Elaine Loughlin: State needs a ‘Goldilocks approach’ to housing crisis

Rather than building one-bed units as a short-term solution to the housing crisis, experts argue that building 'cradle to grave' homes is far more sustainable
Elaine Loughlin: State needs a ‘Goldilocks approach’ to housing crisis

LAST week, Leo Varadkar announced he had taken the developer soup and wanted to dole it out across the Dáil — or at least that’s what it appeared like at first glance.

In a few sharp sentences, the Tánaiste denounced our long-held obsession with the three-bed semi and argued that smaller, one-bed apartments were what was required.

According to lecturer and housing analyst Lorcan Sirr: “What we have to remember is that smaller units are more lucrative as an investment so, if you’re a landlord, you’re going to get much more euro per square metre or per square foot out of multiple small units than you will out of a few larger units. 

From an investment point of view, smaller units are much more welcome

However, pointing to societal changes, which meant people now tend to form their households later in life, get married older, and be single for longer, the Tánaiste said it was disappointing to see “so many people” objecting to new homes being built.

No one could possibly disagree that, in the midst of what has become a near permanent housing crisis, we need more housing, and lots of it. The contentious part is the type of accommodation that should be built.

We need more housing, and lots of it. The contentious part is the type of accommodation that should be built. Picture Denis Minihane
We need more housing, and lots of it. The contentious part is the type of accommodation that should be built. Picture Denis Minihane

Responding to questions from Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns, Mr Varadkar said: “Objecting to new housing on the basis that it comprises one-bed apartments, as the Social Democrats so often do, really misunderstands the fact there are so many single people in society now.

“In fact, one of our biggest deficiencies in housing supply in Ireland is that we are a country of three-bedroom homes, by and large, and we do not have enough one-bedroom homes.” 

The statistics back up the Tánaiste’s point. Research compiled by economist Ronan Lyons for the Irish Institutional Property (IIP), which represents investors, found that two thirds of the growth in Irish households since 1996 has been in one- and two-person units, who now form the majority of households in Ireland at 52%.

However, while these smaller households can physically fit into a one-bed or even studio apartment, do these properties actually accommodate their needs?

One-bed dwellings might be a short-term, stop-gap solution to a housing emergency, but they are not the ‘cradle to grave’ and flexible model that many experts argue is far more sustainable.

Architect and University College Dublin (UCD) assistant professor Orla Hegarty said it was “no accident” that a considerable amount of housing traditionally, both in Ireland and internationally, has settled around 90 or 100sq m.

This is double the size of planning guidelines on design standards for apartments, which sets the minimum size of one-bedroom units at 45sq m.

“The minimum size of housing is too small for most people. A studio is too small for a couple as they can’t work from home; a one bed is too small to have a child.

“The minimum standards are just too small for most people, they’re not enough for somebody with a disability, somebody who works from home, somebody who has a hobby — if you practice music or you do art.” 

Leo Varadkar claimed ‘so many people’ were objecting to new home being built but in fact the discussion is about what kind of homes should be built.
Leo Varadkar claimed ‘so many people’ were objecting to new home being built but in fact the discussion is about what kind of homes should be built.

A compact one-bed may be packaged as a marginally more affordable way of getting on the property ladder, but Ms Hegarty believes that there shouldn’t be a ladder attached to owning a home in the first place, and houses or apartments should be able to grow and contract to provide “lifetime flexibility for changing needs”.

This was echoed by Mr Sirr, who said all new buildings should be future proofed.

“This whole narrative comes from the construction sector. You don’t hear people who are living in one-beds crying out for more one-beds,” Mr Sirr said.

“Populations and household sizes rise and fall. So building loads of one-beds on the basis of what’s needed now or in the next 10 years is short-term thinking.

Instead you need, what we call, cradle-to-grave housing — housing that meets people’s needs from their early 20s until they die

Of course, some smaller one-bed properties would always be required and professor of social policy in UCD Michelle Norris said that, previously, there hadn’t been enough of these built for social housing, which tended to favour the three- or even four-bed model.

“We have a housing stock that was built for a certain demographic — our household size was very high compared to the rest of Europe. Our household size is still high by European average, but it’s falling and has been falling since the 1980s.

“In the end, we will come closer to the European average, which is very low — in some countries, it’s not far above one,” she said, adding that new output should reflect this.

