Modern economic progress puts pressure on urban housing: people pour into cities and as their incomes rise they spread out, buying bigger and better dwellings even as average household size falls. The result is urban sprawl. More city-dwellers using more space per person cause urban land-cover to grow faster than the urban population. This is a ubiquitous 20th-century process that no major city in the world has managed to avoid.
One recent study of a global sample of cities found that their population density in 2000 was a quarter of what it was a century earlier. The transport revolution for long made this process painless: trains, buses and cars made it easy and attractive for city-dwellers to spread into the suburbs.
Today the transport fix no longer works as cars clog up roadways, and the time and cost of commuting rise. The result is that competition for housing near the urban core intensifies. New households face a trade-off between well-located housing they can’t afford and long commutes they can’t sustain. The attractions of housing for profit-hungry investors add to the inflationary pressures: good business opportunities in the wider economy are getting scarcer and entice investors to the attractive returns available from investment in rental housing.
As a Sinn Féin TD and spokesman on housing, Ó Broin comes to the question with policy experience and a left-wing perspective but with no simple solutions
States and city councils around the world differ in how they try to manage these stresses. It is into the Irish variant of this quest that Eoin Ó Broin wades in this fluently written and serious book. As a Sinn Féin TD and spokesman on housing, Ó Broin comes to the question with policy experience and a left-wing perspective but with no simple solutions.
His mindset is of classic social democracy, respectful of markets, insistent on the need for State intervention, and willing to trawl through and weigh up the often uncertain lessons of policy experiment and academic analysis to work out what shape the market-State combination should take in Ireland’s housing system today. The result is a sober, thoughtful and complex read, justifiably so since no simple formula for success jumps out of history or current international experience.
Ó Broin’s starting point is that for the century between 1890 and 1990, the State’s role in housing in Ireland was strong and reasonably effective. This history he captures with admirable clarity and balance in the first third of the book. In the middle third, his take, like that of many others, is that the State then backed off and let the market rip. The result was the mortgage tsunami and housing boom of the Celtic Tiger era, the crash of the great recession of 2009-12 and the damaged housing system we see today.
In the final third, he turns to what is to be done now. Here there is a strong central theme – that the State should take the reins again, as it did in the past. But what that means is a long list of diverse actions rather than any one big thing. It is here that we see Ó Broin the policy enthusiast at work. It is hard to imagine that there is another politician in Ireland who has grappled with the minutiae of housing policy in such painstaking detail as Ó Broin does here.
The action he leads with would be new to Ireland – enshrining a right to housing in the Constitution. He is appropriately restrained in the good he claims it would do given that a rights-based approach to housing has nowhere proved to be a gamechanger. Even in those cases where it seems to have made some difference – Scottish policy on homelessness is often cited as an instance – the right in question was expressed in statute rather than the constitution (unsurprisingly, since Scotland, like the UK as a whole, has no written constitution). What a constitutional route would add in the Irish case remains an open question.
Ó Broin is mainly concerned with what effective housing policy would look like, with or without a constitutional amendment
Ó Broin, to be fair, is mainly concerned with what effective housing policy would look like, with or without a constitutional amendment. His centrepiece is a much-enlarged programme of public housing, representing a scale and diversity of State activity in housing that might seem new but could equally be thought of as a return to what was the norm in Ireland from the 1930s to the 1980s.
Here too Ó Broin dives into the difficult details and, while convinced of the general direction, does not claim to have all the answers. How the public housing programme should be funded, how rules of entitlement to subsidised housing should be framed, how the private rented sector should be taxed and regulated, how owner occupation should be treated, how the planning and use of urban land should be managed; all these questions are asked and answered, some more tentatively than others but all with much care.
The general thrust of what Ó Broin proposes is not far from the middle ground of Irish politics, or at least from where the middle ground used to be before the turn to the market took place in the 1990s. However, on one issue – whether the State should support home ownership – he breaks with the past and with much popular feeling and says no, opting instead for the now common expert preference for “tenure neutrality” – the equal treatment of renting and owning in housing policy.
There may be a world in economic theory where renting a home is as good in the long term as owning it, and a few national housing systems may bring that world into reality. But Ireland today, like most western countries, is not such a place and is unlikely to become one soon. Plummeting rates of home ownership among young and middle-aged households and rising dependence on insecure and expensive private renting are, nevertheless, well under way. These could be the powder keg that will soon blow and transform the politics of housing in Ireland in ways not envisaged even in Ó Broin’s careful analysis.
Tony Fahey is professor emeritus of social policy in UCD.