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The social sector in Northern Ireland (NI) does not have the resources to meet the needs of all those who are homeless or in housing stress. Clark Bailie says this is why the NI Housing Executive is reviewing the private rented sector (PRS).
Clark Bailie is the chief executive of Northern Ireland Housing Executive.
While the total number of households on our common waiting list for social housing, currently around 37,500, is slightly lower than it was five years ago, the number of applicants in housing stress (30+ points as assessed through our Common Selection Scheme) has been increasing steadily and now stands at around 24,000. Unfortunately, the upward trend in housing need has occurred at the same time as, and possibly because of, a period of decline in the annual number of social housing allocations, which fell by more than 10% to around 10,440 over the three years to 2016/17. This also coincided with a rising number of homeless acceptances, which climbed to almost 12,000 in 2016/17 – the highest level in more than a decade.
“Unfortunately, the upward trend in housing need has occurred at the same time as, and possibly because of, a period of decline in the annual number of social housing allocations.”
We are glad that politicians in NI have thus far continued to recognise the ongoing need for provision of social housing, with a strong associated capital commitment – the five-year draft programme for government outcome over the period from 2016 to 2021 is for the provision of 9,600 new social dwellings. Budget permitting, this output will contribute to the overall requirement for between 5,500 and 7,200 new homes per annum across all tenures until 2025, which was identified by the most recent NI housing growth indicators. However, it is clear that even with this welcome investment in new homes, the social sector in NI does not have the resources to meet the needs of all the applicants who are currently homeless or in housing stress, let alone the demand from those households who are on the waiting list but not in ‘housing need’.
The Housing Executive therefore considers it vital, in our role as the strategic housing authority, that we review the housing market as a whole to ensure that the needs of a broad range of households and individuals are met. Since 2014, we been reviewing and streamlining our services with a particular focus on effective engagement with housing customers to understand their individual needs and explore their housing options and choices, using a case management approach. We recognise that these options may include social housing, home ownership, private rented accommodation or arrangements to help the customer remain in their current accommodation. Read More NIHE announces regional investment plan NIHE announces regional investment plan NIHE plans to start developing again NIHE plans to start developing again This is in line with the independent, tenure-neutral housing advice service for NI advocated by the Department for Communities’ recent consultation, ‘A Fundamental Review of Social Housing Allocations’. The consultation also notes that the Housing Executive can meet its duty to homeless applicants on a tenure neutral basis, provided that the accommodation meets certain conditions. In practical terms, this reasserts the fact that there is no barrier to discharging homeless duty through private tenancies as well as a social housing allocation which has been the dominant practice to date.
“There is no barrier to discharging homeless duty through private tenancies as well as a social housing allocation.”
Given the supply and demand issues that exist, and recent policy developments, it is vital that we continue to monitor and understand the important role that the PRS plays, particularly at a time of political, economic and social uncertainty.
The PRS has been the second largest housing tenure in NI since 2009 and provides a vital housing option for a wide range of households. Our most recent House Condition Survey, carried out in 2016, showed that 17.4% of dwellings in NI were privately rented, a rise of 6% since 2006. As a follow-up to the House Condition Survey, our research unit carried out a Private Tenants Survey to help gain a better understanding of the views and experiences of those living in private rented accommodation.
Private Tenants Surveys were also carried out in 2006, following a period of unprecedented growth in private renting in NI, and again in 2012. The report on the most recent survey was launched in March of this year. Not surprisingly, given wider issues in the housing market, it revealed that one of the main reasons that people rent privately was a lack of available social housing or the inability to purchase their own home (due to affordability issues and deposit requirements). At the same time, there was also evidence that respondents valued the flexibility of the PRS and the relatively good quality housing available in this tenure.
“There was also evidence that respondents valued the flexibility of the PRS and the relatively good quality housing available in this tenure.” Furthermore, the majority of respondents (86%) were on good terms with their landlord and 83% were satisfied with their home. However, levels of satisfaction were slightly lower in relation to repairs, with 76% of tenants stating they were satisfied with the repairs service provided by their landlord or letting agent. It is vital that we understand the challenges facing the most vulnerable when a social home is not available, and affordability is particularly important for low-income households. More than three-quarters of the tenants we surveyed had paid an up-front cost to secure their accommodation and, of these, one in three had received help, the main source of which was friends or family. “It is vital that we understand the challenges facing the most vulnerable when a social home is not available, and affordability is particularly important for low-income households.”
We know that most private landlords in NI have relatively small portfolios, with the majority (84%) owning only one or two properties. As policy-makers attempt to ensure that the PRS is supported and regulated in a way that helps both landlords and tenants understand and adhere to their responsibilities and rights, the findings from previous surveys have helped inform policy development, including introduction of the Tenancy Deposit Scheme in 2013 and the Landlord Registration Scheme in 2014. However, the latest survey shows that there is still work to be done in promoting regulation within the sector to both tenants and landlords. Three out of five private tenants surveyed did not know what a Tenancy Deposit Scheme was, and 67% were not aware of the Landlord Registration Scheme.
Furthermore, approximately one in five (17%) had only a verbal tenancy agreement (25% in 2012) and almost three-quarters of tenants (74%) had not been provided with an Energy Performance Certificate (90% in 2012). “Three out of five private tenants surveyed did not know what a Tenancy Deposit Scheme was.” An issue that looms large for both the social and PRS is the impact that welfare changes will have on the housing market.
The Private Tenants Survey revealed that three out of five tenants were in receipt of partial or full Housing Benefit. However, 88% had to pay some or all of their rental charge, indicating that many face a shortfall between Housing Benefit and the total rent for their home. This illustrates the potential challenges that Universal Credit, and the four-year LHA freeze at the 2015/16 rates from April 2016, may have on private tenants.
The Residential Landlords Association Private Renting Evidence, Analysis and Research Lab (RLA PEARL) published a report in August 2017 as part of ongoing longitudinal research into the PRS.
RLA’s research found that two thirds of landlords in Britain refused to let to Universal Credit recipients due to the risk of rent arrears. “We must fully understand the potential impacts for all benefit claimants in NI, including those in the PRS.” While we welcome adjustments made for NI, such as direct payments of the housing element of Universal Credit to the landlord and a Fresh Start package of mitigation until 2020, we must fully understand the potential impacts for all benefit claimants in NI, including those in the PRS, and work to inform tenants and private landlords of options and support. Finally, our survey revealed three in five respondents intended to remain in the sector for the next five years. It is therefore vital that we continue to monitor the sector and contribute to the growing evidence base, working alongside other statutory bodies, housing associations and the voluntary sector to ensure policy decisions are based on robust evidence.
Clark Bailie, chief executive, Northern Ireland Housing Executive
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