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Opinion The issue at the heart of our housing crisis is an unaffordable private rental market

Adequate housing is a human right, vital to human dignity, security and well-being. No one deserves to be homeless – least of all a child – writes Senator Katherine Zappone.

REPORTS IN THE media over the last couple of weeks have brought to our consciousness the fates of many Irish families with young children that are facing homelessness. These families – some working parents, some looking for employment – are bravely standing up to the stereotypes about homeless people. Stereotypes rarely serve any positive purpose and here the negative stereotypes have been leading us to a false belief of homelessness being self-inflicted and hence somehow deserved.

Adequate housing is a human right, vital to human dignity, security and well-being. No one deserves to be homeless; least of all a child.

We should remember that homelessness is not an isolated issue from the overall economic situation in Ireland. Due to the banking debt crisis and austerity measures, our society has been polarised even further – isn’t this a core part of the message of the Irish people when they exercised their vote last month? Income inequality in Ireland is one of the highest in Europe. The situation of low income families, those families who depend on social welfare, and middle-class families in negative equity has become untenable as they are being pushed into poverty and now consequently homelessness.

The core of this crisis

The Government has published its implementation plan on the State’s Response to Homelessness. Many of the incentives are good and the Minister has updated the Cabinet recently on these issues. However, the Government strategy does not address adequately the issue at the core of the crisis – the unaffordable private rental market. The relative lack of residential housing available for renting is driving the rents up and forcing close to 100,000 households into social housing waiting lists as they are unable or struggling to stay in privately rented accommodation.

As a response, the Government is committing more funds for rent supplement – bound to drive rents to rise even higher. The main beneficiary of the investment is going to be the private landlord.

There is an urgent need to build 40,000-60,000 units for social housing. The cost to build or refurnish new social housing is significant. The investment needed for such undertaking would be €6 to €9 billion (as estimated by TASC). Indeed, for the State to respond to its obligations to provide adequate social housing for all the families at risk of homelessness, by building new or refurnishing housing units, it would need to increase its expenditure by tenfold.

A balance is vital

And while we urgently need to construct new social housing, we should not let the privately rented housing market become out-of-reach for Irish families. A regulated, accessible private rental market would be the best partner to have in the endeavour to facilitate adequate housing for all.

Hence, the unaffordable rental market has to be capped and brought back to the levels of 30% of the medium net income. Rent controls should be introduced and tenants’ rights revisited. The Irish legislation affords too little protection for the tenant and too much power for the landlord. This is the real reason why Irish families do not want to rent but rush to buy when they cannot afford to do so. This imbalance of power has to be addressed in order to encourage residential rental market to grow and become the affordable, sustainable option for families and individuals that it is in other countries in Europe.

Senator Katherine Zappone is one of Ireland’s foremost thinkers and legislators on equality issues. She was formerly a Commissioner with the Irish Human Rights Commission (2002-2012) and currently a member of the Irish Parliamentary Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality and the Seanad Public Consultation Committee. 

Opinion: Generation rent? The bloated housing market must be curbed by rent controls

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