Few quick wins but housing reform needs good foundations

When Fr Peter McVerry was speaking on RTÉ’s News At One on Monday, he said something which came as a shock: That news of rising homelessness is no longer a shock, writes Noel Baker

While the figures are undoubtedly appalling — for the first time there are more than 2,000 children homeless in Dublin, with 97 families becoming homeless in July alone, according to Focus Ireland — the situation has been spiralling out of control for so long McVerry may well have a point. What was a “housing crisis” has become a “homelessness crisis”.

Meanwhile, the latest daft.ie figures show that the average rent is €1,037 a month, compared to the average mortgage repayment of €953 a month.

It is only when you speak with people trying to keep their families together while living in cramped hotel rooms that you fully appreciate just how draining and debilitating these personal experiences can be.

In December 2014 the Irish Examiner spoke with one woman facing into Christmas in the hotel room in which she lived with her husband and two young children.

“Having to sit two innocent little kids down and explain to them that there is nowhere for Santy to bring them [their presents], and watch them cry, was the hardest thing any mammy or father should ever, ever have to do,” she said.

Nearly two years down the line, the problem is worse than ever.

Is there a quick fix?

There have long been calls for increases in rent assistance payments and greater levels of security of tenure, but while Housing Minister Simon Coveney was yesterday stressing that 50,000 units would be added to the current stock of social houses over the next five years and that efforts are being made to phase out the use of hotel accommodation for families within the next 12 months, families need solutions now.

Lorcan Sirr of the school of surveying and construction management at Dublin Institute of Technology believes some proposals — such as compulsory purchase orders to buy vacant units, or tax breaks to increase the number of landlords — could get “bogged down”.

Housing Minister Simon Coveney
Housing Minister Simon Coveney

“It’d be far easier to reform the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 to protect tenants so that they cannot be evicted if the owner wants to sell the property or use it for a family member,” he says, adding: “Any tax breaks for landlords should be tied into increased security of tenure for tenants.

"The landlords’ associations want increased tax breaks but without giving anything in return, and this is unacceptable.”

Instead, he has another idea: “We need to make better use of our existing stock. We are losing 123 houses a week to obsolescence — that is houses being allowed for various reasons to fall into a state of being uninhabitable.

"That is 6,500 houses a year, and they are not all in isolated rural areas; many are in large urban centres. So even though we completed 12,666 private houses last year, we only added about 6,000 (at most) houses to the nation’s housing stock.

"It also means that in 2015, for every 100 houses we built, we lost another 63 to obsolescence. This is a sub-optimal use of our houses in a time of housing supply need.”

Orla Hegarty, assistant professor and a course director at the school of architecture, planning and environmental policy at UCD, says: “Re-using existing buildings is the fastest and most immediately available solution to provide sustainable housing at the least cost.

"However, there are significant regulatory barriers that need to be addressed urgently in order to bring buildings into use or to enable conversions from other uses.

"Many new homes could be provided in existing buildings for €30,000-€50,000 in less time than it takes to get planning permission and for less than the price of a site in some outer suburbs.

“However, regulation and bureaucracy are significant barriers to the reuse and adaptation of existing buildings.

"To convert a single unit over a shop requires three separate regulatory approvals, four statutory appointments and procedures under three different bodies of legislation, all operating to different timescales and with different authorities..”

Few quick wins but housing reform needs good foundations

Prof Ronan Lyons of Trinity College Dublin has another angle: An audit of construction costs.

“The Government needs to be able to answer the following question: Why does it cost between 25% and 50% more to build a home in Ireland than in other high-income countries?” he says.

“Identifying the four, five, six specific steps that will lower costs is by far the best way to solve the lack of accommodation in the medium term.

“In the short term, there are unfortunately very few quick wins — although establishing why there are so many vacant properties will help.

"This may be to do with schemes like Fair Deal, which keep homes empty, or an inefficient legal process, both for standard sales — three weeks is the maximum in the UK to do conveyancing, possibly twice that here — and for executor sales.”

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