We have to change our whole approach to housing

Sinn Féin spokesperson on housing, Eoin Ó Broin TD, explains why a new approach to the issue of housing is required across the political spectrum
We have to change our whole approach to housing

FINE Gael have been in Government for eight years. During that time access to secure and affordable accommodation has become increasingly out of reach for tens of thousands of people.

House prices and rents have soared. Construction of new homes by councils and the private sector has been glacial. Thousands of properties are being lost from the rental market. Tens of thousands of perfectly good homes lie vacant. Homelessness has reached unprecedented levels.

In 2011, when Enda Kenny became Taoiseach there were 641 children recorded as homeless by the CSO. Last month the Department of Housing confirmed there were 3,784. A Government that put the rights of the child into the Constitution has presided over a 490% increase in child homelessness.

Importantly, the housing and homeless crisis is not just a Dublin problem. People in both Cork city and county are also badly affected.

Since 2016, when this current Fine Gael Government took office, homelessness in cork has increased by 88%, from 213 people to 401.

Latest Department of Housing figures show 6,627 households on the combined Cork housing waiting lists. Add to this the 5,665 households on two year HAP tenancies and the 1,714 on four year RAS tenancies and you have a real social housing need of 14,004 families.

Yet Fine Gael have committed to providing just 4,221 real social houses, owned by councils and approved housing bodies in Cork city and country, from now to 2021. Everyone else will end up in short term insecure HAP tenancies or left languishing in overcrowded accommodation or even worse.

For those with incomes above the social housing eligibility threshold, things are not much better. House prices in Cork city have increased by 8% in the last year and 6% in the county. Rents continue to spiral upwards with annual increases of 11% in city and county.

Working families are simply unable to afford to buy or rent. And still the Government has no real programme to provide affordable rental or purchase homes for hard working families.

The economy is booming. More people are in employment than ever. Tax revenues are buoyant. So how is it that, homelessness is so high and rising? The standard response from those of us on the opposition benches is that Rebuilding Ireland, the Government housing plan, is failing. Its social housing targets are too low. It has no targets for affordable rental or purchase homes. Its supports for the construction sector are ineffective. Its reforms of the private rental sector are weak. And it has badly missed its targets for reducing homelessness and getting vacant stock back into use.

All this is true. But during a debate on the No Confidence motion in Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy last September, it occurred to me that Rebuilding Ireland wasn’t the real problem. In fact, the Government’s housing plan is just a symptom of a deeper malaise. That realisation led me to start research on a book, aimed at fully understanding the cause of our dysfunctional housing system. The result of that work is HOME: Why Public Housing Is The Answer, published this week.

Why are so many people, including those in good employment on decent wages, unable to access secure and affordable accommodation? What are so many renters and owner occupiers paying so much? Why are council waiting lists growing longer and expenditure on rental subsidies higher? Why are housing inequalities for travellers, people with disabilities and migrants a constant feature of that system?

Answering these questions requires an understanding of how our housing system evolved. The key turning point was the late 1980s. Prior to that, successive Governments, with various levels of success and failure, prioritised the provision of housing as the main plank of their welfare policy.

What UCD professor Michelle Norris calls Asset Based Welfare was the dominant approach to housing for the first 70 years of the state. Home ownership was the priority and significant state supports in the forms of grants, low interest loans and tenant purchase discounts ensured that by the 1970s the vast majority had secure, affordable homes.

All this changed after the 1980s recession. Bank liberalisation saw low-cost. state-backed home finance replaced by expensive commercial lending. Capital spending on social housing was dramatically scaled back.

The result was the financialisation of owner occupation and the residualisation of social housing. From that point, accessing secure, affordable housing would become increasingly precarious. Council housing would be transformed from housing for workers to welfare housing while owner occupation would mean ever greater debt and debt repayment.

A policy consensus emerged which has remained in place from A Plan for Social Housing, published by the Department of Enviroment in 1991, right through every major policy statement to Rebuilding Ireland.

At the core of this consensus is an over-reliance on the private sector — both financial and construction — to meet social and affordable housing need alongside a marginal role for the state as regulator and provider of a low level of public housing while financing expensive rental subsidies.

This was the approach adopted by Fianna Fáil in Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities in 2007, repeated by Fine Gael and Labour in the Social Housing Straegy 2020 and uncritically adopted by the current Government in Rebuilding Ireland since 2016.

Ending the housing crisis means abandoning this consensus and adopting a radically different approach. My book sets out a vision for what this alternative looks like. We need a human rights-based housing policy which requires the right to a home to be inserted into the Constitution. We need to end the privileging of owner occupation by providing people with real choices across all tenures.

Most importantly, we need a completely different conception of public housing. Councils should be building high quality developments to house those in need of subsidised social housing, non subsidised affordable cost rental and those who desire affordable purchase. This would would mean building at least 15,000 public homes a year, or 50% of the National Development Plan target of 30,000 new homes annually. We would also need a comprehensive reform of the private rental sector, the markets in finance and land, and measures to tackle housing inequalities for travellers, those with disabilities and migrants.

All this can be done. But it requires real vision, political will and, crucially, popular mobilisation to force the Government to change course.

On May 18, the Raise The Roof campaign has called a state-wide demonstration in support of a new approach to housing. They are calling on all those affected by or concerned with our dysfunctional housing system to join the demonstration and send a clear signal to Government. Housing policy has to change. And if this Government isn’t willing to do that they we will have to change the Government come election day.

HOME: Why Public Housing Is The Answer is being launched in Cork on Saturday at noon in St Peters, North Main Street. All welcome.

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