Special Report: Are we building a workable solution for the housing crisis?

In a special report, Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe looks at how people are still suffering despite Government attempts to fix the housing crisis. Housing Minister Simon Coveney and CEO of the Peter McVerry Trust Pat Doyle also have their say on this crucial issue facing the country.

Families need Government to build a workable solution to housing crisis

It’s too early to say whether recent Government attempts to fix the housing crisis will work. In the meantime, many people are still suffering, writes Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe.

SKY-HIGH rents, unaffordable house prices, unprecedented numbers of homeless families and an all-time low record of social housing builds.

These are some of the characteristics that mark so-called solutions to help solve Ireland’s housing crisis that has left ordinary families in a state of stasis, in poverty, and in many cases, without a roof over their heads.

Families without homes are being treated like second class citizens, according to frontline agencies. 

There are exceptional amounts of money going into government promises to solve the housing crisis but little sign of relief for those renting, buying or relying on state support for a home to live in. It is a national shame.

Jenna Foley, with her daughters Kaylee and Chloe, one of the first families who will move into Cork city council’s Sheridan Park development in Togher
Jenna Foley, with her daughters Kaylee and Chloe, one of the first families who will move into Cork city council’s Sheridan Park development in Togher

Property problems have plagued this country and its cities for years. The property boom helped bust the entire nation. And still, years later, we have yet to formally regulate and allow families the courtesy of normal lives under a roof.

A new generation now look hopelessly on (many have no choice but to leave their communities or areas) at this tragedy. 

And it is a tragedy that people face massive rents and therefor cannot save for a home and in worse situations are priced out of the rental market and so become homeless.

The vicious housing crisis circle will only profit and benefit those who have no interest in a modern, properly working society, namely ruthless landlords, funds and builders. 

The rest of the country is at the mercy of an uncontrollable market that is out of control once again.

A determined Simon Coveney has vowed to fight this crisis head on and plans to try to fix the broken housing and rental sectors.

The Housing Minister, has set an number of ambitious targets, these include:

  • Putting an end to the use of emergency accommodation such as hotels for homeless families by the end of June
  • Doubling the number of new home builds to 25,000 by 2021
  • Limiting rent increases by setting a cap of 4% for annual rate hikes
  • Making up for years of funding gaps for social housing

These are grand visions, backed by specific deadlines and targets, and overseen by his officials in the Department of Housing. In many cases, it is too early to say though if the plans are working.

Many of the multi-annual plans are only unfolding or beginning. Rents were only capped for Dublin and Cork in December and number of other areas in January. Rates have rocketed elsewhere since.

So-called ‘rapid builds’, to give immediate solutions for the homeless, have only been completed in Poppintree, Ballymun. Just 22 units have been completed, despite proposals for hundreds across Dublin and elsewhere.

Equally, the rate of social housing completion is slow. Only 652 new social housing units went up last year. 

Two thirds of the ‘solutions’ delivered for social housing came through housing assistance payments.

Critics would say Coveney is missing his mark. Activists on the ground, including housing agencies, say any results will take a while. 

Nonetheless, the Programme for Government specifically stipulates that “the actions of the new partnership Government will work to end the housing shortage and homelessness crisis”.

You would hope it does, especially with the likes of some €935m in Government funds going into housing last year.

Critics and agencies agree that local authorities could do more. Councils must inspect more rental properties, speed up social housing builds and could use more vacant stock to help the sector.

In fact, many agree the existing stock of 200,000 empty homes nationwide should be more heavily focused on by officials instead of the push to construct new units.

Mr Coveney did publish the promised action plan for housing within 100 days of taking office. But is it working? It could be argued it is too early to say. 

But we are certainly experiencing a savage and damaging housing crisis which is forcing families out of communities and has already seen many lose the chances to own their own homes.

Renters are in desperate places, trapped without any rights or unable to pay huge rates. The Dublin Tenants Association, set up two years ago, has been inundated with complaints.

Member and spokesman Mick Byrne told the Irish Examiner that landlords in rent cap areas are wrongly hiking up rates.

But tenants fear being evicted and won’t bring challenges to the the residential tenancies board.

“There is weak regulation and excess demand. It is a disaster. Now people are being treated like second class citizens. There is a strong culture of non-compliance among landlords.

“They are applying invalid rent increases, entering properties unannounced and there are no minimum standards. There is a systematic, unregulated black hole at the centre of the rental market.”

