There is hardly a more volatile interface between what we accept as people’s property rights and even a vague idea of what a just society might look like than the housing market.
That we call it a housing rather than a homes market shows we believe we are dealing in commodities rather than in one of life’s necessities. Even our vocabulary acknowledges a hierarchy of rights over needs that disadvantages far too many people.
That, as Rory Hearne writes today in this newspaper, there are 90,000 households in housing need and up to 5,000 homeless people in the country despite there being over twice that number of vacant houses or apartments — 230,056 — just confirms what anyone who has given the issue a moment’s thought concluded a long time ago. Our housing — homes— market is profoundly dysfunctional and needs a radical, unprecedented overhaul. These figures are also an indictment of this society and, at a moment when housing is the critical issue for so many people, nothing less than a national scandal. Of course some of these homes are in the wrong place but that over 8% of Dublin’s housing — and this figure does not include boarded-up, half abandoned units — confirms that we are dealing with a scandal of how resources are used rather than official mismanagement and ineptitude.
That the residential property market was at the root of the near collapse of the West’s banking system not so very long ago puts the challenge of resolving the out-of-kilter equilibrium around homes in a very stark and deeply challenging political light. That for young families — and very many individuals — trying to own their home becomes the defining, all-dominant economic project of their working lives puts this issue in a context that is hardly attractive. That so many people commit to this 30-year challenge rather than rent a home raises all sorts of questions about our free-for-all rental market. It also points to questions about who really benefits from our dysfunctional rental and housing sector. That so many European societies, many at least as successful as ours, order things differently around home ownership, tenants’ security, rents and landlords’ rights, suggests that alternative, more successful and fairer models already exist.
Dr Hearne makes a number of suggestions about how we might begin to tackle the crisis. He suggests Government might buy some of empty buy-to-let properties — estimated at 40,000 — and rent them to those who need social housing. He suggests that local authorities should impose new taxes on vacant and derelict properties and not just on unused sites. He argues that fines be imposed unless owners release vacant properties to the market.
Property interests would hardly embrace these proposals enthusiastically but as last weekend’s political polls showed, the established way of doing things, the comfortable status quo, no longer seems viable. It hardly seems revolutionary to suggest that some of these people-centred ideas might be implemented if the growing disillusionment with traditional politics is not to grow ever stronger and more dangerous.