July 19th marked the third anniversary of the launch of Rebuilding Ireland, the government’s plan to address the housing and homeless crisis. Any honest assessment of this policy will conclude that it has been an abject failure. The Government’s approach has left the Irish housing system is in an even deeper crisis.
The official figures for those who are homeless has been above 10,000 for most of this year, which is 65 per cent higher than when the plan intended to solve this problem was launched. That the figure is so high ought to be a cause of national shame to a society as wealthy as contemporary Ireland. However, nobody involved in the housing crisis believes this figure to be accurate, as it strategically excludes many people who are homeless but not living in emergency accommodation, such as people sleeping rough, people who are “couch-surfing” with friends, people who are doubling up with other family members to avoid becoming homeless. This figure also excludes the almost 800 people who have been granted refugees status or some other form of protection, but who are trapped in Direct Provision because they can find no home to call their own.
The former Minister for Housing committed to ensuring that, by July 2017, commercial hotels would be used as emergency accommodation for families only in exceptional circumstances. Clearly this did not happen and the use of this accommodation continues. We have also seen the emergence of about 30 family hubs with more planned. These hubs vary greatly in terms of the quality of accommodation and services provided, but even in the best instances they represent the use of institutionalisation to address a social need. That a Government, so eager to put negative elements of recent Irish history behind it, is willing to create this new form of institution is bizarre, to say the least.
While the great majority of people who are homeless are still in the Dublin region, the past three years have seen an increase in homelessness in every one of the other eight regions. Family homelessness, in particular, in these regions is now 225 per cent higher than in July 2016.
But we do not just have a homelessness crisis in Ireland today. We have a housing and homelessness crisis. Every aspect of how we provide homes is dysfunctional. Instead of addressing the problem at the source - which is the lack of housing built by the public, for the public - the Government has relied on the private sector to provide housing for low income households, principally through the use of the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP). The households who receive this assistance are often in poor quality housing; they have no security of tenure and frequently have to pay “top-ups” on agreed rents in order to retain their tenancy, thereby often becoming unable to meet other essential needs.
The number of households on the social housing waiting lists has gone down in the last three years, but this has only been achieved by redefining the meaning of “social housing” and excluding households using HAP from the list. That these households are not actually living in “social housing” should be obvious.
We currently transfer €2.3 million a day of taxpayers’ money to private landlords to meet social housing need, the equivalent of building 10 publicly owned houses every day. Over the three years of Rebuilding Ireland the Government has spent over €2.5 billion subsidising the private rental market. Yet for these vast sums, the State does not possess a single extra publicly-owned house. The private sector will not, and cannot, be the primary solution to our housing crisis. We need to value investment in public housing - to see it as just as important to society as investment in public transport or broadband.
The Minister for Finance acknowledged, in an interview with the Sunday Independent on 17 December 2017, that the housing and homelessness issue is the biggest crisis this country has faced in a generation. In that same month, the Taoiseach was asked on a radio programme when could we see a decline in the number of homeless people, and he replied that he could not answer that question. Again, in that same month, in a television interview, the Minister for Housing was asked if he could guarantee that the number of homeless children in December 2018 would be less than the number in December 2017 and he replied that he could not give that guarantee. Nor can he make any such promise for December 2019 either. On 29 March 2019, the Taoiseach acknowledged that this crisis constituted a national emergency.
Since then, however, we have seen no sense of crisis or emergency in the decisions the government has taken.
It is time to stop issuing press statements, redefining terms, and spinning the facts. The mantra, “the solution is to increase supply” represents only part of the story. Rebuilding Ireland needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, based around a huge investment in real social housing. This crisis can also be an opportunity. Reimagining how we provide housing will allow us to commit to building homes fit for the 21st century, in communities that are adaptive to the reality of climate breakdown, and planned not around profit, but around human need and the recognition that housing is a fundamental right of every person..
Fr. Peter McVerry SJ is the founder of the Peter McVerry Trust a national housing and homeless charity