Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen argued that the true test of a country’s citizenship is the ability to take part in society without shame.
So how can we live in a just society when we can’t even house 43,000 of our citizens? With so many on the housing waiting list, demand is far outstripping supply and action is needed.
While the thousands on the waiting list may not be sleeping rough in shop fronts and park benches, they are what is known as ‘hidden homeless’ — those who do not have a permanent residence. Just because you can’t see a problem does not mean it isn’t there.
Those on the list come from all walks of life, women staying in hostels fleeing domestic abuse and trauma, those on a low income simply trying to make ends meet, and those whose family circumstances have changed, among many, many others.
A common phrase heard is many of us are just two pay cheques away from ending up homeless, and for some it isn’t even that much.
The fact that 217 people — a figure that has been increasing over the years — died in the space of a year waiting for a place to call home is not just a damning indictment on those in power, it is a reminder that not all citizens are dealt the same hand and we all do not have the same opportunities as our neighbours.
Take west Belfast, for instance, where housing applicants — at an average of 21 months — are waiting longer than those in any other part of Northern Ireland. Foyle is close behind at 20 months. Compared to those in the more affluent areas, such as Strangford, are waiting an average of eight months.
In 2002, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) stopped building houses altogether, and this was left to housing associations. At the time the NIHE stopped building, there were around 25,000 households on the housing waiting list. Now that figure is 43,000. It’s easy to see something here isn’t right.
Also, the NIHE owns more than 300 acres of unused land with development potential which is lying vacant.
Furthermore, those deemed homeless and waiting to be housed can be placed in temporary accommodation, such as hostels and hotels. While most stay in temporary housing for short periods of time, many are there for long periods of time — even years. Not only is such accommodation unsuitable for anyone to live long-term, it also costs the public purse millions each year.
The bill has been rising in recent years due to an over-dependence on temporary housing. Back in the 2016/17 financial year, £27.1m was spent in this area. By 2020/21, this figure had risen to £35.3m. Over the last five years the bill has topped £142m.
A number of months ago, I spoke to a tireless employee of the homelessness charity Simon Community, Elaine Ellis, who manages a hostel in Belfast. One resident there had arrived illegally in Northern Ireland from war-torn Sudan and had been entering his third year at the hostel waiting for a permanent home. Another resident was kicked out of her private rental home during the pandemic when her landlord’s property was repossessed, and had been staying at the hostel with her grown children for months.
I asked Elaine what she thought the future of social housing and hostels like Simon Community will look like. She simply said she would love there to be enough homes for everyone so there would be no need for hostels.
Late last year, Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey unveiled an ambitious plan to build more than 100,000 homes over the next 15 years, with at least a third of these being social homes. However, this would require new builds to go up at a dramatically increased rate.
At the speed housing units are being delivered, it would take around two decades for the waiting list to be eradicated, and that is if it stayed at its current level.
There has also been little detail provided as to how exactly these 100,000 homes will be funded and achieved.
It is not just the social housing sector in crisis, but the entire sector. This week it emerged there had been a 10.7% increase in private house prices here in the year to November 2021, reaching an average of £159,000.
Supply has been pushing these prices higher and higher, and in turn pushing buyers out of the market. This month was the sixth in a row that a decline in new homes coming onto the market was reported.
Combine these pressures with rising costs of living — from food to heating — and welfare cuts, and you have the recipe for a housing crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen since 2008.
If we really want to call ourselves a just society with a straight face, homes are the place to start.