Cross-party action plan is imperative to tackle the housing crisis

Niamh Randall

The housing crisis is a national emergency affecting every region and community across the country. The real question is what happens next? asks Niamh Randall

Since December 2014, the Simon Communities have attended three forums on housing and homelessness, including one yesterday.

While the hosting of these forums by Environment Minister Alan Kelly is a welcome acknowledgment that this is a national emergency affecting every region and community across the country, the real question is what happens next?

We urgently need a co- ordinated action plan as the housing and homeless crisis continues to worsen at an alarming rate. The number of people experiencing homelessness has grown substantially worse in the 14 months since that first Emergency Homeless Summit in December 2014.

There was a 49% increase in the number of people in emergency accommodation over the course of 2015. The extent of the crisis demands a cross-party platform where political affiliations are put aside so that housing and homelessness are prioritised for immediate action rather than being a political football. We desperately need short-, medium-, and long-term measures to increase housing supply and to prevent any more people from becoming homeless.

A cross party approach is a different way of looking at the crisis, but we owe it to the nearly 6,000 people stuck in emergency accommodation today, or sleeping on our streets at night, and those living in fear of losing their home day after day. People who have been let down time and again over the last 18 months by a lacklustre response as the crisis deepened.

Preventing homelessness

The previous government set aside a number of key issues that now need to be re-examined. It is imperative that rent supplement and housing assistance payments are increased immediately if people are to hold on to their existing homes. We need enhanced protection for tenants in the private rented sector and full rent certainty where rents are linked to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The limited protection for tenants in the private rented sector is plain to see in the face of so-called vulture funds operating within the legal framework of the State, often seeking vacant possession. Ireland’s approach to the housing market is completely disconnected; home ownership, the private rented sector, social housing, and homelessness are approached in isolation when in fact they are all interconnected. When changes are implemented in one part of the market there is a knock-on effect on the others.

Housing supply

New housing takes at least 18 months to build but we need to start exploring ways to immediately increase supply. It is unacceptable that some vacated local authority properties are taking up to nine months to turn around before a household can be occupied. We need action on making better use of existing empty private housing units and vacant/void local authority housing — cut through the red tape so they can be brought back into use as quickly as possible. The clearing house approach to developing off-balance sheet models used by the Department of the Environment has not been successful. We now need to convene a group of people who have the expertise, skills, and knowledge to develop such a model for social housing within a tight timeframe.

Working together

The Simon Communities are working at full capacity all around the country with more than 7,500 people.

As a national organisation at the frontline of the housing and homeless crisis, it is heart-breaking to see the number of people turning to us for help in every community month after month. It is unacceptable to expect people to put their lives and futures on hold while negotiations drag on to form a government, and who knows, maybe another election.

In this vacuum, cross-party, cross-departmental work must start immediately if people suffering because of the crisis are to have any hope. When a government is formed, a minister with overall responsibility for housing is needed with a seat, vote, and full support of cabinet.

All the political parties and independents must agree to support the necessary measures so that nobody is left without a home; that everyone can remain in their communities where they have positive family and support networks, and a much better opportunity to leave homelessness behind them for good.

Niamh Randall is the national spokeswoman for the Simon Communities

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