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FactCheck: How many new social housing units did the government provide last year?

In the second instalment of our two-part series, FactCheck referees an on-air dispute between Damien English and Eoin Ó Broin.
Feb 28th 2017, 12:01 AM 11,821 26

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LAST WEEK SAW two high-profile rows between the government and opposition over what’s being done to increase the provision of social housing in Ireland.

On Thursday afternoon, Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald clashed in the Dáil over the number of social housing units currently being built.

And on Thursday’s Tonight With Vincent Browne, Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin and Fine Gael Junior Minister Damien English accused each other of not telling the truth over the number of new social housing units provided last year.

In a two-part series, TheJournal.ie‘s FactCheck responds to reader requests, and steps in to resolve both disputes and find the truth of the matter.

On Sunday, we dealt with Cowen and Fitzgerald’s row in the Dáil, and today, we’ll referee Ó Broin and English’s on-air argument.

(Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie, tweet @TJ_FactCheck, or send us a DM).

Claim 1: Around 6,000 new social housing units were provided in 2016 – Damien English

What was said:

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

In the video above, you can watch an excerpt from the exchange on Tonight With Vincent Browne. You can also watch the episode in full here.

We’re focusing first on Damien English’s claim, and will examine Eoin Ó Broin’s claim later on.

Damien English: Between house purchase, between construction, between buys being brought back in, there was about 6,000 new, additional social housing supply into the market [in 2016].

The Facts

In response to our request for evidence, a spokesperson at the Department of Housing, where Damien English is Minister of State for Housing and Urban Renewal, stated that:

  • 5,292 new social housing units were delivered in 2016
  • Of these, 652 were new builds
  • 2,300 were refurbished vacant homes
  • 1,552 were acquired (bought) by local authorities or AHBs (approved housing bodies)
  • 788 were leased by local authorities from private owners

This amounts to 5,292 new units, but the spokesperson argued that continued spending in 2017 had brought “unit delivery since January 2016 close to 6,000 new social housing units”.

The spokesperson did not state the number of new social housing units provided in 2017 so far.

Furthermore, any social housing provision in 2017 is irrelevant to Damien English’s claim, which related specifically and exclusively to 2016.

Claim 2: Around 4,000 new social housing units were provided in 2016 – Eoin Ó Broin

Sequence 03.00_00_48_12481.Still002 Source: TV3.ie

What was said:

If you take all of the new council and Approved Housing Body houses, and if you take the vacant ones that were refurbished, it was 4,000, and that is nowhere near enough.
…There were 2,204 new social houses, between the new builds and the acquisitions.
And there were 2,300 refurbished, long-term voids, so it’s just over 4,000.

The Facts

In response to our request for evidence, Eoin Ó Broin cited this document, which accompanied the Department of Housing’s most recent social housing construction status report, and was published last Monday.

It gave the same figures provided by Damien English’s spokesperson at the Department of Housing.

However, Ó Broin excluded the 788 units that were leased from private owners by local authorities.

This leaves us with 4,504 new social housing units in 2016.

Ó Broin, who is Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on housing, stated on Tonight With Vincent Browne that the total was “just over 4,000″, but told FactCheck he acknowledged it was around 4,500.

Assessment

2016socialhousingoutput Source: Department of Housing

What this comes down to is what you include and exclude from the overall count of new social housing units, so let’s examine that.

New builds are, as you may have imagined, newly constructed homes designed for use as social housing. They are publicly owned and add to the social housing stock when they’re finished.

Voids are units that were previously used for social housing, but have been vacant for an extended period of time and are no longer in use. When they are refurbished, they are made available as social housing stock again. While technically speaking they are not new units, they are often accepted as such, because before their refurbishment, they were not in use as social housing.

Acquisitions are private units that, in essence, are purchased by local authorities or AHBs, for use as social housing. When they’re bought, they become publicly owned, and are made available as social housing stock.

Leasing involves local authorities leasing homes from private owners for between 10 and 20 years, for use as social housing. When homes are leased by local authorities, they become available for social housing, but not permanently, and they remain privately owned.

RAS (the Rental Accommodation Scheme) is run by local authorities and is available to people on rent supplement for 18 months or more, considered to be in long-term housing need. Local authorities pay a tenant’s rent to a private landlord, and tenants pay a portion of this to local authorities. Availing of RAS takes you off the local authority housing list.

HAP (the Housing Assistance Payment) is similar to RAS. Local authorities subsidise rent for tenants, but tenants remain contracted directly with their landlord. Receipt of HAP removes you from the local authority housing list.

RAS and HAP are temporary arrangements between landlords, tenants and local authorities, and don’t add to the social housing stock, which is why neither Eoin Ó Broin nor Damien English included them in their figures.

New builds, refurbished voids and acquisitions do effectively add to the social housing stock, which is why both included them in their figures.

The leasing scheme essentially gives the state use of a home for social housing, for between 10 and 20 years, but ownership stays in the private sector.

Eoin Ó Broin told FactCheck he excluded the 788 units leased by local authorities in 2016 in part because public ownership is part of the definition of social housing.

There is no fixed, universal definition of social housing, but it’s true that it is widely understood as involving public or non-profit ownership and/or management of housing.

With that in mind, let’s turn again to the numbers.

Damien English put the number of new social housing units in 2016 at “about 6,000″. His spokesperson claimed this included additional provision since the start of 2017 – something that should immediately be disregarded.

If we include the 788 units leased by local authorities, as he advocates, this means he over-stated the case by a factor of 13%. If we exclude those 788 leased units, English overstated the case by a factor of 33%.

Eoin Ó Broin put the number of new social housing units in 2016 at “just over 4,000″, (though in response to FactCheck’s queries, he increased that to 4,500).

If we include the 788 leased units, this means Eoin Ó Broin, on Tonight With Vincent Browne, understated the case by a factor of at most 24%. (On air, he did in one instance stipulate “just over 4,000″).

If we exclude those 788 leased units, as he advocates, it means Ó Broin understated the case by at most 11%.

Conclusion

sequence-03-00_00_53_26889-still001 Source: TV3.ie

The correct number is either 4,504 or 5,292, depending on whether you regard homes leased from the private sector on a long-term basis as being “new social housing units”.

It should be noted that social housing is widely understood to involve public or non-profit ownership as a prerequisite.

However, in the absence of a fixed, legal definition of what does and doesn’t count as “social housing”, FactCheck cannot make a determination on that.

Which leaves us with a comparison of the numbers. On air, Damien English overstated the case by either 13 or 33%, depending on whether you include leased units.

There is an arguable justification for a claim that 5,292 new social housing units were produced last year, and although the claim of 6,000 includes estimates from 2017 (something that is irrelevant here), it’s not far off 5,292.

We rate his claim Half-TRUE.

This is the first time we’ve fact-checked a claim by Damien English. In future, you’ll be able to find his FactCheck File here.

And on air, Eoin Ó Broin understated the case by either 11 or 24%, depending on whether you include leased units.

There is an arguable justification for a claim that 4,504 new social housing units were produced last year, and “just over 4,000″ is not far off that figure.

We also rate his claim Half-TRUE.

This is also the first time we’ve fact-checked a claim by Eoin Ó Broin. In future, you’ll be able to find his FactCheck File here.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here.

For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here.

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Dan MacGuill

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