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Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 17 October, 2019
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So just what is the government doing about homelessness?

The coalition has committed to ending long term homelessness by 2016. But we’ve been here before…

homeless ireland logo Source: Andrew Bennett via Flickr/Creative Commons

“We are committed to ending long-term homelessness and the need to sleep rough.”

THIS IS THE commitment given by the coalition in its programme for government published in March 2011.

Not long after that the Fine Gael/Labour administration set a goal of ending long-term homelessness by 2016. Last July, that commitment was reaffirmed in the statement of government’s priorities between now and the end of its term.

Last week, the Dublin Simon Community claimed such a target was “unachievable” but a government spokesperson’s bullish response was: “We were told a lot was unachievable in this recovery.”

It’s not the first time an administration in Ireland has given a target year for eradicating the problem. In 2008, as the boom was just about to go bust, the Fianna Fáil-led government pledged to eliminate long-term homelessness within two years. It was indicative of the positive outlook engulfing the country as the Celtic Tiger let out its last roar.

But by 2010 the Troika were in town and one of the most iconic images of their time in Dublin was IMF chief Ajai Chopra walking past a number of homeless people on his way to talk about how much money Ireland would need to stay afloat.

Ireland Financial Crisis Source: AP/Press Association Images

With the economy heading into freefall and construction grinding to an almost complete halt the 2010 goal was not achieved. In its annual report for that year, Focus Ireland lamented:

“2010 should have been the momentous year in which the Government achieved its objectives of ending long-term homelessness and the need to sleep rough. However, due to the painfully slow progress in delivering homes, these objectives were not achieved.”

Big plans, but how soon?

Perhaps with this criticism in mind the current government pledged to adopt a ‘housing first’ approach to tackling the problem. This meant delivering enough housing units to satisfy need.

What has become clear in over the last 12 to 18 months is that not enough homes are being built in Ireland. It’s a problem that has not gone unidentified and unacknowledged in government.

Just last week, Environment Minister Alan Kelly – who has responsibility for achieving the 2016 goal – said that social housing has been made “a number one priority” by this government for its remaining term in office.

Since the turn of the year, the Taoiseach Enda Kenny has spoken repeatedly about undertaking a construction programme “to triple the number of houses built to 25,000 a year by 2020″.

This commitment forms part of Construction 2020, the government’s big plans to get the country building again – although not at the insane levels that were the hallmark of the boom.

Helping The Building Industry The Taoiseach and now ex-tánaiste launching Construction 2020 earlier this year Source: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

But 2020 is a long way off and the need is more immediate when in Dublin alone there are around 1,400 individuals forced to take shelter in emergency accommodation every night.

With such an immediate need for solutions, the Labour Party has identified that politically it would be good for it to burnish its credentials on the issues of housing and homelessness. With that in mind the party demanded the Environment (which includes housing) portfolio in the Cabinet reshuffle.

It also recently voted against a 15 per cent reduction in the local property tax in Dublin city – instead proposing a 7.5 per cent reduction – on the basis that it would impact on revenue needed to tackle homelessness.

So what is the government doing right now?

There has, as you would expect, been widespread criticism that the coalition isn’t doing enough and what it is doing is not being done fast enough but in its defence here are a few statistics worth noting:

  • There has been a 9 per cent reduction in the number of people on the social housing waiting list as of May 2013 from 98,318 two years ago to 89,872.
  • On a given night last April there were 127 individuals sleeping rough in Dublin, a decrease on the 139 that had been recorded for November 2013.
  • While rising rents in Dublin concern the government, ministers point out that rents in the capital are still 12.7 per cent lower than they were at their peak in late 2007. Nationally they are 19 per cent lower then at their peak in 2007.

In addition the government is not shy of outlining what it is planning to do in the coming months. For starters, we’re expecting a Social Housing Strategy to be published shortly by the Environment Minister.

“It will contain clear measurable actions to increase the supply of social housing,” Kelly told the Dáil last week.

Labour Leadership Contests Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

Speaking last week, Kelly said the strategy will put in place “a framework to achieve a significant increase in the supply of new social homes”.

More specifically in the Dáil last week, Kelly set out some of the policies the government is pursuing right now in a bid to alleviate the crisis:

  • Around 70 per cent of the Department of Environment’s budget is allocated to fund housing issues. That means more than €647 million is allocated this year. 
  • €68 million has been allocated to a construction programme for local authorities that will see more than 450 houses built in 2014 and 2015.
  • A capital investment programme of €46 million has been established for a range of housing projects and providing 416 accommodation for people with special needs.
  • Some €30m will be spent bringing 1,900 vacant and boarded up units back into social housing use.
  • Some €10 million is being allocated for the upgrade of unfinished housing estates.
  • On rising rents, the Private Residential Tenancies Board (PRTB) has just completed a study on the options available to address the difficulties caused by spiralling rent prices.

On homelessness in particular, Kelly said:

  • Around €19 million has been ring-fenced for 187 units to be either acquired or constructed in local authority areas – specifically for people and families who are homeless.
  • Some €10 million is being provided for the acquisition of 67 units by approved housing bodies to address the homeless problem in Dublin.

While just last Friday, Finance Minister Michael Noonan announced that he would be abolishing the capital gains tax exemption for property investors who hold onto a property for at least seven years. He claimed this would free up housing supply in Dublin.

The NAMA problem

One of the big ways the government believed it could solve housing crisis when it took office was to use the significant stock in possession of the State’s bad bank the National Asset Management Agency with pledges made to get 2,000 housing units from NAMA every year.

Three years on this should have conceivably delivered 7,000 units by now but NAMA has delivered just 700 social housing units so far. Kelly has said recently that in excess of 1,000 will be delivered by the end of the year.

This is despite NAMA making all of its housing stock available to local authorities for social housing.  The problem is that not all of it was deemed suitable.

nama-map22-1

Using NAMA to help tackle the problem neatly tucks into the government’s ‘housing first’ approach but the difficulty in delivering homes underlines the extent to which it is proving a challenge for the coalition.

‘Housing first’ is all about having enough homes so as that the exchequer doesn’t have to pay out for hotels and hostels to accommodate people who have no place to go. It’s a lofty and credible goal, but delivery is not so simple. Recent figures for Dublin alone showed 156 families, including 341 children, are living in hotels in the capital.

This partly puts a strain on services such as the Capuchin Day Centre which needs about €1.9 million a year. It gets about €450,000 from the State but has to look elsewhere to make up the shortfall. The government could increase funding, but that would not exactly be in line with the principle of ‘housing first’.

Kelly underlined where the government’s priorities lie last week, stating: “My Department is committed to continuing to develop innovative and sustainable approaches to the provision of social housing.  Every available, appropriate unit needs to be transformed into a home as quickly as reasonably possible.”

But for many it’s simply not happening quick enough.

Read: The State acts as parent, then lets kids walk out the door – and straight into homelessness

Catch up with all the rest of our Homeless Ireland series here >

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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