The issue of people living in damp conditions locally was among those raised by local representatives during a special meeting on housing this week.
Grainia Long, the newly appointed Chief Executive of the NI Housing Executive (HE), addressed numerous queries and complaints brought by Councillors during the meeting of Derry City and Strabane District Council on Tuesday.
Ms Long said that as of March there were 43,000 applicants across the north on the social housing waiting list, leading to very high levels of housing needs and housing stress. Figures for homelessness in the local Council area alone have risen by 3.8% in the past year.
She said that the HE had a ‘good year on social housing development’, and with regards to Derry and Strabane, added: “In the year just past 20/21 there were starts across 15 schemes, that’s 471 units started and that represented 20% of the total social housing development programme across NI. So there is a huge area of focus on the Derry City and Strabane District Council area.
“For the coming year we have received confirmation of the capital spend in this programme and we are working through the programme to understand the schemes we can bring through as quickly as possible and we are now looking at the development potential for Derry City and Strabane District Council for the year to come and it looks like we have a good year ahead. The challenges continue to be land and land availability and continue to be how we get the balance between social and affordable housing.”
The local HE three-year improvement and maintenance programme will result in 3,655 homes seeing improvements to the sum of £17,590,354 in 2021/22. In 2022/23 3,430 Derry & Strabane area homes will have £12,506,600 spent on maintenance and improvement, and 2023/24 will see 2,456 homes improved with an investment spend of £10,940,322.
Ms Long stressed that it was going to be ‘a difficult year with regards to homelessness with real challenges ahead’.
Many Councillors raised concerns about ongoing damp issues and problems with the quality of work on social homes. DUP Alderman Maurice Devenney had visited some constituents’ homes, displaying photos of what he claimed was substandard work. “I was staggered when I went in and saw some of the work carried out,” he said. “Some of it has turned out to be a nightmare for residents.”
Aontú Councillor Emmet Doyle showed the virtual Chamber photos of a home which he told them was riddled with damp to the extent mushrooms were growing on the walls. “The lady who lives in the property with her two young children had been told that there was no damp in the property; that the problems were caused because three people were living in a one-bedroom property and all breathing at the same time – now I don’t know what property you can get where you don’t have to breathe. That is totally unacceptable.”
He said the tenant had been moved there temporarily and was eventually helped, but added that often tenants are being told that it’s not damp but “condensation”.
Colr. Doyle addressed the works issue, adding: “I’ve come across a number of cases and it genuinely looked like someone had come out of nursery and completed the work on someone’s family home.”
He further brought up the issue of temporary accommodation in B&Bs saying: “We are hearing that there are a lot of cases coming in from the Belfast and Ballymena offices and it’s my view they shouldn’t.”
Ms Long said: “The issue of standards has been really important to us. Yes, the cost of materials and labour is increasing but that is not a good enough excuse for substandard work and you can take it that I will come back to you on your individual cases.”
Referring to temporary accommodation, Ms Long added: “We have major issues between demand and supply across NI but it is acute in the Derry City and Strabane District area. Covid hit and while we saw the number of people coming forward as homeless slowly reduce, what we did see as the pandemic hit was a massive increase of placements in temporary accommodation. To be clear it is our view people should only be placed in temporary accommodation for temporary periods and now there is the situation where people have been in temporary accommodation for prolonged periods – no one in the HE thinks that is acceptable. We face a difficult period as we emerge from Covid and we are struggling to find suitable accommodation to put people into.”
Paul Isherwood, HE Director of Asset Management commented on the photos the reps had shown saying they ‘seriously disturbed’ him before offering to visit the specific sites to inspect them himself.
DUP Ald. Hilary McClintock felt the focus was on new development rather than some of the city and district’s older estates, in particular Milltown View and the Triangle, describing them as ‘the forgotten estates’. SDLP Colr. Martin Reilly also questioned the investment in the Triangle area, whilst UUP Alderman Darren Guy spoke about areas like Tullyally, which he said ‘have been neglected for years.’
Ms Long gave assurance she would follow up on the points made, including the Triangle development. “I know it is a critical issue for residents,” she said.
Concluding, she added: “On the issue of quality assurance, we have clear guidelines within the organisation and there is a standard we expect and if we don’t see it, action will be taken.”
By Gillian Anderson
Local Democracy Reporter