (around 22,200 people) of those living on the streets. They are almost twice as likely to experience homelessness as the general population and almost three times as likely to experience rough sleeping, due to job losses followed by difficultiesaccessing support during the pandemic**.**
Globally, the Institute for Social Policy, Housing, Equalities Research published the first International Journal on Homelessness with studies from Uruguay, Japan, the UK and the US, and opened a new research programme on homelessness amongst Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups in the UK.
The Situation of Asylum Seekers and Refugees
The NI Executiveopened a consultationon a new draft refugee integration strategy; the closing date for responses is 21 February 2022. Meanwhile,Belfast Live ran a story exposing the sub-standard accommodation some asylum seekers are placed in in the city. The Belfast Multi-Cultural Association has been supporting the families.
As parliamentary debate of the UK Nationality and Borders Bill continued, NI MP Stephen Farry (Alliance) criticised the Home Secretary’s language to the House of Commons about asylum seekers as “dehumanising and demonising” as well as “deeply, deeply troubling”.
Former Tory minister David Davis proposed an amendment to the bill, removing the text providing for ‘offshore’ processing of asylum claims; yet reports continued to emerge that countries identified by the UK government as potential allies in setting up such a scheme would refuse to participate in it.
Government lawyers reportedly warned that Home Secretary that the government would probably lose a legal challenge if it implemented plans to turn away small boats trying to cross the Channel to reach England, as well as suffering damage to its reputation. The Guardian reported that Border Force officers, members of the PCS union, are considering applying for judicial review of the Home Office plans for stopping small boats – which they would have to implement. (Refugee Council analysis of official statistics between January 2020 and May 2021 revealed that – contrary to assertions by the Home Secretary – nearly two thirds of people crossing the Channel to the UK in small boats are likely to be recognised as refugees.) The Prime Minister ordered a cross-departmental review.
Another clause of the bill would give the Home Office the power to strip someone of their UK citizenship without notice if it is not considered “reasonably practicable” to inform them.
Amnesty International published a Nationality and Borders Bill fact checker which debunks eight key Home Office claims about what the proposed legislation would achieve. For its part, Refugee Action published areporton the Home Office’s proposed changes, called “All Punishment, No Protection”. One of the report’s contributorswrote,
We are rutted in a downward spiral that follows a predictable path: there’s a “crisis” caused by the system, refugees are scapegoated, we get some terrible policy that targets refugees rather than fixes the system, the system gets worse, the lives of refugees become more intolerable, and we’re back to another “crisis”… Our current position on the downward spiral is the “terrible policy” stage, which has taken the form of the government’s anti-refugee bill.
Meanwhile the UK’s Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration published a report on current asylum casework in which he noted that the number of asylum seekers awaiting a decision has increased year-on-year since 2010, as had the duration of their wait. The report found that “there was limited evidence that the Home Office was appropriately considering its responsibilities to uphold the Public Sector Equality Duty” and that the Home Office loses almost half of asylum appeals – indicating that valid applications are being rejected the first time around. With regard to the New Plan for Immigration, it said that “the plan has received widespread condemnation from MPs, NGOs, academics, and faith groups” and noted,
in the absence of return agreements, the process as is will likely add a further six months’ delay to all asylum claims and is simply acting as a barrier to case progression.
As the UK immigration minister admitted thatreturns of asylum seekers to countries they transited in Europe have dried upsince the lapsing of the Dublin regulation post- Brexit, refugees interviewed on the continent reportedly said the lack of a return mechanism made the UK amore attractive destinationthan before the UK’s departure from the EU.
In this climate, fear of deportation under the multiple hostile environment policies is preventing some people from taking up the Covid-19 vaccine, endangering public health, the Guardian reported.
The Home Office continued to avoid giving concrete information on the situation of newly-arrived Afghan evacuee families, for instance in response to an MP’s question on the number of their children enrolled in school and a date by which this goal would be reached. The Independent highlighted thedeteriorating mental healthof newly arrived Afghan refugees, still in limbo hotels in England. Meanwhile the promisedAfghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), meant to help a further 20,000 people still trapped in the region and in need of international protection, has yet to materialise, and the government will not release a target date for it to be open. Around 840 Afghan refugees are slated to settle in NI, an estimated 360 of them in the first year of the programme.
A cross-party group of MPs wrote an open letter calling on the Home Office to urgently lift the ‘nonsensical’ ban on asylum seekers’ working and allowing them to do so after six months. The letter said, "the UK is currently an outlier in enforcing a 12 month wait period for work and then placing strong restrictions on which employment can be taken up, the UK would purely be introducing conditions akin to our European neighbours”.
In the Republic, two asylum seekers successfully challenged a decision by the Road Safety Authority (RSA) to refuse to exchange their national driving licenses for Irish ones. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission submitted an amicus curiae brief in the case. Separately, the Irish Refugee Council and College Connect reported findings about the barriers - financial and otherwise - that refugees and asylum seekers face in trying to pursue an education.