Eoghan Murphy: ‘I want to see the housing problem through’

Interview: The Minister for Housing says 4,000 people will exit homelessness in 2018

Eoghan Murphy: ‘Some tenants are experiencing horrible conditions.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Eoghan Murphy: ‘Some tenants are experiencing horrible conditions.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Eoghan Murphy has a miniature basketball hoop within shooting distance of his desk. It hangs on a door in his ministerial office at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government in the Custom House in Dublin.

It does not look like it has had much use lately; not many three-pointers scored.

The bag of half-eaten apples and opened box of Lemsip on his desk, on the other hand, look like they have been well-raided.

Almost six months into his first full Cabinet position, the 35-year-old Dubliner has endured a whirlwind tenure as Minister for Housing.

Having taken over the portfolio in the midst of severe housing shortages and a homelessness crisis, Murphy’s first day in the job was dominated by the Grenfell tower block fire in London. Plans to spend a few intense weeks reading into his new brief were abandoned; fire safety regulations fall within his bailiwick.

So too does water; when a mains pipe burst near Drogheda in July, shutting off supply to about 70,000 people in Louth and Meath, the newly appointed Minister took centre stage again. Another month, another crisis.

Then in August the spotlight turned to homelessness. The crisis – and Murphy’s responses to it – have dominated public debate and the headlines ever since. Met Éireann falls under the department, too, so preparations for Storm Ophelia in October fell on to his desk as well.

The long haul

Despite the heavy workload, the young Fine Gael minister – the fourth minister for housing in as many years – sees himself as different to his predecessors; he wants to stay on in the department for years to come.

He says he wants to hang around so he can put in place a successor to Rebuilding Ireland, the catch-all Government plan up to 2021 inherited from his predecessor, Simon Coveney, which has the lofty goal of addressing the chronic problems in housing and homelessness. Of course, all that depends on being re-elected, Fine Gael being returned to power and Murphy being reappointed, he stresses.

“None of those things are guaranteed, but it would certainly be my wish to stay in this job for a number of years to see this problem through,” he says, sitting in his corner office, which looks out on Liberty Hall on the quays.

Murphy, despite just seven years in national politics, feels he has learned more about housing than he realised when he was a member of the Oireachtas banking inquiry for more than a year. He analysed the Bacon reports examining the measures put in place to stimulate housing supply and the dangers of them.

“Obviously it is very, very difficult,” he says of his current job, “because part of that challenge is trying to get homeless families and kids into homes, and it is difficult to do that.”

The figures have been going the wrong way. The number of people who are homeless increased slightly in November to more than 8,800 people, including more than 3,300 children in emergency accommodation.

“The basic problem behind everything we are facing in housing is a lack of supply,” he says.

Murphy lists off the factors that are adding to this core cause: a population growing faster than any country in the EU, an economy reaching full employment, returning emigrants. “Until we get more homes built, we are going to continue to have high numbers of people who are homeless,” he says.

New problem

On top of people who typically find themselves without a roof over their head – due to an addiction or mental health issue or a marriage breakdown – Murphy is having to deal with a new wave of economic homelessness: people who cannot afford rent or find an affordable place to live.

“That is just about supply,” he says. “It is about getting homes built.”

Depending on which housing expert, think-tank or authority on the property market you talk to, the number of new homes required ranges from 20,000 to 50,000 a year.

Next year, Murphy expects the number to be closer to the lower end of this range.

“A conservative number would be 20,000 new builds in this State,” he said.

He estimates that 4,000 people will exit homelessness, while in 2018 he expects to double last year’s 350 weekly tenancies under the Housing Assistance Payment programme, which supports people’s rent in the private sector. He accepts that the HAP scheme is no substitute for public housing.

“If you were designing a system, you would always use some portion of the private rental sector for your social housing supports, but nowhere near as reliant as we are today,” he says.

Public housing

Murphy has announced a string of measures aimed at increasing housing supply: new guidelines for apartments, planning exemptions for switches from commercial to residential use, making vacant council homes habitable again, increasing shared accommodation for young professions, fast-tracking planning.

Traditional fixes won’t work; the three-bedroom semi-d will serve only a small portion of the population, he says.

“It is about making sure we are building the right homes in the right places long term because we will absolutely fail our citizens if in our response to the housing crisis we just start opening up green fields and building thousands of houses in estates,” he says.

The Dublin Bay South TD says this Fine Gael-led Government is firmly getting the State back into the business of building public housing. As part of his post-2021 legacy, he would like to see about 5,000 of the 25,000 built every year to be social-housing homes constructed by local authorities and approved housing bodies.

Overcrowding penalties

In an effort to address what he sees as an unsophisticated rental market, Murphy is planning to introduce new sanctions and criminal penalties around overcrowding in the first half of this year.

“Some tenants are experiencing horrible conditions, but that is not the experience of most people in rental properties. It is probably wrong to call those people landlords – they are just criminals,” he says.

He would like to see less reliance on small landlords with one or two rental properties and more larger institutional investors offering a greater security of supply. A properly regulated sector will help achieve that, he says.

Beyond his ministerial work this year, he anticipates a tough campaign around the referendum on the future of the Eighth Amendment and the country’s abortion laws. When he supported an Oireachtas committee’s recommendation to remove constitutional ban on abortion last month, someone posted a comment on social media saying that he was only in favour “to lessen the demand on housing.”

“This is going to be a very, very difficult campaign if voices like that are in the debate, and they will be, unfortunately, because we rely so much on social media unfortunately for communicating,” he says.