‘Striving to make a difference to the most vulnerable in our society’

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Guest editor Professor Paddy Gray, above, explains how things have changed when it comes to the role of housing in Northern Ireland

I grew up in was in an aluminium bungalow in a place called Daire’sWillows in Armagh. There were 20 such bungalows erected by the old NI Housing Trust then transferred to the NIHE when it took over responsibilities for housing in 1971.

Like similar estates across Northern Ireland it was known as Tin Town. In those days public housing (or social housing as it became known in the 1990s) was for all, and indeed we had a mixture of professional people in our small estate.

I grew up in a one parent family in an area where a strong neighbourhood and lifelong friendships developed. My mum had a great word about the ‘Trust’ and the NIHE, citing rapid responses to repairs as a strong point at that time.

How things have changed since then. Two policies led to public housing becoming more marginalised: subsidies were transferred from the house to the person with the introduction of housing benefit, and rents were increased well above inflation.

The net effect was that the better off moved out to buy elsewhere as this became more attractive, which in turn led to areas with high concentrations of low income families.

Then we had the right to buy, introduced in the early 1980s by Margaret Thatcher. Generous discounts were offered at up to 70 per cent of market value and many of the better homes in the more settled areas were bought.

So why did I end up working in housing? It was by accident, really, as many of my peers who are now in senior positions will agree. I become prominent in the then Ulster Polytechnic Students’ Union having been elected VP Welfare in 1979-80, then President 1980-1981 (a difficult year in particular as it was the year of the hunger strikes).

But one of the main issues that I had encountered was the poor quality of housing in the private rented sector – particularly for students. This led to my first job with the NIHE as a housing officer in Rathcoole and I witnessed at first-hand the better areas, such as Rushpark, being sold off through the right to buy.

I was lucky to be sent on a course at Coleraine to study for my professional housing qualification with the Chartered Institute of Housing.

As part of my studies I spent time in the London Borough of Camden in the early 1980s and witnessed at first-hand the serious housing problems which existed there.

Since the 1990s we have had a major shift in housing tenures with the private rented sector now accounting for one in five houses from around 40,000 in 1999 to nearly 130,000 today. Many of the right to buy houses are now being rented privately. We had the frenzy to buy particularly between 2003 and 2007. Indeed, this was the conversation around many dinner tables with little or no thought as to the responsibilities attached to owning and renting property.

In 1987 I joined the University of Ulster at Magee running undergraduate and postgraduate courses in housing management accredited by the Chartered Institute of Housing.

Since then we have had a return of local government in NI, with the DSDNI responsible for housing. The NIHE has stopped building new dwellings as housing associations are now tasked with this role borrowing half the costs from the private sector.

In 2007 we had the major financial crash, which was particularly felt in Northern Ireland with property prices falling below 50 per cent of their values, leaving many in negative equity, a term that people had to become accustomed to.

The effects of the crash are still being felt by many. Today we have 40,000 households on waiting lists, 20,000 declaring themselves as homeless and a construction industry that has gone into freefall with output having reduced by nearly two-thirds, producing a negative effect on a range of jobs associated with housebuilding.

Thankfully we have the NIHE and a number of housing associations working flat-out not only to build new social housing, but to make the housing experience for many a pleasant experience. We have advice agencies and organisations such as Supporting Communities NI working with our local residents to improve lives.

Many of these organisations are featured in this housing edition of VIEW.

I have been lucky in my career not only because I have had the privilege of educating over 700 undergraduate and 300 postgraduate housing students, many of whom are now working across the UK and Ireland in housing positions, but also the people I have worked with nationally and internationally all striving to make a difference to the most vulnerable in our society.

To all of them housing matters, and I have been privileged to play a small part in the housing movement.

• To read the full VIEW issue on housing, go to http://viewdigital.org/2016/02/10/why-housing-issues-matter-read-our-latest-issue-of-view/

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