No wriggle room left on failing policy -  Housing crisis in 2019

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has admitted that the ongoing housing crisis was “easily the biggest challenge” faced by the Government last year. Maybe Mr Varadkar should have expanded by conceding that the crisis was “easily the biggest challenge that we can do something meaningful about”.

Yet, despite that reality, the crisis continues and will be exacerbated by an anticipated 5% price increase in 2019. This jump follows a 6.1% increase last year. The average price of a three-bed semi-detached house ranged from €80,000 in Roscommon to €315,000 in Dublin. In November, the average wage reached €38,878 showing that pay has increased by 8% in five years.

The gap between house price inflation and wage growth is so stark that it is dangerous not to recognise it as a threat to social stability. Employers trying to attract workers to areas where housing is in short supply already recognise the economic threat represented by the crisis.

These figures are as meaningless to someone who needs social housing as they are unsustainable yet they define their housing prospects by absorbing nearly all the country’s building capacity.

This devil-take-the-hindmost reality became inevitable once an earlier government abrogated its responsibilities on social housing. This will remain the case unless there is a deep philosophical shift in Government thinking on how property rights and social needs interact.

Despite that complexity, resolving this crisis would not be difficult. All that is required is building enough affordable homes where they are needed, and to build more and more until demand is satisfied and, as a bonus, house price inflation is brought under some sort of control. To deliver this revolutionary change, decent private housing must be affordable while offering developers a viable proposition.

In the public sphere, Government must abandon the policy of neglect that has failed. It must re-engage with the 100,000 families on housing lists by accepting its obligations as a developer and manager of social housing.

Whether Mr Varadkar’s government is capable of embracing that essential change is an open question. Sadly, the evidence suggests it is not. Local authorities built a laughable 364 social homes in the first half of 2018. That the objectives outlined in Rebuilding Ireland propose that 85% of housing be private adds to that concern. So too does the Land Development Agency which proposes to build just 10% social housing on public lands.

These blueprints will not resolve the crisis but will ensure taxpayer-funded profitability for private landlords, the fund sector, and today’s corporate landlords.

That is just one side of the coin. It is time to insist that social housing is not for life and that it cannot be passed across generations. It is also time to insist that if a tenant’s income passes a threshold they should fund their own home or at the very least pay a market rate rent.

There are as many proposals on how to resolve the crisis as there are fingers in the pie but one thing is certain — unless real progress is made in 2019 Mr Varadkar will rightly pay a heavy price when an election is called. The only way he can avert that is by finally putting his social obligations ahead of corporate interests.

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