Second Opinion: Home is more than housing, but someone should tell that to the strategists

Social housing is not only for poor people; it is every citizen’s right, says Jacky Jones

 

The new housing strategy, Social Housing Strategy 2020: Support, Supply, Reform, is not supportive or reforming enough. Apart from the provision of 35,000 new social housing units, anyone needing a home will have to rely on the private rental sector. According to the strategy, local authority rents are, on average, €53 a week, or 15 per cent of income, whereas a new report from the National Association of Building Cooperatives (Nabco) shows tenants in private rental accommodation spend one-third of their income on rent. Anyone on the minimum wage, or even the living wage (€11.50 an hour), cannot afford to rent in the private sector. The new strategy will not change that.

Almost 90,000 households qualify for social housing under current guidelines. Applicants need very low incomes to be accepted on to local authority waiting lists. In Galway or Cork, for example, the total income of a family of two adults and three children cannot exceed €39,375. There are another 200,000 households earning in excess of this amount who cannot afford a mortgage or get on the list for social housing and who will be paying high rents forever. The strategy will not change that either.

Snobbery plays a big part in the Irish housing market and explains why only 7 per cent of dwellings are social housing stock: an abysmally low level by EU standards. The Government’s 2011 Housing Policy Statement notes that “Housing in Ireland has been characterised by a persistently hierarchical structure for several decades. This paradigm of housing has private home ownership at the top . . . self-financed private rented accommodation further down, and State-supported rental accommodation at the bottom (rent supplement/ social housing tenancies). This structure and the value judgment that underlies it – which implicitly holds that the tenure which must ultimately be aspired to is home-ownership – have had a considerable role in leading the Irish housing sector.” The strategy does nothing to change the paradigm.

Almost every other EU country provides more social housing than Ireland. In Austria and the Netherlands, between a third and a quarter of all dwellings are publicly funded. Sweden and Denmark provide three times more social housing than is available here. On holiday in Sweden recently I saw an ad for social housing that said: “We have apartments for everyone, small apartments for single people, ground-floor apartments for families in areas close to schools and childcare, and three categories of apartments for those over 55: adapted ground floor, warden-assisted and sheltered housing.” The ad does not refer to need. In fact, everyone in Sweden and many other EU countries can apply for social housing regardless of income. By contrast, the website of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government says: “You can apply for Local Authority Housing if you are in need of housing and cannot afford it from your own resources.”

The family home is one of the most important determinants of health of both adults and children. The home is where health behaviours are learned and maintained. Within the home the most powerful determinants of health-related behaviour in children are house rules, emotional support, and positive and negative reinforcement. The family’s “world view” and attitudes to equality, fairness and autonomy have a big impact on health. The home environment is important and includes the power of the occupants to organise it according to their needs. It is impossible to maintain health without an affordable home, whether renting or buying. The Nabco study found that almost one- quarter of all people renting in the private sector are afraid of losing their home. This stress and worry has a huge impact on overall health.

Social housing is not only for poor people; it is every citizen’s right. We need a different housing strategy: one that connects housing and health and provides social housing for all social classes as in the Netherlands and Sweden. Nearly 300,000 extra social housing units are needed here.

Wouldn’t it be great if people on low to middle incomes – such as nurses, teachers, bin men and cleaners – could live near their jobs and the people they serve instead of having long commutes? The current strategy does not address issues such as whether terraced or semidetached houses are better (terraced), whether everyone needs a front and back garden (no), apartment-living or houses are better in cities (apartments), and how many bathrooms families need (one is enough). Any new strategy must consider expectations: big houses for a few means less space for others. That debate has not even started yet. Dr Jacky Jones is a former HSE regional manager of health promotion and a member of the Healthy Ireland council. drjackyjones@gmail.com

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