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Eoin Ó Broin: Now is the time for the Government to borrow and invest in public housing

Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin says the new government has already reneged on its promises in relation to housing.

Eoin Ó Broin

IN THE FIRST substantive vote of the new Government, Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien and Minister of State Malcolm Noonan voted down a Sinn Féin affordable housing plan.

The motion, debated on Tuesday night, called for a major public affordable house building programme.

Based on a detailed Draft Departmental Affordable Housing Circular, published by Sinn Féin in May, the motion set out a plan for investment in both rental and purchase homes.

Our proposal

Rents would be set at between €700 and €900 per month for a standard two-bedroom apartment and €230,000 or less for family homes and duplexes.

Income eligibility for these homes would be below €50,000 for a single person and €75,000 for a couple, though these limits would be subject to review.

At the heart of the plan is the delivery of 100,000 public homes on public land over five years.

Developments would include a mixture of social rental, affordable cost rental and affordable leasehold purchase homes.

Funding would come from a range of sources including the exchequer, the Housing Finance Agency and the European Investment Bank.

With interest rates at historic lows, now is the time for Government to borrow and invest in an ambitious public housing building programme to create jobs and deliver the homes working people so desperately need.

Hundreds of thousands of people cannot afford to put a roof over their heads. Renting or buying a home has become so expensive that even couples on good incomes struggle to find a home.

Past failures

During four years of confidence and supply, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil failed to deliver a single home affordable to rent or buy through any central government scheme.

Instead, they imposed high-cost projects on Local Authorities and Approved Housing Bodies.

A so-called affordable home in O’Devaney Gardens, central Dublin, will set the first time buyer back an astonishing €360,000. A modest cost rental apartment in Enniskerry Road, Dún Laoghaire, will cost €1200 per month.

Anyone who believes that these are genuinely affordable prices for working people is not living in the real world. In February’s general election, housing was one of the single biggest motivating factors that drove people to the polls.

In particular, young people stuck paying high rents and mortgages, or forced to live at home because they cannot afford to rent or buy, voted in large numbers for change.

The new Government claims to have heeded this call. The programme for government promises ‘Housing for all’. It says it will ‘put affordability at the heart of the housing system’.

Rowing back already

Unfortunately, the programme contains no targets for affordable rental or purchase homes. Nor does it have any definitions in terms of price or funding commitments. Instead, it promises to announce targets later in the year.

In recent days, in a number of newspaper and radio interviews, the new Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien has been promising affordable homes at prices between €160,000 to €250,000.

However, in what appears to be his first clear u-turn in office, he told the Dáil this week that, ‘calls for absolute limits on the selling price of affordable homes’ were ‘flawed’ and that ‘the price of homes … will vary significantly from scheme to scheme.’

It seems that he has abandoned his election manifesto commitment to deliver affordable homes at prices below €250,000.

Instead, he is now following the same failed private market-led approach of his predecessor Eoghan Murphy that had led to such inflated prices in O’Devaney Gardens and Enniskerry Road.

In this model, private developers dictate the price. Government takes an equity stake in the property of up to €50,000 which gives the appearance of a discount being applied. However, the home buyer will have to repay this ‘discount’ in full, eventually paying the full market price.

The Sinn Féin model cuts out the private developer middleman. Houses are sold and rented at the economic cost of delivery, ensuring real affordability for buyers and renters.

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Delivering affordable housing, to rent and buy will be one of the key litmus tests of the new Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil Green Party government. Hundreds of thousands of people unable to buy or rent a home, or living with high housing costs, need this Government to succeed.

If Darragh O’Brien is willing to abandon the failed policies of the past work with others to deliver genuinely affordable homes, he will have Sinn Féin’s enthusiastic cooperation and support.

However, on the basis of this week’s debate and vote, I’m not holding out much hope.

Eoin Ó Broin is a Sinn Féin TD in Dublin Mid West, spokesperson on Housing, Local Government and Heritage and author of HOME: why public housing is the answer (Merrion Press 2019)

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