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26/11/2022 Raise the Roof Housing Rally. Pictured are members of the public marching down O'Connell Street in Dublin today, as they proceed to Leinster House for the Raise the Roof rally to combat homelessness and the housing crisis. Rollingnews/Sam Boal

Dr Rory Hearne 2023 –Time for Ireland to take a new direction in housing

The housing expert says as the new year approaches, it’s time we reevaluate our approach to housing across the board.

EVERYONE NEEDS A home – it is a basic human right. Everyone agrees with that. Yet here we are at the end of 2022, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, living an unprecedented catastrophe in housing caused by Government policy and private property profiteering (not caused by you millennials).

But as I will show in this article, there is hope in new solutions that can get us out of the crisis.

We need big, bold radical ideas and measures – not tinkering about trying to make the private market ‘work’ when it is inherently dysfunctional. We need a new road map for housing – like Sláinte Care provided a vision and plan for universal access to health care. 

2022 will be remembered as a record-breaking year in housing. Highest-ever rents, high house prices, evictions, homelessness, numbers of young adults stuck living with their parents, and forced emigration because of the lack of homes.

And in the midst of this, with the highest-ever level of housing need, new home building starts are falling. Because of inflation and economic uncertainty, the private market is deeming it unviable and unprofitable to build.

What will 2023 bring in housing?

Hold your breath. 2023 will see the housing crisis worsen even further, unless we can raise our voices together and force this Government to change.

The ‘new’ Taoiseach Leo Varadkar says housing is a key priority for him. But using the same failed policies won’t solve housing. 

The housing crisis is like a fire raging in a building (our collective building – our society, our country). The Government says: look, things are improving, the fire might be spreading, but we have put out the fire in the corner of one part of the building, aren’t we great.

But until you have a way to put out the whole fire, it will keep burning and ultimately burn the building down. Even worse, the Government has fire engines – in the huge budget surplus and €6bn rainy day fund – waiting to be deployed at some serious fire in the future. This is the fire that is burning down our common home – and burning up our country.

The Government has shown it can be influenced by public pressure. It introduced the temporary eviction ban, despite saying it wouldn’t do it. The large Raise the Roof protest in November has put further pressure on.

The Taoiseach knows there is a large cross-society groundswell of anger, frustration, and demand out there amongst the Irish public for a massive change in housing. If that mood is mobilised and supported in a positive way and turned into a massive social movement with protests on the streets and a Referendum to enshrine the Right to Housing in the Constitution, then there is real hope that things can start to get better in 2023.

There is also hope in the increased delivery of homes by ‘not-for-profit’ housing associations and local authorities that has started in the last two or three years, and the emergence of community led housing.

The starting point in all this is to understand that the housing crisis is a social and economic disaster created by policy. A generation are asking: “What future is there for me in this country?”

There are 450,000 adults living at home with their parents, and many feel like they can’t speak out, because they feel ashamed of being stuck, as if it is their fault. Renters are terrified to complain in case their landlord evicts them. A country where its people cannot get a home is a broken country, a broken society, a broken economy.

The proportion of adults in their 20s still living with their parents is truly shocking. 75% of 20 to 29-year-olds in this country are still living with their parents.

But Government will try gaslight you and say that’s probably the same all over Europe. In fact, it’s way above the EU average of 57%, and in Denmark, just 12% or 1 in 10 of 20 to 29-year-olds are still living with their parents.

And it continues on to people in their 30s: 41% of 25 to 34-year-olds in Ireland live with their parents. It wasn’t like that 10 years ago. In 2012 just 21% of that age group lived at home.

It’s ten times higher than the 4% of 25 to 24-year-olds still living at home with their parents in Denmark. And there are those who can’t go back to their parents or family home, or their parents aren’t alive.

One in 10 of 18 to 24-year-olds experienced hidden homelessness in the last 12 months. Care leavers are very vulnerable to this.

Generation Rent

Then there is Generation Rent. Facing ever higher rents, poor quality housing, landlords failing to do repairs, not able to have pets, or hang a painting. Living with strangers in your 30s and 40s. And living in a perpetual state of insecurity.

We have one of the highest rents in the EU. Rents in Ireland increased by 82% since 2010 compared to just 18% in the EU. In Dublin, rents were €963 a month in 2012, today they are up 108% on that, at €2,011.

A nurse’s take-home salary after tax is €2,196, so it would require their entire take-home pay to pay for the average rent in Dublin. That is why we can’t get nurses to work in our hospitals, childcare workers, or teachers in schools in Dublin and surrounding counties. The housing crisis is affecting the ability of our essential services to function.

