The housing crisis has been part of the political permafrost for a decade – but even by recent standards the political atmosphere, within and without Leinster House, has become more charged on the housing issue.
In recent days there have been bitter exchanges as the Coalition saw off three votes in the Dáil – attempts by the Opposition to probe its majority for weaknesses.
“I think everyone in Government parties knows that housing will remain a live and emotive issue for the next two years,” says one senior Coalition source. “It will be to the fore for the remainder of the Government’s life and indeed well into the life of the next government too,” a senior Minister says. “It will stay front and centre,” says another Government source. “The cost of living has ebbed away – but housing won’t.”
As the political system – both Government and Opposition – looks to navigate the crisis, the perspectives, understanding and capacity of those who work within it has never been under more scrutiny.
The housing crisis doesn’t neatly disentangle into separate parts but, first and foremost, the ending of the eviction ban is about tenants, landlords and the rental market. TDs on both sides of the House have experienced the feeling of facing an eviction notice.
While on South Dublin County Council, Sinn Féin TD for Dublin Mid West Mark Ward was evicted from his home of three years by a “decent” landlord who had no choice. The TD recalls the experience of going to his first viewing of a rental property, with scores of people competing with each other, trying to impress the estate agent. “I brought my kids with me because I thought it could be an exciting thing,” he says. In the end, it was “harrowing”. Eventually, he ran out of road and had to leave his home, with nowhere to go. He presented as homeless to the local authority of which he was an elected member.
As a co-parent who shared custody of his children, he was entitled only to single-person accommodation. Two nights a week he would stay in a friend’s house where he could host his children and maintain their relationship, but the rest of the week he was in emergency accommodation.
It was months before he found a new home. “All the trauma I’d experienced for the last six months ... putting my best face forward and getting on with work and family life ... I went in and got myself the property and signed the lease and I slept for a week,” he says.
“There’s people going in under such stress they don’t have the capacity to articulate what’s going on.”
Kildare South TD for Fianna Fáil James Lawless was living in Booterstown in the early 2000s with his wife Ailish and their young baby. Both had lost their jobs in the dotcom crash, finding new employment afterwards“We came home one evening to a handwritten note from the landlady saying she needed the property back. She was getting divorced, her marriage had broken down and she needed the property back,” Lawless said.
They relocated to live with family in Wexford, commuting to Dublin, where Lawless would often stay overnight with friends so he could be up early for work. He has no qualms with the landlord, but says it was “tough” for him and his young family. Eventually, they found a rental in Kildare, before buying there. They moved again, and now he is a landlord, renting out the property they first purchased to a family he says he has a strong professional relationship with. Now, he believes longer-term tenancies should be on offer, potentially including incentives for landlords who agree to them.
The ending of the eviction ban has brought renewed focus on the structure of the rental market, and efforts to reform it. The Government has branded its response as a “safety net” – comprised of a first-refusal option for those facing eviction to purchase their home, and a “backstop” where an approved housing body or local authority will move to buy the home in a significant expansion of the cost rental model – a form of State-backed tenancy that offers reduced rents in line with the cost of providing a home.
An expansion of this form of tenure is something Sinn Féin housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin has been advocating. Ó Broin is himself a lifelong renter. He enjoys excellent security – his landlord is the Church of Ireland and the deeds of property he lives in (originally built as an alms house for parishioners in the 1870s) stipulate it must not be sold.
He has security in a market that is “inherently volatile, inherently insecure and inherently short term”. A TD is well paid, but their work is in its own way insecure and, at 50, Ó Broin says he is unlikely to get a mortgage. He has been dealing with more cases of people in the rental sector approaching retirement and increased precariousness and insecurity, “and that has made me think as a renter that could be me”. With a larger cost rental market, as well as increased social and affordable homes, he says the rental market could be restructured so rents are adjusted at the point of retirement.
Independent TD for Kerry Michael Healy-Rae is the Dáil’s largest landlord – although he stridently rejects the term. “If the person is a farmer, you’re not a farminglord because you own land,” he reasons. Healy-Rae voted recently against the Government on the eviction ban, but has a deep reserve of criticism for politicians on the left, who he says criticise and demonise while objecting to housing.
As for landlords, he says: “Any person who thinks that’s a lucrative business to be at, to be quite simple, you don’t understand it.”
One Coalition source confided last week that they expect homelessness figures will not spiral out of control – but acknowledged that there will be a significant political problem if they do. They take reassurance from the lack of a backlash from within the parliamentary parties of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, and polling in last weekend’s Business Post which showed a mixed picture – with even 23 per cent of Sinn Féin voters backing the Government decision.
They privately believe much is outside their control – homelessness can be impacted by a wide variety of factors, including migration. Opposition figures assess that the Government is now vulnerable on housing and, if the right circumstances prevail, believe a well-timed confidence vote could lead to an election. The politics have become even more polarised, with the Labour Party aggressively shifting gear on housing. Whether this is a well-conceived ploy or a desperate gambit as it is squeezed by the Social Democrats and Sinn Féin remains to be seen. But one Opposition source says: “We are now in the election cycle, everyone knows that.”
The pressure to fix the housing market is also felt by – and exerted by – politicians from Government parties. Mary Fitzpatrick, the Fianna Fáil senator who hails from Dublin Central, lives with her three young adult children at home – and wants to see them and their peers able to live in their own homes and build relationships within the community. “It’s a natural and reasonable thing and it’s something that we as a rich society should be able to support and facilitate.”
The solution, she says, is for more and more affordable housing in cities to support workers, families and the vitality of urban areas.
James O’Connor, the Fianna Fáil TD for Cork East and the youngest TD in the Dáil at 25, is a renter in Dublin and lives with his parents in Cork. It took him nine months to find a rental, living in a succession of hotels while in the capital – TDs from outside Dublin spend up to 45 per cent of the year in the city. Now, he has a room in a shared home with college friends.
He is struck by the number of his peers who are treading the well-worn path of emigration. “They tell me that they’re deeply frustrated.”
O’Connor is calling for an “emergency strategy”, including phasing out the housing assistance payment (HAP), a rental subsidy that costs nearly €1 billion a year, and diverting this and funding from other schemes to a massive social housing reconstruction programme.
“I do think it is worth considering pressing pause in order to fund the construction of new housing stock. That is the most impactful thing the Government can do for my generation of people,” he says.