Last year 293 local authority houses were built, compared with 5,000 in 2007

Thinking Local: Housing and homelessness crisis

The new F2 Neighbourhood Centre in Fatima/Herberton,  the former Fatima Mansions in Dublin. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

The new F2 Neighbourhood Centre in Fatima/Herberton, the former Fatima Mansions in Dublin. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Wed, Apr 30, 2014, 00:01

About 132,000 Irish households are tenants of a city or county council. At least 90,000 more desperately wish they were.

Providing housing has always been a central, if not the central function, of the State’s local authorities. The need has become all the more acute in recent years with the galloping increase of the national housing waiting list from just over 28,000 households in 1993 to more than 89,000 20 years later.

One in five applicants has been on the housing waiting list for more than five years. Almost one in 10 has been waiting for a home for more than seven years.

Dublin City Council is the country’s largest landlord with about one-fifth of all local authority social housing tenants living in its flats and houses and some 16,000 more households waiting on its list. Last year it spent more than €200 million on its housing and building programme, and managed to take 505 households off the waiting list. In 2013 it also built 183 new homes, most of which were part of regeneration projects, and so were replacement housing for existing tenants. If that seems an astonishingly poor performance by the council, the national total for the number of local authority houses built was just 100 more – 293 – and many councils built nothing. Just six years previously in 2007, local authorities built just shy of 5,000 social houses and apartments.

Dublin City Council, like all local authorities, has moved from being a provider of social housing to a facilitator or an administrator. Providing housing has been delegated largely to the private sector; what the local authority does now is to manage the waiting list.

This is not the fault of Dublin council, or any other local authority; they are following national policy. The policy, which emerged just after the economy collapsed, seemed like a wonderfully neat and logical solution to two housing-related problems. Too many houses had been built and were lying vacant, and the State’s finances would no longer stretch to the construction of council housing. So, instead, local authorities would lease some of the empty units for people who were long term on the housing waiting list, and other households would use rent allowance to rent directly from private landlords eager to find tenants for empty properties.

This policy works while there are empty properties and eager landlords. When the supply of housing dries up, as it seems to have done in Dublin, those who have property for rent will be looking to get the best return on their assets. This is unlikely to come from people on the lowest incomes relying on fixed State payments.

The State has handed responsibilty for providing homes for social welfare recipients over to a private sector that, now it no longer needs them, doesn’t want them. It’s not the first time that reliance on the private sector to provide public housing has ended badly. About 15 years ago public private partnerships (PPPs) began to emerge as the preferred system for providing social housing, particularly where the regeneration of older council housing schemes was required. Generally they involved a developer building a set number of housing units for a local authority in exchange for being allowed to build private housing on a portion of the council’s land.

The new estate would no longer be a social housing ghetto, but would have a social mix, or so the theory went. Developers loved the idea and in the first half of the last decade, it’s how pretty much all social housing in Dublin was built. In many instances the system was successful, the redevelopment of Fatima Mansions, now called Herberton, in the southwest inner city, was one such example.

But when house prices plummeted, and developers couldn’t achieve the profits from the private development they needed to compensate them for the construction of the social housing, they walked off stage. The most dramatic exit was that of Bernard McNamara, the developer Dublin council had struck deals with in relation to five social housing projects, three of which involved the regeneration of some of the city’s largest and most dilapidated flat complexes.

When the McNamara deals collapsed in mid-2008, the council reacted quickly and by December had devised plans for the rebuilding of the social housing element of the three estates, using public money, the other two deals not having involved existing housing schemes. So far St Michael’s is the only one which has been progressed. Residents were moved out of the other two estates, as were the tenants of several other blocks of flats where PPPs failed. As the residents of these estates were council tenants, new homes had to be found for them. New applicants were pushed down the list and will have longer to wait before they can call the council their landlord.

Olivia Kelly is Dublin Correspondent of The Irish Times

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