Renters are being hammered by multiple cost-of-living rises and it is showing in rising poverty rates among renters. One in five (19.3%) renters went without heating at some point in the last year, compared with one in 20 (4.4%) of homeowners. The general impression is most renters are young single professionals. In fact, 42% of all those living in the private rental sector are families with children. 138,747 households with children are living in the rental sector.

A generation of children are being traumatised by housing insecurity. In the last two and a half years in Dublin – 3,909 families presented as homeless. That means over 8,000 children experienced some aspect of the trauma of home loss and homelessness in Dublin in the last two and a half years.

Eviction ban

Renters are living in fear and anxiety about what will happen when the eviction ban is lifted in March. The RTB was notified of 4,643 eviction notices served by landlords in the last 12 months.

A tsunami of evictions is set to take place if the ban is not extended for at least another 12 months, and in reality it will need to be in place for a number of years until the crisis abates.

Landlords need to understand that their property is a tenant’s home. The eviction ban doesn’t stop landlords leaving the market – they can sell up and leave the tenant in place. Local authorities and housing associations have funding now to buy up such property.

Why isn’t a tenant given the option to buy their home, with support from the Government? Rather than thinking ‘oh no, landlords are leaving the market’, how can we keep them?

It can be a way of remaking our housing system towards one where people are able to buy an affordable home or rent affordably with lifetime security.

Government has also failed to enforce rent regulations effectively – so landlords can evict lower paying tenants and get in higher paying ones relatively easily. This leads to homelessness and brings overall rent up.

Investor funds

Unless, of course you are a global investor fund landlord. And this is an area that Leo Varadkar, the new Taoiseach, will have to reverse policy on, if he is serious about making housing and rents affordable.

Government policy over last decade has been about allowing rents rise to incentivise property investors. The Government has continued to back the investor funds, through the Real Estate Investment Trust tax break, and in allowing new properties to be rented at whatever the investor funds want – setting new market rents and driving rents upwards.

Government trumpets the increase in new housing supply but very little of it is affordable, and in Dublin only a minority of the new build units are actually available for sale.

Investor vampire fund build-to-rent are the main new supply in Dublin – at unaffordable rents. The Dublin housing market has been taken over by non-household purchases –pushing up rents and house prices and blocking home purchases. 60% (2,833 units) of all new build units (4,822) sold in Dublin so far this year were bought by ‘non-households’ (mainly investor funds, but also by local authorities and AHBs as social housing). Just 20% was bought by first time buyers.

House prices will continue to rise –they are already 3% above the levels seen in the height of the Celtic Tiger boom. Where is the policy to reduce house prices, to make house prices affordable?

Housing For All targets the delivery of 33,000 homes per year, but just under a half (14,000) of those are social and affordable, the remainder are market priced (ie unaffordable) homes. This a fundamental flaw.

We need a guaranteed delivery of 15,000 social and 15,000 affordable homes each year, that is 30,000 social and affordable homes to meet the level of real housing need and demand.

Thinking afresh

The way forward is a reimagining of our whole housing model, land, property and finance. We need to make our housing market work to meet housing needs – to provide homes, not investment assets. And alongside that to provide energy efficient sustainable homes for everyone, not just those who can afford it.

It is not socially or environmentally sustainable to allow land and buildings in cities and towns sit vacant and derelict. It requires a new approach to private property ownership -putting society and environmental needs first.

So how should we do it? Start by putting the resources and funding needed into it. The €6bn from the rainy day fund should be allocated to do the following:

  • Support the not-for profit housing associations and local authorities to bypass the developers and directly contract builders to provide homes immediately on the huge public land we have.

  • Set up a public construction company that would hire the key trades, such as carpenters plumbers, architects, engineers, that can deliver housing. Through regional offices it would build homes across the country. The workers are there – but we will lose them to emigration and other parts of the economy if the State doesn’t step in now and guarantee employment. It would also refurbish and retrofit housing to meet energy efficiency climate goals.

  • Create a new form of affordable home ownership in Ireland. I explain in my book, Gaffs – that alongside a huge ramping up of social and affordable cost rental homes, we should develop a New Ireland Homes scheme as a way to actually increase home ownership levels on a sustainable basis. It would be a new public affordable housing that people could buy, and own their own home for life. They could sell it, but only back to the New Ireland Home’s Scheme, a ring- fenced affordable housing market or back to a housing body. If we built 5,000 of these homes per year, all around the country, within twenty years we would have a potential affordable housing market of 100,000 homes being kept affordable on a permanent basis.

