Playing a key role in tackling housing crisis

The housing association sector can play a key role in increasing access to decent and affordable housing and delivering a sustainable long-term social housing build programme, says Donal McManus, Chief Executive Officer, Irish Council for Social Housing
Playing a key role in tackling housing crisis
Cllr Tony Fitzgerald, John O'Connor, Chair of Respond Housing, Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government Simon Coveney TD, Declan Dunne, CEO Respond Housing, Lord Mayor Cllr Des Cahill, Cllr John Sheehan and Anne Doherty, CEO Cork City Council at the turning of the sod on a reconstruction project which will see 10 new homes for older people provided in Dublin Street, Cork.Picture: Darragh Kane

HOUSING and homelessness have dominated the national discourse and will continue to do so beyond 2018. Sustained pressure is important though, to ensure that all stakeholders stay focused on resolving the housing crisis. The Irish Council for Social Housing (ICSH) is the national federation for housing associations (also known as approved housing bodies). The sector has a long and rich history, starting with philanthropic housing trusts in the 1870s and the Guinness Trust in 1890, which later became the Iveagh Trust. The ICSH now represents 270 not-for- profit organisations that collectively manage 32,000 homes and house 75,000 people including low-income families and individuals, homeless persons, people with a disability and older people. ICSH members operate in every local authority area and in over 500 communities across Ireland, and are therefore well-placed to respond to Ireland’s ongoing housing needs.

We are now 18-months into the government’s National Action Plan on Housing and Homelessness Rebuilding Ireland, and housing associations are at the forefront in addressing homelessness and scaling-up social housing delivery, two of the housing plan’s most critical pillars. 2017 saw 15 family hubs opening in Dublin and many of these are being operated by ICSH members such as the Peter McVerry Trust, Respond! and the Salvation Army. The hubs provide wraparound services and are an important first response for families that become homeless. However, they must be seen as temporary and a step towards long-term housing. A very important development is the expansion of Housing First, a solution that offers permanent, affordable housing as quickly as possible for individuals and families experiencing homelessness. This is a progressive housing policy measure for tackling homelessness.

The overarching vision for the state should be to ensure that people have access to decent and affordable housing in sustainable communities. The Rebuilding Ireland plan says that the state’s housing policy for many years has been just that. If so, it hasn’t delivered: social housing policy in the past twenty years has been characterised by a reduction in the number of new social housing units and an increase in reliance on private sector rental through rent supplements and (more recently) the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP).

Rebuilding Ireland commits to accelerating social housing delivery, and our national social housing targets include 50,000 new social housing units due to come on-stream over the next five years as part of a €5.4 billion housing strategy. Housing associations currently own and manage 20% of Ireland’s permanent social housing stock, which is expected to grow from 32,000 to 47,000 units over the coming years. Preliminary social housing figures for 2017 put the build output alone for 2017 at 2,245 units. This comprises 1,058 local authority builds, 799 housing association builds and 388 Part V units. Housing association are therefore responsible for 35% of new build social housing in 2017, and if we include both development and acquisition, as well as casual vacancies, the sector will have delivered close to 3,000 homes for social housing tenants in 2017.

There are currently around 160,000 social homes managed and owned by local authorities and housing associations, representing about 8 % of the total housing stock. We need to ensure that at least 20% of housing stock — moving to a European norm – is in permanent, secure and well managed social housing with affordable rents. The Minister has met with local authority chiefs to discuss how they will utilise the 2,000 hectares of land in state or semi-state ownership to deliver affordable housing. Housing associations work in partnership with local authorities and we will be working even closer now to achieve more integrated developments that are responsive to changing housing needs. Indeed, th recently launched Project Ireland 2040 describes this ‘concerted and collaborative approach’ as a central tenet to the delivery of a substantial social housing programme over the next twenty years.

Household tenure has changed in Ireland. Yet our housing policy has not adapted to reflect this. 8% of households lived in private rented accommodation in 1991 and 18% in 2016. The government’s recent announcement of a pilot cost-rental scheme, involving the housing association sector and a local authority, is welcome. Cost rental means a housing body raises the finance to provide accommodation and charges rents that are sufficient to cover current and capital costs. Housing associations are ready to pursue both affordable and cost rental housing options. But, in order to support this, the government needs to demonstrate a genuine ambition to develop an affordable rental sector that will lead to mixed tenure (and mixed income) communities.

The ICSH 2017 Tenant Experience Survey demonstrates our members success as housing managers with over 80% of housing association tenants satisfied with their housing. And the agility of the sector is reflected in our recent Biennial Community Housing Awards, which showcased projects delivering new builds, regeneration and the re-use of vacant properties, as well as passive housing. In the area of regeneration, in particular, our sector has responded to the vital need to renew the physical, social and economic fabric of our towns and cities. ICSH member Respond!, for example, is currently partnering with Cork City Council in a regeneration scheme to develop 10 apartments for older persons in Dublin Street, Blackpool, with additional refurbishment and regeneration units in the pipeline on Thomas Davis St, St Vincent’s Convent and Millfield Cottages, Blackpool. Other housing associations such as Clúid Housing and Túath housing, alongside our small and medium-sized members delivering special needs housing are demonstrating what can be achieved in partnership with local authorities and other stakeholders in the public and private sphere.

Social housing projects that received funding a number of years ago are now coming onstream, providing new homes that are the basis of stability and security for individuals and families. Looking forward, there’s reason to be more hopeful. That is, as long as government housing policy responds with progressive and innovative affordable housing solutions on a sufficient scale.

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