Rory Hearne: The housing crisis is scarring a generation of children

A quarter of all children are growing up in the insecure private rental sector and their potential is being reduced due to ill health caused by housing stress, says Rory Hearne
Rory Hearne: The housing crisis is scarring a generation of children

Last year 3,038 households renting were served a notice to quit, mainly because the landlord was selling up. This is the highest number of tenant evictions in a single year in this country since the foundation of the State.

A generation of children are being scarred and traumatised by the housing crisis. They and their families are living in a state of unease and fear.

On Monday’s Liveline, a father recounted the devastating impact on his partner and children, an eight-year-old and 11-month-old twins, when they had to leave their rental home because the landlord was selling up. They could not find anywhere else to rent and were told by the council to go to a Garda station. 

A garda station is where a family that was being made homeless was told to go. This is unacceptable. And their story is repeated up and down the country. Individuals and families are being given notice by landlords selling up. 

As the latest Daft.ie rent report showed last week, there is nowhere else to rent. The number of properties listed to rent nationally is at a record low, and those that are available are, in the majority of instances, out of the financial reach of most families.

The number of renters having to leave their homes is staggering. Last year 3,038 households renting were served a notice to quit, mainly because the landlord was selling up. This is the highest number of evictions of tenants to take place in a single year in this country since the foundation of the State. Renters are living in fear and insecurity, terrified of losing their home if their landlord sells up, and facing the impossible task of finding somewhere else to rent.

The stereotypical view of renters is young singles and couples. What proportion of Irish children is living in the private rental sector? Very few, you might think, but in fact, a quarter of all children are growing up in the insecure private rental sector. That is 281,000 children living in a housing situation with their families that is unstable, where they might have to uproot themselves and leave their home. 

A third of all couples with children are living in the private rental sector. Half of all one-parent families are renting. For a child, stability and security are fundamental to enable them to develop and grow and to enjoy and flourish in their childhood. Yet a quarter of all children in this country do not have a safe secure home. 

They are living in households where their parents are living in a state of chronic housing stress – constantly worried about how they will afford the rent or will they even have a home in a few months or next year. Will they have to uproot their children away from their friends, move to a strange school, a strange community?

This is really upsetting for young children and teenagers. The capacity of parents who suffer high levels of housing stress is reduced. Children also feel and experience stress. Chronic stress has major mental and physical health impacts on adults and particularly children, whose brains are developing. 

These are critical times for children in their development. Trauma and chronic stress in childhood is an Adverse Childhood Experience that can leave lifetime negative impacts. Some children will internalise their parent’s stress. Parents report that their children are too upset to go to school, worried will they have a home to come back to. 

Others report development regression in children – bedwetting, crying more often, becoming shy, anxious. This loss of a home can be even more challenging for children with physical or intellectual disabilities, and the impact of the loss of support networks and services for them and their families.

The latest CSO Survey of Income and Living Conditions (SILC) showed how high housing costs – the massive cost of rents, in particular – are pushing households with children into poverty. Which means pushing them into chronic stress. 

While the overall rate of people at risk of poverty fell from 13% in 2020 to 11% in 2021, the poverty rates for households with children after they paid their housing costs did not fall, and for one-parent families with children poverty actually increased in 2021. Half of all one-parent families are in poverty after they pay their housing costs. 

For households with two adults and children, the rate of poverty jumps from 9.1% to 17% after housing costs are paid. An additional 100,000 children are in poverty after housing costs, meaning a quarter of all children in the country are in poverty after their family pays the rent or mortgage.

In May last year, official figures showed 928 families and their 2,148 children were homeless. But by March of this year, just 10 months later, there were 2,811 children homeless. That is a 30% increase in the number of children homeless in just 10 months. 

Government expresses ‘concern’, but where is the emergency action like a renewed moratorium on evictions? Where is the shock, the outrage, the shame? 

Have we become so numbed to this trauma? Is it normalised? These are children – this is not their fault or the fault of their families – it is a housing policy that was ideologically opposed to building social and affordable housing and left everyone who could not afford extortionately high house prices to the mercy of the private rental sector.

We don't even have an accurate measurement of the number of people affected. Headline homeless figures from the Department of Health show the number of people engaging with homeless services, but they don't include those staying with friends, sleeping on couches or seeking other forms of support.

The reality is that the number of adults and children affected is higher than the already-shocking figures we are given. This is causing a waste of human potential. Childhood is being stolen from these children and their potential is being reduced, due to the mental and physical ill-health caused by housing stress.

What must these children, and particularly teenagers who are more aware of society, think of the adult world that can't provide them and their family a safe stable home? What must they think of this country, of Government? What anger, frustration, and resentment is building up inside them?

Where is the hope of a secure housing future for those in the rent trap or in overcrowding back home with multi-generational housing situations? Where is the affordable housing they can buy? Or the social housing they can move into? What lies ahead?

The housing crisis is scarring a generation of children. Hundreds of thousands of children are growing up in this country not knowing what it is to live in a stable secure safe home.

It is time for a real housing emergency response from Government. The reinstatement of the eviction ban for two years, a rent freeze, the purchase of landlord’s properties who are selling up to keep the tenants in their homes, and the formation of a State construction company to undertake the accelerated building of affordable homes to buy and rent, and refurbishment of vacant and derelict property.

  • Rory Hearne is assistant professor of Social Policy at the Department of Applied Social Studies, Maynooth University.

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