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Opinion: It's time for courage - Rebuilding Ireland is dysfunctional and must be replaced

Dr Rory Hearne says the Government’s housing model is fundamentally flawed and it’s time for a complete overhaul of the system.

Rory Hearne Lecturer in Social Policy

COVID HAS SHOWN how important housing is to our daily lives. ‘Stay at home’ has been the key health message, but for Generation Renters and Generation Stuck at home – that has meant overcrowded living, with multiple generations under the one roof.

Huge numbers live in inadequate housing conditions, with lack of space, dampness, poor ventilation, while those in homeless accommodation, Direct Provision or Traveller accommodation are particularly affected. Home in these cases has exacerbated their risk of Covid and reduced their ability to stay safe.

Given this, it has been surprising that housing hasn’t featured higher in the political and media debate during the pandemic.


But it returned this week with the welcome ban on co-living housing, Dublin City Councillor’s vote against the Public-Private Partnership housing development in Oscar Traynor, and the warning from Moody’s rating agency that Covid will exacerbate the affordability crisis.

The crisis is set to worsen because private sector house building has fallen recently, adding to the desperate housing shortage. Uncertainty about the future of urban living and job losses mean developers and financiers are reluctant to embark on new developments. Unemployment has hit already stretched renters the hardest, leading to rent arrears and fear of eviction.

Over a third of renters now live in enforced deprivation. Homeownership will be pushed further out of reach. While there remain over 2,500 children in homelessness the lifting of the ban on evictions due in a few weeks time will inevitably lead to rental stress and more homelessness.

How many more children are we willing to accept being forced to suffer the Adverse Childhood Experience of homelessness?

The private housing market has consistently failed to provide affordable housing. The market has become dominated by global funds seeking to profit from the growing rental market.

The new ban on co-living will not deter these Real Estate Funds and Build-to-Rent investors from continuing to outbid first time buyers and affordable housing providers, and buy up more land and housing, pushing up rents and house prices.

There is a need to cool off their speculative investment by removing their Real Estate Investment Trust tax break, and to tax them properly, along with vacant buildings and land.

Ultimately though, the only way to guarantee the supply of genuinely affordable homes is for the state itself to do it through local authorities and the not-for-profit housing sector. But Government housing policy does not set out to do this.

Rebuilding Ireland – for the private sector

Despite the change in Housing Minister, the national housing plan remains the failed Rebuilding Ireland plan, in place since 2016.

It is based on the state subsidising and relying on the dysfunctional private market. Just one in five of the 134,000 ‘new’ social housing units being provided over 2016-2021 in Rebuilding Ireland are new builds by Local Authorities and Housing Associations. 80% is coming from the private market, mainly through Part V, leasing, and subsidising private rental tenancies such as the Housing Assistance Payment.

This means that the private market is making huge profits from social housing, with the state paying landlords and investors almost €1bn a year.

Over the next decade, the public money going to private landlords and developers in HAP and leasing would fund the building of 40,000 permanent public homes if it was invested differently. This is lost public investment and corporate welfare to an unacceptable degree.

Rebuilding Ireland also promotes the transfer of public land to private developers in the Public-Private Partnership approach, which was rejected by Dublin City Councillors.

The evidence shows that Rebuilding Ireland is a flawed plan that hasn’t even met its own limited social housing building targets. The state’s own supply of new build housing is insufficient and by relying on the private market it worsens the overall housing supply crisis.

Time to wipe the slate clean

That is why a new national housing plan is urgently required. At the heart of such a new plan should be a ramped-up delivery of affordable, secure, high-quality and environmentally sustainable public housing.

This would be available to low and middle-income earners and create vibrant, attractively designed, mixed-income neighbourhoods. In my book, Housing Shock, I set out what should be in such an Affordable Sustainable Homes and Communities for All Plan. Over a decade it would bring our public housing stock from the current paltry 9% of housing up to close to a third of the total stock, as in the Netherlands and Vienna.

To ensure sufficient supply of affordable homes the state (through local authorities and not-for-profit providers) should be building 20,000 public housing units per year, including 10,000 social housing units, 5000 cost rental (affordable secure life time rental homes), and 5000 affordable purchase homes. We are currently nowhere even close to those figures.

Yet the O Cualann housing cooperative is actually building genuinely affordable homes in Dublin on public land, local authorities and housing associations are building social housing and have begun the first cost rental homes.

This shows that the state and not for profit sector can build affordable and social housing if it is supported. The problem is it needs to be massively scaled up.

There is no reason why it should take eight years to build a public housing development as is being claimed with Oscar Traynor. It could be done in two or three years if Government resources and support existed.

This is the nub of the problem. Local authorities have been starved by Central Government of funding for decades and shifted away from social housing.

There needs to be a policy commitment to putting public housing via local authorities and the not-for-profit sector back central to housing provision. We need to rapidly build up the housing delivery and management skills and lead on the delivery of this new public housing on the vast public land banks available.

Root and branch

A regional approach could achieve economies of scale e.g. setting up a Dublin Regional Home and Community Delivery Agency. Reform of local authorities is needed too and should include communities, tenants and owners, in design, delivery, and management.

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Despite the growing consensus for a change in housing approach, the inertia and inadequacy of Government and the Department of Housing are exemplified in the snail’s pace development of cost rental, the much-needed new tenure of public affordable secure rental housing available for low and middle-income earners. There is still no national scheme, no targets, no ambition.

This is a time for courageous moves like extending the eviction ban for at least six months, new laws for long term tenant security and a rent freeze. It means holding a referendum to insert the Right to Housing in the Constitution and a new national housing plan that will end the reliance on the dysfunctional private market and guarantee the delivery of 20,000 public and affordable homes per year.

Other countries like Finland, Austria and the Netherlands show that the housing and homelessness crisis can be solved. But it requires the political will to take the necessary action.

Dr Rory Hearne is Assistant Professor at Maynooth University and author of Housing Shock: The Irish Housing Crisis and How to Solve it (Policy Press, 2020).

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About the author:

Rory Hearne  / Lecturer in Social Policy

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