The scale of the task was not made any less daunting by yesterday’s assertion to the Oireachtas committee on housing and homelessness by Nama chairman Frank Daly that the agency could not solve the crisis on its own.
That challenge, however, will be — or at least should be — made manageable because there is universal acceptance that we have to dramatically improve how housing, especially social housing, is provided, accessed and paid for. At the moment, the process of getting a home is almost a lottery and increasingly unaffordable for people in what were traditionally considered decent jobs capable of sustaining a family.
The crisis, and particularly the escalating rental crisis, is a Gordian knot of conflicting interests, urgent need, unacceptable hardship, entrenched hierarchies, unchallenged property rights that very often run counter to social needs, unhelpfully reticent bankers, taxation, planning timespans, all-conquering vulture funds, land hoarding, disengaged developers and, all too often, plain greed. The more voracious landlords, even though there are many who have behaved honourably, will point to the supply and demand curve as justification for increases in rents that go far beyond inflation or wage growth. These increases dramatically outstrip both those fundamentals. Some property owners are exploiting a dysfunctional market to charge rents very much out of kilter with all other costs in this society. Developers or others hoarding land fall into the same category.
Foremost amongst these opportunists are the vulture funds or receivers who instigate mass evictions of rent-compliant tenants. It seems a logical and desirable first step for Mr Coveney to introduce legislation that would make it far more difficult, if not impossible, to instigate mass evictions of tenants who are up to date with rents. This seems a stand-up and be counted moment — one that will test the Government and its promises around property market reform. Any such consumer-protection legislation would be opposed by myriad lobbyists but that should not deter the Government. The last Government introduced measures to undo the knot but it is difficult to gauge how successful they were. It is easier to say that neither was proportionate to the crisis. One was a two-year rent freeze and the other a 3% levy on unused sites.
When he became Housing Minister, Mr Coveney paid tribute to the efforts made by the last environment minister, Alan Kelly, to try to confront the issue. That they resulted in little more than superficial improvements is another indication of the scale of the problem. Every now and then a society is faced with a challenge that defines it. The economic collapse of 2007 was the last one we faced. How we respond to the housing crisis and, on an international front, the migration crisis, will define us for years to come. We have not made a good start but the will, the obligation, and the resources exist to resolve it quickly. Urgent, confident, game-changing action is needed.