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Column: Let's look at the full story around social housing in Ireland...

There is real and personal housing need in Ireland, which affects individuals and families opportunities to develop their lives and contribution to society, writes Dr Padraic Kenna.

Dr Padraic Kenna

THIS WEEK, the assessments of housing need were published. These show that some 89,872 households were on waiting lists for social housing – 5.4 per cent of all households in the State. While this is 9 per cent below on the figures for 2011, it is three times greater than those of 1993.

Housing need in Ireland is largely gauged through the regular assessments carried out by Local Authorities since the Housing Act 1988. This is done through a collation of applications for social rented housing (which can be provided by the Local Authorities, Housing Associations or Co-operatives). The figures produced are often expounded as a criticism of government policies by opposition parties, a failure of the State by others, a justification for more spending on housing (both State and NGO sector), need for more charity, and more recently as a violation of housing rights. Indeed, some media commentators express these figures as the extent of homelessness in Ireland – although homelessness accounts for 3 per cent of the total.

A real housing need in Ireland

Some of the decrease this time can be explained by the more detailed examination of individual applications, to avoid duplication of applications between authorities. However, no-one can deny that there is real and personal housing need in Ireland, which affects individuals and families opportunities to develop their lives and contribution to society. Indeed, the Minster for Housing Jan O’ Sullivan outlined credible plans to address the problem through increased funding for social housing, greater use of NAMA properties and funding for emergency provision. However, it is clear that structural changes in the housing system are also required.

Some significant differences from the previous assessment are the proportion who are employed (and not in receipt of any social welfare assistance) – down from 15 per cent to 11 per cent; the increase in the proportion of persons with disabilities from 1 per cent to 4 per cent; the decrease among those living in unfit housing – down from 1,708 households to 647. However, those on the lists who are unable to afford existing accommodation still account for the largest proportion of need expressed – somewhere between two-thirds and three quarters of households.

Of course, the figures are valuable as a guide to housing need, but they don’t tell the full story. Housing need here is measured only in terms of applications for social housing. Yet, over half those on the lists receive Rent Supplement towards private rental housing costs. Indeed, it is a requirement for eligibility. In other jurisdictions this is judged to be, in fact, social housing, as the State provides financial support towards rent to the household without sufficient income. It also means that such “social housing” is dispersed throughout the society, rather than concentrated in estates.

Local Authority housing

Whether all waiting list applicants wish to live in Local Authority housing is questionable. The high levels of refusals of such accommodation suggest otherwise. This might indicate two things: their current private rented housing is preferable to that offered by the State; the location and perceptions of the social housing offered is deemed unsuitable for family, social or life opportunity reasons. Indeed, there is much uncounted housing need (to put it mildly) within Local Authority estates, especially within publicly acknowledged underserved communities. Yet, no surveys of those housing or neighbourhood conditions are undertaken, and no analysis of tenants’ requests for transfers to other housing is ever published. Irish State assessments of housing need take place only once – in relation to initial applications for social housing.

In any case, some 44 per cent of households on the lists are single person households, where there is a shortage of social housing – and it is not surprising that, overall, those on the lists over four years has increased from 24,000 to 28,000 households. Of course, the length of time of these waiting lists can be one criteria, among others, for allocations, but the basic supply of social rented housing is clearly insufficient.

While many associate housing need with homelessness and the need for shelter, in a modern European country, this is not the full story. Contemporary assessments of need are based on the residual model, ie measuring those who are unable to secure housing in the market – both ownership and rental (although it does include homeless needs).

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“The need for housing”

This approach is often confused with “the need for housing” – an approach based on building more dwellings, and one which is often promoted by developers, both private and public. But it is actually unclear how many new dwellings are needed, if one takes into account that half of waiting list households are living in, arguably, appropriate (although unaffordable) private rented housing already. Social housing might offer more permanence and lower rents, even at the cost of permanent immobility, now that tenant purchase is almost non-existent.

I would suggest that these assessments are expressing a request for housing that meets the accepted norms in Irish society today. This involves secure, affordable, good quality housing, in a desirable neighbourhood, and which provides maximum opportunities for personal, family and community development.

While many suggest that these the waiting lists show that people are demanding basic housing (and indeed many are), I would argue that the majority – if not all, are stating that their current housing is below the normative standard for modern Ireland. The State is largely unable to address these requests, as it is only one player in a complex housing system. But one thing is clear, there is no appetite for new large social housing estates.

Dr Padraic Kenna is a lecturer in law at NUI Galway and author of Housing Law, Rights and Policy (Dublin, Clarus Press, 2011). Email him at Padraic.kenna@nuigalway.ie

Read: Social housing waiting list falls to almost 90,000 households

Read: Focus Ireland says €400 million investment needed in social housing

About the author:

Dr Padraic Kenna

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