Remembering the goal of mixed housing, then and now

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Remembering the goal of mixed housing, then and now
by Raquel GOMEZ for Shared Future News
15 June 2018

Housing and segregation in Northern Ireland has coincided since at least the last century. It is an issue that needs to be address today, with Brexit, “parallel lives”, and a fight for a shared future as some of the challenges.

As a result of civil rights complaints and struggles in the late 1960s over accusations of religious discrimination in housing allocations, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) was established in 1971:

“We believe that people should have the maximum freedom of choice in where they wish to live. The executive does not believe that a forced integration is any more desirable than a policy of deliberate segregation. We can only hope that the provision of an attractive mixture of housing and a change of the social-political environment may ease the problem of polarisation by encouraging and enabling families who wish to live in integrated communities to do so.” –NIHE First Annual Report

For the 50th anniversary, the Civil Rights Committee organised an event, Housing Then and Now, which discussed housing issues of the past, present, and future.

Professor Emeritus of Ulster University, Paddy Gray, reviewed the history of housing from the beginning of the 20th century to the present day. Gray emphasised the need for housing policy to work in partnership with other areas, such as health and education, and highlighted that there is a wide range of issues that need to be taken into account, like Brexit, employment, and a shared future. For example, in regards to Brexit, Gray said that there could be an increase in the price of building houses, due to higher costs of imported construction materials..

Gray explained that housing conditions have been transformed over the years, but low supply and lack of investment endangers the gains that have been made.

Shared housing

“A united community, based on equality of opportunity, the desirability of good relations and reconciliation — one which is strengthened by its diversity, where cultural expression is celebrated and embraced and where everyone can live, learn, work and socialise together, free from prejudice, hate, and intolerance.” –Together: Building a United Community (T:BUC)

During the event, a presentation on shared housing was delivered by three post-graduate students — Eibhlin Collins, Desi Egan, and Caroline Rose McCann. The presentation began by highlighting that the Good Friday Agreement identified shared or mixed religious housing as a priority in building a more inclusive and peaceful society in Northern Ireland.

The presenters argued that segregated social housing and poverty are two key issues that need to be faced in order to have a shared society. In this sense, according to the presenters, issues associated with poverty, especially in social housing estates, “are parallel in both sides of the community in Northern Ireland, and it will be further compounded by the implications of welfare reform.”

They also cited a report by Peter Shirlow (2003), “‘Who Fears to Speak’: Fear, Mobility, and Ethno-sectarianism in the Two ‘Ardoynes’”, which stated that housing must be free of religion and political imagery, removing the feeling of a marked territory and reducing fear and segregation; a neutral territory must be designed without murals, flags, and emblems.

The presenters made reference to extensive cross-departmental work in re-imagining areas and promoting good relations and community cohesion, and remarked that research has indicated that a high proportion of people have expressed a strong desire to live in a mixed religion neighbourhood.

Ted Cantle — founder of the term “community cohesion” and author of of the Cantle Report, which described how communities can live “parallel lives”– talked about building bridges between different communities and crossing sectarian and ethnic divides. Through a “parallel lives” concept, Candle illustrated how the Asian community and the white British community have been living lives side-by-side but not together. According to Cantle, segregation isn’t confined to one sector; segregation works at all levels: education, housing, culture, sport, health, etc. “I think we have to realise that if you can bring down segregation at one level then improve totally all the other areas. It is not just simply crossing a sectarian divide or crossing an ethnic divide, actually, when you begin to break down one barrier, you have an enormous impact in all the other areas as well,” argued Cantle.

Cantle also explained the project Living Libraries, which engages schools and people from both communities. Through the project, you can “borrow” a very special book — an “alive book” — where every book is the story of a different person.

Cantle also said that children “growing up in diverse areas just they don’t even know what racism is”. For him, diversity seems positive and enriching.

Improving policy

The end of the event heard from Peter Osborne (Chair of the Community Relations Council); Nicola McCrudden (Chartered Institute of Housing Director); and Eileen Patterson (Director of Communities with Radius Housing).

According to NIHE, 27% of people in Northern Ireland live in public housing, and the annual rate of increase in the number of dwellings in Northern Ireland is one of the highest in the UK for both private and public sector.

Osborne highlighted that today’s Northern Ireland society is incomparable with that 20 years ago, but it is still segregated. Talking about the near future, Patterson and Osborne insisted on the need to improve and promote policy for social housing in Northern Ireland, and in a broader context.

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