Northern Ireland affordability fears as benefit changes and spiralling rents produce 'perfect storm'
Average rents in Northern Ireland have increased at nearly five times the UK rate over the past 12 months, figures show.
Rents in November rose by 3.3% here in comparison to the same period last year, far ahead of an overall UK rise of 0.7%.
Figures compiled by insurance agency HomeLet reveal the average rental here has increased from £601 per month in November, 2016 to £621 last month.
The only other areas in the UK to see bigger increases are the East Midlands (4.4%) and the south west of England (3.4%).
The average monthly rent in the UK is now £904, but it drops to £753 when London is excluded.
Sarah Corrigan, policy and practice officer at advice body Housing Rights NI, said the latest figures gave cause for concern, particularly as tenants adjust to the payment of Universal Credit in place of separate benefits including housing benefit.
"One of the key queries we get is about affordability in the private rented sector," she said. "We would get people phoning concerned about their ability to pay their contractual rent and being able to sustain their tenancy. People would maybe use other benefits to make up rent if housing benefit or local housing allowance is not covering it.
"The reason why this is concerning is because of the introduction of Universal Credit, which is currently being rolled out throughout Northern Ireland. There is a concern about the amount of time it is taking for people to get their first payment and the ability to get assistance with their rent in advance. So there is that added pressure that people are worried about."
The Department for Communities has launched a consultation on how social housing is to be allocated. One of the proposals put forward is to rehouse people on the social housing waiting list in the private rented sector.
Ms Corrigan said: "The fact the government could decide to put some of the most vulnerable people in society into the private rented sector when rents are so high could be a perfect storm."
Fiona McCready, of Simon Brien Residential, said she has seen a rise in rents in the Belfast area over the last 12 months.
"Rents are definitely climbing," she said. "This is most likely down to people not being able to get on the property ladder, so they are needing to rent. We are also seeing more people deciding to live together before purchasing a home.
"In the city centre, the average rent is around £600 to £650. Also, with more production companies coming to Belfast, like those behind Game Of Thrones, there has been a massive increase in rentals required for one or two bedroom apartments in the city centre." Maurice Fegan, from Shooter Property Services in Newry, said: "We are seeing an increase in rents. That would be due to two main factors.
"Supply of rented accommodation is relatively low in the greater Newry area at the moment and demand is quite high. In addition to that, we are noticing there are people from Dundalk and Drogheda starting to seek rented accommodation in Newry because rents are so high in the south. People from the south (near the border) are considering renting in the north at the moment because renting values are relatively cheaper and they are happy to commute for an hour or 45 minutes. That is putting pressure on demand."
Liam O'Kane, director of Daniel Henry Estate Agents in Londonderry, said: "There is a lack of supply or stock on the market at the moment, which has gently pushed prices up. There is more demand now for rental properties. Usually we will have a queue of people wanting to view properties. Rents have been rising, because landlords know they will get the price they want."
Martin Totty, HomeLet chief executive, said: "So far this year we have seen very modest rental price inflation. Rents are now higher than a year ago in most parts of the country."