5,000 new homes a year needed to meet social housing demand

‘Housing is the defining issue of the decade’

Who’d be a director of housing in a local authority?

Though the national waiting list for local authority housing is officially 89,872, (compared with 28,200 in 1993, 48,400 in 2002 and 56,250 in 2008), this figure published by the Housing Agency last year is now a year old.

Up-to-date figures gathered by The Irish Times last week from 21 local authorities showed lists had gone up by as much as 105 per cent (Roscommon) and by an average of 42 per cent. The actual national figure is almost certainly well over 100,000 households, and many more than that in terms of people.

Few if any local authority dwellings have been built in seven years, and it is hardly surprising that several housing directors who spoke to The Irish Times on condition of anonymity said the job in the past year had become "manic", "very difficult" and, in the words of one in the Dublin region, "soul destroying".


“When your purpose every day is supposed to be to help people find housing and every day more and more people are coming looking for your help, but you have literally nothing to give them, well it’s gone beyond frustrating,” said a director of housing services in a Leinster local authority.

Another commented: “Without hesitation I would say we are in a social housing crisis. We in the local authorities cannot address it. What is needed is recognition at top Government level, first of all there is a crisis and then a medium to long-term cross-departmental strategy is needed.”

A geographers conference in UCD this month, during a seminar on housing, heard the issue described as an “omni-crisis”, with every segment of the market, from over-full rough sleeper accommodation, through a lack of social housing, to escalating rents in the private-rented sector and an under-supply of family homes for sale – all driving emergencies in others.

“There is a crisis at every level,” said Dr Daithí Downey of Trinity College. “There is not going to be a one-size fits all solution. Housing is the defining issue of this decade.”

Figures published a week ago in this newspaper showed the extent to which social housing waiting lists in some areas have increased in 12 months. A 105 per cent increase in Roscommon is closely followed by 72 per cent in Longford, 66 per cent in Tipperary South and 64 per cent in Galway county. The local authorities with the largest housing lists per head of population are Dublin city, Cork city, South Dublin, Fingal, Kildare and Cork county. Three counties account for 50 per cent of those in housing need.

Among those affected is Joanne Scott, a mother of five children aged between two and 13, who is in a house in Celbridge leased by Kildare County Council under the Rental Accommodation Scheme – whereby private landlords enter agreements with local authorities to house those on the social housing waiting list. The house has a lot of damp and mould and she is worried for the health of her children. She has been six years on the waiting list for housing.

"I have a good relationship with the landlord. He'd like to sort the damp but can't while we're here. We need something permanent, but the council won't tell me even when we might get a house. I do get depressed about it." At a loss Independent TD in Kildare Catherine Murphy says in the past year, for the first time in her 20 years in public life, when asked by constituents for help with housing, she is almost at a loss as to how to assist them.

She says local authorities are a “lost cause” when it comes to the provision of social housing.

It has been estimated 5,000 new homes a year need to be built to meet social housing demand. Many are calling for a State-funded house-building programme to provide not only housing but construction jobs.

Housing directors say they would welcome such an initiative, but they know there is no public money available for large-scale house-building.

There is also a legal impediment. The European Fiscal Compact, which the electorate passed by two to one in a referendum in July 2012, means neither government nor local authorities can increase public spending on anything, including housing, if it raises our national debt beyond levels acceptable to the troika.

Local authorities' hands are tied and any spending on housing must be done "off the books". Among the avenues being explored to do this are public private partnerships (PPP); the release of housing units from Nama; diversion of rental incomes from current stock into social housing construction; establishment of "housing trusts" by local authorities – effectively arms-length companies, which could borrow from the Housing Finance Agency to build houses, and a scheme where the government would guarantee all or a portion of loans taken out by approved housing bodies to build homes.

The most promising of these ideas appears to be to "beef-up" the capacity of the voluntary housing sector. Though there are about 300 voluntary housing bodies it is estimated there are about five with the capacity to really deliver social housing on a large scale. Even these are still not big enough to deliver what's needed. Obligation There is also some concern that the forthcoming Construction Strategy will bow to the developers' lobby and row back on an obligation which enables local authorities to require that up to 17.5 per cent of any development of over five dwellings be set aside for social housing.

Small initiatives have been taken: in March a two-year €68 million home-building initiative was launched by Minister of State for Housing Jan O’Sullivan which will see 449 new homes built; €15 million has been provided to bring about 950 vacant local authority units back into use; and Nama has identified about 2,000 units which could be brought into social housing use.

Ms O’Sullivan also says planning laws to be drawn up this year will oblige builders to set aside 10 per cent of any new developments for social housing.

All of these are welcome but many feel it’s “tinkering around the edges”.