Residents of Belfast flats fear homelessness as fire concerns force closure
SIXTY residents are being permanently moved from a block of flats in south Belfast after a fire safety review raised "serious concerns".
The residents of Block B of Russell Court social housing apartments on Lisburn Road will leave the building over the next four weeks.
Temporary accommodation will be provided to those in need while they are waiting to be permanently re-housed by the Housing Executive (NIHE).
Radius Housing, which manages the building, said the decision was taken following a "detailed, invasive" fire safety survey in April.
Residents were informed yesterday.
John McLean, the firm's CEO, said an "unusual and unprecedented level of fire testing" was carried out beyond its routine annual assessments in light of last year's Grenfell Tower tragedy in London.
He told The Irish News: "We got the draft findings, and those draft findings were so serious that we decided to act upon them before the final report has come out.
"We are awaiting the final reports from the engineers, but in effect the structure, the fabric and the service of the building would be significantly compromised compared to a modern building in the event of a major incident.
"So when we layer those risks on top of each other we were left with the decision – we had to vacate the building.
"You can appreciate, the health and safety of the tenants is what comes first."
Radius said moving residents from the building will take place on a managed basis over the next four weeks.
Fire marshals will be on-site 24 hours a day while the flats are being vacated as part of "enhanced safety measures", it said.
A team of housing and NIHE staff have also been set up to provide advice on temporary and permanent accommodation, welfare payments and other issues.
"A dedicated phone-line and email address for those affected is also now in place. Radius Housing will provide compensation and other additional support to those affected," a Radius spokesman added.
Once residents have vacated Block B, it's understood Radius will carry out a feasibility study to consider the building's future use.
Block A at Russell Court was refurbished in 2011 and is unaffected by the announcement.
The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) said it has worked with Radius to agree an action plan in the event of a blaze at the building.
Fire crews have reviewed their response plan for Russell Court and carried out an exercise to test water supplies and rehearse fire-fighting procedures.
Firefighters were also on-site yesterday and will be again today to "provide additional fire safety advice and reassurance to residents", a spokeswoman said.
NIHE also said it is working with Radius and meeting with residents.
"We are currently offering advice and assistance as well as assessing their immediate housing needs and long-term aspirations," a spokesman said.
"Once this is complete we will look to make appropriate arrangements for accommodation.
"This may be a on a short-term basis but we hope to find longer term housing solutions as soon as possible."
Radius Housing was formed in 2017 following the merger of Helm, formerly Belfast Improved Homes (BIH), and Fold Housing.
Russell Court consists of residential and office accommodation. The detailed fire survey was carried out due to its "complex and unusual history", Radius said.
The building was first constructed as a hotel in the early 1970s. Blocks A and B were built in two phases.
The site was acquired by BIH in 1985. Block A was converted to medical accommodation, completed in July 1986, and Block B was converted into 56 social housing apartments in December 1986.
In 2010 when the lease expired, Block A was refurbished into 25 social housing apartments.
Student fears he will end up on the street
IT student George Hill lives on the sixth floor of Block B and has been housed there for the past four-and-a-half years.
The 32-year-old, who suffers from anxiety issues and mobility problems, described the announcement that he must leave as a "nightmare" – and fears he will end up "on the street".
"I feel really stressed. I have no family, I've been in care all my life, so if they fail to find me a place within 28 days I pretty much become one of the increasing homeless in Belfast," he said.
"They say hopefully they will be able to find me a place, but there's no guarantees they can do it within 28 days, especially as a single male it's a lot harder."
He said in recent months fire safety works have been carried out including new fire doors, and he could not understand why the building was still considered unsafe.
Mr Hill, who studies at Belfast Metropolitan College, said the residents in Block B are "from all walks of life" and their ages range from late teens to their seventies.
"Everyone has been given the same termination notice. I think they could have done a lot more. I think they should have done two months rather than one month, because one month is just not enough time," he said.
John Mackey, originally from Armagh city, has lived in the apartment block for the past 11 years.
The 66-year-old said he first became aware of the plans to move people from the flats when a housing official called at his door yesterday morning.
He said he initially felt "a wee bit distressed", but now sees the decision as an opportunity to move elsewhere.
"I thought I was going to be left without a flat or a house, but I wish to get a house – a wee bungalow," he said.
The retired barman hopes he will be able to move to Portadown or Limavady when he leaves Russell Court.