Sectarianism at the heart of housing crisis
BY LAURA FRIEL
Dress it up any way you like but the underlying facts remain the same. Over a thousand Catholic families are currently on the Housing Executive waiting list in North Belfast. The overwhelming majority of these families, almost 800, are in urgent housing need. A short distance away, in some cases just a few hundred yards away, there are empty houses, falling into disrepair for the lack of a secure tenancy. And then there's the derelict housing stock, like the row of burnt out terraced housing on Clifton Park Avenue, former Catholic homes untouched almost five years after being attacked by Orange mobs.
``The segregated nature of North Belfast gets in the way of meeting housing need and prevents the best use being made of existing housing and land,'' admits the House Executive in its newly launched seven-year strategy for North Belfast. The £133 million plan, the Housing Executive claims, will transform one of the most deprived areas in the city, cutting the waiting list by half and the number of urgent applicants by two thirds.
But the one thing the House Executive won't be doing is addressing the problem which lies at the heart of the housing crisis in North Belfast: the sectarian mechanisms that deny Catholics equal access to housing in the North. ``Every citizen has the fundamental right to a decent home and the people of North Belfast have the right to expect nothing less,'' says the executive. A worthy sentiment but within the confines of the Housing Executive's strategy it remains aspirational rather than a working principle.
The Executive accepts that Catholic families in North Belfast suffer discrimination. ``Catholic households make up approximately three quarters of the Waiting List, but just about half of the population as a whole;''
``Four out of every five applicants classified as being in urgent housing need are from the Catholic community;'' and
``Catholic applicants in North Belfast wait much longer for offers of accommodation than their Protestant counterparts.''
At any given time the Housing Executive estimates that around 6% of a housing stock of 26,000 dwellings in North Belfast is vacant. That is over 1,500 empty houses. A quarter of the vacant stock is empty for less than three months but more significantly, almost half have been empty for over a year. But if you're a homeless Catholic family, an empty house doesn't necessarily entitle you to a home because ``vacant stock is not well matched to housing need''.
In other words, the need for housing in Protestant areas of North Belfast has declined but surplus properties cannot be used to alleviate the growing need for housing amongst Catholic families because of the threat of loyalist violence. Even where empty housing falls close to any of the six `peace lines', loyalist territorialism insists that the boundaries cannot be redrawn. The same mechanism thwarts the demand for new build as land is less available in the areas of most need.
The Executive accepts that at the core of housing discrimination in North Belfast lies sectarian intimidation and territorial claims. ``The key difficulty stems from the highly segregated nature of the two communities graphically represented by the six peace lines. Segregation and territoriality... mean that the housing market is highly inefficient. Most notably, surplus lands in one community are not readily available for use by the other.''
But ``the Housing Executive cannot engineer territorial adjustments in North Belfast. In fact such a politically sensitive issue is beyond the ability of any agency to deliver.''
Now let's take a moment to get this clear. Almost every statistic evoked by the executive exposes discrimination against Catholic families within the housing market in North Belfast. The executive identifies segregation and territoriality as the mechanism behind this discrimination. But this is such a ``politically sensitive issue'', argues the Housing Executive, that nothing can be done, not by them, and not even by anyone else. So, according to the Housing Executive, the very body specifically set up in the early 1970s to end sectarian manipulation of the housing market, addressing sectarian discrimination in housing is ``beyond the ability of any agency to deliver''.
Indeed, let's not even use the word ``discrimination''. Catholic families just have different `needs'. And these `needs' will have to be addressed within the limits imposed by sectarian intimidation, no, sorry, within the limits imposed by ``segregation''. We're not talking here of Catholic ghettos created and maintained by loyalist violence and tacitly accepted by an Orange state.
Let's forget the annual pogroms, the attacks on Catholic families and their homes, the loyalist mobs with their baseball bats, paint bombs, petrol and pipe bombs. To challenge the boundaries imposed by sectarian violence might ``damage the already fragile relations between the two communities within the area''. In other words, Catholics must accept sectarian discrimination rather than run the risk of provoking further loyalist violence.
``The Housing Executive does not believe that North Belfast is yet at the stage where the existing boundaries between communities could be radically altered.'' And anyway, according to the executive, it's a problem the communities must solve for themselves. ``It is our view that territorial adjustment will only be possible with the consent of both communities, working together at a local and political level with a common goal to improve the living standards of both.''
d then there's the status quo. Heaven forbid that housing homeless Catholic families might change the balance of power. Or as the Irish News journalist Alan Erwin put it, as the gap between nationalist and unionist candidates closes, ``the strategy must guard against charges of altering the demographic landscape of a finely balanced area''.
But a spokesperson for the Housing Executive insisted that they have taken this into consideration. ``We believe the population redistribution will be neutral.'' Any new builds for Catholics will be offset by bringing Protestants back into the area, he said.
d then there's the chairperson of the Assembly's Social Development Committee. ``I don't have any doubts about the needs of the Catholic community,'' said Ulster Unionist Fred Cobain, ``But it's not going to be addressed by encroachment into Protestant areas. It just won't work.''
North Belfast cannot cope with the demand for housing, insisted PUP Assembly member Billy Hutchinson. The housing crisis could only be tackled if Catholics begin moving out of the area, he said. Meanwhile, the SDLP's Alban McGuinness was accusing Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly of wanting to ``upset the delicate territorial balance in North Belfast''. The Sinn Féin Assembly member was ``ignorant of the political sensitivities''. Responding to the criticism, Gerry Kelly questioned the notion of territorial balance:
``Does it mean that Graymount is Protestant and therefore it was alright to intimidate scores of Catholic families out, or that Catholics on the Serpentine Road should move out, or in Glandore, Limestone Road, Wyndham or all those areas where actual peacelines don't exist but where we spend most of the summer months trying to protect Catholic homes?'' Up to now the only people suffering from the ``territory'' argument and ``delicate political balance'' argument are, unfortunately, Catholics, said Kelly.