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Five big ideas to help solve Ireland's housing crisis (including 'tenure blind' homes and community-led developments)

We asked five experts for their best idea.

WITH CONSTRUCTION NOW beginning to return to normal following pandemic disruption, the government has committed to a renewed focus on the provision of affordable housing.

Cabinet has approved a proposal to increase the current requirement of social housing in new developments to 20%, the government is to amend planning measures to stop funds scooping up entire housing estates and the Central Bank is reviewing its lending rules for first-time buyers.

The housing crisis will not be solved overnight, or simply by building 40,000 homes a year – a target set by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar recently – so is the government willing to investigate some more alternative ideas from outside their own ranks?

This month The Good Information Project has turned its focus to Ireland’s housing challenges. We asked five experts for their ‘big ideas’ to help solve the crisis.

Fiona Cormican – New Business Director at Clúid:

The idea: Develop ‘tenure blind’ homes

“The pitfalls of large-scale mono tenure housing schemes have been well documented and the resulting large-scale regeneration projects continue to tell the tale of past mistakes that require expensive rectification.

“If we are to be visionary in our approach to a sustainable housing sector that meets the needs of our citizens both now and into the future, we need to deliver truly mixed tenure housing developments with an income-based rent model.

“Everyone has the right to good quality housing, and social and affordable housing should be indistinguishable from other tenures. Good quality design and construction should not be the preserve of private developments.

“To achieve this and to support the creation of integrated communities, we have to think big. That means acknowledging the fact that lots of people across society need housing supports and that social rental, affordable rental, help to buy/rent, and HAP are all the same thing – Government-funded housing supports.

“So why not eliminate income thresholds and support people across all tenures and income levels to eliminate the class system of housing? Existing European models have
demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach to creating mixed tenure communities
where anyone who is in need can apply for social supports based on their household
income.

“The result is a properly functioning housing system where the individual needs of
the applicant are met in a sustainable, community focused way.

“A properly functioning housing and economic system needs mixed tenure living within
integrated communities. Mixed tenure housing provides choice for communities; to rent
privately, purchase a home or avail of social housing. Most importantly, this model supports people to choose to stay living in their local community.

“Fears of anti-social behaviour and crumbling property prices often accompany new social housing developments. The large mono tenure estates of the past clearly identify people as social housing residents and reinforce the stigma of living in this tenure. But if we were to embrace a fully integrated housing model that creates communities without labelling, we can help build better communities for us all. Simply put, if we didn’t label tenure, stigma would disappear.

“Since its inception in 2000, Part V has been particularly successful in this regard;
despite concerns when the Act was first announced. Social rented and privately owned
properties that are indistinguishable from each other are now commonplace across Ireland. The government says it intends to increase the percentage of Part V housing in new developments, which is great to see. 

“Legislating to support the delivery of sustainable mixed tenure communities is the way
forward. The private sector has an essential role to play in delivering new housing either
through actual delivery of homes or the provision of funding to developers and builders to provide them.

“Ensuring funding is available to enable delivery is paramount. But housing
cannot be developed and then forgotten about. Housing, and in particular, apartments
require ongoing management resources to ensure they function well and contribute
positively to our built environment. Mixed tenure communities need private investment, and the sale of private housing supports the viability of all housing and cross-subsidises essential elements of new housing developments like communal open spaces, services and resident facilities.

“From Clúid’s perspective, we know that proper investment in housing improves
people’s life chances and opens up opportunities in education, health and employment. In turn, this enables active citizenship and the creation of thriving communities.”

Cian O’Callaghan – TD for Dublin Bay North and Social Democrats spokesperson on housing:

The idea: Build 100,000 high-quality, affordable homes using State-owned land and low-cost loans

“Rents have almost doubled over the last decade. House prices in Ireland are among the
highest in Western Europe. An entire generation has been stuck in insecure renting. With
every week that passes, the prospect of homeownership is slipping further out of reach for many.

“This crisis will only be solved by bold and brave action by the government.

“It sounds simple, but the solution is for the State to build more homes. Most experts now agree that we need about 35,000 new homes every year. Last year, just 20,000 were built.

“This is gap will only be bridged with an extensive State house building programme.

“These can’t just be any type of homes – they have to be available to buy or rent at prices
that people can genuinely afford. This can be achieved by reducing delivery costs.
Using land already owned by the State will cut one key cost significantly. High-profit margins  can also be cut from the equation by working with Housing Cooperatives and Approved Housing Bodies instead of profit driven developers.

“Crucially the State can borrow at historically low interest rates and at much lower rates than private developers, and this can significantly reduce financing costs.

