Time to build a better picture of housing’s importance

With the political institutions up and running for nearly four months, the honeymoon period is now giving way to a realisation of the scale of the challenges faced by the Executive. There isn’t enough public funding available to deliver what we need, and hard decisions need to be made to make the most effective use of the budget that is available, writes Mark Graham, Chief Executive, Co-Ownership.

No government department has received the budget it has asked for, and amongst the hardest hit has been housing, which has seen the capital budget to build new social homes reduced by over one third. This hasn’t received much prominence to date, which is perhaps understandable given the financial pressures in the health service and education which between them spend well over half of the budget.

I wonder if it’s also because we struggle to think about how housing fits in the bigger picture of long-term economic growth and wellbeing.  We mostly talk about housing two ways – as investment vehicles, as assets that go up and down in value, as a human right, and the unacceptable number of people that are homeless, living in housing stress or struggling with affordability.

These are not wrong ways of looking at housing, but we do also need to talk more about housing as a critical part of our infrastructure. Housing is as important to our continued prosperity as transport, water, electricity, and broadband. Good quality affordable homes are the foundation for people’s safety, their health, their educational success, and their long-term wellbeing. Unfortunately, too many people here live in poor quality, unaffordable homes that don’t offer the sense of security and community belonging that is so important to people’s life chances. Poor housing is a drag on our economic success, so as much as any other area of infrastructure, we need to invest in it over the long term.

There is the consensus that we are not building enough homes to match the growth in households or to address the increased number of people that are homeless or living in unsuitable housing. This can be especially seen in the rapidly rising cost of private renting and lengthening waiting lists for social housing. In Co-Ownership we see at first hand the struggle many people face to own their own home and escape what they see as an unaffordable and precarious private rented sector.

We need a mix of housing solutions. Home ownership will remain the preference of the majority, as generally it provides the quality, security, and sense of agency that people want. House prices do remain relatively affordable here, compared at least to other regions, but home ownership is not as accessible as it once was for young people, particularly those without the support of family. Last year Co-Ownership helped 754 people own a home who wouldn’t have been able to do so on their own, and more over 400 existing co-owners went on to buy out the Co-Ownership share to own their home without our help.    Home ownership is not suitable for everyone, nor is it what people need at every stage of their lives. So, we also need to build more social homes, and create a better private rented product.

We also need planning to play its proper role to shape the places that homes are built and ensure they are safe and attractive places to live with good access to schools, health, and recreation facilities. And places that are environmentally sustainable.

We need sustained investment over the long-term and a continued focus on unblocking what gets in the way of building more homes. We need our public and private sectors to work together more effectively and the different parts of Government to do likewise.

In the meantime, Co-Ownership will continue to play its part by highlighting the economic and social impact quality, affordable housing can deliver, and advocating for better housing solutions for people across Northern Ireland.


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