Rebuilding Ireland, the Governments flagship housing programme, was launched to much fanfare two years ago this week. Running to 115 pages, the plan boasted five pillars and almost 100 action points.
At the heart of the plan is a commitment to “meet the housing needs” of 135,000 households in need of social housing by 2021. This would be achieved via 35,000 real social houses (owned by councils and approved housing bodies), 10,000 subsidised private sector long-term leases and 88,000 subsidised short-term leases via the housing assistance payment and the rental accommodation schemes.
The cost of meeting these targets would require a capital spend of €5.35 billion over six years alongside a rent subsidy bill to the private sector totalling more than €3 billion over the same period and continuing at €750 million a year from 2021.
Alongside the social housing pillar, Rebuilding Ireland also promises action to reduce homelessness, assist the private sector increase supply, strengthen the private rental sector while assisting affordability and a strategy to tackle vacant homes in the public and private sectors.
Two years on and it is clear that Rebuilding Ireland has failed. In fact there is growing evidence to demonstrate that it is in fact making things worse.
Since July 2016 homelessness has increased by 50 per cent, pensioner homelessness has increased by 54 per cent and child homelessness is up a shocking 63 per cent. While Government spending on emergency accommodation has increased, inaction on the prevention side, coupled with slow delivery of social housing, is forcing thousands into emergency accommodation.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the private sector is unable or unwilling to provide decent homes for modest-income working people
We now have over 10,000 adults and 4,000 children living in Department of Housing-funded hubs, hostels and hotels, many for up to two years.
Simon Coveney, when minister for housing, promised to end the use of commercial hotels for homeless families by July 2017. His failure to meet even this modest target is indicative of the wider failure to tackle the spiralling homelessness crisis.
The central problem here is not that the Government isn’t meeting its social housing targets. It is that the targets themselves are too low and the pace of delivery is too slow.
The special Dáil Housing and Homeless Committee report published in June 2016 recommended the delivery of 10,000 real social homes every year and action to cut delivery times. The Government targets fall 40 per cent short of that and delivery takes up to three years. Despite having been offered 1,800 turnkey homes for purchase by a variety of banks and funds to date, the Government has bought just 382 of these and tenanted even fewer.
Meanwhile, despite a long list of actions to assist the private sector – fast track planning, reduced apartment sizes and increased heights, a €200 million infrastructure fund and a €90 million help-to-buy tax break, to name but a few – delivery is anaemic.
Worse still is the gap between average wages and house prices, particularly in the large urban areas. While increased supply is urgently needed it is becoming increasingly clear that the private sector is unable or unwilling to provide decent homes for modest-income working people.
All the while, rents spiral upwards by a massive 22 per cent since Rebuilding Ireland was published. There is growing evidence from the Residential Tenancies Board quarterly rent index that the rent pressure zone 4 per cent rent cap isn’t working and there is still no sign of the long promised cost rental model of affordable housing promised not only in Rebuilding Ireland but also in the 2014 plan.
Two years in and not a single affordable home has been produced via any central Government scheme
Most disappointingly, despite the CSO identifying 189,000 vacant homes across the country in 2016 and Geo Directories confirming at least 90,000 of these, only 79 homes have been returned to stock via the Government’s two vacant home schemes – Repair and Lease and Buy and Rent – while Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy has still not published his vacant homes strategy.
At the core of Rebuilding Ireland’s failure is a double negative. The first is a chronic over-reliance on the private sector to meet social and affordable housing need. The second is a failure to understand the scale of the problem and the corresponding level of State intervention needed to tackle it.
Today, real social housing need stands at more than 140,000 households yet Rebuilding Ireland commits to meeting less than 30 per cent of this number. While no figure exists for affordable housing need, Rebuilding Ireland contains no targets for affordable purchase or rent. Two years in and not a single affordable home has been produced via any central Government scheme.
The Government needs to admit that Rebuilding Ireland has failed. It must accept that only a level of direct State provision of public housing commensurate with current social and affordable housing need will address crisis. In Budget 2019 it must double capital investment in public housing to start this process and commence a decade long investment in meeting housing need through sustainable and vibrant mixed income communities living in public housing built on public land with public finance.
Eoin Ó Broin is Sinn Féin spokesman on housing