It would be folly to leave our housing needs entirely to the private sector

Opinion: Treating housing as a purely speculative business means people will be trapped in smaller and more expensive homes

Vienna: somewhere we might look to for a model of a socially aware housing policy

Vienna: somewhere we might look to for a model of a socially aware housing policy


If the city as we understand it was forged during the industrial revolution, so too were its problems.

The central issue at the heart of modern, urban living can be boiled down to this: how do we ensure a respectable standard of shelter and quality of life for the increasingly populous urban mass?

House prices in Ireland are still falling outside the capital while Dublin is experiencing increased demand for a static number of houses, which is driving prices back up (an 11 per cent increase last year). Meanwhile, rents are rising far beyond the rate of inflation – almost 8 per cent year-on-year. Jacked-up house prices might suit homeowners in negative equity or home sellers looking to make returns on investments, but they are not good news for buyers.

The rental market may be a relatively small part of the bigger housing picture in Ireland, but it is one that predominantly affects younger, less financially secure people. As traditional first-time buyers wait longer to get on the ladder, the rental sector will continue to increase in size and importance.

Rent subsidies
The rental market here is propped up by two primary factors: a lack of

housing – suitable family homes in or near urban centres in particular – and rent subsidies.

Rent subsidies in an unregulated market like ours can have the effect of supporting low-end rental prices that would otherwise be impossible to maintain. Without them, thousands of families would not be able to afford suitable housing, unless the market deflated considerably – a development that would have consequences. This money is paid by the Government to landlords who, unlike the State or independent housing associations, are under no obligation to reinvest that cash in their properties.

The building of houses has flatlined in public and private sectors. There were fewer than 10,000 homes built in 2012, less than 10 per cent of the number in 2006. While ghost estates make it easy to argue that pre-recessionary building was excessive, current numbers are too low. The Irish Council for Social Housing estimated last year that demand for social housing could be met only by providing about 90,000 homes.

The UK is facing its biggest housing crisis since the second World War as the effects of a shortage driven by 35 years of market-led, anti-public provision policy become evident. And whether through cuts to housing benefit, the bedroom tax or living in decrepit buildings councils cannot afford to renovate, it is those at the bottom of the income scale who are paying the penalty for those mistakes.

As Ireland supposedly heads towards a fragile recovery, this State cannot afford to repeat Thatcherite mistakes and put its faith in an essentially unregulated housing market (again).

Treating housing solely as a speculative business, rather than a social necessity, ensures we will find more people trapped in smaller and more expensive homes, often segregated by income into ghettos. Though it’s been nearly 80 years since Pearse House, Ireland’s largest municipal housing structure, opened its doors, it seems like few lessons have since been learned about building solid, affordable homes for families.

As an example we can look to for inspiration, Vienna stands out. Local government there builds about 5,000 public homes annually, or about 82-85 per cent of all new builds in the city. Roughly 60 per cent of the city’s population live in some sort of public housing, the roots of which date from the period after the first World War.

Almost all developments are designed and built on city-owned land by firms who compete for the contracts and are managed by non-profit housing groups. Viennese public housing does not just provide shelter but often offers daycare centres, indoor and outdoor sports facilities and integration with public transport. A variety of rents within each development ensures they will be home to a wide range of families with differing incomes and backgrounds. The result is communities integrated with the city.

We cannot leave housing entirely to the private sector. A supply of public housing can go a long way towards keeping the market in check. There’s only one problem: who’s going to pay for it?

Ian Maleney is a freelance journalist

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