Housing: a European rebuke

Local authority waiting lists now exceed 130,000, compared to 27,000 in 1996

Unless the failed policy approach of successive governments – relying on the private sector to provide a sufficient number of social houses – is reversed, nothing will change.  Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

Unless the failed policy approach of successive governments – relying on the private sector to provide a sufficient number of social houses – is reversed, nothing will change. Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

 

The State’s housing market is so dysfunctional that findings by the Strasbourg-based European Committee of Social Rights that the poor quality of some local authority accommodation breached the rights of tenants is unlikely to have a significant impact. It is certainly embarrassing. And political commitments to address the situation are likely to be given. But unless the failed policy approach of successive governments – relying on the private sector to provide a sufficient number of social houses – is reversed, nothing will change.

For the past three years, a class action involving 20 local authority estates in Dublin, Cork and Limerick has been under consideration by the European Social Rights organisation. Tenants complained that persistent damp, poor plumbing, sewage invasion through sinks and baths and a lack of central heating breached their basic rights. The European committee agreed and found that failure to resolve these issues was a breach of the Charter of Social Rights.

Poor conditions were always a feature of low-cost, private rental accommodation in cities. Local authorities were required by law to ensure basic standards in these bed-sits and flats but, starved of funding, they did little. One-third of the 7,000 units inspected in 2005 were found to be inadequate – vermin infested, lacking hot water and with mould on the walls – and new private rental standards were introduced. Social housing was not included and the rot set in. No assessment of local authority accommodation has been undertaken in recent years and there are no plans to refurbish the housing stock.

During the years of the house-building boom, the price of a site rose from 10-15 per cent of the overall cost to 40-50 per cent. In spite of the crash, it has remained elevated. Local authority waiting lists now exceed 130,000, compared to 27,000 in 1996. If the Government really wants to provide affordable accommodation, it should channel funding for direct-build to local authorities. Competition between profit and not-for-profit accommodation will encourage rent stability.

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