'The Dire State We're In - Housing Apartheid in the Six Counties', by The Skint Scribbler - from Issue One of An Spréach Magazine

'The Dire State We're In - Housing Apartheid in the Six Counties', by The Skint Scribbler - from Issue One of An Spréach Magazine

FIFTY YEARS AGO this month, three civil rights activists began a squat of a house in Caledon, county Tyrone to protest the unfair allocation of housing by the unionist government in the Six Counties.

The story is well known. A family, who happened to be catholic, denied a home in favour of a young single professional, who happened to work for the ruling Unionist party. A window was smashed with a poker to gain entry to the house to make the protest. A sledgehammer was employed to break down the front door to remove the protestors. The resulting media coverage broadcast the plight of homeless catholics beyond the neighbourhoods where it had been a way of life to endure for decades.

The case was well made. In truth, it was an easy one to make. Spurred on by the law granting the vote only to homeowners and enabled by the gerrymandering of electoral constituencies, unionist-controlled councils ruthlessly ensured the most demonstrably loyal were invariably at the head of the queue when it came to housing allocation, while poor catholics languished in slums such the Springtown camp in Derry. Within weeks of the Caledon sit-in, members of Derry’s Housing Action Committee were blocking the aptly named Craigavon Bridge; within months, thousands were on the streets in support of the civil rights movement’s modest demands.  

Within a matter of years, the Civil Rights Association’s demand for a points system to determine the allocation of housing had been conceded, while control over housing was eventually removed from unionist councils and placed in the hands of the new, officially impartial Housing Executive.

Job done, you might think. Not quite. While the power of the unionist one-party state was indeed broken on a range of issues through popular mobilisation, housing discrimination in the Six Counties remains a live issue in 2018.

According to the latest available statistics, there are 39,338 households on the waiting list for social housing in the North of Ireland. Of this number, 22,097 are judged by the Housing Executive to be in ‘housing stress’, which is effectively a state of homelessness. The rate at which new homes are being built is woefully inadequate to address this crisis: in 2015, for example, 542 socially-owned houses were built throughout the North.

While it is a self-evident fact that those on the receiving end of this crisis are the poor, the sectarian nature of the northern state dictates that it is the catholic poor who suffer disproportionately. They do not suffer alone. Refugees, asylum seekers and other new arrivals are frequently forced into overcrowded accommodation at the mercy of exploitative landlords.

Take the case of north Belfast as an example, an area that has long served as a microcosm for the northern state’s broader attitude to its citizens. In 2014, there was a deficit of 666 households in majority catholic areas in the north of the city while there was a parallel surplus of 72 houses in protestant neighbourhoods. Even those 72 houses were beyond the reach of those catholics in need due to the risk of intimidation and violence from unionist paramilitaries. Since 2014, there has been no significant new build in social housing in north Belfast.

Contrary to what officials in high places like to claim, this is not because of a lack of land on which to build. The vacant Hillview site on north Belfast’s Crumlin Road has long been the subject of a campaign by families in desperate need of housing. The catholic enclave of the Short Strand in east Belfast, where 52 households live in a state of ‘housing stress’, lies cheek by jowl with the huge Sirocco site which has lain empty for years. In the south of the city, the Market community contains 86 households in a state of effective homelessness. The Market is adjacent to the Gasworks, part of which has long been zoned for social housing and, yet, not a single brick has been laid. In 2017, Belfast City Council’s planning committee voted to rezone the land on the Gasworks for commercial use, including a multistorey carpark.

In 2002, Belfast City Council signed up to the European Charter for the Safeguarding of Human Rights in the City. Among the commitments included in the Charter is that “all citizens have the right to proper, safe and healthy housing.” Sixteen years on, Belfast City Council is clearly still in breach of this obligation.

Fifty years on from the formation of the civil rights movement in the North, the goal of adequate and equal provision of housing remains unfulfilled. And yet, no one in a position of authority will deny, at least publicly, that families have a right to adequate housing. But all the public declarations in the world don’t change the fact that there are thousands of families in Belfast – 7,000 going by the latest estimates – who are living in emergency accommodation, sharing with relatives, sofa surfing, or making do in cramped, run down, deeply inadequate housing, often in tower blocks.

In 2014, a number of Belfast families on the housing waiting list who had formed themselves into the Equality Can’t Wait campaign wrote an open letter to the relevant government ministers and put their case thus: “While we wait we live in hostels, in temporary single let accommodation, in housing with such poor conditions that our children are made sick. While we wait we live in expensive insecure housing with unaccountable landlords. While we wait we are homeless and sleeping rough or dependent upon the charity of family and friends. While we wait our children grow up with nowhere to play, nowhere to call home, nowhere to make friends.”

So what’s preventing the resolution of this problem? In short, it is the same correlation of interests that has ever stood in the way of progress in the northern state: money, bigotry and political power.

In recent years, councils in the North have had powers of planning returned to them, enabling them to play a part in determining where social housing is built and when. In areas like north and south Belfast, where the electoral balance is waited very finely in favour of unionism, it is not in the interests of unionist politicians to accommodate the building of homes which will most likely be occupied by non-unionist voters. Hence, when they get the chance, unionist councillors habitually vote against plans for social housing which will go to the wrong people in the wrong neighbourhoods. In 2009, the Housing Executive ended its policy of ‘ring-fencing’ social housing in areas of high demand, such as north and west Belfast and Derry. During his tenure as Stormont minister with responsibility for housing, the DUP’s Nelson McCausland – not coincidentally, an assembly member for north Belfast – went so far as to propose the abolition of the Housing Executive.

Aligned with this sectarian power grab are property developers who are determined to make the maximum amount of profit from the lowest possible investment. So just as the Gasworks site in south Belfast is earmarked for a carpark and the extension of an already massive hotel, so the Sirocco plot which could alleviate housing need in the Short Strand is to be used for a new hotel and other commercial properties. Hillview in north Belfast is to be a shopping centre, while families in cramped, damp-infested flats overlooking it are expected to wait forever for a decent standard of living.

This state of affairs is clearly untenable. But crises which are contained within the poorest sections of society are always bearable for those who profit as a result of them. It is only when those with decision making power find every alternative closed to them but the one of allowing justice to prevail will change happen. The three activists who occupied that house in Caledon knew this; the men and women of Derry’s Housing Action Committee recognised this and so did the thousands who took to the streets half-a-century ago in support of civil rights.

In his study of past redevelopment of Belfast, the inequality this perpetuated and the campaigns organised in opposition, the urban planner Cliff Moughtin wrote: “Irrespective of the reasons for the change of policy, community action where powerful groups have the ability to stop developments if extended over the whole range of urban government could make cities ungovernable.”

It’s time for the penny to drop. The crisis which the powerful created must be brought back to haunt them.