A LOCAL MLA has said the housing crisis is so bad in West Belfast that some people on the housing waiting list are resorting to drastic measures to improve their chances of getting allocated accommodation – including paying dissident paramilitary groups to send them bullets in the post.

Fra McCann, Sinn Féin’s housing spokesperson, was speaking to the Andersonstown News this week as the latest set of housing stats issued by the Minister for Social Development in the Northern Ireland Assembly revealed that the number of people on the housing waiting list for the West of the city is over half as big as the number of tenants currently housed in West Belfast by the HE.

Since the Assembly returned from its Christmas recess it has been revealed that:

n 2,689 people are on the housing waiting list in West Belfast, the highest number for the North (this total does not include the waiting list for the Colin area of West Belfast which stands at 592)

n 303 Housing Executive properties lie vacant in the Housing Executive district office areas of West Belfast, the Shankill and Colin.  Of this number, 33 are awaiting re-let, 218 are  pending sale/demolition, 49 are  undergoing repairs and three are classed as either SPED (Scheme for the Purchase of Evacuated Dwellings) or occupied by squatters.

The figures are of no surprise to Mr McCann, who says that the vast majority of calls he receives to his Falls Road constituency office are related to social housing issues.

“It’s not a new thing that West Belfast has the highest waiting list for social housing,” said the MLA, who revealed that upwards of 25 per cent of the constituency calls he receives on housing come from the Shankill area of West Belfast.

“If you take it right across the North, the three areas that have the highest waiting lists are West Belfast, nationalist North Belfast and Foyle.  There is just not enough social housing for these areas – particularly West Belfast – and the points system that’s used to allocate housing is not working and needs reformed.”

The method used by the Housing Executive to allocate social housing is known as the Housing Selection Scheme.  The scheme rates people’s need on a points-based system assessed on a range of factors, such as whether a person is  homelessness or about to be made homeless, housing conditions and health and social wellbeing. Applicants are able to choose the area they would prefer to be housed in, but how quickly you’re allocated a home depends on the number of points you have and the level of demand in the area of your choosing.

Those on the housing waiting list who do not declare themselves as homeless are given housing benefit towards paying rent on private accommodation in the interim.

If applicants present themselves as homeless and are in need of accommodation straight away, but have chosen an area with of high demand, they are allocated temporary accommodation in a hostel or a single let in the private rented sector until a home becomes available.

It’s a system, Mr McCann says, that doesn’t suit an area of high demand like West Belfast.

“If you declare yourself as homeless to the Housing Executive, you’re immediately given 70 points and they [the Housing Executive] have an obligation to place you in accommodation of whatever nature immediately, usually a hostel,” he explained.

“There are areas of West Belfast where you can get social housing with 70 to 85 points, such as Ballygomartin, but those are not the areas that people want to go to as they are in perceived loyalist areas. Clonard, Beechmount, Andersonstown, Glen Road are all areas of very high demand that are so hard to get into. The Lower Falls is about 180 points. The new Oaklee development on the Glen Road was turning away people with 182 points.  A number of years ago it was fairly easy to get into Poleglass and Twinbrook, but you now need upwards of 180 points to get in there. This sends the message out that it’s getting increasingly difficult to get housing in the West, even with a higher level of points.”

Mr McCann said the problem is now having an effect on temporary hostel accommodation in the West

“Because of the high demand for social housing in the West of the city, hostel accommodation is packed so they offer hostel places elsewhere in the city or in places like Lisburn, Lurgan and even Coleraine, which is not practical if you have a child in school, or a GP that’s based in West Belfast” he said.

“By and large over the last number of years the hostel accommodation has improved, but the problem is that if you are trying to raise a child, three or four years of that child’s life, three or four of the most important years developmentally of that child’s life, are spent confined to a hostel, and that just has to impact on them.  The mothers will tell you that no matter how good a hostel is, it’s still not a home. Plus, if your circumstances do not change while you’re in hostel accommodation you only get an extra two points allocated to you per year on the housing waiting list, which means you’re trapped, you and your child could be living in that temporary hostel for years.”

With such a high number of points needed for social housing in West Belfast, Mr McCann said some people on the waiting list are taking drastic measures to improve their chances of a housing allocation.

“From what we have heard, and we have raised this with the Housing Executive, there are people who are paying dissidents to send them bullets in the post,” he said. “This intimidation is then confirmed by police and then the person who receives the bullet automatically jumps to the top of the waiting list.”

He said increased building of social housing along with a review in the points allocation system is needed before the housing crisis in West Belfast spirals out of control.

“I think it’s heading back towards the 1950s where you have more than one family living in one house,” he said.

“There needs to be more houses built and there needs to be a mixture of accommodation to suit people. There’s plenty of room in West Belfast for more social housing and this needs to be built sooner rather than later.  You have the Glen 10 development, which needs to get back on track.  Hopefully planning permission will come through soon for the Ross Street flats site so development can start there in a couple of months. There are also the two big housing developments that are due to open in West soon – the Fold development on the Donegall Road and Clanmil’s development on the old Bass Brewery site on the Glen Road.

“The transfer of Broadway Towers is still ongoing and there are people are still living in one of them.  They still belong to the Belfast Trust, so it’s still in the pipeline.”

A spokesperson for the Housing Executive said the speed at which a housing applicant receives social housing depends on a range of factors.

“These factors include their level of points, the level of demand in their preferred area and the number of homes available to relet,” said the spokesperson

“Where an applicant presents to the Housing Executive as homeless, or is found to be homeless, we will assess their eligibility for homeless assistance in Northern Ireland.  If an applicant is eligible for assistance, and found to be homeless and in priority need, temporary accommodation can be offered as a short term housing option.

“There are a wide variety of hostels, shared houses or flats and other accommodation available for homeless people across Northern Ireland. A number of hostels only accept referrals from agencies such as the Housing Executive, Social Services or other agencies. In exceptional cases these non-direct access hostels and housing projects may be required to operate a waiting list.

“Although we will try to accommodate requests from homeless households, we are not always able to offer access to specific temporary accommodation facilities,” added the spokesperson.