Thousands of local Housing Executive tenants with spare bedrooms are set to be hit with bedroom tax if mitigations are not extended in 2020, the Housing Executive has warned.
The warning comes as the Housing Executive confirmed this week that it has brought in more staff to try and help prepare for the expected fall out and impact if affected tenants struggle to keep paying their rent.
The Housing Executive has 8,799 homes locally, with a large proportion of these and other Housing Association and private rented homes being three-bedroom properties. It is estimated that around a third of local HE tenants alone will be affected by the bedroom tax.
Under the Welfare Reform introduced in Britain, social housing tenants with spare bedrooms have seen their housing benefit support slashed because they were considered to have more bedrooms than they needed. Locally there are also 17,521 residents in receipt of housing benefit.
Mitigations secured for Northern Ireland in 2015 have largely prevented the tax being introduced here but these are due to run out in March 2020, and unless Stormont resumes, it looks likely that the bedroom tax will be introduced.
Speaking at a meeting of Derry City & Strabane District Council this week, Housing Executive Chief Executive Clarke Bailie said there was a significant lack of awareness about the bedroom tax and the HE was working to inform tenants, while also making preparations along with the Department for Communities in the event mitigations are not extended.
He said that such a scenario could leave man people struggling to pay their rent and also impact on homelessness. “We are very conscious of the impact this will have,” he said. “We will do our absolute best to do whatever we can to make sure we can manage this sensibly and sensitively.”
Speaking about the housing situation locally, HE West Area Manager, Eddie Doherty said the HE was “working as hard as it could against a very difficult environment”, to provide suitable accommodation for as many people as possible.
He said there were younger people coming through the doors than ever before in need of support for more complex needs, such as addiction and mental health, with the Housing Executive examining the services it has for such tenants.
“As well as all that coming through our doors we are on the cusp of Welfare Reform,” he said. “As yet we don’t know if mitigation is going to happen or not. Our approach to the bedroom tax will be equal to the situation they are in.”
Mr Doherty said that 47 per cent of the social housing applicants locally were single people and there was a challenge for the future in terms of single person accommodation.
Independent Colr. Gary Donnelly said that from speaking to staff they were “very concerned”. “They know what’s coming down the line,” he said. “They know there’s a tsunami”.
Colr. Donnelly and Sinn Féin Colr. Sandra Duffy were among the many councillors who told Mr Bailie the staff at the Housing Executive across Derry were a credit to the organisation, with the latter stating that the service they provide was “without doubt second to none”.
Colr. Duffy, however, said: “You can see we are in the midst of a housing crisis with the highest levels of homelessness since the formation of the Housing Executive, and it is clear demand is outstripping supply.”
Colr. Duffy referred to a recent report from local economist Paul Gosling which stated that it would be 22.5 years before everyone on the housing waiting list would be housed, with Derry the worst affected region.
“On average people wait one year. I personally have people I am working with waiting three to five year, In other areas, people need 120 points to be housed.
“Here, in Skeoge and Creggan, you are talking over 200 points. The reality is, for people living in Foyle, it is nearly damn impossible for them to get housed.”
Like several others, Colr. Duffy said it would be better if the Housing Executive themselves were able to build homes, something the HE reps said they would love to be able to do, but which they are prevented from doing at present. “I’m totally convinced we could make a positive contribution,” Mr Bailie said.
People Before Profit Colr. Shaun Harkin pointed out that it was the corporate policy of the Council to oppose the privatisation of the Housing Executive and to call for it to be able to borrow money to build new homes.