Equally, housing charity Threshold states families have been priced out of the rental sector, particularly in Dublin, in the last two years.

The supply of new social housing, says Threshold CEO John Mark, is the key to rebuilding Ireland.

The quality of housing stock is equally worrying, says the charity CEO. Mr Mark says standards in the private housing sector could be improved by having a rating, similar to the BER.

Clearly there is still a lot to be done. And Simon Coveney’s period of grace as the minister charged with fixing the housing sector is coming to an end.

Families need relief. And soon.

Looking at all means of getting more houses

Years of pro-cyclical policies contributed to the crash that caused a decade of inactivity, says Housing Minister Simon Coveney.

Rebuilding Ireland, An Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness’ is just eight months old and already we are now starting to see some progress.

I have consistently said that addressing the challenging problems of housing and homelessness would be difficult and there would be no quick-fix solutions.

Simon Coveney
Simon Coveney

Let’s be honest, the housing sector has been on life support for a number of years and there was little or no money for local authorities to build social housing.

Many years of pro-cyclical policies contributed to the crash that caused a decade of inactivity, and it will take a number of years of the correct ones to put things right.

The ESRI has calculated that for a country of our population and size, we need to deliver 25,000 homes or more every year, to meet the needs of our people, whether for rental or purchase, social or private housing.

We are a long way off that level of home starts, but the most recent statistics are positive and indicate that at last we are moving in the right direction. 

The most recent monthly activity report indicates 15,256 homes were provided last year and commencement notices in the year up to the end of January 2017 show an increase of 44% year on year. 

My target is to get to 25,000 new homes per year and go beyond that as quickly as possible.

One of the central elements of ‘Rebuilding Ireland’ involves an unprecedented commitment of €5.35 billion for social housing. We are determined to help individuals and families that are homeless and those on social housing waiting lists. 

The most recent figures show that there are 91,600 households on the lists.

Local authorities and approved housing bodies have been tasked to build, buy, rent and lease social housing properties across the country. This means a dramatic ramping up of capacity to deliver on social housing projects. And it’s starting to work.

Last year 18,300 social housing solutions were put in place and this year that figure will be over 21,000 and we will spend €1.3bn making it so. 

In terms of social housing construction, 650 homes were built last year, 1,800 are under construction on sites around the country and 8,430 are at various stages in the pipeline of delivery.

Special Report: Are we building a workable solution for the housing crisis?

We must be innovative in our approach and that is why, along with the massive additional commitment to social housing, we are looking at any and all means of getting more houses to use for families that need them.

I have introduced a series of new schemes worth hundreds of millions of euro in order to get thousands of vacant houses back into use for social housing — the Repair and Leasing Scheme will see some 3,500 homes returned to use at a cost of €140 million. 

Last year, we spent €200m buying back houses for social housing.

We need to achieve maximum delivery on some large strategic sites that have been in a state of suspended animation because critical infrastructure is missing.

That’s why we brought in a €200m housing infrastructure fund to unlock these sites. I will be shortly announcing funding for roads, bridges and amenity infrastructure that will facilitate the delivery of tens of thousands of new homes across the country.

I have been Minister for Housing for less than a year but in that time significant progress has been made, we have launched a comprehensive plan which is well funded and making steady progress, housing activity is increasing and the outlook is positive.

Responding to and solving our housing issues is the Government’s number one priority and I intend to keep driving that agenda forward.

Simon Coveney is Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government

Leave all doors open in search for solutions

Pat Doyle, CEO of the Peter McVerry trust, says they welcome Simon Coveney's commitment to tackling the housing crisis but says the country needs an enhanced role for social protection in preventing homelessness.

We welcome the continued commitment from Housing Minister Simon Coveney to tackle the housing and homeless crisis.

Rebuilding Ireland has set out ambitious plans for large-scale social housing delivery. Until the plan reaches the output levels needed, we must ensure that all other appropriate measures are in place to help tackle homelessness.

Pat Doyle
Pat Doyle

We must ensure we take the appropriate steps to reduce the number of people on our streets and to this end we welcome the increase in Housing First targets. But we must also reduce the number of people in emergency accommodation and the number of people going into commercial hotels and B&Bs.

We welcome the minister’s commitment to end the use of commercial hotels and B&Bs to accommodate homeless families.

