Housing action plan: Simon Coveney bets his career on promise to end homelessness

Simon Coveney has effectively promised to end homelessness and the housing emergency in one big swoop. The housing minister is betting his career on fixing the crisis.

The results, though, are so dependent on a number of factors in the sector falling or being driven into place.

Mr Coveney’s success will be based on the actual delivery of the housing units in the social and private sector, supports given to renters, changes experienced by those without a home, and the speed at which all this can be achieved.

Those aspirations will rely on promised funding remaining in place to drive the changes as well as the commitment and participation of developers, local authorities, and even the EU.

The strategy is made up of five areas: Addressing homelessness, accelerating social housing delivery, building more units, improving the rental sector, and utilising existing housing.

Housing action plan: Simon Coveney bets his career on promise to end homelessness

While Fine Gael is hamstrung as a minority government, this strategy is its first chance to deliver anything of substance since taking office again.

The strategy has 80 key actions, with built-in timelines and, in some cases, allocated funding.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny yesterday pledged to personally oversee implementation of the strategy, saying it is “ambitious” but “realistic”.

Mr Coveney hopes the country can produce 25,000 housing units annually as early as 2019, two years ahead of target. This would be made up of 20,000 for private and 5,000 for social housing.

Overall, he expects it could be possible to facilitate some 134,000 new social housing units by 2021. Some 47,000 of these would be new, the rest comprising acquisitions, refurbished, and built/leased units.

These are huge targets, significantly more than the numbers there currently.

New builds are a “non-starter” at the moment, said Mr Coveney, revealing that just one new housing estate has been proposed in Co Galway in the last seven years.

To facilitate the social housing unit increases, up to €5.35bn will now go towards them, €2bn more than was previously promised. Local authorities and housing bodies will be pushed too.

“If that urgency isn’t there, we’re going to get it into the system,” said Mr Coveney.

The increase in social housing output is necessary to take pressure of the rental sector and make private dwellings more available.

Another key plank is the plan to ramp up the number of mixed tenure developments. Mr Coveney said that, under the strategy, there will be more integration.

“You are going to drive into estates and you’re not going to be able to spot the difference [between social and private housing],” he claimed.

To offset any suggestion the strategy will not work, he pointed to a graph at yesterday’s launch saying that, without government intervention, only 15,000 new units a year would be made available by 2021 compared to the promised 25,000.

A key question, however, is whether developers will actually build?

Mr Coveney admitted investment firms are sitting on lands longer than necessary to try and make profits. But he pledged that, through the use of State lands, along with a ramping up of training for the construction trade and an eventual introduction of a levy on vacant sites, builders would see there is value for money in the sector. Mr Coveney even expects developers to soon announce developments of 1,000 houses or more.

High-quality development applications would be given “priority”, he said, and large developments of 100 units or more will be fast-tracked directly to An Bord Pleanála, with decisions possible in just 18 weeks. Furthermore, local authorities will get a €200m infrastructure fund for bridges, roads, and other projects to facilitate developments.

Key reforms of the rental sector and a special grant for first-time buyers — not for buying mansions — will be outlined later in the autumn, said Mr Coveney.

A key pledge, to be monitored closely, was the promise to end use of hotels and B&Bs for the homeless in the next year. It is “possible to eradicate” homelessness, said Mr Coveney.

The clock is ticking. A lot has been promised. The results are now awaited.

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