04 May 2021

The role of shared housing in helping to combat Northern Ireland's division

The sporadic outbreaks of violence that raised its head in Northern Ireland over the past month issues a stark warning of the delicate nature of our peace. Two decades on, the peace process struggles to see its vision manifested in many communities across the region. The gut-wrenching scenes of teenagers being instructed by adults to throw petrol bombs and masonry at flashpoints is an extreme reminder of this.

While pundits and politicians point to the destabilising factor of Brexit and the resulting Northern Ireland Protocol, it has become too easy to analyse these scenes through a single lens rather than grapple with the systemic complexities of our instability. The solutions that need to be shouldered to rectify the situation are complex; in Northern Ireland, no one single issue is the cause of our strife – if that were the case, we would have solved this enduring problem a long time ago.

One of the systemic factors, among many, that points to the failure to properly integrate communities here is housing. Twenty-three years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, many of the homes and communities in which we live and serve are still segregated. The way we allocate social homes in part maintains this segregation, which in turn hardens community lines and adds to our chronic housing waiting lists.

This vicious cycle leaves many households to the mercy of temporary accommodation, over-crowded properties, and in the worst instances, on the streets. When it comes to housing, no one community is winning; the biggest losers are those from socially deprived neighbourhoods, no matter what side of the divide they stand on.

Efforts to tackle this can be seen in the increase in ‘shared housing’ – or mixed-religion neighbourhoods – as part of a programme overseen by the Department for Communities. In the department’s own words, the programme exists to “improve the choices that are available by tackling the barriers that prevent individuals from opting to live in shared neighbourhoods”.

The shared housing delivered under this programme is very welcome and much needed. However, we are not building nearly enough of it to feel its intended impact. Beneficial as it may be for those who have settled in shared communities, those still living separately are not experiencing its value.

Like all social housing, shared housing is allocated based on need and done so fairly, in line with Northern Ireland’s allocations policy. In broad terms, the way we allocate social housing enjoys the support of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the local housing industry. At the same time, it is in need of reform to ensure it promotes more choice for people, including those who want to live in shared housing.

Another part-solution to the problem is mixed-tenure housing. Though not specifically shared housing as defined in our divided context, mixed-tenure still has its place in building more cohesive and lasting communities. Large single-tenure, and in our context, single identity housing estates is no longer the vision for our future communities.

Mixed-tenure neighbourhoods, where owner-occupiers, social and private renters co-exist, with housing that has minimal aesthetic differences should be the ambition. This should ensure we are building much more enduring communities in Northern Ireland.

We have seen positive steps towards the realisation of mixed-tenure housing in our local development plans, with councils ranging to opt for ten to 20 per cent of new housing developments consisting of social housing. It is not a panacea by any stretch, but it is a step in the right direction should integration and reconciliation mean more than fleeting initiatives.

It is important to state that no one is advocating that shared housing becomes our total housing solution. Ensuring people have safe, secure and affordable homes in the areas where they have built their lives and networks is and will remain a priority. But for those households who want to live in mixed communities, the option must be more readily available.

If we can move to make meaningful change in this field, then we should. Housing policy is not a catch all solution to our societal problems, but it has a meaningful part to play in addressing Northern Ireland’s troubled past, and present.

Written by Heather Wilson

Heather Wilson is the policy and engagement manager for CIH Northern Ireland.