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15 months into the job, how has Eoghan Murphy performed as Minister for Housing?

Earlier this week, Sinn Féin said it will move to have Murphy removed from office when the Dáil resumes this month.

Eoghan Murphy
Eoghan Murphy

WHEN THE DÁIL resumes on 18 September, Eoghan Murphy will be 460 days into his first Ministerial role.

His Cabinet colleagues during that time have included a former stockbroker, solicitor, and a quantity surveyor, but it’s his career before entering politics that stands out.

Prior to being elected to Dublin City Council in 2009, Murphy cut his teeth in the field of international arms control, with his CV including a stint with the UN’s Institute for Disarmament Research.

In a 2013 interview with the Swiss-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, he offered some advice to parliamentarians who wanted to drum up support for their work.

“You have to be creative in turning people on to the idea,” he said, “both your constituents and the media.

“If you can get your constituents to at least understand why you are working on this issue then it gives you a bit of space and time to work on it.”

Five years later, Murphy heads a Department that has seen homeless figures increase in all but three of the past 30 months, while house prices continue to rise and the cost of rent reaches record levels.

In a week that Sinn Féin announced it would table a motion of no confidence in Murphy when the Dáil resumes, he badly needs to turn people on to the idea that he is the right man for the job.

Does his record hold up to scrutiny, and is he meeting targets to solve the housing and homeless crises? Here we take a look.

How has Murphy performed compared to his predecessor?

Since succeeding Simon Coveney as Housing Minister in June 2017, Murphy has seen the position turn toxic for him in a way that it never did for the current Táiniste.

Sinn Féin has threatened to table its motion for months, but even the Minister’s own colleagues have been critical of him recently, with junior minister Catherine Byrne hitting out at a housing plan announced by Murphy in July.

However, several colleagues defended the 36-year-old at a Fine Gael think-in this week.

“I want to reiterate the support we all have for the work he is doing,” Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said on Thursday, highlighting Murphy’s “personal determination” to deal with the crisis.

On Friday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar cited Murphy’s relative inexperience when he said that no “reasonable person” could hold the Housing Minister personally responsible for the problems that exist in Ireland’s housing market.

Those problems have continued to escalate since Murphy took office, but a statistical comparison with Coveney shows he is not performing much worse than his predecessor.

The week after Murphy entered office, 7,941 people (5,046 adults and 2,895 children) were recorded in emergency accommodation by the Department of Housing.

That has risen by 25% during the Minister’s first 13 months in charge, with the number of homeless people reaching a record 9,891 people in July.

But homelessness under Simon Coveney rose by 29%, from 5,693 people in March 2016 to 7,699 in May 2017 (although Murphy has had two months’ less statistics than his predecessor).

Meanwhile, statistics from the rental market are also comparable between the two.

According to figures Daft.ie, the average cost of rent rose by 11% between Q2 2016 and Q2 2017, spanning Coveney’s reign as head of the Department, and by a marginally higher 12.5% during Murphy’s first year as Minister between Q2 2017 and Q2 2018.

CSO statistics also show that Murphy has overseen the construction of more houses than Coveney, while Central Bank lending limits have led to a slowing of house price since he has taken took office (although prices are still rising).

Housing crisis Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (left) and Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Homelessness

In their combined two-and-a-half years in the job, virtually every aspect of the housing crisis has gotten worse, while their records of delivering upon targets set out under Rebuilding Ireland is also questionable. 

Launched in June 2016, the Government’s five-pillar plan styled itself as an “action plan for housing and homelessness”. 

The first (and most detailed) pillar outlined plans to remove homeless families from hotels in all but limited circumstances by 1 July, 2017.

The solution was the introduction of ‘family hubs’ – essentially self-contained rooms that keep families out of shared accommodation – before the promise was quietly dropped by the Government.

Now, nearly 10,000 people in Ireland are living in emergency accommodation.

Yet as homeless figures climb each month, Murphy has been accused of wanting to appear to be doing something, rather than actually doing it. 

In May, he was caught out when he was accused of manipulating figures by demanding that over 100 families were removed from the Department of Housing’s statistics, despite having their accommodation paid for with homeless funds.

And in an interview last month, he took issue with those who fixated on his “posh boy” persona, saying they were “missing the mark”.