The Rapid Build programme, which should be scaled up and rolled out, will be critical in achieving this goal.

As we wait for the social houses to come on stream, there are three key steps that need to be taken. The first is to build and scale up prevention measures already in place.

The tenancy protection scheme is one measure that has done amazing work in preventing people entering homelessness, by keeping tenants in their homes. By increasing the capacity and resources of the scheme, we can help prevent further cases of homelessness in the coming months.

It also important to acknowledge the issue of poverty as a major cause of homelessness. Any study of people entering homelessness, including those entering hotels and B&Bs, will find that the underlying issue for many is poverty.

An increase in allowances and strategic targeting of social welfare supports can only strengthen and complement prevention strategies already in place to prevent people becoming homeless. Clearly, we need an enhanced role for social protection in preventing homelessness.

The second step is to go after the empty homes, the low-hanging fruit of housing supply. In early March, we hosted Ireland’s first empty homes conference, which heard from experts from Ireland and abroad who underlined the huge potential that exists in the area of empty homes.

We welcome the minister’s repair and leasing scheme, which will be launched in the coming days. It has the potential to see thousands of homes coming back into the housing system.

Special Report: Are we building a workable solution for the housing crisis?

This scheme and other new initiatives will sit alongside changes to the process for adapting some commercial buildings to residential.

All of these measures combined can help to quickly and cost-effectively ensure that empty homes play a key role in housing supply.

Finally, it is also essential that anyone in need of shelter has access to it. At a minimum, our response must ensure everyone has access to high quality emergency accommodation and professional supports.

Since December, a total of 238 new emergency beds have come into the system in Dublin and a further 100 are earmarked to come into operation shortly.

We believe every resource and every available building should be assessed as regards its suitability for providing new homeless accommodation.

It is important that people have access to shelter because it means more people can get off the street, more people access proper assessment, access keyworkers and support services and be put on a pathway to housing.

Clearly though, in the medium and long-term the response to homelessness must be all about housing, housing, and housing.

Pat Doyle is CEO of the Peter McVerry Trust

The Government's five pillars to tackle the housing crisis

1. SKY HIGH RENTS

Most observers say it is too early to formally assess the rent caps introduced in December.

Rent Pressure Zones (RPZs) were extended beyond Dublin and Cork to commuter towns and other cities in January. But the concern is that landlords in other areas will hike up rates ahead of any possible cap being introduced there.

Special Report: Are we building a workable solution for the housing crisis?

There is uproar that towns such as Dundalk, Drogheda, Maynooth, Greystones as well as the cities of Waterford and Limerick have not been designated RPZs.

Some welcome the 4% annual rent rise cap, others say rates in fact should have been forced down or even at least linked to the consumer price index.

Zones could also be smaller and not electoral area sizes, suggest critics. But even Fianna Fail privately say some cap is better than none at all.

It may also be years before standards are improved. A recent audit of local authority inspections of rentals found failure rates amounted to 100% in six areas.

The Government plans to ringfence funds for local authority inspections from 2018 onwards, so a quarter of rentals are checked by 2021. But some argue this will be too little, too late. 

Especially when rates are already extremely steep.

There is also pressure to ease rental pressures by returning run down rental stock to the market as well as calls to regulate Airbnb so more units are freed up for tenants, especially in cities. 

2. NEW BUILDS 

The Government has promised to help double the number of new homes constructed annually to 25,000 by 2021.

Eight months since the launch of Rebuilding Ireland, Department of Environment data shows 14,932 new homes were completed in 2016, an increase of 18% on 2015.

The figures are based on ESB connections.

Planning permissions were also granted for 16,375 new homes in 2016, a 26% rise on the previous year.

Special Report: Are we building a workable solution for the housing crisis?

It could be argued then that the Government is more than half way to meeting its annual new build target. It is early yet though.

There is criticism about proposals from Government to sell off State lands for development.

It is also unclear to what extent builders or foreign investors have jumped at the idea of constructing here, as claimed by Housing Minister Simon Coveney.

An independent assessment is also needed on what it costs to actually build new homes, critics say.

A proposed €200m infrastructure fund to encourage development has also been oversubscribed, with €800m in plans lodged by local authorities, Sinn Féin notes.

Moreover, Independent TDs warn that selling lands at discount prices to developers will result in only 20% of units going to social housing, 20% to affordable renting while the builder sells the 50% left to private buyers. This is based on pilot projects in Dublin.

