Third time lucky: Will Murphy be the man to end housing crisis?

Two Ministers before him have hosted homeless summits, but situation only got worse

Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy and Minister of State for Housing Damien English speaking after the summit at the Custom House. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy and Minister of State for Housing Damien English speaking after the summit at the Custom House. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy has become the third Minister to host an emergency homelessness summit.

Simon Coveney and Alan Kelly held similar conferences while in office and yet little changed. In fact, the situation only got worse.

Each time, the Minister announced new or refreshed policies that did little to stop the rising tide of homelessness.

Mr Murphy met local authorities for more than five hours on Friday to discuss the difficulties they face in addressing the housing crisis.

Afterwards, the Minister announced a series of outcomes including the provision of 200 additional beds for rough-sleepers, a further €10 million in funding for family hubs and the roll-out of the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) place finder service to each of the 31 local authorities.

The most significant announcement is the decision to change the Government policy on social housing.

Instead of local authorities seeking to purchase or acquire individual homes, all the money will be redirected to building programmes. That will ensure an additional 800 new social housing homes are built next year.

This is obviously not enough to assist the 90,000 people on social housing waiting lists across the country. Even with the increased figure, the Government target for social housing between now and 2021 is 30,000.

Mr Murphy told reporters: “800 houses is a 30 per cent increase on what we were planning for next year. So it is a significant increase. I know we are coming from a low base, we have to keep on building on it every year.”

Advice and guidance

The other measures include a requirement on landlords to notify the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) when they decide to terminate a person’s contract.

The RTB will write to every tenant offering them advice and guidance, including the local authority officials to contact if they are having issues.

Increasingly the Government is placing new requirements on the organisation but is failing to match the new responsibilities with adequate funding.

While knowledge of their rights is essential for tenants, the priority – according to housing advocacy groups – should be limiting the grounds on which landlords can terminate leases.

The Minister also made a number of announcements aimed at streamlining a number of the bureaucratic layers connected with homelessness.

There will be a new inter-departmental agency chaired by former secretary general at the Department of Enterprise John Murphy. It will be tasked with examining the various streams of funding from different departments and agencies.

There will also be a new delivery team in the Department of Housing led by the Minister of State Damien English tasked with working with local authorities.

These are necessary reforms but their effects should not be overestimated.

Funding not an issue

The key policy decisions remain. The Government has insisted funding is not an issue and all money will be made available. That was echoed at the summit on Friday by Mr English and Mr Murphy.

However, the Central Bank governor Philip Lane has rightly argued that the most significant decision Mr Murphy and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar face is whether it is willing to raise taxes to invest in the area of housing.

It might be a politically unpopular thing to do but perhaps it is necessary in a time of national emergency.

Other significant decisions have yet to be made. The Government has not agreed if a vacant home levy should be enforced or whether the help-to-buy scheme will be retained.

Mr Murphy will meet again with the local authorities in advance of the Budget, which will show exactly how serious the Government is about tackling this crisis.