Rory Hearne: Covid-19 shows we need a new housing direction in Ireland

The pandemic has exposed the vast inequalities and dysfunctions of Ireland’s housing system and needs to be addressed urgently, writes Dr Rory Hearne
Rory Hearne: Covid-19 shows we need a new housing direction in Ireland
A national housing plan is needed to bring Ireland’s public housing stock (currently just 9% of all housing is social housing) up to levels in countries with successful housing systems like the Netherlands (30% of housing is social housing).
A national housing plan is needed to bring Ireland’s public housing stock (currently just 9% of all housing is social housing) up to levels in countries with successful housing systems like the Netherlands (30% of housing is social housing).

The pandemic has exposed the vast inequalities and dysfunctions of Ireland’s housing system and needs to be addressed urgently, writes Rory Hearne

The Covid-19 pandemic shows the central importance of secure, affordable, decent standard homes and housing to our lives.

The message to prevent the spread has been to “stay home”. But Covid-19 has also laid bare the structural problems, inequalities, and dysfunctions of our housing system.

Home is not a place of safety or prevention for the tens of thousands who are homeless, in emergency accommodation, direct provision, or the “hidden homeless” in overcrowding and substandard housing.

Housing is a vital social determinant of health.

Many of those made unemployed or suffering from wage cuts from the recession have been unable to pay rents and mortgages.

They have been left exposed to economic shocks by decades of housing policy that failed to build affordable homes, long-term secure tenancies, and control rents.

The temporary ban on evictions and rent freezes, which Government had previously insisted as being unworkable or unconstitutional, was vital to avoid a tsunami of evictions.

The dominant housing policy paradigm has treated housing as an investment asset rather than its vital role as a home that ensures the health and dignity of those living in it.

The pandemic downturn could still cause a tsunami of evictions if the temporary ban on evictions is not

extended for at least three years, and supports for tenants and homeowners including rent and mortgage write-downs are provided.

It will be crisis heaped upon crisis.

We have also seen hundreds of homes, previously used as short-term tourist lets, become available to rent and used to house those homeless. It begs the question of why these were not properly regulated before?

In my book, Housing Shock, I identify the structural problems in our housing system, including the overreliance on the private market and global investors to provide housing.

Private housing supply is likely to reduce as investors and developers shelve projects in the face of falling rents and house prices. Wage cuts and unemployment will mean fewer mortgage approvals. Landlords will have to reduce rents.

A permanent home will become even more out of reach for Generation Rent. Demand for student accommodation could fall as students live at home rather than house share.

Government social housing policy that has shifted away from public housing building to rely on purchasing social housing and renting it from the private market will further exacerbate this undersupply crisis.

Spending on State housing payments, rent supplement and Housing Assistance Payment will increase significantly.

After making the correct initial responses to Covid-19, the next Government must continue with stimulus and not repeat the mistakes of housing and economic policy introduced after the last economic crash.

A return to retrenchment, even “austerity lite” would cause social and economic devastation.

In my book, I explain how the last period of austerity cuts in social house building resulted in the current housing crisis.

Ireland went from building 5,300 social housing units a year in 2009 to just 400 units in 2017.

There is even talk of giving additional subsidies to private developers, global vulture funds, and real estate investment trusts with the Land Development Agency rolling out new public-private partnerships.

But surely the folly of allowing the private market and global investment trusts funds dictate our housing system is glaringly apparent? It will become even more disastrous if the State does not step in a new way now.

Any new Government must take the brave and visionary action that should have been taken following the last crash.

This book sets out it should be done through “a green new deal for housing that provides affordable sustainable homes and communities for all”.

A national housing plan is needed that aims to bring Ireland’s public housing stock (currently just 9% of all housing is social housing) up to levels in countries with the most successful housing systems such as the Netherlands (30% of housing is social housing) and Austria (where 43% of housing in Vienna is public housing).

This would be done by delivering a new form of public housing that is available to a broad range of low and middle-income households.

It would deliver affordable homes for everyone. Involving mainly cost rental homes, but also social and affordable cooperative purchases.

A dedicated Affordable Sustainable Homes Building agency should be created as a public enterprise body to deliver this model and ensuring the building of between 20,000 and 30,000 new public “affordable and sustainable homes” every year, for the next decade and a major retrofitting programme.

This would provide a major employment and economic stimulus and deliver zero carbon sustainable homes meeting climate targets.

Finance is available to do this as borrowing to build public housing and retro-fitting is a long term economic and social investment — not a cost — and better value for money than social rent payments to private landlords.

Planning and housing design will also need to change to incorporate new post Covid-19 and climate living requirements such as sufficient indoor and outdoor space in homes, water harvesting, community green electricity generation, green spaces, and community spaces.

The spirit of solidarity witnessed in response to Covid could be harnessed with communities participating in the roll-out of this community sustainable cooperative housing model.

A radical change in policy is needed to end Ireland’s housing dysfunction and repeated housing crises.

The new housing model should be underpinned by the right to housing as the foundation of housing policy and law.

The right to adequate, affordable, secure housing must be enshrined in our Constitution and law in order to ensure the State, and whatever government is in place, is obliged to ensure every citizen has access to a home.

A referendum is clearly required to insert the right to housing in the Constitution.

The failure to address persistent housing issues has made society even more vulnerable to pandemics and economic crisis.

Housing is fundamental to our wellbeing and a housing system that ensures everyone has an affordable secure home is beneficial for all — rich and poor — as it better protects the whole of society and economy.

Achieving this is a political and societal choice. We are in a time that necessitates paradigm shifts in policy and delivery.

My new book points out that we can and, we must, do it in housing.

  • Rory Hearne is a lecturer in the Social Policy Department of Applied Social Studies, Maynooth University.
  • His book, 'Housing Shock: the Irish Housing Crisis and How to Solve It', is out Wednesday June 3

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