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Assembly debates Housing Selection Scheme

On Monday the Assembly debated the current Housing Selection Scheme, the system which determines to whom an offer of social housing is made.  The Assembly called on the Minister for Communities to bring forward a replacement to the scheme that would ensure a fairer and more transparent system of assessing need. 

Housing allocation system in Northern Ireland

The current system used to allocate social housing to applicants is a points-based system.  Applicants for housing are awarded points based on their circumstances and the rules of the selection scheme only allow for points to be awarded in certain scenarios.  When a property becomes available for allocation, the social landlord must go to the waiting list to determine which applicant is most highly pointed for this type of accommodation in this area and offer the property to this applicant. Deviations from this general rule are only allowed in very specific circumstances, and a 2013 judicial review was highly critical of one association's allocations policy and prompted a review and amendment of the scheme rules.    This points which an applicant has should reflect the severity of their current housing situation and the system should ensure that those in greatest need are at the top of the list for offers of housing.  Applicants who have upwards of 30 points are considered to be in "housing stress".  However, in certain areas of the country the severe shortage of social housing has led to a situation where applicants may need upwards of 180 points in order to gain an offer of housing. 

Members raise concerns about current allocation system for social housing

Fra McCann, Sinn Fein MLA for West Belfast brought this motion to the house and categorised the current scheme as one with deficiencies.  Assembly Members had a number of concerns about the scheme, namely:

  • a perceived lack of dignity for homeless applicants, who are sometimes required to disclose details of their housing and personal problems with relatively little privacy.  Members called for a more person-centred approach to housing assessments;
  • the system's failure to deal with hidden homelessness;
  • the continued prioritisation of applicants who have been awarded intimidation points and members' concerns that this system is open to abuse;
  • the disparity with which incidents of harassment are treated; with an award of 200 points to applicants who can show that they have been intimidated but an award of only 20 points to people fleeing domestic abuse, serious antisocial behaviour and other types of harassment. 

Members stressed that any review of the allocations system will not, by itself, lead to a vast improvement of the housing situation of those on the waiting list with Nichola Mallon, SDLP MLA for North Belfast, stating "unless thousands more houses are built... any reform of the assessment scheme will be a meaningless paper exercise".  Members suggested a myriad of ways to deal with difficulties surrounding the supply of suitable housing for those in housing stress, from suspending the "Right to Buy" scheme, to greater promotion and use of mutual exchanges and the co-ownership model, to a wider adoption of the choice-based lettings system used by some housing providers. 

Allocation reform proposals expected in late 2016

The Department for Communities is currently taking forward a review of the housing allocation scheme as part of the wider Social Housing Reform Programme.  In 2013, the then Department for Social Development published academic research presenting recommendations to inform a fundamental review of the allocation of social housing in Northern Ireland.   The Department invited comment and feedback on these recommendations and received more than 40 written responses, including one from Housing Rights.  During Monday's debate, the Minister for Communities, Mr Paul Givan, assured Members that the Department is currently preparing proposals as to the review of the allocation system and that these proposals should be published later this year.  

Mr Givan also highlighted the five outcomes which he hopes will ensure a fair and transparent system of assessing housing need. These are

  • delivering a greater range of solutions to meet housing need
  • creating an improved system for the most vulnerable applicants
  • having a more accurate waiting list that better reflects the current housing circumstances of those on the list
  • ensuring that those in greatest housing need receive priority
  • enabling better use of public resources by ensuring that the waiting list moves smoothly.

The motion was resolved with cross-party support. The full debate is available on the NI Assembly website. 

This article was written on 15 September 2016. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.