A version of this piece was published by Inside Housing magazine
Across Belfast, red brick chimneys stand to attention, in memoriam to a Victorian past, when smoke from dock workers wives cooking soda bread on the embers of the day filled the city skyline. Typical of an industrial city, long rows of ‘workers’ terraces line Belfast’s streets. Built for the dockers and millworkers, these compact houses — front doors off pavements, small yards to the rear — provided affordable housing, in a community setting. Over the past 30 years many have been demolished, replaced by less efficient, suburban style, semi-detached houses and dead-end cul-de-sacs. But, 26% of Northern Ireland's housing stock is still the two-up two-down, five by eight metre, terrace house. Making efficient use of inner city space, they are, perhaps, the 19th century equivalent of what we now call micro-housing.
The Belfast terrace has become the inspiration for a micro-housing initiative called The Holding Project (THP). After meeting at the Bank of Invention, a Belfast based group for innovators, Dearbhaile Heaney, Sean Cullen and Chris Miller realised that they shared a common desire: to develop a housing solution for young, single people who are currently unemployed or on low incomes.
For those unable to afford the often astronomical rents required to live in major cities, micro-housing, like the 26 sq meter one bedroom ‘houses’ that Richmond Housing Partnership Limited (RHP), hope to offer in London, can be a cheaper alternative. Others, like property developers U+I, hope that their £1000 per month, 19 sq meter micro apartments, planned for two sites in London, will bring an increase of jobs to a city where the workforce is often pushed towards the more affordable fringes.
As a short term solution, micro housing can help overcome issues of housing affordability. As a long term solution, with space standards often 50% smaller than Parker Morris, it calls into the question the value and importance of well designed, generous spaces, and the positive impact they can have on our health and wellbeing. As a 2015 report from the Royal Institute of British Architects states; most new build housing is not big enough for families “to live comfortably … to eat and socialise together, to accommodate a growing family or ageing relatives, or even to store possessions.”
The problem with much micro-housing is that it reduces the conversation around affordability to a single issue: size. The problem is, of course, much more complex. Used as a short term solution, to immediate problems like homelessness or emergency housing, micro-housing offers a possible answer. On the other hand, private developer led schemes, are often just a symptom of the aggressive neoliberal attitude to urban planning that has prevailed in our cities over the past decades. A familiar story — the poor; priced out, move. The rich; build, and move in — or don't in the case of many unoccupied multi-million pound apartments left empty by foreign ‘ghost’ investors, haunting some major cities. Meanwhile, younger workers, spend all week working for a salary not big enough to be able to afford to live in the city they work in; spend significant amounts to rent an apartment so small that after a long day in the office they come ‘home’, to sleep, cook, eat, and relax in a space marginally bigger than a decent sized double bedroom — a 19 sq meter posh bedsit.
The concept of THP is the antithesis of this. It is about “beautiful, well designed and affordable living options that aren’t fuelled by the pursuit of money”, says Chris, a trainee architect. THP want to relocate the issue of housing away from a “commodity market, to one that is more people focused, putting the universal right of people to be housed before profit making. Placing inherent social, cultural and economic value before the opportunity for financial gain.”
With support from the Department for Communities and the Housing Executive, the solution that THP are proposing offers an innovative alternative. The 34 sq meter units (in excess of Parker Morris standards), have a generous ground floor living space, opening into a compact but cleverly design kitchen area. A mezzanine bedroom housed in the eaves, with storage space neatly incorporated into the stairs results in an economical footprint.
Based on a dual rental structure, rent starts at £250 per month for those on housing support, with low income tenants paying no more than £400 per month. “There’s a maximum amount of time that we would set for residents to stay”, Sean tells me. “The idea isn’t that this is the size and space people should live in for the rest of their lives.” What makes THP different is that it’s primary aim is to become “a stepping stone to social mobility.”
With Belfast having one of the youngest populations in Europe, under 21’s accounting for a third of the population and only 7% of the housing stock in Northern Ireland comprising one-bedroom properties, the demand for rental properties is high. The result is often unaffordable rents. With 22% of those seeking rental accommodation being unemployed or earning less than £15,000 per year, many are left with limited options: living with parents; shared accommodation or joining the queue of 37,586 other households on the housing waiting list.
The average price of a typical Belfast terrace — a popular choice for young first time buyers — is now £111,468. The average wage in Belfast is £21,836. Assuming a deposit of £10,000 (an amount not many will have), a salary multiple of 4.5 would be required to raise an adequate mortgage — not something any lender would be likely to offer. Especially for a first time buyer. 54% of whom, pushed into the rental market, are under the age of 40 with 34% being one person households.
With 22,645 on the housing list considered to be in housing stress and 12,202 currently presenting as homeless —the majority of whom are single males and females — demand is high. The allocation system is designed to house those with the greatest need. For the young and single the wait can be long.
3 months ago 21 old Niall Ferguson from Belfast joined the housing waiting list. He is not very hopeful. “When I registered they told me that it would be very hard to get housed; I think I will be on the list for years.” Currently unemployed, and living in a small 4 bedroom house with 8 other family members it is unlikely that Niall will accrue enough points to be housed. For many young, single people in Belfast housing is the primary barrier to social mobility.
To address these barriers, as well as providing housing, THP also works as a savings scheme. In other micro-housing projects it is hoped that cheaper rents encourage tenants to save, enabling them to eventually move on to a larger property — though the responsibility to save remains with the tenants. With THP saving is a requirement. Before joining tenants set an amount of up to 20% of their monthly rent. Over the course of their tenancy, the agreed figure is taken off and added to a collective saving fund. After three years a tenant can save up to £3000. “It’s a kind of psychological concept” Sean tells me, likening it to round-up saving initiatives like the Moneybox app.
In addition, tenants sign up to a cooperative style agreement to participate in community life, taking responsibility for shared gardens, collective events and projects. An important part is that tenants, “become part of a community and get involved in the day to day life of the cooperative.” Nicola McCrudden, Director of the Chartered Institute of Housing NI & ROI is supportive of the project. “I am all for new and innovative ways to provide much needed accommodation for young people in our city. This project is certainly that — linking sustainable rented housing with a savings scheme!”
While £3000 is not necessarily enough for a mortgage deposit, Dearbhaile is clear; THP is “not just a place to rent cheaply; it’s about connections with other people; about creating collisions.” She hopes that tenants might use savings to, ”further themselves in some way, whether it be in education, or possibly starting a business." She stress that “the ethos of scheme is to help young single people to become socially and economically mobile”, it isn't to provide them with a long term housing solution, nor is it to help them save large amounts of money. “This is not a project as such, it’s about building a community of homes.”
THP are hopeful that funding for three prototype units is imminent, but remain realistic about the challenges ahead. The biggest of which is their desire that THP communities transcend Northern Irelands religious divisions. The political geography of the city creates an added layer of complexity. With 90% of social housing segregated into single identity communities Sean admits that realising THP as a genuinely ‘mixed’ project will be a challenge. Recently, four families, were intimidated from their homes, by Loyalist paramilitaries, in an East Belfast shared neighbourhood. Housing remains a complex issue in the province.
Like many cities across the U.K, land for housing in Belfast is not scarce but creative thinking about how that land is used is. What THP offer is not housing. It is an opportunity for those who are caught in the often complex and difficult issues associated with unemployment, and low incomes to break out of that cycle. It provides the possibility for a pause in the perpetual struggle against the turbulent currents of social mobility — a slow, three year, deep breath, and, they hope, a new opportunity.