Belfast Telegraph

Addressing the housing shortage

By Paddy Gray

I grew up in an aluminium bungalow in a place called Daire's Willows in Armagh. There were 20 such bungalows erected by the old Northern Ireland Housing Trust, then transferred to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) when it took over in 1971.

In those days public housing was for all.

How things have changed since then.

Two policies led to public housing becoming more marginalised: subsidies were transferred from the house to the person with the introduction of housing benefit and rents were increased well above inflation.

The net effect was that the better off moved out to buy elsewhere as this became more attractive, which in turn led to areas with high concentrations of low-income families.

Then we had the right to buy, introduced in the early 1980s by Margaret Thatcher. Generous discounts were offered of up to 70% of market value and many of the better homes in the more settled areas were bought.

So, why did I end up working in housing? I had become prominent in the-then Ulster Polytechnic Students' Union. One of the main issues that I encountered was the poor quality of housing in the private rented sector.

This led to my first job with the NIHE as a housing officer in Rathcoole and I witnessed at first-hand the better areas, such as Rushpark, being sold off through the right to buy.

Since the 1990s we have had a major shift in housing tenures, with the private rented sector now accounting for one-in-five houses, from around 40,000 in 1999 to nearly 130,000 today.

In 2007 we had the major financial crash, which was particularly felt in Northern Ireland, with property prices falling below 50% of their values, leaving many in negative equity.

Today we have 40,000 households on waiting lists, 20,000 declaring themselves as homeless and a construction industry in freefall with output reduced by nearly two-thirds, producing a negative effect on a range of jobs associated with housebuilding.

Paddy Gray is Professor of Housing at Ulster University and guest editor of a special community housing edition of View magazine (

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