Response to housing Bill leaves Government TDs jittery and frustrated

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael know Sinn Féin are poised to capitalise on perceived failures

The success of Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien’s Affordable Housing Bill is seen as being of critical importance. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

The success of Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien’s Affordable Housing Bill is seen as being of critical importance. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

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Fianna Fáil scheduled a Zoom meeting on Friday morning for a briefing on Darragh O’Brien’s new Affordable Housing Bill. In the normal course of events there would be a relatively small number logging in. But yesterday almost the entirety of the parliamentary party tuned in.

That is no surprise. Earlier this week the TDs in Government departments were left in no doubt that in addition to the Covid crisis, there was still a full-blown housing crisis.

News broke about international investment firms buying up whole suburban housing estates for private rental. And then O’Brien’s Bill took sustained Opposition flak for one of its four measures, shared equity. The maximum cap for an “affordable” apartment in Dublin City is €500,000, which stretches the definition of the word.

“It really touched a nerve with people,” says Kerry TD Brendan Griffin, of Fine Gael. “The images from Maynooth of a young couple looking on helplessly as the housing estate was swooped up by an investment fund really struck a chord.

“It is now down to how the Government responds that will determine if there is damage.”

Politicians from the two main Government parties agree that the Bill, and so-called “cuckoo funds” buying hundreds of houses, is damaging.

“It is very definite that it has done damage. People in my party get that it’s critical, if not existential, that housing has to be tackled,” says the Kildare North TD James Lawless, of Fianna Fáil.

At both parties’ parliamentary meetings on Wednesday there was mutual bickering about the other party and the hames they had made of housing. TDs said it had been over-reported. By Friday things had died down a little but both parties were clear they still face a problem.

Electoral hit

Fine Gael needs a successful housing policy as much as Fianna Fáil does, says Louth TD Fergus O’Dowd. “We took a huge hit in last year’s election on housing. Nobody want that to happen again.”

His colleague Griffin agrees. “We need to have one voice from the three Government parties on housing. That petty blaming of each other has to stop.”

Paul McAuliffe, Fianna Fáil’s TD for Dublin North West, says parties have been blindsided by investment funds shifting to the suburbs.

“From a zeitgeist point of view, it looked awful,” he says. “If Fianna Fáil can’t deliver homes for people, we will not be able to prove to the people it was worth their while putting us into government.”

Like others in his party, McAuliffe wants a quick solution to this new phenomenon. But he and all his colleagues express frustration at the response to O’Brien’s Bill, which he describes as transformative.

“All the focus was on shared equity. But that’s only a small part of the Bill. We have affordable housing being built on State-owned land for the first time. We also have cost-rental housing being introduced at scale for the first time.

“You have to realise that cost rental is council housing for people earning more than €40,000.”

McAuliffe says he is worried local authorities won’t have the same ambitions or urgency to deliver affordable homes on State land as the Government has.

Mary Fitzpatrick, a TD for Dublin Central, says the new Bill is a radical departure, using State lands as well as making sure social and affordable housing are part of every development.

“This is the biggest game-changing legislation on housing ever and even more so when combined with the the Land Development Agency,” she says.

Achilles heel

Several Fianna Fáil TDs point out that Sinn Féin sees housing as the Achilles heel. They say the main Opposition party took out micro-targeted advertising this week focusing on younger age groups in Dublin and elsewhere, attacking the Government on its housing policies.

“Sinn Féin are doubling down on us failing,” says McAuliffe.

Lawless acknowledges that if housing fails, so will Fianna Fáil. “People will ignore the construction lockdowns caused by Covid-19. If we have not delivered between 80,000 and 100,000 houses at the end of the term, people will simply ask: where are the houses?” he says. “We need to be seen to be seen to be going down fighting.”

Cormac Devlin, a Fine Gael TD in the Dún Laoghaire constituency, says the Bill is radical and the tensions between his party and Fine Gael are being “blown out of proportion”.

“Fianna Fáil have come in with a brief to change what was done in the past. “We appreciate and we understand the anger of people over the investment funds. The Bill we have is a radical piece of legislation that will guarantee 20 per cent of all developments for social and affordable housing. The thing is to get it done.”

Ciaran Cannon of Fine Gael, a TD for Galway East, says the investment funds issue need to be addressed. He says it was never envisaged that the tax arrangements would be used for that. “There is no question that this needs to be resolved.”