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Dublin: 14°C Monday 16 May 2022

'In 1971 homelessness was seen as a marginal problem and focused on single men'

Having worked in housing, homelessness and social work for 45 years, Justin O’Brien reflects on personal challenges, successes and milestones.

Justin O'Brien President of the Irish Council for Social Housing’

I CUT MY teeth in the Dublin Simon Community night shelter in Sarsfield Quay back in 1971. Sarsfield Quay was around the corner from Benburb Street, a slum of local authority housing. Overlooking safety and fire standards, youthful zeal and enthusiasm kept me going.

Funding for homeless services was minimal then and quality standards of accommodation were not measured. It was seen as a marginal problem and was focussed on mainly single men who had alcohol and mental health problems.

1970s housing issues

Dublin was actually experiencing a serious housing problem at that time with inflation in serviced land costs of 530% in the 1960s, numerous tenement buildings that were inadequate and dangerous and an unregulated private rented sector.

The Council was also in the process of constructing large scale social housing schemes across the city and county areas. While presenting the ‘street’ image of homelessness for funding purposes, we struggled to acquire properties and faced threats and intimidation from local residents.

I remained involved with Dublin Simon Community until 1977 as a Board Director and Chairperson. From 1986 to 2003, I worked in Focus Point (now Focus Ireland), where I was able to help develop a lot of their innovative services such as street work, transitional housing projects for families and single persons, and long-term supported accommodation.

We’ve seen some progress

Contrasting 1971 to 2017, we’ve seen some progress. Local authorities now have clear statutory responsibility for homeless persons. In 1971, it fell between the local authority and the health authority, with no state agency being clearly responsible.

Funding for the provision of homeless services has changed beyond recognition, with defined funding schemes and better-quality standards for care and accommodation for homeless persons. But the scale of the current homeless and housing crisis means that families and single persons remain homeless for years, with substance misuse impacting on the homeless population. Communities still remain resistant to homeless services being located in their area.

From 2003 to 2017, I’ve been the Chief Executive of Circle Voluntary Housing Association, which provides 1070 quality homes to families and single persons. I’m also stepping down as President of the Irish Council for Social Housing, the membership body for housing associations.

Cyclical nature of social housing provision

I have witnessed the cyclical nature of social housing provision, with large-scale social housing developments completed in the 1970s and 1980s, and minimal social housing provision in recent years. Against this backdrop, the housing association sector has increased capacity and now manages some 32,000 social homes via legislation and a scheme of capital funding.

Housing associations have, in my view, been a great public policy success, providing quality and professionally managed housing to their tenants.

Both local authorities and housing associations are now gearing up to increase the scale of new build social housing, providing nearly 5000 new social homes in 2018. But with private construction failing to deliver, new social housing via Part V and leasing will be less than current projections. And this is worrying.

Relying to heavily on the private sector

On top of this, we continue to rely heavily on the private sector via the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP), which is not only poor value for money for the State, but offers no security of tenure and affordability to persons on low incomes. We need to shift the housing narrative and reflect on how the structural issues that have developed over the past few decades have impacted adversely on the housing system.

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For one thing, the tenure mix in the Irish housing system has changed over the past 40 years. In the 1970s, social housing constituted over 20% of housing stock, the private rented sector was 11% and the remaining tenure was owner occupied. We’re now seeing a reverse, with private rental making-up 21% of tenure and social housing at less than 10%.

The social housing stock has been eroded via a very generous tenant purchase schemes and the reduction in new social housing over the past 15 years. A policy objective should be to have social housing comprising a minimum of 20% of our housing stock, and this raises the issue of income eligibility for social housing, traditionally targeted at households on social protection incomes.

Mixed tenure schemes are best option

My view is that mixed tenure schemes are the best option and can be achieved via a proper cost rental scheme alongside social and affordable purchased units. The Austrian system of rent supports for both middle and low-income households is worthy of serious consideration. This policy enables and supports mixed income developments. Rented accommodation, whether private or social, can be a viable housing option if it is affordable, provides security of tenure and is well managed.

The government also needs to be more interventionist in relation to land costs: the Kenny Report of 1974 recommended a maximum of 25% above existing value for land being developed for housing, and this is still worth considering. Local authorities should be able to acquire land banks for large mixed tenure developments as Dutch local authorities do, and a stiff vacant site levy is needed to coerce housing development.

We need to demolish decades-old structural obstacles to address the current crisis and reform our housing system.

Justin O’Brien has worked in housing, homelessness and social work for 45 years.

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About the author:

Justin O'Brien  / President of the Irish Council for Social Housing’

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