The housing situation in the North is worsening by the day. Eamonn McCann, who was a founding member of the Derry Housing Action Committee in 1968, suggests that we need to rediscover a sixties spirit of radicalism to solve the homelessness crisis today.
We had a housing crisis back in 1968, and it hasn’t gone away.
The Housing Executive’s own figures suggest that the situation is getting worse.
A recent letter from Leo O’Reilly, Permanent Secretary of the Department for Communities, spelt it out: “There is no viable financial strategy in place to ensure the longer-term maintenance and upkeep of the Housing Executive’s current stock of some 86,000 homes.”
In other words, we don’t have the money to do even basic repairs. So: “The NIHE would have to start de-investing in approximately half of its portfolio in order to provide a sustainable future to the other half.” He referred to “a mounting backlog of repair and maintenance.”
Families living in NIHE homes know all about the “backlog of repair and maintenance”—from waiting months and longer for leaks in roofs or faulty plumbing or wiring to be put right.
The Department’s preferred “solution,” as set out by Mr. O’Reilly, is to flog off half the houses in order to pay for refurbishment of the other half.
“Difficult decisions” will have to be made, he declared. By which he meant, as mainstream politicians and top bureaucrats always mean, that the common people can expect to be on the wrong side of the key decisions.
The brunt of the burden would fall on those in need of homes or living in dilapidated conditions, not on the class of people who would be devising and implementing the “difficult” measures.
One possible solution, mentioned in passing by Mr O’Reilly and then dismissed, would be to allow the Housing Executive to borrow money to maintain the existing stock and add to it. This, after all, is how private housing, as well as Housing Associations, are financed as a matter of routine.
But the NIHE is not allowed to raise money on the market. It is hugely disadvantaged when compared to private developers or housing associations. The reason for this is ideological – a bias against the public sector, in favour of the private sector, leading to successive Stormont administrations starving the NIHE of resources.
Mr. O’Reilly was speaking, appropriately enough, at the annual conference of the NI Federation of Housing Associations. He was followed on to the platform by the CEO of the Federation, Dan Collins, who declared that the number of people in priority need of housing had increased by 20% over the past five years.
So the suggestion that things are not getting better but getting worse is not Left-wing scare-mongering but merely a statement of the facts.
This will come as no surprise to anyone who has been representing families in relation to housing need. Dessie Donnelly, from the Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) group, commented to The Detail that: “The delivery of accessible and affordable public housing is a basic human right.”
“However, decades of under-investment and policies which have deepened inequalities in housing, including religious inequality, have witnessed both the deterioration of housing standards and rising homelessness across the north.”
He might have had Mr. O’Reilly in mind when he added that: “The prospect of an unelected and unaccountable civil service taking this decision now is wholly unacceptable.”
“Removing democratic control and the public accountability of social housing is not an option…It is blatant opportunism to state such intentions during our current political vacuum…”
The creation of the Housing Executive was one of the great achievements of the civil rights movement. The issue was pushed to the forefront of the movement by housing campaigners, particularly the Derry Housing Action Committee.
This seems to mean next to nothing to the current generation of mainstream politicians—Green as well as Orange.
Trades unionists, families in housing crisis, housing campaigners and opponents of Tory privatisation should take note that waiting for Stormont to resurrect itself and rectify this situation is futile. Even if the Assembly were back in session next week, the record shows that no trust can be put in parliamentarians to stand by the people when it comes to housing, as opposed to bowing down to the gods of profit, privatisation and Tory ideology.
In this, as in so much else, it will take pressure from below, mass mobilisation, to make any real difference.
What we most need to get back is not Stormont but Housing Action Committees.