Belfast Telegraph

No heat, no electric, broken windows, cabinets falling off their hinges and debris on floor.... would you like to call this home?

By Claire Williamson

A young mother-of-two has branded a home she was given by the Housing Executive as squalid.

Erica Jane Mairs (25), who currently lives in Sandy Row, applied for the house in April as she needed a three-bedroom home for herself and her children, son Reid (2) and daughter Kamryn (8).

She was told by a community representative about the house in Clementine Gardens which was ready for someone to move into.

On her first viewing, she said she was "ushered quickly" around the house and couldn't see the extent of the repair work required, as there was no electricity.

She said: "I was told that apparently thousands of pounds of repairs had been done to the house and it was ready for someone to move in.

"I saw it on December 10 but it was a blind viewing, because there was no electric.

"They told me it was a brand new kitchen, but in the dark I couldn't see the dirt or anything.

"I was put on the spot and I said I would take it – they knew I was desperate for a new house."

But when Erica turned the key in the door she burst into tears.

A broken window combined with no gas system meant the house was freezing. As she stepped inside, she was faced with a blaring alarm which she couldn't silence. Cabinets were falling off their hinges and there was cement and debris on the ground.

Upstairs radiators were not attached in the bedrooms and the bathroom floor was covered in orange burn-like marks. In the hall, a few of little Reid's toys lay in the dusty floor.

"It was awful," Erica said. "It's just a squalid, derelict house.

"The kitchen was the first thing I saw, and it was falling apart, and that was before I even ventured up the stairs.

"I just knew I couldn't have my kids in here, I was scared for them more than anything."

Erica's oldest child has commented on the condition of the house. "My daughter has said to me, 'Mum are you going down to the dump,'" Erica said.

Erica was told the repairs would be done within seven days of her moving in and they could be carried out "around her".

"I was told the day they issued the property that the glass was ordered and it would be here in a week or two," she said.

"On Thursday past when the workman came – after about six weeks of waiting – he measured the glass for the broken window. They still expected me to move in and do the work around me – it's a good job I didn't, because I would still be here waiting on them in the freezing cold."

Erica told the Belfast Telegraph the extractor fan in the kitchen fell off – she fears it could have fallen on one of her children. "They told me it was a standardised kitchen and that it's livable – but they wouldn't live in it," she said.

In a statement, the Housing Executive said: "Ms Mairs was advised at that time that repair work had to be carried out prior to her new tenancy commencing, and that there would be no rental charge until the work had been completed to our satisfaction.

"We acknowledge that there had been a slight delay in starting the work, however this is now under way."

BACKGROUND

The Housing Executive said: "Our maintenance officer also met Ms Mairs at the property this morning (Friday) to discuss the situation. Following this visit, we have agreed to undertake a number of further items of repair work, including the replacement of kitchen units, wall tiling, toilet and cistern. Ms Mairs was happy with this approach. Our contractor will be starting the work next week and it is hoped this will be completed the following week, allowing Ms Mairs to move into her new home."

Chaos, controversy and claims of inequality have plagued authority

Social housing issues have had a firm grip on Northern Ireland in recent years.

In September, problems within the Northern Ireland Housing Executive were branded "chaotic".

The housing authority, which provides social housing let at low rents to people on low incomes and benefits, faced inquiries into its handling of contracts for jobs, such as replacing kitchens, amid evidence of substantial overcharging by firms employed.

Sinn Fein MLA Alex Maskey at the time said: "I think it is quite a chaotic situation, I think it is very unhelpful. I don't have a high degree of confidence in the way in which this matter related to housing is being handled."

The NIHE has been at the centre of controversy over the handling of maintenance contracts and has had major changes at the top of the organisation.

Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland said he was dealing with legacy issues dating from 2008 during a period of change within the housing sector.

Earlier this month, SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly said Catholic residents in north Belfast were being discriminated against in the allocation of social housing.

Included in a report complied by residents, they described the "disgraceful conditions" they said they have had to live with for years. It included infestations of "black bugs" and levels of damp severe enough to peel wallpaper.

Ms Kelly said: "The conditions... are intolerable and would not be accepted in any other functioning democracy."

She said in the wake of former DUP leader Ian Paisley's admission that the denial of housing for Catholics which sparked the Civil Rights Movement was wrong, Minister McCausland should robustly challenge the "inequalities which continue to plague housing allocation" in north Belfast.

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