Government’s silver bullets for housing crisis have been blanks

After three years and countless initiatives, the homeless figures remain stark

Last year  Simon Coveney came up with  Rebuilding Ireland, a plan to provide 47,000 social housing units by 2021, with a capital budget of €5.5bn. Photograph: Getty Images

Last year Simon Coveney came up with Rebuilding Ireland, a plan to provide 47,000 social housing units by 2021, with a capital budget of €5.5bn. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Ever since Alan Kelly became minister for the environment in 2014, there has been a flood of policies, strategies and plans launched to solve the housing and homelessness crisis. Unfortunately, nearly all of these supposed silver bullets have turned out to be blanks.

At the tail end of 2014, Kelly promised 35,000 new social housing units would be delivered by the end of 2018, with a €3.8 billion budget to back it up.

Last year, his successor Simon Coveney came up with a bigger plan, Rebuilding Ireland, to provide 47,000 social housing units by 2021, with a capital budget of €5.5 billion.

And now the Minister who has followed Coveney into the Custom House, Eoghan Murphy, will complete a review in September of a policy that is only a year old. He will then unveil a brand new, perhaps more modest, blueprint.

What unites all three Ministers is that none will come anywhere near meeting their targets.

After three years and countless initiatives, the homeless figures remain stark. Despite the promises to end homelessness in the short term, the crisis is showing no signs of abating. The latest figures show there are 7,941 people without a home, 2,895 of whom were children.

Murphy has abandoned one of the early targets – to bring an end to the shameful situation where families live in emergency accommodation, namely B&Bs and hotels. Coveney had promised this situation would be ended by July. As of now there are still 647 families left in that inappropriate situation.

The situation has worsened but this problem is not a new one.

Poor policies

In 2002, there were 4,060 people who were designated as homeless, including 1,140 children. The problem was particularly acute in Dublin during that year. At the time Greg Maxwell of Simon said he was “fed up” issuing public statements about the growing homelessness crisis in the capital.

It has been exacerbated by poor policies pursued during the boom, the subsequent recession, and an enfeebled construction sector unable to cope with increased demand in a recovering economy.

For example, when new-house builds fell by 90 per cent during the recession so did social housing units (despite a consistent need). Under Part V of the Planning and Development Act, developers were required to set aside 10 per cent (earlier 20 per cent) of their units to social housing needs. Between 2012 and 2016 only about 100 a year were built throughout the State. In the preceding five years, over 2,000 were built each year.

Some 23,000 of the 47,000 social housing units planned for 2021 will be supplied by local authorities, with others being provided by housing agencies and the private sector. The Part V portion of that is 900 units a year – which already seems absurdly ambitious.

The latest official figures suggest there are 183,000 vacant properties in the State, some 30,000 in the capital. However, while the figure seems astounding, the real figure of potential available properties is more modest.

Houses which are completely uninhabitable (a rundown cottage uninhabited for decades); holiday homes; and Celtic Tiger estates built in areas where there never will be demand have to be removed. The real figure might be closer to 25,000.

Real data

But nobody knows for sure. On Monday, Murphy announced another quiver of initiatives to try to tackle this problem. The first thing is to get some real data. Local authorities will be compelled to collate real information which will be fed to a new vacant homes unit within the department, which will collate and come up with delivery strategies.

Other plans include a website where people can report vacant homes, potential penalties for landlords who do not make use of derelict properties, and the renting, for social purposes, of houses vacated by elderly people availing of the Fair Deal nursing home scheme.

To be fair, the Government has made some inroads. Some 3,000 vacant units have being brought back into use in the past year, which is commendable given the traditional turnaround rate.

But against that, there are the blank bullets. The Government announced a major “Repair and Lease” scheme late last year, where owners could avail of grants of €40,000 to repair a unit to allow it to be leased for social housing purposes. It is hoped that 3,500 units will be delivered under this scheme.

However, so far only a paltry seven units have been delivered. A rethink is urgently required.

And still, there remain yawning gaps between target and delivery.

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