Playing politics with the accommodation crisis

There are two imperatives in the housing crisis - one is to be seen to be doing something, the other is to do the right thing…

There are two imperatives in the housing crisis - one is to be seen to be doing something, the other is to do the right thing. It does not require political genius to realise that with a by-election campaign under way and an election looming, to be seen to be doing something will win hands down.

Doing the right thing means seeing housing as a system. No one could claim to have a grasp on all the complexities which affect housing, but it would be nice to feel that there was political awareness of how interlocking and interdependent a system it is.

For three successive years we have seen politicians tinkering and then being surprised when something which was not the focus of political attention at all suddenly goes pear-shaped. There is little sense of long-term vision.

Politicians are by nature pragmatic. Doing what needs to be done may not bear fruit for two, three or 10 years. It might even, God forbid, result in political rivals reaping the benefits and the praise simply by being in office when the positive effects of the long-term strategy begin to be obvious.


So most good politicians will compromise; they will cautiously advance long-term goals while at the same time keeping the punters happy. Turnout is steadily declining at elections, but the middle classes still vote - and the middle classes are mad as hell that their children cannot afford to buy a renovated hen house, much less the kind of home in which they grew up.

The Government has little appetite for challenging the fetish we have for home ownership, even though to solve the crisis it will be necessary to do so. This fetish may appear to be inscribed in the genes but, ironically, it became a reality for the majority of Irish people only because of large-scale commitment to public housing in the last century, which gradually passed into private ownership.

In Ireland, we have roughly 80 per cent owner-occupancy and another 10 per cent in private rental. Social or public housing comprises only 9 per cent of housing stock; the European norm is closer to 20-30 per cent. Along with Britain, we are also unusual in that public housing is mostly provided by local authorities, although in Britain that is changing. In contrast, in the Netherlands, the majority of what we would term public housing is provided by housing associations and co-operatives.

Social housing and the private rented sector is never going to receive the same priority as the need to placate first-time buyers. This time, the private rental sector would appear to have drawn the shortest straw. There is at least some commitment to increasing local authority housing, although much needs to be ironed out as to how that will actually be accomplished, given that they are unlikely even to meet their targets for 2000.

Cutting stamp duty for first-time buyers and introducing an anti-speculative tax came into the category of being seen to do something. It will moderate, at least for a time, the rise in house prices. More importantly, it will have a feel-good factor for the thousands of people who have been frantically saving for years and who will miraculously feel thousands of pounds richer. Inevitably, however, it will put a damper on the supply of rental accommodation.

The Government has almost admitted defeat on the question of getting landlords to register and supply their tenants with rent books. So in Bacon Three it has decided to exempt from a degree of taxation those who do what they have actually been required by law to do for the last four years. Is this not extraordinary? Even more extraordinary was the display of having-a-dog-and-barking-yourself syndrome. In June 1999, the Government convened a commission on the private rented residential sector, which will report in a few weeks. This commission had representatives from property owners and landlords, but also from the community and voluntary sector, such as the tireless Threshold and Vincent de Paul. One of the commission's key objectives was increasing supply, although the voluntary organisations would obviously have been keen on gaining fair rents and as much security of tenure for tenants as possible. So what does the Government do?

It blithely ignores the fact that the commission sat for a year wrestling with the vagaries of the market as it exists, and instead goes ahead and introduces a whole new set of factors which will reduce supply in the private rented sector.

Are we to conclude that those who have been forced into long-term private rental in the last five years matter, but those who have always been dependent on it do not? Never mind that the latter are most at risk of homelessness.

One would be tempted to despair were it not for some quiet and cautious moves to improve the lot of housing associations and co-operative builders, both of which operate on a non-profit basis.

In the past year, a dedicated unit was set up in the Department of the Environment to deal with the specific needs of these groups. On Thursday last it was announced that they will soon be able to apply directly to the Housing Finance Agency for funding.

Before this, voluntary housing organisation schemes had to be approved for funding by the local authority concerned and then by central government. At least one level of bureaucracy has been removed.

Co-operative building was in the news recently because a group of 39 couples who were priced out of the private house market pooled their resources and formed a co-op. They found a site in Turloughmore in Galway and, sadly, after all their efforts, were turned down for planning permission by An Bord Pleanala.

This highlights a major problem in our housing system. Various Government circulars to the local authorities have declared that voluntary and co-operative building should receive a share of sites from the subsidised sites scheme. The reality is that this scheme is in disarray, and that local authorities are hard put to meet their own building starts set by the government, much less allocate land to other projects.

If the subsidised sites scheme were operating as it should be, those couples in Galway would not have had to go to such lengths to obtain a site, only to be turned down for planning permission. But what must be avoided at all costs is making local authorities and voluntary organisations rivals for the same sites. Both are essential players in the housing market.

Profit and greed dominate the market at the moment. One way to short-circuit this is to increase massively equity-sharing house-building. Co-operatives are ideally placed to co-ordinate such a model, where 50 per cent of cost would be provided by public funding and 50 per cent by private mortgages.

Co-ops can in theory apply to run such a scheme, but the procedures are cumbersome and complicated. Facilitating solutions like this to the housing crisis should be the Government's priority. Unfortunately, until we as an electorate learn to reward our politicians for grasping nettles rather than for handing out sweeties, it is unlikely to happen.