THERE are almost 1,000 residential properties in West Belfast lying vacant even as demand for housing rockets towards crisis point. A figure of 986 homes – many of them recession-linked repossessions – was revealed in the Assembly recently by Finance Minister Sammy Wilson, where MLAs also heard that the high-demand Falls area alone has 212 houses lying empty. The Beechmount area came second in the West with 181 empty properties, followed by the Clonard area with 92.

In December in the Andersonstown News, Sinn Féin Upper Falls Councillor Steven Corr said the growing number of repossessed houses in West Belfast was becoming a “beacon” for anti-social behaviour on the part of young people.

“They seem to be magnets for young people who know they are empty,” said Councillor Corr.

“The Department for Social Development and the Housing Executive need to be imaginative in developing these houses as it will kill not one but three birds with one stone – families on the housing waiting list, empty houses that are blights on the community and massive youth unemployment that could be addressed with the renovation of these homes as part of a social economy project.”

Responding to a question in the Assembly last week asking if his department had considered using vacant, privately-owned properties to ease the housing waiting list, the Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland, said he was “determined” to maximise effective use of empty homes to meet housing need.

“The reasons houses are left empty can be complex and range from the individual who for some reason is unable or unwilling to do anything to bring the house back into use, to houses being situated in areas where people do not want to live,” said Minister McCausland. “Therefore a variety of approaches have been developed such as advice and signposting, practical help such as grants and loans, and the threat and use of enforcement powers. I have tasked the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to test the effectiveness and cost of these interventions in two pilot areas and the results will inform a revised empty homes action plan for Northern Ireland.”