Progress on social housing backed by long-term commitment but scale of problem is daunting


A commitment by Government and Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly to build or refurbish 35,000 social housing units within the next six years and support an additional 75,000 households under a new housing assistance payments scheme represents a major advance. It will give hope to those on local authority housing lists while encouraging rent supplement tenants to take up work. Unfortunately, it does not deal with the imminent threat of homelessness that faces families because of rent increases.

The social housing programme, as explained by Mr Kelly, will be implemented in two phases and cost significantly more than that outlined in last October’s budget. A figure of €2.2billion has grown to €3.8billion as a three-year plan was extended to eliminate housing waiting lists by 2020. In the first three years, some 18,000 social units will be provided and the State will guarantee rent payments for a further 32,000 tenants in private accommodation. A new housing assistance scheme will take effect nationally from next January and, while the State will pay the private landlord directly, the tenant will contribute an agreed rent to the local authority. Unlike the rent supplement scheme, however, tenants will be encouraged to take up full-time employment and the property will be inspected.

Welfare groups working with troubled families, the homeless and those sleeping rough have given a broad welcome to the initiative, but expressed concerns about the timescales. They asked that a percentage of social housing should be set aside for emergency cases and that immediate provision should be made for families facing eviction because of rising rents.

The latest indications from the housing market suggest the situation likely to worsen. An increase of twenty-four per cent in the price of homes in Dublin over the past twelve months should set alarm bells ringing in Government. Nobody wants a return to the boom-and-bust cycle of the last decade. Rents have been rising at an even faster rate at the end of the market involving rent supplement tenants. This has had a knock-on effect on prices in general. Short-term rent controls, pending the construction of additional housing, should be seriously considered.

The yearning of the homeless was expressed by Padraic Colum in his poem,The Old Woman of the Roads. Not much has changed since then. Government subsidies traditionally supported home ownership. Their withdrawal coincided with the boom years when social housing collapsed and children relied on their parents to take out second mortgages. Those who rented avoided subsequent trauma. The ESRI has challenged the Government to clarify official policy by promoting private home ownership or favouring long-term rentals. Don’t expect a response any day soon.