How reliable a picture are we getting on housing equality?

Kate Ward and Dessie Donnelly with PPR's Equality Can't Wait report

Kate Ward and Dessie Donnelly with PPR's Equality Can't Wait report

By Barry McCaffrey

THE Department for Social Development and Housing Executive have been accused of relying on inaccurate housing data to mask the true levels of Catholic inequality in north Belfast, according to a new report published this morning.

The ‘Equality Can’t Wait’ report, compiled by the Participation and Practice of Rights (PPR) group, states that the Department for Social Development (DSD) and Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) have been responsible for a catalogue of failed strategies and missed opportunities to tackle housing inequality in north Belfast over the last decade.

However the report claims that the statutory agencies are now using inaccurate data statistics to monitor homelessness in north Belfast which downplay the true scale of Catholic homelessness.

In 2000 NIHE launched a seven year £133m strategy to tackle religious inequality in housing in north Belfast.

Traditionally Catholics have accounted for the majority of homelessness in north Belfast while housing requirements in the Protestant community have tended to relate to the need for improved housing conditions.

The NIHE strategy was designed to meet housing need by building 1,750 new homes, bringing long-term vacant stock back into use as well as improving existing poor housing conditions.

However PPR states that two separate independent reports, published in 2005 and 2006, concluding that the strategy was failing to address the homeless need of Catholics in north Belfast, were ignored by NIHE and DSD.

CONTROVERSIAL HOUSING REPORTING METHODS

The PPR report claims that a new NIHE method of monitoring homeless figures in north Belfast actually masks the true religious inequality within the statistics.

The report states that NIHE has used two different methods of monitoring the religious composition of the housing waiting list in north Belfast:

:: a ‘perceived’ religious background (which determines a person’s religious status through personal data such as area lived in); and

:: a ‘self-reported’ religious background method (when an applicant identifies their own religious status)

However PPR claims that NIHE’s decision to only use ‘self reported’ statistics since 2010 has led to a distortion of the true figures for those on the housing waiting list.

Analysis of the ‘perceived’ religious figures indicate that Catholics make up 73% on the housing waiting list while Protestants account for 27%.

(left) 'self reported' religious homeless north Belfast (right) 'perceived' religious identity of homeless north Belfast

(left) 'self reported' religious homeless north Belfast (right) 'perceived' religious identity of homeless north Belfast

However contrasting analysis of the ‘self-reported’ figures, which NIHE adopted in 2010, state that Catholics account for 57% on the housing waiting list while Protestants account for 20%.

In contrast, when PPR used its own ‘proxy’ indicator (usually a post code) to calculate the current religious composition of the housing waiting list in north Belfast, Catholics actually accounted for 76% in housing stress while Protestants accounted for 22%.

The report says it is unclear if NIHE continues to collect `perceived’ religious figures, as religious inequality statistics are no longer published in its annual North Belfast Housing Strategy Progress Reports.

“What is clear, however, is that the monitoring of the perceived religious background of applicants consistently showed a significant and persistent religious inequality for the Catholic community; whilst monitoring which relies solely on self-reported religious background suggests at first glance, that the differential, and thus the inequality, is less significant.”

Based on PPR’s estimations, Catholics represent 76% of all those in housing stress in north Belfast.

In contrast NIHE figures which contain ‘self-reported’ religious background present a different analysis, presenting Catholics as representing 46% of total housing stress.

CONCERNS OVER FUTURE REPORTING METHODS

In 2008 the Housing Executive adopted new changes as to how it determines where new homes should be built throughout Northern Ireland.

However the PPR report has raised concerns over the statistical accuracy of NIHE’s analytical approach.

“The new method of assessing housing need proposed in the draft EQIA involves a calculation which looks at the median waiting time of those in housing stress (i.e the middle point of all those on the waiting list) rather than the mean average. In effect this means that those who have been waiting the longest for a house, such as people looking for a house in Catholic areas of North Belfast, will be hidden from view.”

The PPR report claims this new method of assessment signalled an “important shift” in the way in which NIHE measures housing need.

“Using the established ‘mean’ average, the NIHE data showed that in north Belfast, Catholics in housing stress waited an average of 23.4 months on the waiting list before being housed, and Protestants waited 12.5 months, as of March 2008. The new way of calculating, which moves from ‘mean’ to ‘median’ average, will change the data for March 2008 to show figures of 16 months for Catholics and 7 months for Protestants.

“This decision meant that with no indication of the numbers affected, those waiting the longest for a house would no longer be figured in the official calculation of housing need for the purpose of deciding where new social homes should be built.”

NIHE figures showing the apparent significant drop in numbers of Catholics in housing stress in North Belfast 2009/2011

NIHE figures showing the apparent significant drop in numbers of Catholics in housing stress in North Belfast 2009/2011

SHIFT FROM TACKLING HOUSING ‘NEED’ TO ‘EQUALITY’

The report claims that current NIHE and DSD policy decisions look set to redefine housing need and jeopardise the fundamental principle of equality of need which the NIHE was established to address.

“Of key concern to PPR is the proposal to review the housing allocations policy which is currently premised upon allocation on the basis of need and instead to examine the potential to address other priorities such as ‘social mobility and creating a shared future’.

“All the signs indicate that a housing agenda that circumvents religious equality issues is progressing rapidly.

“These recent developments reinforce the clear shift away from targeting need and tackling inequality which is evidenced by the successive decision making outlined in this report.”

Calling for DSD minister Nelson McCausland to take urgent action to address issue, PPR spokeswoman Kate Ward said: “The festering sore of religious inequality in housing must become a priority for the Minister for Social Development, and more widely the Northern Ireland Executive.

“Behind the figures and statistics are people who have been living in poor housing conditions for a long time, with little hope for change. With the upcoming reform of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, and the launch of Northern Ireland’s first Housing Strategy, the time to act is now.”

Responding to the criticisms contained in the report, a DSD spokesman said:

“While, housing need and waiting lists are managed by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland, has previously highlighted the housing issues in north Belfast, including the need to build more homes and improve poor housing conditions.”

The spokesman said that DSD, through NIHE, had invested more than £358m in north Belfast, with £222m spent on new build housing since 2001.

“In this period 2,494 additional new social homes have been provided; not only the lion’s share of new social housing in the city but across Northern Ireland.”

The DSD spokesman said that the Northern Ireland Housing Strategy, recently launched by Mr McCausland outlined a number of initiatives which will impact on the future for housing across Northern Ireland for the years ahead.

“It does not focus on individual areas or communities, but proposes an overall direction which can be translated into programmes to meet the needs of specific areas. Support for shared communities, tackling anti-social behaviour, housing allocation policy and the new build programme are all included.”

An NIHE spokesman said it would study the PPR report in detail before making comment.

Read ‘Equality Can’t Wait’ report here

© The Detail 2013