More than 2,000 low-cost social houses in Northern Ireland may be occupied fraudulently at a cost to the taxpayer of around £200 million, the audit office has warned.
Properties are being used by people who are not entitled to them, often by giving false information in a housing application, abandoning a home and living elsewhere or subletting for profit.
Comptroller and auditor general Kieran Donnelly used comparisons with Great Britain to estimate the number of illegally claimed homes in Northern Ireland at up to 2,400.
“Public funded housing occupied by individuals not entitled to be there is illegal, immoral and unacceptable,” he said.
“Such fraudulent activity deprives those families most in need of a decent home.
“It also creates additional cost for the taxpayer in providing additional new build and temporary accommodation.”
Since 2008 the Housing Executive has spent more than £40 million providing temporary accommodation like hostels or bed and breakfasts, audit inspectors said.
According to the audit office report, Tackling Social Housing Tenancy Fraud, around 40,000 families are on the waiting list at any one time, with around 20,000 each year most in need due to poor health, intimidation or the poor condition of their existing homes.
Of these, around 3,000 families are placed into temporary accommodation. Last year this cost £10.5 million, double the bill in 2008.
There are more than 123,000 social housing properties in Northern Ireland, managed by the Housing Executive or housing associations.
Mr Donnelly added: “Tackling tenancy fraud in a proactive manner and bringing existing social housing units back into use is a cost-effective way of addressing a significant housing shortfall in Northern Ireland.”
The report recommended awareness raising measures among tenants and housing staff, introducing reporting hotlines, employing dedicated tenancy fraud investigators and the use of data matching including the employment of credit reference agencies.
The audit office said public bodies were not sufficiently proactive in tackling fraud. Dedicated strategies, advocating a proactive counter-fraud approach, are either at an early stage or not in place across local social housing providers.
Recovery of properties depends on tip offs and the vigilance of local housing staff.
The Housing Executive recovered more than 360 properties in 2011-12, most involving the non-occupation of the property with the registered tenant living elsewhere.
A DSD spokesman said minister Nelson McCausland will consider all the recommendations in full.
“DSD is fully committed to working with the Housing Executive and the housing associations to ensure that appropriate actions are taken to address the issues raised in this report,” he added.
“The Housing Executive works closely with other agencies to uncover instances of fraud.
“The minister shares the concerns of comptroller and auditor general and acknowledges that more needs to be done in promoting best practice developments across the social housing sector as a whole.
“The issues raised in the report are very serious and DSD will seek to ensure that everything possible is done to ensure that housing goes to those that are entitled to it and most in need.”
The minister intends to establish a working group incorporating the department, NIHE and housing associations to examine what action can be taken to address the issues identified.