Institute of Professional Auctioneers and Valuers chief executive Pat Davitt said that all types of housing was currently needed, including one-bed properties.

However, he pointed to the flexibility of providing housing that can suit multiple needs.

“There’s a shortage across every type of housing but, for instance, if you’ve somebody who wants a three-bedroom house, they can’t take a one-bedroom apartment. Whereas a person who is taking a one-bedroom apartment, could they take a three-bedroom home?” 

A one-bed home does not allow a separated parent to have their children stay at the weekend, neither does it provide the downsizing grandparents with the space to host their family at Christmas 

It doesn’t allow a person to take care of an elderly parent, even on a temporary basis, and it limits working from home to the kitchen table or bedside locker.

To solve the housing deficit in a long-term sustainable manner, we should be adopting what Yvonne Farrell of Grafton Architects described as the Goldilocks rule — not too big, not too small, just right.

Did you know?

There are two situations in which the President can be removed from office.

The first is if five or more Supreme Court judges decide that a sitting president has become permanently incapacitated.

A president may also be impeached by either house of the Oireachtas for “stated misbehaviour”.

Stated misbehaviour might include a criminal offence or a misuse of the president’s powers.

Neither of these options has ever been invoked.

What to look out for

Tuesday

All Cabinet meetings are significant, but given the rapidly evolving situation regarding Covid and the new variant, this week's gathering is expected to be substantial. Covid is likely to dictate the morning meeting of ministers, unlike last week when the pandemic didn't feature on the schedule at all. However, one thing not on the agenda is an antigen subsidy plan, as this has now been scrapped.

Over at the Climate Action Committee, electric vehicles will be discussed with Brian Cooke of the Society for the Irish Motor Industry (SIMI) and John Byrne, ECars Manager, ESB.

In the Seanad there will be statements on the mother and baby home redress scheme from 7.30pm.

Wednesday

If you need a break from talk of Covid, the Sports Committee will hear from representatives from the GAA, the IRFU, FAI and the Irish Soccer Referees Society on how to eliminate abuse towards referees, officials, and players in sport.

Meanwhile, the Finance Committee will get an update from KBC on its withdrawal from the Irish banking market.

In the Dáil, Solidarity-PBP are bringing forward their Workplace Ventilation (Covid-19) Bill 2021. The group has accused the Government of ignoring the importance of ventilation in the fight against Covid-19.

Thursday
There has already been much discussion and criticism of the recently published mother and baby home redress scheme, it is in this context that Children's Minister Roderic O'Gorman will take questions in the Dáil from 9am. 

Members of the opposition are also likely to press him on support measures for the early childcare sector given the emergence of the new Covid variant. Health Minister Stephen Donnelly will also be in the Dáil, taking questions from 10.30am before the final Leaders' Questions of the week at midday.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) will launch their report which examines the 2019 appropriation account for employment affairs and social protection.

Politics headlines through history

1921

December 6: The Anglo-Irish Treaty was agreed. A ‘London Letter’ published in The Cork Examiner the following day stated: “It is too soon for shouting, but it is not too soon to thank God for a great achievement. Whatever may happen now as the outcome of that momentous meeting at Downing Street that lasted into the early hours of this morning, this one great thing has been done which nothing can undo — Ireland’s claim to independence has been admitted.”
The paper also carried the full text of the agreement.

1976

December 3: Patrick Hillery became the sixth president of Ireland. His inauguration came six weeks after the resignation of Cearbhaill Ó Dalaigh following a public insult by the then minister for defence Patrick Donegan. Nineteen countries, including the Soviet Union, took RTÉ’s news coverage of the inauguration through the daily Eurovision link-up for screening on their own bulletins.

1990

December 3: Mary Robinson was inaugurated as president of Ireland. Under the headline ‘First Among Equals’, the Cork Examiner reported that “beneath the crystal chandeliers in Dublin Castle’s St Patrick’s Hall, where Vice Regal revellers danced during the centuries of British rule, President Robinson urged national harmony and tolerance in a new, open and pluralist Ireland, and asked citizens to make the 90s an era of celebration and reconciliation.”

1999

December 2: President Mary McAleese had a private lunch with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, The meeting of the two heads of state took on added significance coming on devolution day in Northern Ireland.

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