A Band-Aid for the homeless

For more than a year now, evidence has been building of a homeless crisis, particularly in Dublin, and Minister of State Jan O’Sullivan has engaged with local authorities, Nama and other agencies in devising a comprehensive response. But it took pending elections and a public warning from Fr Peter McVerry for Cabinet Ministers to grant priority to Ms O’Sullivan’s agenda. Even then, additional funding has been in short supply.

Under an ambitious implementation plan, an estimated 2,700 homeless families and individuals will be housed within two years through the use of Nama properties, the utilisation of State-owned buildings and an accelerated refurbishment of vacant council accommodation. Some € 35million will be provided to bring 1,750 boarded-up council houses back into productive use and homeless families will be accorded priority by local authorities. The initiative received a broad welcome from housing agencies that also emphasised the need for additional affordable housing along with Government action in relation to rent controls and the rent supplement scheme.

This crisis didn’t grow out of the property crash. Its roots go back to the Development Act of 2000, under which private builders were required to provide 20 per cent of all new homes for social housing, as an alternative to State involvement. Simultaneously, funding for local authorities was sharply reduced. In response to the shortfall, councils accepted cash payments – rather than desperately needed homes – from developers. Council waiting lists grew rapidly.

Within ten years, local authority rentals numbered 10,000 and accounted for almost half of the private market. The cost came to more than € 500m in rent supplements. In an attempt to introduce competition and save money, the Government transferred rent supplement benefits to the individuals concerned. Rather than reduce rents, however, the change strengthened the hands of landlords. An extraordinary situation now exists in Dublin whereby rents are rising towards pre-crash levels, while house values still reflect falls of 30 to 40 per cent.


The repossession of homes and rising rents threaten the most vulnerable in society. Three months ago, the situation in Dublin was officially described as “chronic”. But it took elections to force the homeless issue onto the Cabinet agenda. What is being proposed, however, represents a Band-Aid solution to a recurring problem. We were here before in 2010. A long-term solution will only be found through the provision of additional affordable housing, social investment and local authority construction. In today’s world, there is a duty of care on Government to provide basic accommodation for citizens. That obligation should take precedence over tax cuts or future election sweeteners.