Eoin Ó Broin: ‘It’s time to abandon this Government’s reliance on private sector to deliver homes’
Fine Gael has 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 in pace. 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 that there were 3,784 children officially homeless. The Government that put the rights of the child into the Constitution has presided over a 490pc increase in child homelessness. The economy is booming. More people are in employment than ever before. Tax revenues are buoyant. So how is it that years into an economic recovery, homelessness is so high and rising?
The standard response from those of us in opposition is that Rebuilding Ireland, the Government’s 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 of this is true. But during the debate on the no-confidence motion on 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.
It was that realisation that led me to start research on a book, the aim of which was to fully understand the cause of our dysfunctional housing system. The result of that work is ‘HOME: Why Public Housing is the Answer’, published today.
Why are so many people, including those in good employment with decent wages, unable to access secure and affordable accommodation? Why are so many renters paying so much for their homes? Why have council waiting lists grown ever longer and expenditure on rental subsidies ever 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 from the foundation of the State.
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 of people had secure and affordable homes.
All of this changed following the recession of the 1980s. 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 on accessing secure and 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 the Environment in 1991, right through every major policy statement through 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 needs 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 Strategy 2020 and uncritically adopted by the current Government in Rebuilding Ireland.
Ending the housing crisis means abandoning this consensus and adopting a radically different approach. ‘HOME: Why Public Housing is the Answer’ 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 mean at least 15,000 public homes a year, or 50pc of the National Development Plan target of 30,000 new homes annually. We would also need 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.
‘HOME: Why Public Housing is the Answer’, is being launched at 6pm this evening in the Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 63 Merrion Square, Dublin. For details of events in Tallaght, Cork, Waterford, Limerick and Belfast, see @EOBroin