Focus on ‘mixed tenure’ projects makes social housing target difficult to achieve

Official policy aims to avoid construction of large schemes solely for local authorities

The Government is under siege from the Opposition over the housing crisis, with the lack of social housing a key source of criticism.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin and local authority leaders have insisted advances are being made in the drive to increase construction. However, there’s no getting away from the figures.

With 61,880 households on the social housing waiting list and the International Monetary Fund adding its voice last week to the clamour for increased supply, the big test is to bridge the gulf between promises and delivery.

The programme for government that Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens settled last summer pledged to increase social housing stock by more than 50,000 with an emphasis on local authority new builds.


It also promised to reduce reliance on housing assistance payments (HAP), a form of rental support paid by local authorities to private landlords for thousands of tenants.

Under Opposition fire on housing yet again in the Dáil last week, Martin pointed to a big increase in public investment and said the State was now the “biggest actor” in the market.

But the task is still huge, as the Taoiseach acknowledged. “To get 50,000 social houses built in the next five years will be challenging to the local authorities and the agencies,” he said.

Hampered progress

The number of new local authority homes has increased since the previous Fine Gael-led government promised renewed social housing investment in its Rebuilding Ireland plan of 2016. Back then it pledged 47,000 new social housing units by the end of 2021. But coronavirus has hampered progress.

Department of Housing data shows that a total of 39,065 new social homes had been delivered in the five-year period to the end of 2020. This included 22,977 new builds or refurbished local authority properties that had been taken out of use. Local authorities had bought 10,867 homes for tenants and leased 5,221, a form of provision criticised for leaving public bodies without ownership of the property asset when the lease ends.

"No other local government issue generates so much of a councillor's workload as is the case with housing and homelessness," said Mary Hoade, president of the Association of Irish Local Government, the representative body for the State's 949 local councillors.

Hoade, a Fianna Fáil member of Galway County Council, believes criticism of local authorities on housing delivery is unfair, adding that the Rebuilding Ireland targets will ultimately be realised.

“As of the end of 2020, local authorities have 2,154 social housing projects which will deliver 29,810 houses [direct builds] progressing through the approval/appraisal process with the department,” she said.

“This is up from 504 projects delivering 8,430 housing units as of the end of 2016.”

One senior local government figure said the amount of time required to process applications for social housing was impeding progress. “It’s taking anywhere between 18 months and two years to get to a project,” he said. “There is an emergency – and surely it should be fast-tracked.”

For all that, the effort to escalate the construction of social housing still marks a change of tack by the Government.

A 2018 paper by the Economic and Social Research Institute noted a shift over decades from a model “predominantly based on direct supply” of local authority-owned housing to a model in which subsidies for households renting in the private market had a greater role. The Government’s current policy aims to reverse that move, although rent subsidisation, via the HAP and the longer-term support Rental Accommodation Scheme (RAS), still looms very large.

‘Mixed tenure’

There is another change. Although Martin and others in his party hark back to the days when Fianna Fáil-led governments could provide new public housing for thousands of families every year, policy today aims to avoid the construction of large developments solely for local authorities.

The emphasis now is on “mixed tenure” projects on public land with homes divided between social housing for local authority tenants, affordable housing for people on low incomes and private housing, all in one development.

Draft laws to underpin on statutory basis the Land Development Agency, which aims to ease the provision of State lands for housing, will require at least 40 per cent of all housing built on public lands to be transferred to the State in the form of social housing (10 per cent) and affordable housing (30 per cent). Under the Government's draft Affordable Housing Bill, the proportion of social and affordable homes in housing developments on private land would double to 20 per cent, and Minister for Housing Darragh O'Brien now wants to increase this to 30 per cent.

Such limits reflect the view in policy circles that a housing mix is better for the long term, a position grounded in anxiety about embedded social problems that necessitated large-scale urban regeneration projects in Ballymun, Dublin, and parts of Limerick. But they do, as a result of policy choices imposed by the Government itself, restrict the number of social homes that can be delivered in individual projects. “Adherence to overall national housing policies – eg, mixed tenure housing policy – do pose challenges for the local authority sector in housing delivery,” said Hoade.

Tony Fahey, professor of social policy at University College Dublin, said he does not accept the case for tenure mix, adding that it was almost self-reinforcing. "If you keep the numbers [within a development] small, then you're going to have a have very low-income profile in your tenant population. But if you enlarge the target range then you bring in a wider spectrum of households."

Social housing had potential to generate social segregation but only if it serviced the 7-10 per cent of the population on the lowest incomes, he said. By contrast, almost a quarter of the new young households in Dublin went into social housing in the 1970s and 80s. “There was a pretty decent mix of household types.”