MICHAEL CLIFFORD: If we fixate on housing blame game we all lose

Political focus should be on finding sustainable housing solutions acknowledging the difference between people who are long-standing homeless and those who cannot afford a roof over their heads.

Instead of finding sustainable solutions to housing and homelessness problems, the focus is on identifying a villain of the piece, now all we’re missing is an inquiry, says Michael Clifford

IT’S simple, really. The Government is to blame. If only they would provide the money, the housing crisis could be solved in the morning. Just ask the opposition.

Or maybe it’s really the local authorities which should be under the cosh. They have failed to build or provide social housing, not to mention properly cater for those who are forced to sleep rough. Just ask Alan Kelly.

On the other hand, perhaps the housing agencies and charities need to take a good look at themselves. Are they jockeying for position? Are they maximising the resources at their disposal in the most efficient manner?

Labour TD Joanna Tuffy thinks a few questions need to be posed in that vein. Then there are property owners, greedily hiking rents, waiting in glee for an increase in rent supplements so they can ring up more profits. Plenty of blame to be deposited with them.

What about the banks? While things were on the up, the banks were happy to throw money at anybody putting up as much as a shed. Now that all has changed, the banks simply repossess and turf out former owners or tenants. The bottom line does not involve rehousing the dispossessed.

If we fixate on housing blame game we all lose

While we’re at it, let’s not forget the bureaucracy that infests the public sector. The Housing Finance Agency apparently sets out an elaborate obstacle course for any agency seeking money to build houses. And then, of course, there’s the people looking for homes. Never happy with what they’re offered. Let’s throw a little blame that way too.

Now that housing has descended into a crisis, the primary focus would appear to be on finding somebody to blame and locating a quick fix. All we’re missing right now in the political, media and social culture of this country is a goddamn inquiry into the crisis.

There is plenty of blame to go around. There have been long-term failings in policy and execution going back decades. There have been recent failings, most prominently a failure to foresee the current crisis because of a near complete emphasis on seeing the back of the bailout troika.

Ideology — particularly in relation to the free market — outsourcing, the constitutional sanctity of private property and banking have played a part. So also has the imperatives of local politics.

If we fixate on housing blame game we all lose

There is jockeying in the community and voluntary sector, and quite possibly Tuffy may have a point, even if it is a relatively minor one. There are serious questions to ask of bodies like the Housing Finance Agency, which seems to have adopted the hyper caution now afflicting the commercial banks because of their profligacy during the building boom.

There is no one entity or political caste to blame. The lack of political will to tackle issues around social housing and homelessness is all encompassing. Take one small example. Last September, most urban local authorities reduced the new property tax by 15% as allowed per legislation.

In Dublin City Council, the elected members were told that if they desisted from cutting the tax, the money saved would go towards services for the homeless. That didn’t cut ice with most of them. There’s no votes in the homeless. Only the Labour and Green party members thought it a good idea.

If such a vote was required today would the rest of them still possess the hard neck required to pontificate about the most vulnerable, while keeping the main eye on votes? Now that we’re in crisis mode, all has changed.

Now that we’re in crisis mode, the all encompassing solution is being desperately sought. Last week, it emerged that a proposal is being floated that some families requiring homes be rehoused in conjunction with the rural resettlement programme that relocates people from cities to the counties.

If we fixate on housing blame game we all lose

It got short shrift. How could that be a solution? Did they want to scatter all in need of a home out to the sticks, just as they cleared the inner city to create high-rise ghettos in the suburbs a few generations ago? Meanwhile, out beyond the pale, some were stirring up the prospect of large hordes of homeless families descending on rural communities like a plague.

The proposal is a sensible one. If a family wished to take it up, that’s great. It might make a marginal impact on the crisis, but that’s not good enough for the media or political culture. It’s all or nothing.

Ultimately, the Government will string together something that will offer a temporary solution on the current situation, something to get them past the next election. The structural problems will, as usual, be longfingered.

That’s what happened with the element of homelessness that afflicts those for whom a house couldn’t make a home. When Jonathan Corrie died in front of Leinster House last December, there was an immediate response. Beds were made available.

Nobody who wanted a bed for the night was denied one. It got everybody past the winter and the controversy de jour. Now that element of homelessness is as bad as it was before Mr Corrie’s inconvenient demise.

The burgeoning element of homelessness — those whose primary need is simply bricks and mortar — is a problem that has been simmering for decades.

Back in 2000, environment minister Noel Dempsey proposed one simple long-term policy in social housing. All new developments had to include 20% of social or affordable units. This would ensure the private sector did its bit, and also alleviate the dangers of creating social housing ghettoes.

Within two years, the policy was watered down by Dempsey’s successor Martin Cullen to an extent that rendered it redundant. How much different would the housing landscape now be if well enough had been left alone in relation to that policy?

If we fixate on housing blame game we all lose

Action is needed now to relieve those in distress, but just as important is a period to reflect and decide on how exactly housing and homelessness is to be handled going into the future.

In the first instance the distinct differences between those who constitute the “long-standing” homeless, and those who cannot afford to put a roof over their heads needs to be recognised, and separate solutions sought.

Thereafter, it is vital that parties concede that what has gone before has not worked, and a whole new approach is required.

On a macro level, the recession that this country endured was wasted. To a large extent, there has been little structural change regarding most of the negative features that landed the country in the mire.

Wouldn’t it be a change if the current crisis in housing wasn’t wasted, and proper long-term solutions, requiring major shifts in positions and attitude, might actually be sought?


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