“These new affordable homes must be fit for the future with zero building emissions,
working from home spaces and good access to sustainable transport.

“We need to build strong cohesive communities with playgrounds, parks, community spaces and amenities where people can gather and connect.

“Crucially the State must build homes that meet the needs of a diverse range of people and all family sizes.

“This isn’t fairy-tale economics. This model has been tried and tested. The Ó Cualann
developments at Poppintree in Dublin, Ardmore in Waterford and Knocknaheeney in Cork show how this can be done. This now needs to be scaled up and rolled out nationwide.

“If this was done with energy and vigour, it would have a significant impact on the cost of
housing, resulting in more affordability across the board.

“It isn’t just the Social Democrats who have called for this. In a recent landmark report, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) has called on the Government to double the capital investment in social and affordable homes.

“With the cost of debt historically low, and the economy predicted to grow significantly, now is the time to invest in housing. There will be real savings by investing – particularly reducing the runaway multi-hundred million bill for housing supports like the Housing Assistance Payment.

“Good quality housing shouldn’t cost anyone in Ireland more than 30% of their take-home pay.

“The best way to achieve this is for a State home building programme on a scale we haven’t seen before. Nothing less will do.”

Rebecca Moynihan – Senator and Labour spokesperson on housing:

The idea: Help renters get a home 

“If you were born in the 1960, 61% of you were able to buy your own home by the time you were 30. If you were born in the 1980 that had fallen to just 32%. For those born in the 1990s that number will be even less. 

“For so many home ownership is out of their reach. People are trapped in a vicious cycle of paying more in rent than they would for a mortgage but not being able to save a deposit to buy their own home.  Even when people do get mortgage approval, they often can’t find anywhere within their budget.  

“Many advocate for the Central Bank to change their lending rules to allow people to borrow more. However, there is a danger that we repeat the mistakes of the past with a credit fuelled property frenzy which left thousands in negative equity. 

“Renters are among the most vulnerable to these housing shocks. We need to support people towards home ownership without relying on schemes such as Help to Buy and Shared Equity that just push up the price of housing for everyone. To do this requires direct state investment and some innovative thinking. 

“One idea, that hasn’t been explored properly in Ireland is a government funded Rent To Buy scheme.

How could that work?

“A Rent to Buy Scheme is targeted at renters who are finding it difficult to save a deposit while paying high housing costs. It allows people  to build up equity in their home before they decide to buy. 

“In the UK, the government provide cheap loans to housing associations for rent to buy housing on the understanding that they help low and middle earners to get on the property ladder.

“If you enter a help to buy agreement you make a down payment between £2,000 and £5,000 on the understanding that you will have the option to buy the property at an agreed price after five to ten years. 

“How the equity part of the scheme works can differ, but generally you are either charged below market rent in order to allow you to save a deposit or you get a percentage of what you paid in rent towards the eventual price of the home. Some associations also give you the option to enter into a shared ownership arrangement where you can part own and part rent. 

“A Rent to Buy is a superior scheme to the current government Help to Buy and Shared Equity schemes because it doesn’t fuel the price of housing. It helps housing associations build housing, contributing to increased housing supply rather than shovelling money at a limited number of private new builds. It gives renters the chance to build up equity while also taking the time to see if they would like to live in the home long term. 

“Smart investment and innovating thinking is how we will solve the housing crisis and give people the security of a home that everyone deserves. Rent to Buy is worth investing in.”

Dr Lorcan Sirr – Senior Lecturer at Technological University Dublin:

The idea: Change people, policy and practice

“Firstly, the people. Policymakers are far too close to industry. They are too credulous of claims made, not curious enough about alternatives and seem unable to critically evaluate proposals made to them.

“Nearly every new policy (reduction in apartment standards, Strategic Housing
Development, shared equity, etc.) has come from lobbyists.

“After the Strategic Housing Development process was adopted, lobbyists said afterwards that the civil servants took their ideas “lock, stock and barrel, and put them in the Act”.

“This is known as ‘regulatory capture’, when the regulators have been captured by those they regulate. It is time to release the captured.

“As policy ideas are being taken directly from lobbyists, no account is taken of its likely impact on other policy areas or government departments (see lack of critical evaluation, above).

“One policy then acts against another. The departments of Social Protection, Enterprise, Transport, Environment, Equality, Finance, Health, Rural and Community Development, and Tourism all continue to be negatively affected by poor housing policy.

“Second suggestion: mandatory, independent ante- and post-implementation impact assessment is to be done – and published online – to identify potentially poor and costly policy.

