Simon Coveney’s grace period is over and he is not rebuilding Ireland

Eoin Ó Broin TD says Housing Minister Simon Coveney’s grace period is over and he should turn his focus from press launches to building and buying more homes, and meeting the targets as recommended by the Dáil committee on housing    

Picture: Josh Brophy on February 29 at a make shift camp of tents where a number of homeless people are living near the Luas Line close to Dundrum Town Centre. Picture: Rollingnews.ie

Simon Coveney has been Minister for Housing for 11 months. But he has been in Government for almost six years.

His action plan for housing was launched last July. But it is based, in large part, on Alan Kelly’s 2014 social housing strategy.

The minister has warned that there are no quick-fix solutions to the housing crisis.

The 200 families who have spent between 12 and 24 months living in unsuitable emergency accommodation think he has had time enough.

Writing in the Irish Examiner this week Minister Coveney claimed he is making progress. Unfortunately, the Government’s own figures suggest otherwise.

Homelessness has increased by 190% since 2014. Child homelessness has increased by a shocking 250% in the same period.

Official figures show that 4,875 adults and 2,546 children are sleeping in hotels, B&Bs and hostels.

Simon Coveney
Simon Coveney

These figures don’t include adults and children in Tusla-funded domestic violence shelters or the 400 families trapped in direct provision centres despite securing the right to remain.

Since Mr Coveney has taken office, this upward trend has continued unabated. The February 2017 figures released by the Department of Housing last week record the highest ever level of individual, family and child homelessness.

Homelessness is not a force of nature. It is a consequence of actions and inactions of Government.

Mr Coveney sat in Cabinet for five years from 2011, when social housing budgets were slashed and Government refused to take action on home repossessions and spiralling rents.

He and his colleagues in Government are directly to blame for the ever increasing levels of homelessness.

Belatedly, the minister has sought to change direction. But even here his plans lack the ambition or resourcing to address the crisis.

Rebuilding Ireland promises 37,000 real social houses over six years. At 6,000 homes a year this is 40% short of the recommendation of the cross-party Dáil housing and homeless committee report published last year.

That report recommended increasing social housing stock owned by councils and housing associations by 10,000 units a year.

Contrary to his massaged figures, Mr Coveney did not meet the social housing need of 18,000 families in 2016. The total increase in social housing stock was a mere 2,204 units.

Councils also refurbished 2,300 long-term vacant units.

In total, 4,492 real social houses were brought on stream in 2016. The remaining 13,900 social housing “solutions” were in fact private homes leased by the State, the vast majority for just two years.

Subsidised short-term leases do not meet families’ long-term housing needs. Nor do they help build sustainable communities. Instead, they increase pressure on renters and first-time buyers making the housing crisis worse.

There are two reasons why Mr Coveney’s social housing plan isn’t working. The first is the targets for local authority direct builds are too low. The second is the extraordinary length of time it takes the Department of Housing to approve council new builds.

Unfortunately, there is little sign of either of these situations changing in the immediate future.

Worse still is the level of inaction on vacant homes. Census 2016 confirmed that there were 198,000 empty houses across the state. Our rate of vacancy is amongst the highest in Europe.

Mr Coveney has launched three schemes to bring a portion of these properties into use, targeting 6,600 units over six years.

While the schemes have merit they are targeting just 3% of the total vacant stock.

Given that it is cheaper and quicker to bring these units back into use it is hard to understand why so little funding is being spent here.

Simon Coveney’s grace period is over and he is not rebuilding Ireland

By way of example, 1,112 empty turnkey properties have been offered to Government by Bank of Ireland, Allied Irish Bank and Permanent TSB. To date contracts have been signed for just 217.

Given that there are 1,239 families in emergency accommodation, it is hard to understand why more of these properties have not been bought and tenanted. The same lack of investment and urgency is to be found in both the rental and affordable purchase sectors.

Rents continue to rise across the State pushing many, including working families, into homelessness. The Government’s rent pressure zones are an anaemic response for those covered, while the majority of renters remain at the mercy of the market.

Despite all the talk of a new affordable rental scheme, nothing concrete has emerged. For first-time buyers, the situation is even worse as the Government’s so called help-to-buy scheme has simply added 10% onto the purchase price of a home.

Meanwhile, private sector construction activist remains glacial. The minister’s claims that 2016 saw 15,256 house completions has been challenged by independent experts who claim the figure is closer to 7,532.

As with the underinvestment in social housing, today’s Local Investment Housing Activation Fund announcement demonstrates the gap between government rhetoric and delivery.

Providing a paltry €170m in additional central government funding for 34 projects over four years is simply not enough. Worse still there is no guarantee of affordability.

Rebuilding Ireland is badly named, badly designed and badly funded. Mr Coveney is repeating all the same mistakes as his Labour and Fianna Fáil predecessors. His period of grace has long come to an end. His credibility is now on the line and he must start delivering.

Maybe if the minister focused more on building and buying homes and less on high-profile press launches of pre-announced measures, he might start making some real progress.

Eoin Ó Broin is Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on housing

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