Rory Hearne The housing game is rigged and it's time we called it out

The housing expert says waiting for the market to fix the housing crisis is ‘like waiting for Godot’ – he’s calling on everyone to join the Raise the Roof protest.

LAST UPDATE | Nov 25th 2022, 10:15 PM

THE MOST FRUSTRATING aspect of the housing crisis is that the Government has the solutions to it sitting right there on its desk. We hear it constantly make excuses, but the truth is there are many things it could be doing right now that would ease this crisis.

But why isn’t it doing them? Because it is afraid of taking on the big vested property interests that are making millions from the squeezing of an entire generation. Property prices and rents are kept high due to the government’s long-term commitment to the market.

The decisions it makes do not serve the interests of the generation in need of a home. Instead, they serve investor funds, landlords, banks, developers, landowners and the property industry.

Successive policy decisions that ignored the potential of the State to build social and affordable housing on a major scale, and sold off homes and land from NAMA to vulture funds, made housing policy dependent on the private market. And now the Government is unwilling to shift from that failed approach and make bold and brave decisions that would mean stepping up and taking responsibility to solve the crisis.

It’s easier to blame everything else – Covid, inflation, Ukraine – than to address failed consecutive policies, but the fact is that we had a housing crisis before any of those challenges appeared.

A generation excluded

The Government’s strategy is to hope that you – Generation Rent – will just quietly accept the high rents or else emigrate, where the “grass looks greener”. Traditionally, our successive governments don’t really value you, the renters. The hope is that your parents will keep voting Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael because they are duped into thinking there is no real solution to this ‘intractable’ housing crisis, and ‘sher, isn’t it really just the fault of millennials who don’t save enough and eat too many avocados’.

Of course, that is balderdash: housing has never been more expensive, and the Boomer Generation didn’t face spending most of their income on rent as people do in 2022. They had access to more favourable mortgage financing for cheaper home builds and purchases. Some bought multiple properties. Those who couldn’t afford to buy were given quality housing by the State. It was a different world.

So this is what has to change: You, Generation Rent and your parents and everyone who cares about this country have to stand up and protest and say enough – we are no longer accepting this housing crisis because we know there are solutions, and we want them implemented immediately.

I have shown over and over, including in my book Gaffs, that there are real solutions to this crisis that would make a difference now.

Here are just a few of them:

Bring into use rapidly the huge number of vacant and derelict homes

The powers that be say there is a lack of supply of homes – yet there are 166,000 vacant homes in this country, and 38,000 of those are vacant rentals. There are tens of thousands more derelict properties.

A ‘use it or lose it’ measure like Barcelona has introduced, should be brought in, where if a property is not used within six months it is taken over for use as a rental by the state. 

The vacant homes tax is too small to be effective, it should be tripled.

A state fund should be set up to compulsorily purchase 10,000 derelict homes per year, renovate and sell them as affordable homes.

Ban and restrict Airbnb-type conversion of rentals into short lets 

Thousands of homes are being lost as long-term rentals to short-term lets via platforms like Airbnb. This is the ‘gigification’ and ‘precariousation’ of housing – for more profit for landlords and global digital platforms.

This is giving rise to a generation without secure jobs or secure homes. The Government has failed to enforce Airbnb regulations – ask yourself why that is. 

Freeze all rents

This includes the freezing of new market rents and enforcement of rental regulations. When new rentals come to the market, or a unit is unlet for two years, the landlords can charge the ‘market’ rent. Essentially there is no control over new rentals to the market.

This is why rents are going higher and higher. Controls and limits need to be introduced on new rentals. 

The ability of landlords to evict a tenant upon the sale of the property should also be removed. This would mean a landlord could still sell up but the tenant could remain in their home.

Set up a state home-building company

This is one of the key solutions to the crisis. Rather than being held over a barrel by the private developers, the Government should set up a State developer and construction company so that come boom or bust – we are guaranteeing the building of homes.

We have the funding to do it. Use the €6bn going into the rainy day fund. Generation Rent is being drowned in the flood of ever-rising rents now. If this isn’t a rainy-day emergency then I don’t know what is.

We don’t rely on the private market to provide the full spectrum of education or health in this country – why do we leave the entire housing system up to the profit estimations and vagaries of the market? A state construction company would give permanent pensionable well-paid jobs to construction workers, engineers and architects – and ensure that we aren’t losing our capacity with construction workers emigrating.