3. SOCIAL HOUSING 

The Government has promised to build 47,000 new social housing units by 2021 at a cost of €5.3bn. It is a huge commitment, especially after almost a decade which saw little or no social housing development.

Other measures to reduce the estimated 90,000-long social housing waiting list include expanding Housing Assistance Payments (HAP) for renters and increasing the number of mixed housing developments.

The facts are social housing new builds were among the lowest in the state’s history last year. Only 652 new social housing units were built. While the department notes over 18,000 social housing solutions were delivered, two thirds of these involved HAP payments.

The rest included reusing void units, councils buying existing stock and leasing homes among options.

The issue is the huge backlog in social housing development.

Furthermore, there are mixed views about whether state funds should go towards new builds or doing up vacant properties.

Housing agencies point to the fact there are over 200,000 empty properties nationwide.

But Labour points to the limited success of the ‘living over the shop’ or ‘living city’ schemes.

The take-up there has been low.

Critics also claim that putting families onto HAP schemes just fudges the situation and is not a long term solution.

Local authorities again and again also come under criticism for their slow building records and more of a stick approach is needed to ensure social housing demands are met, say Opposition TDs. 

4. HOMELESSNESS

Minister Simon Coveney’s promise to end the use of emergency accommodation for the homeless in hotels and B&Bs by the end of June is bold.

His predecessors set targets that were never reached. This one is a key for Coveney’s leadership ambitions as well as for Fine Gael as a whole.

There are still 700 families living in hotels and B&B accommodation. As part of the plan to tackle homelessness, the Government promised 200 rapid-build homes by the end of 2016, a further 800 this year, and a further 1,500 next year.

Just 22 have been built so far in Poppintree, Dublin. It has failed here so far — despite many units awaiting construction. Some €250m was made available this year for emergency accommodation and Housing Assistance Payment (HAP). 

The funds are there, says Government. But numbers without homes spiked in December and January this year — despite the usual expected seasonal drop.

Special Report: Are we building a workable solution for the housing crisis?

With solutions promised, the concern is that families get long-term solutions, especially when it comes to the welfare of children who have been forced to live out of bags in hotels.

Agencies such as Threshold say, however, that soaring rents are a main reason for families finding themselves on the streets. 

Coveney’s promise is ambitious, concede agencies, but they welcome that someone is at least trying to end the use of hotels and B&Bs for the homeless.

The occupation of Apollo House in Dublin city centre over Christmas rightly focused minds on the need to solve the homelessness crisis. Such actions could be revisited if promises are not kept by the Government.

Agencies on the frontline also admit that more joined-up thinking is needed to help solve the problem in the long term. This is especially so now, given the huge funds ringfenced to help people.

5. HOUSING STOCK 

This is one of the more vague areas as part of the five-pillar approach.

There are a number of promised measures here to increase the number of housing units overall.

These include local authorities doing up and reletting vacant units.

The housing agency has also been tasked with buying vacant homes from banks and reintroducing them onto the market.

There is also the repair and leasing scheme, designed to help owners prepare their properties for the rental market.

In addition, the Government continues to try and push local authorities to do up ghost estates and housing developments that were left half-finished or without facilities after the property crash.

There is concern that the local authority buy and renovate scheme will only allow for a limited number of vacant properties to be refurbished and put back on the market by councils.

Opposition TDs say only about 3% of the empty housing stock nationwide might be reused under this scheme.

Special Report: Are we building a workable solution for the housing crisis?

While there could be some scope for abuse under schemes to get existing stock opened up again, most politicians agree that this is the best approach.

But there is some concern that the investment here is limited.

Potentially, less than 7,000 units may be made fit for living in, out of the estimated 200,000 empty units nationwide, under proposed schemes with Rebuilding Ireland, according to TDs.

This is expecially so in Dublin where there are an estimated 40,000 empty properties and where the housing crisis is most acute.

Equally, while the repair and lease scheme funding for existing owners to do up properties to rent, with the loan of State funds, has gone from €6m to €32m, TDs say more could be spent here.

More on this topic

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As money runs out on 'deep retrofitting' grant, Housing Minister insists Govt plan still on trackAs money runs out on 'deep retrofitting' grant, Housing Minister insists Govt plan still on track

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