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Sinn Féin housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin Sam Boal/
Policy Matters

Eoin Ó Broin says Sinn Féin would need five years to tackle housing, but what is his plan?

Ó Broin said if he could not reduce homelessness in five years while Minister, he would have failed.

WELCOME TO POLICY Matters, a new series from The Journal that takes a deep dive into the ideas and solutions proposed by Ireland’s politicians on some of the biggest issues of the day.

Over the next few weeks The Journal will be sitting down with different spokespeople from across Ireland’s political parties to take a deeper look at what they believe needs to be done across areas like housing, health, the environment and childcare.

Last week, we spoke to Social Democrats’ Cian O’Callaghan who outlined what he believes needs to be done to solve the housing crisis.

This week, we hear from Sinn Féin’s housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin who sets out his stall for fixing the Irish housing system. 

It is no surprise to anyone that Eoin Ó Broin believes a radical overhaul is necessary for the state to start delivering adequate levels of housing. 

According to Ó Broin there are two things the public could expect from a Sinn Féín government on housing – an “ambitious but credible plan” to transform housing and honesty.

In his view, the current and previous governments have merely “tinkered around the edges” with housing policies that do nothing to fully address the needs of the state. 

He has “no interest” being in a government that’s not going to fix this. 

“I would prefer to vote against a programme for government, if it didn’t tackle the housing crisis than be in there in the hope that more of the same will produce different results, it won’t,” he told The Journal. 

“If it’s not working, you won’t find us hiding or lying. We’ll be upfront and honest,” Ó Broin said.

So what would he do? 

First and foremost Ó Broin wants to see government targets for new homes independently reassessed and greatly increased, with a much larger focus given to public housing. 

“We all know that the targets underpinning the government’s own plan are wrong. We’ve known them since they were published.

“We also know that most independent expert advice from academics, from industry, and non governmental agencies estimate that we need at least 50,000 new homes a year,” Ó Broin said.

Currently, the government’s target for new homes this year stands at 29,000. 

“So step one, publish an independent, verifiable assessment of need, and have that updated annually with no political interference,” Ó Broin said.

Step two, Ó Broin said would be to put in place steps to deliver a minimum of 20,000 public homes a year. 

In his view, more than half of the new homes that are required need to be public homes.

“At least 12,000 of those would be social [and] at least 8,000 of those a year would be genuinely affordable, half to rent, half to buy.” 

The government plans to deliver 10,500 new social homes this year. 

Speaking to The Journal in December, Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien said his big focus for this year is building more public homes and that the pressure is on local authorities to deliver this. 

“Some local authorities have done very well, others require more support to get them up to the level that I want them at,” he said at the time.

‘Bureaucracy nightmare’

On top of increasing public housing targets and delivery, Ó Broin wants to tear down the red tape and bureaucracy that he says local authorities and housing bodies have to work within.

He said bureaucracy is “crippling” housing agencies and is a large part of the reason social housing targets are not being met.

Currently it takes a number of years for a home to get through the process from a site being identified to completion.

Ó Broin maintains that it is possible to shave 18 to 24 months off this by reducing red tape.

In addition to this, Ó Broin said putting a greater focus on tackling vacant properties would help accelerate the delivery of new homes. 

“There’s almost 50,000 vacant homes that were derelict and vacant between the two censuses in 2016 and 2022. They’re the ones we have to go after.”

Out of the 20,000 public homes Sinn Féin wants to deliver a year, Ó Broin said 20% of these should have to come from vacant or derelict properties. 

New Building Technologies

Ó Broin is frustrated at the speed at which the current government is adopting the use of new build technologies like off-site manufacturing and assembly – where construction components are put together in a factory before being installed at their final location – and the use of more environmentally-friendly building materials like timber. 

As it stands, the government has embraced off-site manufacturing to a certain degree with a €100 million fund established last year to assist local authorities that can build rapid build homes this year.

It has also been working on the delivery of 750 quick-build modular houses for Ukrainian refugees but difficulties assessing suitable sites mean that as many as half of these may not be completed by the end of 2023 as planned.

In July, it published its roadmap on ‘Increased Adoption of Modern Methods of Construction in Public Housing Delivery’.

But Ó Broin said the state needs to move faster on this front. He points to places like Scandinavia, London, Paris and parts of Poland that are increasingly using majority off-site manufacturing and assembly of residential units.

“They’re often with timber based products, or sometimes panelised steel systems. They do them at scale. So it means they can do them in a faster, more cost-effective manner. And they meet all of the building standards and on fire safety standards, right? Those things aren’t negotiable.”

Ó Broin pointed out that we have six or seven companies in Ireland that have developed their own versions of these technologies. 

He wants to see these given the resources to scale up as they have the potential to deliver an additional 9,000 to 15,000 new homes each year. 

He also said we need to move away from the way we build traditionally in order to meet our emissions reduction targets.

“Everybody talks about agriculture, energy and transport as the big emitters. People aren’t talking about the fourth biggest emitter, the built environment, and particularly the embodied carbon that is in the materials we use in building. 

“We have to start scaling back on the use of glass, of high carbon cement, and brick,” Ó Broin said. 

“The only way to do that is far more timber based products, far more panelised steel based systems, as well as recycling existing building materials. So we need to move to the off-site modular not only because we need lots and lots more homes. But we also have to produce lots of lower carbon homes.”

