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Social Democrats Housing spokesperson Cian O'Callaghan Sam Boal/
Policy Matters

Cian O'Callaghan says we're becoming a nation of renters - so how would the Soc Dems change that?

O’Callaghan is clear that the Social Democrats won’t work with other parties if it means a continuation of the status quo.

OVER THE NEXT few weeks The Journal will be sitting down with different spokespeople from across Ireland’s political parties to take a deeper look at what they believe needs to be done across areas like housing, health, the environment and childcare.

First up this week is the Social Democrats’ housing spokesperson Cian O’Callaghan, who outlined what he believes needs to be done to solve the housing crisis.

Housing is never far from the headlines in Ireland.

This week began with news of a Fianna Fáil councillor charging €260 a week for a room without access to kitchen facilities and is ending with the release of a Prime Time investigation looking into landlords offering accommodation in exchange for sex.

In Cian O’Callaghan’s view, both stories highlight the power imbalance that currently exists in the Irish housing market.

He suggests the situation is a “very typical example of someone with much more power in a situation not seeing the issue with the power imbalance.”

“There’s an element of just not treating the person renting with humanity and with respect.”

The Dublin Bay North TD previously tried to introduce a law to deal with sex-for-rent scenarios, but the proposed legislation was killed off last year at committee stage.

If enacted, the law would have created an offence of requiring or accepting sex as a condition of accommodation, with penalties of up to seven years in prison or a €50,000 fine. 

O’Callaghan said he would have been “more than happy” to work with the government on the bill, and he is hopeful that this evening’s Prime Time investigation will spur it into renewed action. 

His willingness to work with government extends beyond just that bill, but looking ahead to what a new government might look like after the next general election, O’Callaghan is clear that the Social Democrats won’t work with other parties if it means a continuation of the status quo. 

“We wouldn’t go into coalition with parties if they just thought ‘well, we will just do a bit more of the same.’ We fundamentally don’t think the approach that’s been taken has worked,” he said.

We are, against the wishes of people, being turned into a nation of renters. 

“And considering the massive resources that we as a country put into housing, for us to be going backwards over the last 20 years, doesn’t make any sense.”

So what would the Social Democrats change? 

Top of the list of priorities for O’Callaghan would be to bring Ireland’s protections for renters in line with other European countries in the form of a permanent eviction ban. 

This would mean that if a rental property is sold, it would need to be sold with the tenant in situ as part of the deal.

“That’s important for renters’ for peace of mind, and also very important for stemming the tide of people going into homelessness,” O’Callaghan said.

“Most people who become homeless have their last stable home from the private rented sector, so that measure alone, would mean then we would be saving a cohort of families and individuals from the trauma of becoming homeless.”

Secondly, O’Callaghan said the Social Democrats want to ensure that people have the choice of homeownership.

To achieve this, he said if the Social Democrats were in power tomorrow they would stop State subsidies from going into build-to-rent developments and put “a lot more resources into affordable purchase housing”. 

“That’s one of the big missing gaps at the moment,” he said. 

The Ó Cualann cohousing alliance model of affordable housing is one O’Callaghan admires.

Set up by Hugh Brennan, the Ó Cualann cohousing alliance is a housing scheme with a set margin of 5 per cent plus overheads. This means that builders and design teams are paid the same as they would be if working for any private developer but houses can be delivered to the buyer for less than current market rates. 

Under the model,  small scale housing developments are delivered with 3-bed properties going for €178,000 in Dublin.

O’Callaghan has said this is something that needs to be scaled up. 

In addition to this, the Social Democrats want to see a much more punitive tax on vacant properties. 

As it stands, a vacant property tax of 0.3% is in place, but O’Callaghan believes this needs to be closer to 10% to actually deter people from keeping properties empty. 

Ireland’s planning system

Another key area that O’Callaghan would like to change is Ireland’s planning system. 

“The biggest deficiency in the planning system is that we haven’t hired enough planners,” he says. 

“There’s huge backlogs in An Bord Pleanála and huge delays in terms of getting planning permissions, because there simply hasn’t been enough staff and enough planners hired.”

Earlier this year, An Bord Pleanála told TDs that decisions on thousands of housing units have been delayed because of the backlog. In April, it said it hoped to clear the backlog of 27,000 decisions by the end of this year.

On top of hiring more planners, O’Callaghan would like to see the planning system move to one that invests more heavily in forward planning. He said: 

“If the planning process is really working, it should be absolutely clear what you can get planning permission for and what you cannot get planning permission for.

By investing more heavily in forward planning, O’Callaghan claims developers, builders and individuals could have much more certainty and that this will ultimately  reduce conflicts and litigation.

“Because we don’t invest enough in forward planning, we fall into a situation where with each planning application you don’t necessarily know what the result is going to be. There’s a lack of consistency,” O’Callaghan said, adding that this also pushes up costs.

Current approach

O’Callaghan is unsurprisingly critical of the current Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Green Party approach to housing. 

“One of the problems with the various schemes and subsidies that are in place at the moment is, firstly, we don’t have any transparency around developers’ profits,” he says.

“We don’t know how much the subsidies are increasing developers’ profits, we can only see from the publicly listed companies. 

“We’d like to see straight away legislation, that would mean that any developers that benefit from any of these subsidies would have to provide transparent accounts so we could see what effect it’s having on their profit levels.” 

In addition to this, he claims that a problem with current schemes like Help to Buy and the First Home scheme is that there is evidence that they are causing house prices to rise further.

“The price of new build houses increase at a much higher rate than second time houses, and housing experts like Mel Reynolds are certainly of the view that these types of schemes are adding to that house price inflation.

“If affordable housing was being developed in the way that we’re suggesting, like the Ó’Cualann type model, that means that it’s not being developed for profit developers. 

“So it’s being provided at the amount of money that it costs to provide the house rather than putting in a large profit margin for a developer and the very expensive financing costs that private developers have to go through. So that effectively puts an upper ceiling on the cost of the house,” O’Callaghan said.

Looking ahead to what might happen after the next general election, O’Callaghan keeps his cards close to his chest and said he is happy to “work constructively with all opposition parties putting forward solutions to the housing crisis”.

When asked what sets the Social Democrats apart from other parties on the left his response is that the Social Democrats “put a strong emphasis on supporting homeownership”.

“Most renters actually don’t want to be renting, they want a long term secure home either through buying or a good social housing tenancy. That’s where we need to shift resources, towards that.”

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