Homelessness in Northern Ireland is estimated to cost £15,470 per household. In 2016/17, 18,573 households presented as homeless to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The top three reasons for presenting are loss of rented accommodation, unsuitable accommodation and relationship breakdown. A home is the foundation which allows people to not only develop important family and social relationships, but also gain an education, employment and access to other important services such as health and social care. Conversely, the lack of a home can lead to other problems including poor physical and mental health, disrupted education, inability to secure employment and offending behaviour. There are now over 125,000 (16%) households in Northern Ireland living in the private rented sector, more than those who live in social housing. Our concern is that many homes in this sector do not provide
the security, affordability and safety in the home that would be afforded to those living in other housing tenures.
Because of problems in the supply of social housing and home ownership becoming unattainable for many, more people are renting privately and often do so for long periods of time. In recent years, housing policy has shifted towards making greater use of privately rented housing to accommodate people who are homeless or who would otherwise have been provided a lifetime social tenancy. While this move to reduce homelessness by making better use of private housing is understandable, we are concerned that practices in the private sector aren’t sufficiently developed to meet the needs of many types of households. This is the social problem we wish to address via the Techies in Residence programme.
In the last nine months, 45% of people who called our helpline for housing advice lived in the private rented sector. The main issues we have identified include:
- Paying for and keeping the home
- Deposits and letting fees
- Finding a suitable place to live
- Dealing with harassment or threats of illegal eviction
- Finding out how to can get help to solve their housing problems
Many tenants have little to no knowledge or understanding of their rights or their responsibilities. This lack of awareness can exacerbate existing problems and can eventually lead to homelessness. We believe that raising awareness of the rights and responsibilities of both tenants and landlords and finding a way to simplify or aid communication between landlords and tenants in the private sector would really help to alleviate some of the difficulties that people experience. We feel that the time is right to look at how technology can assist tenants to better understand their housing rights, options and routes to redress should things go wrong in their home. An innovative solution would increase confidence, communication and relationships between tenants and landlords, and prevent disputes arising during the tenancy.
Ultimately, a safe and secure home prevents homelessness and enables people to make a positive contribution to society. Our hope is that the private rented sector will become and safe and secure place where people will choose to make their home.
Housing Rights original idea developed from an app into a web based platform following advice from ZooCreative. We sought feedback from Housing Rights front-line advisers and working with ZooCreative, we’ve developed content and functionality that will help private renters in NI.
The written content on the site informs tenants about their rights and responsibilities. The user can search for content by topic, or by what stage of the tenancy journey they are in. It is complimented by Smart Renter tips and calls to action for how the private tenant can help themselves. The content is written in clear, concise and understandable formats.
Functionality we’ve developed include:
The checklists guide tenants on what questions they should ask. They are:
- Before you take on a tenancy – 12 things to check
- Viewing a property – external
- Viewing a property – internal
- Your tenancy agreement – what to check for
- Questions for your new landlord
The tools will help tenants prepare for the different stages throughout their rental journey. There is:
- Housing Benefit calculator – Calculate how much housing benefit you could receive
- Contact your landlord – email/letter template generator
- Make an inventory – track the items in your house and their condition
The potential for private tenants
The knowledge provided by the written content will help increase tenants confidence. The checklists will encourage tenants to try and spot issues that could arise for them further down the line, thus reducing instances of tenants finding themselves locked into unsuitable tenancies. Tools such as the letter generator will encourage a record of written communication between landlord and tenant should a more serious situation arise further down the line. The inventory will help clear up any disputes around repaying deposits.
Private tenants who use the innovative Smart Renter platform will be empowered to help themselves sustain a safe and secure home in the private rented sector, avoiding potential homelessness.