We’re housing a back to future problem

Irish tenants evicted by landlords from their smallholding and made homeless for the non-payment of rent during the Famine. Picture: Illustrated London News /Hulton Archive

Fixity of tenure is a bit of a joke in this country, writes Michael Clifford.

IS THE world en route back to the future? In the UK they want a return to some time around the 1970s, when Johnny Foreigner knew his place and Britannia still had a role as something approaching a global superpower.

In the USA, the idealised time from the past is the 1950s. America was still largely white, minorities were shoved off to the sidelines, and prosperity was regarded as an article of faith for the white man and his family.

This country holds no such illusions. On Tuesday last, though, a conference heard how the past may come back around to meet us in the near future.

The annual policy conference of Social Justice Ireland often throws up a few nuggets for consideration of how the country could, and probably should, be run.

This time around Tony Fahey, a leading academic in social policy, made a prediction that a political party in either the next or, more likely the following election, will use an old slogan with which to promise a new Ireland.

“The 3 Fs” will be familiar to students of history. The phrase represented the height of political sloganeering in the late 19th century and was coined by the Land League.

Its aim was to abolish landlordism and provide a basic standard of living for impoverished tenant farmers, free from fear of eviction or the free-for-all hiking of rents. The Fs represented Free Sale, Fixity of Tenure, and Fair Rent.

Eventually, Michael Davitt and his colleagues managed to achieve much of this in the land wars that marked the period. It was an excellent campaign that achieved real change in the lives of the vast majority of people at the time.

What relevance has that to the Ireland of today, free, prosperous at the cutting edge of the global economy, with GDP rates shooting for the stars? What can the peasants of yesteryear have in common with today’s educated and highly sophisticated populace?

The answer is housing. As an indicator of one’s progress through life, housing appears to be going back to the future.

The current crisis is dominated by the homelessness of at least 10,000 people, nearly a third of whom are children. Their plight is an insult to any notion of decency, their needs rightly a priority in social policy. But beyond that emergency, a long term picture is emerging of how housing has evolved, and more importantly will evolve over the coming decades.

Fahey’s paper was headed Worse Off That Their Parents? The Growing Generation Of Private Renters. He pointed out that home-ownership is the most obvious indicator of wealth. Most people who can afford it aspire to buy their own homes. Traditionally, this involved taking out a mortgage in the purchaser’s 20s or 30s, ensuring that when the autumn years come around the property will be fully paid off.

The inevitable worries about health and mortality that can encumber old age are at least free of the fear of being turfed out of your home.

That basic security may not be available to a large cohort of people who are now entering or living through middle age. Home ownership is declining and the drop-off did not begin with the recession, as is widely believed.

Fahey traces the decline back 30 years. Peak home ownership was in 1991, when the rate of people living in private rented accommodation was 10%. Today 20% of the population are renting and within two decades that could double.

“If this growth continues in its current form, it is likely to cause many young adults to be worse off than their parents as far as housing is concerned,” Fahey said at the conference. Most of the growing population of young private renters today grew up in homes that were owned by their parents and had two essential features of secure long-term housing: it was affordable and families could stay in it as long as they liked.

“If private renting continues to expand at it is now doing, many children from those homes (possibly a majority) are facing a future where, as they establish their own households, they will live for a long time, perhaps a life-time, in private rented housing that has neither of these features.”

We have been told that we need to no longer fixate on home ownership. The Europeans rent all their lives and there doesn’t seem to be a problem.

That scenario gives rise to the priority in this country given to property owners. Their needs and wants receive far greater attention than any obligation to ensure that housing is attained for everybody.

Fair rent is simply not a priority. Instead, the market largely determines who lives where and at what cost. Fahey’s research showed that the cost of renting as a percentage of household spending had risen from 13% in 1987 to 27% in 2015. By contrast the equivalent cost in mortgage payments in 2015 was 17%, but this figure declines through the life of the mortgage.

Fixity of tenure is a bit of a joke in this country. In theory, renters can ask for leases of up to six years’ duration. In reality, provisos were inserted in the law to ensure that the property owner can get out of that obligation.

If a family member requires the property, if renovations are deemed necessary or if the property is to be sold, the renter can go whistle dixie. The scope of these caveats ensures that in reality a landlord can get rid of a tenant relatively easy. There is no security in that law.

The solutions have been presented repeatedly in various forums, but as yet all are regarded as too radical for this government. A huge increase in the provision of social housing is required along with a radical legislative programme — including if necessary recourse to the Constitution — to ensure that the growing cohort of renters can expect a fair and secure solution to their housing needs.

The title of the Social Justice Ireland conference this week was From Here To Where? It’s a question the body politic does not appear to want to address in relation to housing.

Traditionally in this country nothing gets done until a crisis is breaking down the door. Now is the time to implement the kind of radical solutions that are required to ensure that the housing needs of everybody are met in a just manner over the coming decades.

The first issue in that regard is a thorough examination of the complete power imbalance between property owners and renters. Keep an eye out. Some political operator will inevitably cotton onto Tony Fahey’s prediction about the three Fs. The past is coming around again.

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