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Snapshot of one county: How Ireland's housing crisis grew out of control

Bray town councillor Pat Vance told his colleagues in 2013: “I’ll keep on saying it, time and time again, something needs to be done.”

Image: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

HERE’S SOMETHING YOU already know – Ireland is in the midst of a housing crisis.

The most recent and reliable figures for the number of people on housing waiting lists in Ireland are from 2013. As of 7 May 2013, there were 89,872 households on the social housing waiting list.

In April 2016, there were 3,969 homeless adults in Ireland. Of these 2,806 (69%) were in Dublin.

With all the soundbites from the Housing Minister Simon Coveney about emergency action, one would think this problem sprung up overnight.

But it didn’t.

This crisis has been building up, under the radar for years.

Recent figures from the Department of the Environment show that local authorities built just 75 social housing units during the whole of 2015 – the lowest on the official record, which dates back to 1970.

On most current affairs programmes in the last year or so, politicians have been wheeled out to explain to the public what they plan to do to get people off the streets and get families in houses, rather than hotels.

When the blame game crops up, Fine Gael points to Fianna Fáil and vice versa – while others look at how local authorities managed housing needs over those boom years.

Eventually – after 70 days without a government in which the situation was exacerbated – parties acquiesced to Sinn Féin’s proposal to set up an Oireachtas committee dedicated to finding a solution.

Yesterday, the Housing and Homeless Committee published its first set of recommendations.

To solve the growing crisis, it said the government needs to build at least 10,000 homes per year, give more security to those renting, help first-time buyers with their deposits, and allow local authorities buy homes from investors.

So, how did we get here? How are 100,000 people in this country on social housing waiting lists?

First of all, let’s look at what local authorities have been doing.

They are tasked with building social housing for those living within their jurisdictions. Since 2008, the annual number of units delivered by local councils has dropped dramatically.

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In 1975, local authorities built 8,794 social housing units, the highest on record. This gradually fell back, with voluntary and co-operative organisations stepping in to make up the shortfall. And, of course, there were the private developers.

In 2007, the last official year of the so-called Celtic Tiger, the local authorities built 4,986 homes. This number fell to 4,905 in 2008.

Then there was a devastating drop to 3,362 in 2011 and another decrease of 2,000 units to 1,328 in 2010.

At the time, there was little being said about the lack of building. There was more talk about the number of houses lying vacant around the country.

Unfinished housing estates funding shortage Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

In March 2010, University College Dublin (UCD) and Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) found a total of 345,000 homes (17% of all housing) was lying empty.

And still things worsened.

There were just 486 units built in 2011, 363 houses in 2012, 293 in 2013, 158 in 2014, and just 75 last year.

We hit rock bottom.

houses

So, why didn’t local authorities just build more homes? 

To get a snapshot of what was happening throughout these latter years, when new social housing virtually disappeared, TheJournal.ie’s political reporter Christina Finn has examined one local council’s work. 

“Having worked for local newspapers for a number of years during the recession, I attended monthly council meetings in Wicklow, Bray, Arklow and Kildare.

“One of the main topics up for discussion week in, week out, was housing.

“Councillors constantly complained that the Department of the Environment was giving no funding for housing construction with an effective moratorium on building in place across the country.

“Here’s a sample of my reports dating from 2012 to 2013 – the years that Ireland saw little or no social houses built by local authorities.

pjimage (9)

“Just to remind you – these decisions were taken by the last government made up of Fine Gael and Labour.

“Phil Hogan was the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan was the Minister of State for Housing and Planning.”

***

In September 2012, Fianna Fáil Councillor for Wicklow County Council and Bray Town Council Pat Vance said:

I am hearing that people on the housing list are being told they will have to wait up eight to 10 years to get a house. It is an emergency situation and the worst I have ever seen since I sat on this council.

He said there had been a “huge upsurge” in people seeking houses. He told the council that rent supplement cuts meant people were no longer able to pay their rents.

