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When everyone has a home

028 9024 5640: Housing & Debt Helpline for Northern Ireland

Housing Rights recommendations in response to Covid-19 

As Covid19 continues to impact people across Northern Ireland, our advice teams are dealing with increasing demand for support and advice from people worried about their housing situation because of financial pressures or illness.  

We recognise that the NI Executive are working hard to design and deliver a range of support to assist those impacted by the crisis. With some support already announced and further details yet to be revealed, it is imperative that government’s response to Covid19 is characterised by a determination to prevent homelessness. Specifically, no-one should lose their home because of Covid19 and people who need increased support (financial and otherwise) to keep their homes should have access to it, quickly. 

Over the coming months Housing Rights will be closely monitoring the continued impact of Covid19 on how people find and keep their home in Northern Ireland, by monitoring advice queries and engaging directly with people to find out their views and experiences – particularly through our Renters Voice project

For now though, our advice work has already helped us shape a picture of the policy and practice interventions which are required to help prevent homelessness. These are summarised below, and more fully explored in this policy briefing.  

Helping private tenants deal with coronavirus 

We have very real concerns that restrictions on the benefit assistance available to private renters could lead to a rapid increase in evictions and believe the following measures would help alleviate this. 

  • Increasing the budget for Discretionary Housing Payments 

  • Increasing LHA rates to ensure they are at the 30th percentile of local rates, at a minimum 

  • Introducing the same protection for renters whose income has unexpectedly decreased and who are on Universal Credit as exists under Housing Benefit rules 

  • Ending the 5-week wait for payments of Universal Credit, something Iain Duncan Smith has said could be done “almost immediately” 

  • Ensure that DHPs are available as soon as a person has claimed Universal Credit, rather than waiting until the award is in payment 

  • Suspending all court action in relation to possession claims and enforcement of possession orders 

Read more about why we think these measures could help and are achievable. 

Helping NIHE and housing association tenants deal with coronavirus 

Social landlords should ensure that support remains in place to assist tenants who are impacted by Covid19 and are unable to meet their rent as a consequence. The NIHE has already announced that it will take a sensitive approach to tenants experiencing financial difficulties as a result of the crisis. 

We are already being contacted by large numbers of social tenants concerned about what restrictions in service will mean for them, and recommend that social housing providers 

  • develop an effective response to repairs requests in light of social distancing requirements and 

  • adopt a zero eviction into homelessness approach.  

Read more about why we think these measures will be effective and are achievable.  

Helping homeowners deal with coronavirus 

The Chancellor has announced a 3-month mortgage holiday for affected households and many financial institutions are announcing additional support to people who hold mortgages with them and who face financial difficulties as a result of Covid19. To ensure that these measures are effective in assisting homeowners who are affected by this crisis, we recommend that 

  • the waiting period for assistance with mortgage interest payments is once again reduced to 13 weeks or 3 assessment periods and 

  • support for mortgage interest is once again paid in the form of a benefit, rather than as an interest-bearing loan 

Read more about why we think these measures will be effective and are achievable  

Helping people who are homeless, sleeping rough and in temporary housing deal with coronavirus 

The Department for Communities and the NIHE should ensure that people experiencing homelessness or chronic homelessness, should not be made further vulnerable by Covid19. 

We believe that it is essential to look after the most vulnerable people at this time of crisis and recommend that 

  • comprehensive support, guidance and where appropriate resources are put in place to assist temporary accommodation providers to keep residents safe and well 

  • relevant departments and bodies work together to coordinate response for homeless people, leading to a statutory duty for these bodies to cooperate to prevent and alleviate homelessness 

Read more about why we think these measures will assist

Other areas of support needed to help households deal with coronavirus 

There are other areas, which are not tenure specific which need to be addressed to help people to deal with the impact of this current crisis and its economic fallout. Chief amongst these are the need to 

  • review and amend the legislation for rates rebate which currently heavily and artificially restricts the amount of assistance households get with rates if they have a final payment of salary or redundancy monies after claiming Universal Credit 

  • extend the welfare reform mitigation package before we tumble off the cliff-edge at the end of March 2020.  

Read more about why we think these measures will help 

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This article was written on 20 March 2020. 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.