Tackle homelessness with social housing stock


The homeless have been one of the many casualties of the financial crisis. As the homeless are also usually unemployed, they are least able to help themselves and most dependent on others – public and private agencies – for support. But how much the Government can do is limited by the fiscal constraints that high public debt and budget deficit levels have imposed. At the peak of the economic boom when demand for social housing was much less than today, many more local authority homes were built. In 2007 almost 5,000 were constructed. But last year – in the nine months to September – 253 houses had been completed. The result is an acute housing shortage. Some 90,000 households who cannot afford to rent are now on local authority waiting lists.

Social housing construction by the State remains at a record low level. And the pick-up in the private housing market has not improved matters for those on low incomes seeking affordable accommodation. Rents have risen in line with house prices, just as the supply of private rented accommodation has contracted. These developments, and the prospect that many thousands of mortgage-holders may have their homes repossessed, will add further pressure to the housing list.

Can anything be done to improve matters? Minister of State for Housing, Jan O’Sullivan, has suggested rent controls. But these could again face Constitutional challenge. And, for landlords, their introduction would make renting less attractive, and cut the supply of rental property. The National Assets Management Agency (Nama) has identified 4,000 houses it controls as suitable for social housing. These may not all prove suitable, as some may be located in areas of low demand. But given that the Government is spending over €400 million annually in rent supplement payments to landlords, it clearly needs to tackle the growing challenge that social housing presents with greater determination, innovative thinking and more urgency.