Previous commitments

Ahead of the next election, Ó Broin has committed Sinn Féin to putting together a “completely updated plan” of what the party could deliver in government over a five year period. 

 This could imply a rolling back of some of the party’s previous commitments – but Ó Broin said this is not the case.

For example, The Journal asked what he would do if he was not able to deliver on the party’s previous election commitment to halve the social housing waiting list in its first term.

“Obviously, a lot of things have changed since then and we have to factor those in, including the fact that social housing need is now greater than it was when we wrote those commitments in 2019. But we will be just as ambitious.”

Ó Broin said: “One of the reasons why Fianna Fáil are trailing in the polls is because they’re making a mess of housing. One of the reasons why Fine Gael did so badly in the last election is they failed on housing.

“For me, one of the indicators of success or failure is homelessness. It’s the canary in the coalmine,” Ó Broin said.

“If I’m at the end of a five year term, as the Minister for housing, and homelessness has increased, then I’ve failed. I shouldn’t be allowed to continue the job.”

Ó Broin points to the public’s anger and frustration over housing as a reason for Sinn Féin’s success in the polls. 

He said if he is eventually the Minister, he wants to be judged by the same standards that he is judging Darragh O’Brien by currently.

When asked whether he believes a Sinn Féin government would be able to tackle the issues in housing as quickly as they make out is possible, Ó Broin said it could take five years.

“We have a big mess to clean up. And it’s getting bigger by the day.

“What I would ask if we are in government, and we set out our stall, I would ask the electorate to work with us for five years.

“But what I’ll also say is this. Governments, even good governments can make proposals in good faith, can work hard to implement those, and they don’t work. That can happen to any government.

“The big difference between Sinn Féin in government if we get there, and the current government is if that happens, we’ll be honest with people,” Ó Broin said. 

‘Mangled to pieces’ 

When asked if there are any policies that the current government has implemented that he thinks are good he responded: 

“The problem is, even when they take a decent idea, they mangle it to pieces.”

However, he does give the example of the tenant in situ scheme as a policy that is beginning to move “belatedly and slowly in the right direction”. 

Ó Broin also pointed to the rent tax credit that has seen €500 returned to all renters, which he believes is a good idea but one implemented badly in the form of a flat rate. 

“I’d like to be more generous to the government, genuinely. If there were things they were doing well, I would say, but the evidence is pretty thin on the ground.”

15 minute cities

On sustainability, Ó Broin said Ireland has already done a lot of things right. 

He pointed to a number of Dublin developments that were designed in the post-war era that were built where people worked. 

It is this sort of common sense, density focused approach that Ó Broin wants Ireland to return to. 

And he points out that density does not mean that everyone will have to live in apartment blocks. 

“It’s not some new climate concept. But yes, it’s essential to address the challenge of climate change – That means housing in our urban areas needs to become more high density, but that doesn’t mean high rise.

“You can have very, very high density, even in cases where everybody has a door on to the street.

“Whatever minutes you want to be able to walk around, I don’t mind. But I prefer the idea of people being able to live within walking distance of where they work, where they play, and where they educate,” Ó Broin said.

Rental sector

As a renter himself Ó Broin said he and his partner Senator Lynn Boylan would like to own a home at some stage, but until he became a TD he was never in a position for this to become a reality. 

“My problem now is age. I’m in my 50s. So like a lot of people in their 50s, there’s a certain point in which you wouldn’t get mortgage finance anyway,” Ó Broin said. 

Ó Broin is very open about the details of his living arrangements. 

“Most people probably do know I’m a renter because I’m pretty vocal about it,” he said.

With a monthly rent of €1044 for a three bedroom property, his landlord is the Church of Ireland, which owns the row of houses where Ó Broin lives in Clondalkin. 

Built in the 1870s, it was included in the title deeds that the properties can never be sold. 

Ó Broin said this means he has a degree of security of tenure “to die for”. 

“The vast majority of renters don’t have that,” Ó Broin said. 

He pointed to the rise in single property landlords leaving the market since 2017 and said there is “no plan” in place to stop this.

“There is virtually no plan to reduce and mitigate the displacement of renters as a consequence,” Ó Broin said. 

In his view, a large part of the problem is that a significant chunk of private renters shouldn’t be in the private rental sector and he points to low earners who are spending 30% or more of their take home pay on rent as an example of this.

In his view, the solution to this is two-fold. 

Firstly, build lots of social and affordable homes. Secondly, have the State buy the properties from landlords who want to leave, at current market rates. 

Justifying this, Ó Broin noted that it is more expensive to build a new house than it is to buy a secondhand house.

He added: “If you’re living in a two bed in Foxborough in Lucan, and you’ve been living there for a decade and your kids are in the local school and you’ve got a good local job. And for climate policy, we want to keep you living in the area, we don’t want to send you out of the commuter belt. It’s more cost effective and more climate resilient to buy that property.

“Increasingly too many accidental and semi-professional landlords don’t want to be landlords, and tenants don’t want to be private rental tenants. So would it not be better if we had a smaller private rental sector, as a proportion of our housing system?”

“The money is there. In fact, it would be more expensive not to do it,” Ó Broin said.

He pointed out that the government failed to spend over €1 billion that had been earmarked for social and affordable housing over the last three years. 

“If we’re to build or buy the houses today that that billion euros would have built or bought, we will pay a premium because house prices and construction costs are going up.

“If the money had been spent back then – it would have meant less homelessness, better value for money and less disruption to our communities.”

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