Irish Examiner View: Apartments could be the answer to solving the accommodation crisis

Irish Examiner View: Apartments could be the answer to solving the accommodation crisis
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An ongoing quest for secure tenure and fair rents. Demands to build more and better housing. Social deprivation and mental health problems.

Sound familiar? This is a tale of two cities, or, rather, the same tale of the same city 100 years apart.

As local historian Kieran McCarthy revealed in a gripping analysis published in the Irish Examiner earlier this week, Cork City was in crisis in 1920, with soaring rents and an almost complete lack of social housing being built.

The crisis was accelerated by the return of soldiers and sailors to Cork from fighting in the First World War. Its modern equivalent is the return of emigrants who left our shores during the last recession and want to come back to Ireland to raise their families.

Another European city suffered a similar plight a century ago. In the dying days of the Hapsburg empire, Vienna was a city run by landlords and wealthy landowners while most ordinary families lived in grim conditions. One-month leases were common and rents could be raised at any time.

That began to change towards the end of the First World War.

The Viennese political left gained power with universal suffrage and the fall of empire and introduced a taxation system and rent controls that transformed housing and led to the growth of non-profit housing organisations.

The first so-called Gemeindebauten, a housing project run by the state, was built in the 1920s. Today, the city government manages around 220,000 community-owned apartments, making it the largest municipal housing provider in Europe.

There are also non-profit co-operatives, which offer around 245,000 further housing units in Vienna. This adds up to around 60% of people who live in subsidised housing.

Perhaps, as we enter the final phase of the general election campaign, politicians of all hues could look to the past to envisage a brighter future. The reality is, though, that none of them have outlined in any credible detail a coherent plan to solve the housing crisis.

One answer is to begin building more local authority homes again but that hasn’t happened for decades and skills have been lost as a result. Another might be to encourage older people to live in retirement homes, thus freeing up large volumes of housing stock.

Another would be cheap but high quality apartments, like those being built in Bristol in England with the support of Ikea.

But, with a growing population, we need to think farther and bigger and, most importantly, we need to get over our fixation with owning our own homes. Politicians continue to propagate a house ownership model (Help to Buy schemes, etc) but that is part of the problem, not the solution.

In many European cities well paid professionals happily spend their whole lives in rented apartments. Doing so is not considered a badge of desperation or deprivation, as they are invariably well kept and of a very high standard.

The upside for them is that they spend as little as 10% of their monthly disposable income on accommodation. In Dublin — and increasingly in Cork and other cities — it can be as high as 70%.

We must ask ourselves: Is it worth it?

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