Northern Ireland

Spending on homelessness has tripled since Covid

Housing Executive will spend close to £34m on temporary housing this year, almost three times the amount before Covid

The competition watchdog is probing eight housebuilders over potential anti-competitive behaviour, as it also raised concerns over build quality
Lack of land and a long planning process hindering badly needed social housing new build: Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong (Yui Mok/PA)

Spending on “firefighting” homelessness has surged, with those charged with providing temporary accommodation needing nearly three times the amount compared to just before the Covid crisis.

Close to £34 million will be spent this financial year on private lets, hotels and hostels for those deemed to be statutory homeless.

More than 4,000 households, including families with over 4,500 children, were listed as living in temporary accommodation in July last year.

Almost half of state school teachers work at a school with children who are homeless or who have become homeless in the past year, a survey has suggested
Children in temporary accommodation face greater educational and health challenges, studies show (Barry Batchelor/PA)

This compares to 2,413 households, and 2,990 children, in January, 2020, just before the pandemic. Latest figures from January to be published next month are expected to be similar to last year.

Children in temporary accommodation, including unsuitable private lets, face greater educational and health challenges, studies show.

The Housing Executive, which has a statutory responsibility to provide accommodation to those in need, will spend approximately £33.5m to the end of March this year, up from £12.6m in 2019/2020. In 2017/2018, the spend was less than £10m.

While individuals and families presenting to the agency has remained steady at 8,000-9,000 households a year, the number accepted as homeless and placed in temporary accommodation has increased significantly, from 2,175 in the six months to the end of 2019 to 5,148 between January and June last year.

”We are spending an absolute fortune on what is firefighting...we are throwing so much money at temporary housing there is not enough to prevent homelessness and provide other support,” said Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong, vice chair of the All Party Group on Homelessness.

Alliance assembly member Kellie Armstrong raised the issue of the transfer tests
Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong

The Strangford representative said the pandemic is a factor in the increased numbers in temporary accommodation and spend, but it “does not fully explain” the broader “housing crisis”.

Ms Armstrong identified several issues, the availability of land, the long planning process and the Housing Executive’s continued right to buy scheme as contributing to the lack of more social housing.

Immigration, including the granting of refugee status to asylum seekers, is not a major contributor to the increased numbers, Ms Armstrong said.

She also noted as an example the Department for Infrastructure is selling its huge Clarence Court headquarters in Belfast city centre on the open market. This could be repurposed for social housing apartments and save money in the longer term, Ms Armstrong said.

Department of Infrastructure sign at Clarence Court, Belfast. (Claudia Savage/PA)
Department of Infrastructure sign at Clarence Court, Belfast. (Claudia Savage/PA)

The response to the pandemic, where accommodation was provided to many regular street sleepers and hostel residents, likely has reduced that population but increased the pressure further on the Housing Executive.

According to the latest housing statistics, more than 46,000 applicants, many with families, are on the social housing waiting list, with nearly 35,000 described as in “housing stress”, which includes living in unaffordable, sub standard or inadequate accommodation.

Exactly 800 new social housing homes were completed in the nine months to December, with just over 1,400 the previous financial year. There was a slump in new builds during the pandemic. Just under 6,000 households were allocated social housing last year.

Victor Blease led the NIHE for nearly 14 years, headquarters pictured
NIHE has statutory responsibility to provide accommodation to those in need of temporary housing

A member of Communities Committee, Ms Armstrong said she, along with others, will be making homelessness, or lack of permanent, suitable housing, a priority during this mandate.

Rising demand for housing and a lack of supply does mean people are having to wait longer for permanent housing, the Housing Executive said.

“It also means that we are having to assist greater numbers of households requiring temporary accommodation,” a spokesperson explained.

“One of the factors behind this greater need is the surge in demand at the onset of the pandemic when there was a breakdown in sharing arrangements.

“While presentation and acceptances have remained relatively consistent the number of households who are statutorily homeless and on the waiting list is increasing.”