  • Create a new cooperative community led housing sector. Provide legislation, land and finance for cooperative community and self building of green homes. Common Ground in Wicklow and Self Organised Architects have worked up plans for this. Cloughjordan in Tipperary have done it. Young people want to create and live in sustainable communities. They should be supported as part of creating a new cooperative sustainable economy that will be resilient in terms of future economic and climatic shocks.

  • The issue of vacant and derelict properties remains to be properly tackled. The Census found last year 166,000 vacant homes. 48,387 were long term vacant (vacant in 2016 and 2022). 38,000 were vacant rentals. In contrast, there are just 1,354 properties listed nationally to rent. The government introduced a small vacant property tax that needs to be substantially increased to be effective. Local authorities need to be funded and supported to engage in a huge compulsory purchase, and bring in compulsory sales of vacant and derelict units across the country. These could then be sold to individuals, or a housing association for social and affordable housing.

  • A clampdown and restriction on short stay lets would be a rapidly effective measure to increase rental supply. Many of these vacant rentals are also being used as short stay accommodation, like Airbnb. There are 16,000 entire homes listed as available on Airbnb across Ireland. In Dublin there are 3,500 entire homes listed. And 40% of all listings are part of multiple property listings indicating these are landlords, not just a person renting out their home. So if we restricted such short-term lettings we could provide an additional 15,000 entire homes – immediately. 

  • To drive this fundamental change in housing we need to put a right to housing in the Constitution. The Housing Commission is due to recommend to Government a wording for a referendum on housing imminently. Holding that referendum is a vital step in having a national conversation about housing, how we treat it, and expressing, what is clearly now a majority view, that housing should be treated as a human right. Having it in the Constitution would give a clear requirement and guide for Government to ensure affordable decent secure housing is in place, and it would strengthen its ability and mandate to take major new initiatives to address housing issues.

  • Tax the Real Estate Investor Funds, and tax the non-home purchase of property by investor buyers

  • Freeze rents, and cap new market rents

  • Extend the eviction ban for two years. Buy up the properties off landlords leaving and enable the tenants to stay in their homes, and offer them to sale to tenants.

So there you are Taoiseach. A number of ideas that you could implement immediately to give relief and hope to Generation Locked Out in 2023 and move us toward solving the housing crisis.

The real cause

Let us not be hoodwinked by nefarious groups blaming immigrants and refugees for the housing crisis.

As I set out here, the real cause of the housing crisis is Government policy abandoning communities and social housing and facilitating the private market squeezing of housing as an investment asset.

Protesting against asylum seekers will not get one house built, in fact it just takes pressure off the Government and misdirects public anger on already traumatised refugees.

I mentioned Denmark earlier as a place where young people can leave and get their own home at an early age. In Denmark, public housing accommodates one million people in more than 8,500 estates owned by 550 different not-for-profit housing associations.

It is financed by borrowing from the Danish Housing Investment Bank (funded by Danish pension funds). There is no income test – everybody is entitled to social housing. In Denmark 30% of its total housing is ‘non-market’ social and affordable. In Ireland it is just 10%.

The Raise the Roof protest in November sent a clear message to Government to change direction in housing, and I believe that is part of why the new Taoiseach said he thinks it is an emergency.

People are standing up and speaking out. Just look at the range of groups acting: from Raise the Roof led by the trade unions and civil society organisations (who really have a vital role in driving the movement), the Home for Good campaign for a Right to Housing Referendum, and tenants’ union CATU is organising and stopping evictions.

Organisations like Focus Ireland, De Paul, Threshold and Simon Communities are doing incredible work to prevent homelessness and support those in homelessness. Artists and musicians are highlighting the crisis. Blindboy has had me on his podcast and live show to set out the causes and solutions and they got a phenomenal response.

At the launches of my book, I’ve been struck by the range of people affected by the crisis, and how they want to take action, and see major change. But most of all the young people, saying they want the change, but are increasingly feeling despair.

People are telling their experience of the housing crisis from renters to those stuck living at home on social media and on my podcast Reboot Republic. The silence and stigma is being broken through. 

That is why in 2023 we will need to see Raise the Roof protests in every town and city across the country, and new groups talking and acting on the housing crisis, to make housing a human right.

Everyone affected needs to work together to help us to create a citizen-led, positive, movement for homes for all. That should also include use ‘self-building’ a new future -through cooperative green community led housing.

It is only when you make noise that you will be heard. That is where the hope that can overcome despair comes from.

Through such a movement we can ensure everyone has a home, and done in a way that nurtures a new Ireland with decent jobs, delivering sustainable homes, with real community involvement. Bring on 2023.

Dr Rory Hearne is an Assistant Professor at Maynooth University and the author of Gaffs. He is also the host of the Reboot Republic Podcast.

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