Housing, we have learned the hard way, is one of the most basic and fundamental requirements we need to live a life of dignity.
Yet in this country, successive government policies handed the delivery of this key social good to the private market and investors. As a result, we are currently lost, trying to find our way through storm after storm of housing crises. We urgently need a new map, a plan of action that can create a housing system that ensures affordable, secure, sustainable homes in living communities, for everyone.
Will the Government’s new housing plan under development, Housing for All, deliver a map and plan of action that can get out us out of decades of boom to bust housing crashes and unprecedented housing exclusion?
The Housing for All Plan is a defining moment for the Government, for generation rent and those locked out of housing, for those under threat of or in homelessness, for the entire of Irish society and indeed for future generations.
If the new plan is to work, it must be more than a series of soundbites and vague commitments with no realistic delivery plan.
It has to be backed by sufficient funding and clear ways in which it is going to be implemented.
The minister and Government are very likely to try to dazzle the media and public with huge figures and statements like "this is an unprecedented level of spending on housing", to try convince us that this indeed is a radical plan.
I really hope it is, but the true devil will be in the detail. In this article, the first of a series focusing on what should be in the Housing for All plan, I set out what principles should drive the plan and what funding is required for a plan that could make headway toward solving the housing crisis.
Firstly, in regard to its overriding purpose and vision, the Housing For All plan must unambiguously set out as its primary goal the delivery of a right to housing for all in this country, as defined in the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
The right to adequate, affordable, decent and secure housing should be the guiding vision for the plan. The creation of a rights-based housing system must be the aim of housing policy, underpinned by a wider vision of the role housing plays in providing socially just economic development for all and environmental sustainability.
What this means, is that the Housing for All plan must put housing at the core of Government function and responsibility, as is the case with health and education.
Housing can no longer be left to the vagaries and inequalities of the private speculative market. Policy must dispense with its obsession with fixing the ‘property market’, creating a ‘property ladder’, boosting house prices and rents etc.
The private property ‘rights’ of landlords and landowners must be balanced with a right to a home, in order to progress legislation that will provide for strong tenants’ rights, taxing vacant property and compulsory purchase of derelict housing and sites.
The plan must include, therefore, a clear commitment to hold a referendum to insert the right to housing in the Constitution, early in 2022.
Secondly, the plan, if it is to be a genuinely serious attempt at addressing the crisis, must implement the ESRI recommendation to double the Government’s annual capital spend on building public housing.
The actual capital spend allocated to the building of new public housing, including social, cost rental and affordable purchase, is a key indicator as to whether the plan will be deliverable or not. The amount of annual capital funding determines the number of housing units that will be actually built by the State itself.
Currently, there is about €2bn per annum spent on capital investment in housing, and 1.3bn per year spent on various private rental (HAP), leasing and other ‘current’ spending schemes that do not deliver a permanent new supply of social housing.
The capital spend on new building by the State (via local authorities, housing associations and not-for-profits) is, therefore, essential as this is the only way the State actually adds to the overall supply of housing.
A doubling of capital spend means there should be a 4bn allocation to capital spend on housing for 2022. That would mean an annual build target of public housing by the State itself of 20,000 homes in 2022.
If that is not included in the financial details of the plan, and set out to be implemented in October’s budget, then the plan will not deliver the scale of homes urgently needed. Anything less is just tinkering around the edges.
It is really important the public understands the difference and distinction in the housing delivery figures that are being spoken about in housing.
There is an overall total housing delivery figure for the country, which includes housing built by both private market supply and that funded and built by the State.
For example, last year there were 20,000 new housing units built in the country. Of those, 5,073 were delivered as social housing by the State, and 15,000 were delivered by the private market.
There needs to be a clear distinction in this plan between what the private market is estimated to deliver and what the State plans to deliver itself.
The headline in Housing for All is likely to promote the overall total (private and State) targeted delivery of 33,000 homes a year. But the State can only guarantee the delivery of what it funds and builds itself. Claiming the plan will provide 33,000 homes might be a target, but it is misleading as it will be relying for most of that on the private market.
Which means there is no guarantee of delivery, and given the failings of the private market over the last few years, this is likely to be even less so.
The key figure that should be focused on, therefore, is what will the State build itself in this new plan, where is the funding for it, and what exact numbers of social, cost rental, and affordable purchase homes will be built by the State each year?
- Dr Rory Hearne is assistant professor at the Social Policy Department of Applied Social Studies, Maynooth University. He is the author of Housing Shock: The Irish Housing Crisis and How to Solve it (Policy Press, 2020)