Vance asked why the department would not allow the council to buy or even build on some of the sites it owned.

“We could get great value if we could buy now,” he said. The councillor said it was vital the council met with Minister Jan O’Sullivan.

File Photo About 21,000 new homes will be needed each year for the next three years to meet demand, according to a new report by the Housing Agency. The first National Statement of Housing Supply and Demand aims to provide figures on how many homes are ne Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

With more than 1,200 people on the housing list in Bray, a statement from the department on the issue said:

The current financial constraints have led to a significant reduction in the capital budget for housing.
To respond to this reality and to ensure that social housing need is met the Government has radically reformed housing policy, with a shift in focus towards leasing options, and greater involvement by the voluntary and community sector.
Bray, along with every other housing authority, is provided with substantial central exchequer funding in this regard.

Fast forward to 2013, and the problem had only gotten worse.

The council is told that despite requests for the minister to meet with the council, their invitation has been turned down.

Councillor Vance said it was the first time since he being elected that a minister refused to meet members.

I’ll keep on saying it, time and time again, something needs to be done.

The town clerk informed members that the council had submitted project appraisals for the construction of affordable houses on sites owned by the council in 2010 and 2011.

The department told the council there would be no funding for construction for new units in 2013. It was then told the Build to Lease project is its best way forward. The council said it had engaged with a voluntary bodies to see if it could get houses built.

***

Following the death of a homeless man in the town, in January 2013, councillors said they needed to have a “frank discussion” about homelessness.

June 2013

Bray town councillors voiced their unhappiness at Bray’s funding allocation for social housing in 2013.

A letter from the department stated that due to “budgetary and financial constraints” capital spending on the social housing programmes was “down on last year” and this was reflected in the local authorities allocation for 2013.

File Photo About 21,000 new homes will be needed each year for the next three years to meet demand, according to a new report by the Housing Agency. The first National Statement of Housing Supply and Demand aims to provide figures on how many homes are ne Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

“There is no money to build new houses; very few landlords are signing up to the Rental Accommodation Scheme (RAS) and the government are cutting the grant schemes, which is seeing an increase in people not being able to afford their rent, which means they are signing onto the housing list, but they can’t get one,” said councillor Vance.

The town clerk said the council submitted appraisals for projects to the department but it was unclear if it would get approval to use capital receipts to build houses.

Council officials also said they were in discussions with voluntary bodies about build-to-lease schemes but said “there is little funding out there”.

***

July 2013

Sinn Fein’s John Brady – who was elected to the Dáil this year – says the letter the council received from Minister O’Sullivan in relation to the building of new homes in the town is “a whole lot about nothing”.

The letter informed the council it would be getting funding to build two homes in the town in 2013.

In total, six homes were coming on stream for that year. There were 1,200 people on the housing list at the time.

Councillor Vance said:

More people are coming on the list every day, so it is very important we plan for the future.

Labour councillor Ronan McManus (Former Labour TD for Wicklow Liz McManus’ son) said if the council has the land, it should be getting the money to build on it. Town council Cathaoirleach, Fine Gael’s Mick Glynn, said the department’s response was not sufficient to the problem.

“It just doesn’t make any sense not to build for ourselves.”

***

houses 3 Source: Oireachtas Housing and Homeless Committee

Local authorities across the country experienced the same problems, met the same roadblocks and held the same conversations.

The issues, felt locally the guts of this decade, have now gone national. Ministers are dealing with questions about the crisis every day, with Simon Coveney now acknowledging its emergency status.

Vance, who voiced his concerns about the housing disaster lurking around the corner years ago, today says “you didn’t have to be a genius to see what was going to happen”.

“There’s no quick fix for this. It’s not as easy as saying ‘we are going to build 50,000 houses’. It’s going to take more than two years to fix this.”

The definition of an emergency is “a serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action”. 

Vance said the situation Ireland finds itself in is not “unexpected”. An emergency? Yes. Unexpected? No.

Read: This is what the government is being told to do to solve the housing crisis>

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