Mr Collins said:
“Housing association tenants, staff and management welcome the Minister’s announcement. On behalf of the sector, I would like to thank Minister Harvey for her ongoing commitment to ensuring that everyone has a safe and secure place to call home.
“Our sector realises that this a very difficult time, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Housing associations are committed to working sensitively with tenants who come into financial difficulties, due to the sudden impact this virus is having on jobs and the economy. We will continue to work with the Department and other key partners during this pandemic to do our best in providing the wide range of housing services which people need.”
In a statement on 27th March, set out a range of measures, including support and assurance for social and private renters as well as crucial support to those experiencing homelessness.
Minister Deirdre Hargey MLA said:
“This is a worrying time for everyone and I am very aware that there is an increased level of anxiety in our community. The last thing anyone needs right now is to add the security of their home to those worries.
“Today I want to assure renters, homeowners and those in a homeless situation, that I am putting measures in place to provide crucial support.”
In relation to social housing tenants, Minister Hargey said:
“I can announce that my Department has an agreement in place with all social housing landlords (Housing Executive and Housing Associations) that any social housing tenant facing difficulties paying rent during Covid-19 will not be evicted. My Department will work with Housing Associations and the Housing Executive to help them keep tenants in their homes and to ensure that the welfare system can provide help to their tenants as quickly as possible. You can be assured your home is secure.
“I have also been assured by Co-ownership for those facing difficulties keeping up with their payments, that their customers’ homes are secure and that both Co-ownership and mortgage lenders will treat these issues with sensitivity and support their customers during a difficult period.”
Anyone experiencing difficulties paying their rent through loss of employment for example can get help with their housing costs by applying for Universal Credit online. Help with housing costs in Universal Credit is paid directly to landlords. For social tenants this, along with mitigations for social sector size criteria will cover their rent.
For private renters, the level of rent due to landlords may be more than the housing cost element of Universal Credit.
Minister Hargey has moved to address this situation to ensure security of tenure for those in the private rented sector.
“My Department is making changes to help households that have lost income to pay their rent. An increase in Local Housing Allowance rates from 1 April will provide additional financial support for private tenants in receipt of Housing Benefit or the housing costs element of Universal Credit.
“In addition, anyone who has lost their job and who signs on to Universal Credit can apply for a Discretionary Housing Payment to have their full rent paid for 13 weeks.”
With this support, evictions should be avoided as rent payments will continue to be made.
The Minister also highlighted the recent announcement by the Lord Chief Justice’s Office that courts will only be listing urgent matters. A landlord cannot legally seek possession of a tenant’s house without a court order. Once a landlord has served a notice to quit on a tenant, they can then only get possession of the property through an application to the court.
For homeowners, the Chancellor has also announced that mortgage lenders will offer at least a three month mortgage holiday for homeowners. This has been extended to cover ‘Buy to Let’ mortgages, to help landlords cope with lost income.
Minister Hargey continued:
“COVID-19 presents a challenge for us all but it brings very particular challenges to those are homeless and those who support them in shelters, hostels and emergency accommodation. These are amongst the most vulnerable in society and need our support and compassion.
“The Housing Executive, which leads on the response to homelessness, has a central COVID-19 team in place and will continue to fulfil its statutory homeless obligations during this period. The Housing Executive has sourced additional accommodation and is working with my Department, the Public Health Agency and Trusts (which have set up a nurse lead team) and the Department of Health to implement its surge plan, ensure the safety of those in homeless accommodation settings and to respond to staffing and capacity pressures presented by COVID-19.
I am working with the Department of Finance to secure additional PPE for this sector.
In these very exceptional times, in the interests of protecting the health of all our citizens, I welcome the statement from the Housing Executive that it is working to identify temporary accommodation for those individuals who need it, regardless of whether they currently have recourse to public funds.”
As with much of the response to COVID-19, the Minister stressed the importance of the advice sector. Minister Hargey added:
“I am also looking at what additional urgent financial resource I can provide to Housing Rights to support our citizens at this time. I know that they have been very busy. They are experts in their field and I will ensure they have the finance they need to offer the best of their advice to those who need it.”
The Minister concluded:
“I want to extend my sincere thanks to all those across housing, those in government, the statutory, community or voluntary sectors for all the vital support they are providing to our citizens at this time.”