Comment: Northern Ireland Housing Executive cutting key social security payments that many tenants consider to be a vital lifeline


Comment article from Renters’ Voice – a group of people who rent privately in Northern Ireland. They work to influence landlords, politicians and government. They want to make private renting better for everyone

Few people would be surprised to learn that, like many others, private renters have been badly impacted by the cost of living crisis. Now, in the context of a fast-growing private rented sector and skyrocketing rents, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive is now implementing cuts to key social security payments that many tenants consider a lifeline. 

Following the recent decision by the Department for Communities to restrict access to Discretionary Support Grants, the Housing Executive is now making cuts to Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs). DHPs are grants that help private tenants meet the shortfall between their benefit entitlement and rent. 10,252 households in Northern Ireland are currently in receipt of DHPs.

The Department has taken the decision to stop payments for tenants who have been in receipt of DHPs for two years or more. 3,321 people have been told that their payments have ceased with immediate effect. Claimants who are still entitled to receive DHPs can expect a maximum of £20 per week, until their entitlement ends. 

Very few private tenants in receipt of housing benefit or Universal Credit have their full rent costs met. This is partly due to stagnant Local Housing Allowance (LHA), which is the rate at which Housing Benefit or Universal Credit housing costs are paid. LHA has also been frozen since April 2020, when average private rent across NI was £658 per month. Average rent is now £791.

In over 80 percent of cases, there is a shortfall between the LHA and the amount of rent charged by private landlords.

LHA awarded to single people under the age of 35 is particularly meagre, as they are assumed to be living in shared accommodation (and therefore can receive a lower level of social security). Single people aged under 35 living in Belfast can expect to receive just £53.58 per week, or £232.18 per month. The average price of rent in Belfast is currently £908 per month, leaving younger single people on low incomes with a staggering shortfall to make up each month.

For the tens of thousands of tenants impacted by the shortfall between benefit entitlement and private rent, DHPs are a lifeline. They enable people on the lowest incomes – many of whom are among the 45,000 people waiting for social housing – to pay their rent on time and stay in their homes. Without access to this support, private renters will now find themselves faced with arrears, the threat of eviction and homelessness.

Renters’ Voice supports the call from the Cliff Edge Coalition and Independent Panel of the Welfare Mitigations Review for a financial inclusion service for private tenants affected by the Local Housing Allowance shortfall. This would provide critical support for those who will now be badly impacted by cuts to DHPs. We are also calling for LHA to be unfrozen – meaning that more properties should be affordable for claimants of Housing Benefit or Universal Credit. 

Ultimately, however, we recognise that our social security system must be strengthened alongside wider reform to the private rented sector. Private rents in Northern Ireland have risen by 9.2 percent in the past year – significantly more than any other UK region. Introducing rent controls – beginning with a freeze, followed by a gradual reduction – will help curb runaway rents and make housing more affordable in the longer-term. At the same time, we need to massively increase our supply of social housing, to make housing more affordable for those on low incomes and ease demand on our overstretched private rented sector.