Rathcoole Regeneration Group, supported by PPR, have welcomed the decision by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to rent out 30 publicly owned but empty flats in their area to address housing need, but are insistent that much more needs to be done to fulfil housing rights obligations impacting their community.
The decision by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive was to take effect on Monday 18th May 2015 and followed an effective campaigning action by residents.
Right to Housing – Action and Answers
On Wednesday 13th May 2015 residents from the Rathcoole estate in Newtownabbey were joined by Equality Can’t Wait and Homeless Action activists for a public action at the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the offices of the Minister for Social Development calling for urgent action and answers.
Rathcoole residents presented 1000 petitions from people in the community demanding that the NIHE and Minister act immediately to open up and rent out approximately 100 publicly owned flats which have been available yet vacant in their estate for around 4 years.
The group also paid £887.50 using Monopoly money in charges levied by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive for a freedom of information request enquiring who took the decision to keep the flats empty and on what basis.
Rathcoole residents are also sending a letter to the Social Development Committee at Stormont calling for an investigation into this unacceptable situation.
Driving people to homelessness
Residents are claiming that the failure by the Minister and the NIHE to rent out these flats has effectively driven people to homelessness.
Robert Law, originally from Rathcoole, has been homeless since February 2015 and living in a Belfast hostel. He said:
“I have now been in two Belfast homeless hostels since my tenancy broke down and I was made homeless in January. I cannot understand why I am living in a hostel, far away from my family and friends, when there are perfectly good apartments – owned by the NIHE – lying empty in my community. There is no reason why I should be homeless! They need to get their act together.”
Since March 2015 residents discovered, through Freedom of Information requests and Assembly Questions, that despite spending almost £3m of public money refurbishing a block of 52 flats in Glencoole House between 2009-2011, approximately 30 of the flats in this block are lying empty. Along with the neighbouring blocks of Monscoole, Abbotscoole and Carncoole there are approximately 100 vacant apartments.
According to the Housing Executive, there were 216 households in housing stress in the Rathcoole area as of March 2015. Of these, 207 required 1-2 bedrooms – all of whom may find the apartments suitable homes. Indeed, residents are quick to point out that by renting out the flats the waiting list in Rathcoole could be massively reduced by almost 50%
A failure of accountability and transparency
When residents submitted a Freedom of Information request on 13th March to find out who had taken the decision not to rent out the flats and why, they were informed on 9th April that they would have to pay £887.50 for the information. They reduced their questions significantly from four to two questions, to try and avoid charges, only to be told that they would have to pay £825.
David Crooks, local community activist who has supported the campaign, said:
“It is a crazy and disgraceful situation. Every time we ask questions about why these flats are left empty, we are given vague and puzzling responses – or being asked to pay over £800! What are they hiding from the community? We need answers and we will be sending information to the Social Development Committee to consider.”
“The Rathcoole estate has been neglected for years by Ministers and the NIHE – and the community is being gutted. Young people cannot get access to social housing in the area and are being told to move elsewhere. Some try to go private, but we have lost count of the numbers who come to us with horror stories about the cost and the poor conditions of private rental accommodation.”
“This needs to change, and change now. We don’t need promises of additional social housing in the future when there is an abundance of empty properties now that can be used for people in dire need in our community. We need regeneration, and we need to start with renovating and opening these flats now.”
Dessie Donnelly from PPR said:
“What is happening in Rathcoole is as puzzling as it is unacceptable. How does the NIHE spend £3m on flats and then leave them lying empty for years when there is plenty of people on the list who are in dire need of such accommodation? In fact, by keeping the flats closed more and more people are added to the list when there is housing available.”
“Why was this decision taken? Who took the decision? Why is this information being with-held constantly from the community? And when will the flats be opened? All of these questions need answers – and people in the NIHE, the Department, or indeed current or previous Ministers need to be held accountable.”
Rathcoole residents are continuing to campaign for the remainder of the flats to be opened for rent, as well as answers their freedom of information request to prevent decision like this being taken again.