Social housing

That interview seems to have started a new offensive from the embattled Minister.

On Friday, he hit out at unnamed local authorities for their “unacceptable excuses” over their social housing delivery, suggesting he could use emergency powers to get them to build more homes.

Whoever is to blame or to take credit, 47,000 social houses were promised by 2021, a target that is on track, even if the methodology is questionable.

Department figures for last year showed that 7,066 properties were leased, acquired, and built in 2017 – 1,903 more than the previous year’s figure – with a further 8,000 units expected by the end of this year.

But at that rate, the Housing Minister would not meet his target, so he has instead relied upon the private rental sector to make up the deficit.

Over the last two years, 70% of the Government’s social housing target, or 32,000 units, has been reached through the Housing Assistance Payment and the Rental Accommodation Scheme.

According to Daft.ie, just 3,070 properties were available on 1 August – roughly one for every 29 of the recently-estimated 87,000 households on Ireland’s social housing list.

The same report also revealed how the cost of rent for social and private tenants has spiralled, hitting an average all time-high of €1,304 per month in June.

Screen Shot 2018-09-08 at 16.51.11 An index of Ireland's available rental stock from 2006 to August 2018 Source: Daft.ie

Critics say the private market offers no long-term solution to tenants, as landlords can evict them if they want to use the property for another purpose.

Additionally, many landlords are reluctant to accept tenants in receipt of HAP, because it means a mandatory inspection from a local authority to make sure their property is up to standard, which could bring extra costs if the home is not up to scratch.  

Amidst all of this, both the Department of Housing and Department of Finance have remained coy on a decision to introduce a tax on Ireland’s 80,000 vacant homes, which many say would increase the number of properties available on the rental market.  

And another commitment to deliver 1,500 rapid-build homes by the end this year also seems to have stalled, with just 208 completed by the start of 2018.

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Despite a €1 billion tender being issued earlier this week for the construction of around 1,000 more modular homes, it’s expected to be almost a year before that bears fruit. 

New homes

Nor has the Minister done much to help those looking to leave the rental market.

Estimates vary as to how many new homes need to be built annually to meet demand, ranging from 20,000, to 30,000, to 40,000 for this year alone.

Even more varied is the answer to the question: how many houses are actually being built?

In the past, a housing completion would be listed as a housing unit that received a new ESB connection, but the Department of Housing came in for strong criticism last year for using this measure.

That’s because new connections also applied to houses that had been vacant for more than two years, so a number of houses called “completions” were not actually new.

This resulted in the Housing Department having a different figure than the Central Statistics Office and others when it came to new homes.

Instead, updated CSO figures show that under 14,500 new dwellings were completed in 2017, while subsequent figures for the first half of the year show that 7,909 have been completed so far in 2018.

In other words, it’s unlikely that the number of houses completed this year will meet even conservative estimates for demand under the Minister’s watch.

Screen Shot 2018-09-08 at 16.56.17 Source: Central Statistics Office

What next?

Earlier this week, Inner City Helping Homeless also suggested that removing Murphy from office could only make the homeless crisis worse.

“If a new Minister is appointed it will take him/her another 12 months to get a hold of their brief,” the charity’s CEO Anthony Flynn said.

“We have seen Minister after Minister in the department and none of those have been able to tackle the crisis, what we now need to ask is what the real problem is.” 

Murphy continues to have the backing of the Taoiseach, while Fine Gael says it remains “absolutely, completely and fully” behind the Minister.

“The no confidence motion is a cheap and dishonest political ploy by Sinn Féin to turn attention on themselves and gain headlines,” a spokesman told TheJournal.ie.

Fianna Fáil has also granted Murphy some reprieve, with the party confirming that it will not vote in favour of the no confidence motion, as doing so would breach the confidence-and-supply agreement.

Nevertheless, Sinn Féin is not backing down, with the party’s housing spokesman saying the inaction of Murphy and Fine Gael are the “central cause” of the homeless crisis.

The motion may be defeated, but as the problem grows, this could yet become a key election issue when the Government eventually does fall.

By then, Fine Gael’s general election candidates may have to be extra creative in turning their constituents on to the idea that the party has performed.

Otherwise, they could easily take the nuclear option.

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