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“Finally, we could be much more innovative and experimental in practice. We never ask what housing people want and need, which isn’t always the same as what industry wants to provide.

“In Almere – a large public landbank near Amsterdam; think Poolbeg – the site was master-planned providing thousands of plots of land of various sizes for different target groups, and sold at affordable rates for people to buy and build their own houses, within certain design criteria.

“There is no reason we could not do similar, bringing affordability and sustainability. It requires some imagination and independent thinking in policy making.”

Tom O’Donnell, architect and co-director of Self Organised Architecture (SOA):

The idea: Let communities take charge, in cooperation with State agencies and civil society stakeholders

“A striking characteristic of the present discourse on housing in Ireland is the assumption that the creation of houses and apartments is largely a matter of top-down provision, where the people who will live in the homes are understood as passive recipients, or have a minimal role to play in the process.

“The main actors are understood to be not communities or residents, but state agencies, private developers and increasingly, international funds.

“The upcoming government policy statement Housing for All is a great opportunity to begin to redress this imbalance and to recognise Community-Led Housing as an approach that is inspired, not only by international examples, but also builds on traditional meitheal and cooperative approaches to community building in Ireland, where groups of people can come together to take the initiative in solving their local housing needs.

“Community-Led Housing is ground-up process, a civic partnership between communities and local or state authorities for the mutual benefit of both, where authorities support or enable communities themselves to create homes and environments that meet their present and future needs.

“In doing so, communities can help authorities remove land from speculation and create long-term affordable, inclusive and future-oriented homes and neighbourhoods. With and without state subsidy, Community-Led Housing can supplement and augment existing approaches to affordable housing in Ireland.

Community-Led Housing (CLH) is an umbrella-term that includes resident-led Cooperatives, the Community Land Trust, Co-housing and Self-help Housing. These approaches typically enshrine the characteristics of meaningful engagement, resident empowerment and governance, and benefits to the local or specific community as essential components of projects.

“Community-Led Housing is an holistic approach and strives to combine in an integrated way the social, environmental and economic well-being of inhabitants. It seeks to address agency and self-determination for residents to make decisions on homes that reflect their needs and ideals.

“Because the process is resident-led, new and innovative forms of housing can emerge that accommodate diversity and facilitate residents with various support needs to remain in their local area and participate in the broader community.

“It offers a clear template for addressing the combined challenges of unsuitable housing, loneliness and social isolation in models such as inter-generational and older people’s co-housing.

“With professional support, residents can design homes to be adaptable according to the specific needs of different life-stages and to develop strategies for living and working, mobility and compact living.

“Community-led Housing is by definition a not-for-profit approach and typically aims to guarantee long-term affordability for future generations, rather than at initial point of use only.

“The Community Land Trust and Self-Help Housing are proven models that can tackle vacancy and dereliction and meet community need for affordable housing and social enterprise in urban and rural contexts.”

What practical steps are needed in policy?

In the recent publication following our multi-stakeholder project Roadmapping a viable Community-Led Housing Sector for Ireland, key policy recommendations emerged:

In the short term, recognition in policy following the example of the UK will bring clarity to stakeholders and allow a supportive framework to be established to provide capacity building for CLH groups in the early stages of project development, in the form of seed funding, grants and technical support.

In the medium term and in line with international best-practice, we recommend the state establish a sustainable land management policy where public land is disposed according to Social Value criteria rather than highest price.

Increasingly, European and UK authorities favour leasing over selling land, so publicly-owned land can be managed in the long-term for the common good. Leasing land increases affordability by removing upfront land costs, and long-term affordability can be guaranteed by covenants.

Affordable finance is key to affordable homes, and the state could provide low-interest, long-term loans to part-finance sustainable development. Resident-led cooperatives that support low and intermediate incomes might also qualify for HFA and CREL loans that are being proposed to finance cost-rental projects.

In the Roadmapping project, eight CLH groups from eight counties of Ireland participated as stakeholders in a community of practice. We are recommending that relevant state bodies work with CLH groups to develop pilot projects to test and prove the concept in Ireland.

In its 2020 report on Housing Policy in Ireland, NESC argue that “Ireland must bring about a fundamental change in its system of urban development, land management and housing provision. It must evolve from a speculative and highly cyclical system to a permanently affordable, stable and more sustainable form of housing.”

The challenge –or opportunity– facing us in our ongoing discourse on housing, and upcoming Housing Commissions or Citizens’ Assembly, is to create a vision as to what this “permanently affordable, stable and more sustainable form of housing” might look like.

Additional reporting by Michelle Hennessy 

 This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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