Housing strategy lacks any proper foundation

Instead of the budget investing in combating the housing crisis, Government is happy to fritter away €147m a year on emergency accommodation, says Colette Bennett

Housing strategy lacks any proper foundation

What property can you buy for €400,000? A five-bedroom house with a pool, outside Disneyworld Florida, a chateau in France, or one-night emergency accommodation in Ireland.

Last year, the Government spent €147m on emergency accommodation for the homeless. That’s €402,000 per day in 2018.

Budget 2020 again failed to invest in tackling the causes of the housing crisis. Instead, it continues the policy of relying on the private sector to address the effects of bad policy making, despite overwhelming evidence that they cannot.

Figures provided in the Local Authority Regional Financial Reports, and published on the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government’s own website, show that the amount spent on emergency accommodation for the homeless has increased 311% since 2014, when it was €36m.

Spending on homelessness prevention, tenancy sustainment, and resettlement, on the other hand, received less than €10m in 2018, an increase of less than 59% on 2014.

The lack of homelessness-prevention supports and the failure to build affordable housing are contributing to the rise in people accessing emergency accommodation.

10,338 people accessed emergency accommodation in August this year, including 3,848 children, the second-highest number on record.

This figure, however, underestimates, as it does not include rough-sleepers, people ‘couch-surfing’ with family and friends, people in domestic violence refuges, asylum seekers living in transitional accommodation, or families incorrectly recategorised because they are temporarily sheltered in accommodation owned by the local authority.

The private sector is not providing solutions to homelessness. The Government’s multi-million euro subsidies to private operators have created an industry built on the misery and misfortune of others.

In our ‘Budget Choices’ briefing, Social Justice Ireland advocated for increased investment in Housing First and an expansion of this programme to support homeless families.

This investment could have been funded through the abolition of the Help to Buy Scheme, which provides subsidies to home buyers on high incomes and which drives up house prices.

In 2019, the allocation for this scheme was €130m. By August, €206.4m had been paid out.

Last month, analysis of the Help to Buy Scheme by the Parliamentary Budget Office showed that the price of a home subsidised by the scheme was above the average residential sales price, with at least 56% of subsidised homes valued over the average asking price.

This is what Government chose to prioritise over real supports for families who are homeless or at risk of it.

Failures of the private sector also pervade the social-housing system.

The latest Rebuilding Ireland report, on targets and progress, makes concerning reading. The ‘build’ target (which has been boosted by the inclusion of regeneration, voids, and turnkey purchases of Part V properties, in addition to local authority and approved housing body builds) has not been met since 2017.

The ‘build’ for 2019 was below target by almost 40%. Almost 20,000 homes remain to be built in the next two-and-a-half years. Without intervention from Government to fast-track the development of social housing, these targets will be missed.

In contrast, the number of private landlords supported through the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) exceeded target every year (up by 10% in the first half of this year).

The Government, through Rebuilding Ireland, proposes to deliver more than 60% of its “social housing solutions” through this subsidy and has allocated an additional €80m in Budget 2020.

In 2015, its first full year of operation, local authority budgets allocated €10.65m for expenditure under the HAP programme. For 2019, the HAP allocation was €544.7m — an increase of over 5,000% in the intervening period.

Families eligible for HAP continue to face discrimination from private landlords, notwithstanding changes in equality legislation.

Meanwhile, those households in HAP-subsidised tenancies are at the mercy of rent inflation and a system that continues to favour landlords over the security of the tenant.

Recent reports suggest that Google might subsidise housing as part of “good corporate citizenship”. This is a great idea. And the mechanism they should employ to do it is to pay their fair share of corporation tax.

This additional revenue could be used by the State to deliver social and affordable housing at scale, which is so desperately needed.

Housing is a matter for the State and for the communities living in it. It needs to be planned by people who want new developments to become new communities and who want to see them thrive; people who understand that, in addition to building housing, we need to build roads, and schools, and primary care centres.

Ireland doesn’t need another block of unaffordable apartments developed by a multi-national whose primary reason for being here is our generous tax breaks. We need homes.

National budgets are all about choices. Choosing not to adequately invest in social housing, which would create long-term tenancies and provide the State with an asset, means choosing to finance cost overruns for private sector subsidies.

This is what the Government is doing.

These choices are unacceptable.

- Colette Bennett is research-and-policy analyst at Social Justice Ireland

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