Response to our housing crisis - Building new crisis is not a solution

LAST week’s figures, which show that nearly 8,000 citizens of this rich Republic — a third of them children — do not have a home, are as profound a matrix of social and political failure as any civilised, compassionate society should tolerate.

The reasons are myriad, but they are rooted in the deliberate decision to trust the market to supply adequate social housing, when local authorities were ordered to abandon that obligation.

The response is ongoing and, for all sorts of reasons, slower than it might be. It may also be utterly wrongheaded.

Weekend suggestions from John O’Connor, the head of the Housing Agency, that the houses we are building are totally unsuitable for today’s — much less tomorrow’s — Ireland must set the alarm bells ringing.

He said that our response to the crisis is so out-of-date and unco-ordinated that it condemns new communities to unsustainable settings, where essential services cannot justify their provision.

Speaking to The Sunday Business Post, Mr O’Connor said that an estate of 100 houses today has a population of 270, compared to something approaching double that — 400 — just half-a-century ago.

This means, he warned, “we will have more sprawled out housing estates, with fewer people living in them. They’ll either have no shops or vacant shops. There’ll be issues about... public transport... we’ll have less strong communities.”

Instead of having vibrant places for people to live, he said, “there’ll be places that are run-down with a lack of facilities. Instead of having a housing crisis in a major key, as we have today, it will continue in a minor key. People will have homes, but they will not offer the psychological or communal security all good societies — and good citizens — depend on. Communities may not be able to support schools or public transport, making them seedbeds for failure”.

One of the ways to avert this unhappy prospect, said Mr O’Connor, is to change the situation where landowners and developers take decisions about layout and location. To counter this, local authorities should “should act more like development authorities”.

As local authorities cannot borrow to build houses, Mr O’Connor, cutting to the core of the crisis, suggested increased government support for housing associations.

You do not need to be an economist to understand that this debacle is rooted in the flow of capital to the housing market. This was underlined again late last week, when new Central Bank — hardly, a bastion of Marxism — figures confirmed that Irish variable mortgage rates are still nearly double the euro-area average.

This gouging continues, despite government grandstanding about forcing lenders to cut rates.

It also begs a simple question: why can’t Irish people get a mortgage from a German or a Dutch bank? We are, after all, supposedly in a single market and, as we know to our great, transgenerational cost, Irish banks can borrow from these foreign banks, so why can’t those who aspire to buy a home?

Maybe it’s time civic organisations, like trade unions, credit unions and housing associations, came together to ask EU courts to rule on this anti-competitive barrier to free trade.

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