The broken and dysfunctional housing market in Ireland and its harsh inequalities have been highlighted by the Covid pandemic. It has never been more clear how fundamental home is for our health and wellbeing. Yet this week homeless families and children eat at soup kitchens, and another “build-to-rent” co-living development received planning permission.
Figures do not count hidden homelessness, couch-surfing, overcrowding, Generation Rent paying unaffordable rents and unable to buy a home
A fundamental change in our values and policy approach to housing is clearly required. This is an important public discussion now, as the Minister for Housing is developing a new national housing plan to replace Rebuilding Ireland, which ran from 2016 until this year. We need to analyse Rebuilding Ireland and understand the reasons why it has failed to fix the housing crisis, and help point to different measures for a new plan.
Pillar 1 of Rebuilding Ireland sought to “address” homelessness. Yet there are more families and children homeless today than in 2016. Over the period of Rebuilding Ireland, 4,167 families were made newly homeless in Dublin alone. There was an overfocus on emergency accommodation as the primary response, insufficient social housing, inadequate tenant protections from eviction, and no strategy to end homelessness.
One of the purported achievements of Rebuilding Ireland is the reduction in social housing waiting lists from 91,600 in 2016 to 61,880 in 2020. However, these figures are misleading as housing assistance payment (Hap) recipients are removed from the list, no longer considered in “housing need”. Yet they live in private rental accommodation with inadequate long-term security, and many pay “top-ups” to landlords above the Hap subsidy. Hap also resulted in homelessness as some landlords refuse it. Adding Hap tenants puts 120,000 households on the list.
Furthermore, figures do not count hidden homelessness, couch-surfing, overcrowding, Generation Rent paying unaffordable rents and unable to buy a home or “Generation Stuck at Home” – 350,000 young adults aged 18-29 living with their parents. Neither do we measure the devastating impacts on mental health, self-esteem, delayed independent adulthood, and sense of deepening social exclusion.
Pillar 2 focused on social housing provision, but three quarters of the total delivered came from the private market in various rental schemes such as Hap, Ras and leasing, the Part V social housing obligation on developers, and acquisitions. This flawed approach has taken supply away from an already overheated market, adding to price and rent inflation rather than building new supply. It is poor value for money, as a third of the national housing budget – €1 billion – each year goes to landlords and developers. The State gets no asset, no permanent housing, from this investment.
Some local authorities and approved housing bodies have built impressive social housing schemes in recent years – showing what they can do. But they still face bureaucratic delays in progressing projects, and inadequate government funding.
Pillars 3 and 4 focused on stimulating the private housing market via various incentives. But the main stimulation has been inflated property prices, increasing by 88 per cent from 2013, and rents by more than 100 per cent. Investors have flooded into Ireland doubling their purchase of property from 6,266 a year in 2016 to 12,378 in 2020. Build-to-rent is the new supply. Generation Rent has become the collateral damage of an economic and housing policy focused on the recovery of the property market and financial institutions. Policy is focused on maintaining “investor appetite” rather than providing affordable homes and tenant protections.
For decades, housing policy in Ireland has prioritised the interests of the finance-property developer and investor nexus and failed to provide affordable homes
The absence of State delivery of affordable housing in Rebuilding Ireland is remarkable. The recent cost rental scheme is welcome, though inadequate in scale and funding. Building of cost rental and affordable purchase homes is in the hundreds, rather than tens of thousands needed. While the Land Development Agency is repeating the mistakes of Nama, with a market orientation and further diminution of the role of local authorities.
A new national housing plan must make a major policy shift away from Rebuilding Ireland in order to solve the crisis. It must end, not just manage, homelessness. It must transform the housing market to deliver genuinely affordable home ownership, provide sufficient social housing, secure quality rental homes, make all homes environmentally sustainable, and deliver healthy, thriving, communities. Housing is as fundamental as education, and health, to our lives, society and the economy, yet we invest €9 billion per annum in education, €22 billion in health, and just €3 billion in housing.
A tripling of capital investment in housing is required to enable local authorities, housing associations and cooperatives build 20,000 public homes per year (a mix of social, affordable rental, and for purchase) over the next decade. The wasted resource of vacant and derelict homes and land should be taxed and “use it or lose it” compulsory purchase orders issued. Real estate investors should be taxed and their role minimised.
For decades, housing policy in Ireland has prioritised the interests of the finance-property developer and investor nexus and failed to provide affordable homes. The current housing market is unsustainable, another crash is inevitable, and investors embed permanent unaffordability. A new value framework for our housing system and policy is required, one that can ensure adequate, affordable, secure housing for all. This is the human right to housing, which must be inserted into the Constitution in order to set a clear vision for our housing system and oblige the State to realise and uphold such a right through all laws, policies and practice.