Colette Bennett: Housing is public need that can’t be supplied by private sector

With average earners unable to buy and with rents rising, 30,000 homes a year will have to be built, or else the social and financial consequences of homelessness will resonate for generations, says Colette Bennett.

Colette Bennett: Housing is public need that can’t be supplied by private sector

With average earners unable to buy and with rents rising, 30,000 homes a year will have to be built, or else the social and financial consequences of homelessness will resonate for generations, says Colette Bennett.

HOUSING was a major issue for the last government and is likely to be for the next.

According to Eurobarometer, it is one of the two most important issues facing Ireland today, followed by health.

The latest official figures show that 10,448 people accessed emergency accommodation in November 2019, including 1,685 families with 3,752 children.

Homelessness has increased by 60% since the introduction of the Government’s Rebuilding Ireland plan, while family and child homelessness rates have increased by 49% and 60%, respectively. The plan is not working.

The societal cost of homelessness will continue to unfold in the coming years, affecting future generations. Reports from homeless charities and healthcare professionals speak of the difficulties associated with living in cramped conditions: developmental problems in children, including inability to learn how to crawl, walk, or chew; mental health impacts on children and adults; and persistent stigma and isolation.

These issues were blithely ignored by the Fine Gael-led government, which, instead, opted to create a private homelessness industry. The average of €402,000 spent on emergency accommodation per day in 2018 is not only unsustainable societally, but financially.

Housing has become unaffordable for many, particularly those on an average wage. There are 69,000 households on the social housing waiting lists and a further 90,000 in private rented accommodation subsidised by the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP).

Supply of housing is key here, but it must be the right supply. Construction of new social housing has been grossly lacking for years, and targets set out by Rebuilding Ireland, while insufficient, are not being met.

In Ireland, just 9% of all housing is social, compared to the rest of Europe, where the average is 20%. This is what we must achieve if we are to provide suitable accommodation to those most in need. 30,000 homes are required each year.

Rebuilding Ireland set a construction target of 25,000 per year, which is less than what is required and yet even that is still not being met. This is a pattern from a plan that isn’t fit for purpose.

Affordable housing (housing that is affordable for most people on an average wage) is scarce. There are many reasons for this, but suggestions that construction costs or planning regulations are at fault just don’t ring true.

An example of this is the Ó Cualann Co-operative model. In 2018, they were able to bring three-bedroom, A-rated homes to the market for €219,000. The construction costs were such that this could have been replicated anywhere in the country, provided the site was right. And that’s the thing.

That first development was possible because the local authority provided the site at a cost of €1,000 per unit.

Not every local authority site will be suitable for residential development, or be free of debt, but it is possible to build for less than the €320,000 price deemed affordable by the last government (and for which one would need a household income of €82,500).

In 2015, the then Department ofEnvironment, Planning, and LocalGovernment published the results of the Residential Land AvailabilitySurvey 2014, which indicated that local authorities owned enough zoned land to build 414,712 homes.

Rather than selling off this land to private developers to build for profit and little social return, as we have seen in such areas as O’Devaney Gardens, local authorities should be prohibited from selling land suitable for residential development and, instead, use it to provide social, affordable, and public housing.

Families seeking private, rented accommodation are in competition with holiday-makers paying higher prices and the vast majority of private rents are above the HAP limits.

Local authorities refusing to drawdown funding for Traveller Specific Accommodation are sentencing Traveller families to live in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

Cuts to housing grants, since 2010, have not been restored, so that people who have disabilities and older people are unsafe in their own homes.

The housing issue is unlikely to be solved within the lifetime of the next government. However, in our Election 2020 briefing, Social Justice Ireland has made a series of proposals, which, if implemented by the 33rd Dáil, could go a long way to address this:

  • Set a target of 20% of all housing stock to be social; build more social housing
  • Increase the provision of Housing First accommodation for families in emergency accommodation, with wraparound supports to include public health nurses, dieticians, speech-and-language therapists, physical therapists, and mental health workers;
  • Introduce legislation to limit the length of time families can spend in family hubs and in other emergency accommodation;
  • Allow local authorities and approved housing bodies to pool resources to finance this increased supply in a sustainable way;
  • Ensure that no state land that issuitable for housing is sold by a local authority or state agency;
  • Utilise existing housing development models to reduce the average price of a family home to below €220,000;
  • Develop a spectrum of accommodation options for older people and for people with a disability;
  • Sanction local authorities that do not utilise funding to provide safe, sustainable Traveller accommodation;
  • Develop a system of affordable rent, through the cost-rental model, financed ‘off-balance-sheet’ to allow for supply to scale up, without adding to the government debt;
  • Increase the rate of local authority rent inspections;
  • Resource the enforcement of legislation, targeting short-term lettings;
  • Commence the legislation, bringing a statutory tenant deposit scheme into effect (enacted in 2015);
  • Enforce the vacant site levy.

It’s time to stop the reliance on the private sector and start treating housing as a public need.

Colette Bennett, research and policy analyst, Social Justice Ireland

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