Use modular home factories to provide thousands of homes at lower cost, greener, and rapidly

There are factories in Ireland building three-bed turn key modular homes in two weeks for €210,000 and €100,000 to site for a two-bed home.

We should contract these private modular factories and set up a national modular home factory run by the state home building agency. A national factory on 30 acres could provide 5,000 terraced homes per year, and create 750 jobs. Modular homes use 70% less carbon than traditional housing.

Boost the not-for-profit social and affordable home providers

Housing Associations like Respond and Cluid are building social and affordable rental housing. However, they need access to land and more financial backing from Government.

Similarly, the O Cualann Co Housing Alliance which is also building affordable homes for rent and sale could be scaling up to deliver 1000s of homes if the Government backed them seriously.

Implement a Covid-like response in housing

All construction capacity is used for building homes. If I was Minister for Housing I would immediately have an emergency summit of all public agencies responsible for housing and private housing providers and set out a new plan for delivery. I would set out that this is an emergency and we need a wartime response.

The state as a developer should, alongside developing a state construction company, contract small and medium builders who want to and can build affordable and social housing.

We could contract them to build quality affordable homes immediately on public and private land.

‘The market will fix it’?

People are angry at how the Government has consistently refused to implement an emergency response to the homeless in Ireland and Generation Rent. We need this emergency response in order to provide homes for the homeless in Ireland, refugees and those caught in the unsustainable rental cost cycle.

It’s understandable that people are now at boiling point over the lack of housing. They are terrified, they and their family members are on the brink of, or facing homelessness and they can’t see a future where they have an affordable secure decent home. A generation of children is being traumatised by growing up in emergency accommodation.

The Irish State has failed in its duty of care to these children. We’re talking about a generation that cannot see a future. Amidst all of this, the far-right is preying on fear and anger and wrongly directing it at refugees. We’re at a point where social cohesion in Ireland is facing real challenges. It must be addressed with the urgency it deserves.

Refugees and migrants didn’t cause the housing crisis. It was Governments that abandoned social housing, that failed to build homes, community and transport infrastructure in disadvantaged areas and across the country. People should protest at those who are really to blame for the crisis – the Government and investor funds – and for solutions that can provide homes for all.

The Government’s delivery targets on housing are not being met. They are not ambitious enough, anyway. The people in power are floundering around, with no real understanding or political will to find a way out. Unwilling to take radical action. Stuck in the market mindset of developers, investor funds, landlords and banks.

There are thousands of units in this country with full planning permission – and yet they’re not being built. It is pure speculation – waiting for prices to rise further – so when they build they get the highest rent or prices possible.

That is the logic of the market. And our housing policy is based on that absurd logic. We have to step off the hamster wheel and start a new way of delivering housing.

Housing as a commodity

Housing is dominated by private developers, property asset managers, real estate investors, financial advisors and accountants, who all want to maximise the money they make from housing, they see housing as a commodity, not a home.

It is clear that massive sweeping reform is needed for our public agencies and the private construction industry if we are to meet this existential challenge of the housing crisis because it is unfortunately not the only serious challenge we face. Climate is the other. 

As it turns out, they are all interconnected – and we can address all three if we can provide an unprecedented intervention in affordable green homes and the retrofitting and renovation of derelict ones.

But I believe this Government and the Irish State will not take this scale of emergency response in a new direction unless they are forced into doing so. They have shown they are unwilling to fundamentally change their housing policy. We have already seen through public pressure, the Government introduce a (too small) vacant homes tax and a temporary eviction ban. Things they said they wouldn’t do.

They know they have failed utterly in housing. That is why you joining the Raise the Roof protest tomorrow really matters. It is of profound importance. Never before has it been more crucial that the people of Ireland stand up and stand together and demand major change. 

It was people standing together, being brave, speaking out, protesting and campaigning that brought about positive massive changes like Marriage Equality, Repeal and the water charges protests. It is also important to give people hope – that they are not alone stuck in their parents’ box room or living in fear of how they will pay the rent.

A massive protest this weekend will show that we care. That we are taking action that will make a change and give you a future in this country. 

Raise the Roof is a cross-society alliance of trade unions, homeless NGOs, civil society organisations and many more. So let’s Raise the Roof together on Saturday at 1pm in Parnell Square Dublin.

Let’s come together and do this, for you, for your community, your family, the children of Ireland and the future generations – so we can ensure all have the most basic of fundamental human needs – a home.

Dr Rory Hearne is an Assistant Professor at Maynooth University and the author of Housing Shock and the recently released book, Gaffs.


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