We need a coherent policy to guide housing in Ireland

Opinion: The problem is a multi-faceted one, and could benefit from the input of several Ministers

A queue to see  apartments in Dublin last year. The Dublin rental market is currently 1,000 units short of what is needed to meet demand. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

A queue to see apartments in Dublin last year. The Dublin rental market is currently 1,000 units short of what is needed to meet demand. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Thu, Feb 6, 2014, 00:01

Where is Ireland’s housing policy? The Minister for Housing, Jan O’Sullivan’s, suggestion that rent control could be used to increase affordability for those wanting or needing to rent raised some interesting issues.

Rent control hasn’t been seen in Ireland since 1986, when it was abolished following a legal challenge. It is not the norm in most countries, particularly in the private rented sector, although it is not uncommon for countries to have some form of index to which rents are pegged, or a level above which they cannot rise.

Capping or controlling the rent paid by those who need it controlled is theoretically not a bad idea, especially given that the taxpayer funds a large proportion of these rents to private landlords. However, several economic reports over the years have indicated that the introduction of rent controls on the market merely serves to limit supply, which is not what is needed at the moment.

It is a lack of supply that is causing the current surge in rents. The Dublin rental market is over 1,000 units a month short of what it requires to satisfy demand and stabilise rents. In a city where 30 per cent of people rent, this is a serious shortfall.

Add in those who have no choice but to rent and the problem escalates. Ireland needs more, and frequently better, rental accommodation.

The problem the Minister has inadvertently highlighted, however, isn’t escalating rents or rent control, or indeed housing waiting lists. The problem is there is no coherent housing policy to guide the Irish housing markets, both public and private, for home-owners or renters, for landlords, investors, planners or banks.

The policy as it exists is the oddly titled Housing Policy Statement. It is unclear whether this mere four-page document is a statement about housing policy or an actual policy in itself. Only a cynic would suggest it was deliberately given such an ambiguous appellation.

It highlights past errors, and some broad principles of future direction (tenure neutrality, for example), which are worthy, balanced and perfectly fine as an after-dinner speech, or as some broad-brush ideas, but a housing policy it most definitely is not.

Essentially, the government is dealing with the rectifying and normalising the housing market – which is not necessarily ensuring escalating house prices – on a wing and a prayer, with ad-hoc responses to mostly predictable issues.

As the delivery of housing is a detailed process, a housing policy will also be a detailed document. A new housing policy for Ireland should involve not just the Minister for Housing, but also her boss, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government.

In addition, several other Ministers should have a significant input including the Ministers for Finance, Jobs, Enterprise and Employment, and Social Protection. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform might also have a contribution, particularly on the equality element of his brief and its relationship with housing issues.

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