Over 43,000 Housing Executive homes could fall into disrepair if extra funds not secured
A cash crisis could see half of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive's (NIHE) 86,500 homes fall into a state of disrepair from 2020 if it cannot secure additional funding, it has been claimed.
And DUP MLA Mervyn Storey, a former Stormont minister, said the issue "could be a bigger problem than Brexit" unless it is dealt with before March next year.
That is when a relaxation of rules for housing associations, which were reclassified as 'public bodies' in September 2016, will end.
The change will put tighter limits on their ability to access private finance.
With legislation to reverse that decision stuck at Stormont, all housing association debts will move to the NIHE.
"This is an urgent matter. I'm not sure some people realise how serious it is," said Mr Storey.
"It's going to leave a financial black hole with the Housing Executive taking on a great deal of debt.
"The clock is ticking now. The legislation to reverse classification is sitting on the desk of the Secretary of State and if Karen Bradley wants to prove to the people of Northern Ireland that she's committed to do something of value, she needs to act now.
"I asked the permanent secretary at the Department for Communities to outline the current situation in writing and it paints a very concerning picture."
In his reply to Mr Storey, permanent secretary Leo O'Reilly stated that NIHE is preparing for "the longer-term decommissioning" of more than 43,000 properties from the start of next year if it is unable to cover the budgetary shortfall of £140m.
The letter states the move will allow the Housing Executive to prioritise the maintenance of its remaining homes and also outlined a number of possible solutions, although these would be hampered by the absence of an Assembly.
The NIHE said withdrawing financial support for housing would be the "worst case scenario" and options being explored include the sale of homes to the private sector, the transfer to housing associations, or the demolition and development of the homes.
"We are not in a position to maintain our homes to the standard required and will have to make difficult investment decisions if a long term funding solution is not found. In the near future, we will have to consider curtailing some of our planned improvement schemes and prioritise repairs and health and safety work," it said.
In his letter to Mr Storey, Mr O'Reilly said the NIHE believes it requires a £3bn investment in its housing stock over 11 years and that a backlog of maintenance and repair work means an annual investment of around £300m is required for the first six years. But because of debts and management costs, the NIHE can afford just over half that amount.
Dessie Donnelly, from the human rights group Participation and the Practice of Rights, said: "We fear this political choice to 'decommission' public housing stock could lead to an explosion of waiting lists and an increase in homelessness."
As of March, 36,198 applicants were on a waiting list for a home - 24,148 considered priority and 11,877 deemed to be homeless.