Wednesday 28 June 2017

Solving the snob problem - why social housing doesn't mean slums anymore

'The reality is that in a property market as dysfunctional as this one, a return to mass build social housing in some form is now inevitable. But it doesn't have to be all bad. In fact, it has distinct advantages' Stock photo: PA
'The reality is that in a property market as dysfunctional as this one, a return to mass build social housing in some form is now inevitable. But it doesn't have to be all bad. In fact, it has distinct advantages' Stock photo: PA
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

'Just today I saw a big gang of them sitting around enjoying the sunshine while other suckers go out to work… What kind of society are we in that you can have the same house as your neighbours who work hard all day, every day, when you haven't worked a day in your life?"

On one online forum, views from Irish mothers fester red hot on the subject of social housing. It's a topic that divides society more than we let on. But this week it broke out openly on the airwaves and social media - spurred by the Government's plans to push through 47,000 new social housing units.

On one side are mortgage payers in the squeezed middle, who believe social housing recipients are spongers who enjoy a better lifestyle by virtue of getting "free" housing. On the other, we find those who are not so far off financially but are the new housing-deprived, who simply cannot get a mortgage nor afford to pay rents being demanded in cities.

The mother who posted the above view outlines how, having bought a home 10 years ago for more than €300,000, she has seen over 30 new houses added to the estate for social housing.

Also on that thread, the prickly riposte from a socially-housed mother: "My husband and I spent today out in the garden enjoying the sun. He gets holidays in work, much the same as you do, I imagine? I suppose we are lucky that the sun decided to shine for some of his week off. We haven't got a lovely new house though, it is an absolute sh*t heap, with crappy windows that let every breeze in and the only central heating is a back boiler in the open fireplace that hardly works. Due to (partner) working we pay pretty much market rent in our area."

And another said: "Our house was repossessed two years ago, we are struggling big time paying crazy high private rent costs like many I know. We both work but I never, ever dreamed we would be in this position but are applying to go on social housing list."

Within the Government there has also been an ideological divide between particularly 'blue' Fine Gaelers, who want no truck with state-built social housing - as if it is a misguided historical embarrassment to forget alongside tobacco, sports sponsorships and moving statues.

Dysfunctional

On the other side, we have had Labour, left-wing Independents and often Fianna Fáil members, who support it as a solution to our crisis, sometimes too much.

The reality is that in a property market as dysfunctional as this one, a return to mass build social housing in some form is now inevitable. But it doesn't have to be all bad. In fact, it has distinct advantages.

First, in a housing 'emergency' like this one, the State is the best (indeed the only) driver capable of the large scale response required.

We need a rapid roll-out of thousands of standard family homes, not only to house-disenfranchised families, but to take steam out of the rental market. Because purpose-built social housing takes the steam out at all levels. Those who object, citing crime and social disorder in those estates built from the 1940s to the 1960s, completely forget the catastrophe these estates solved. They cleared Third World slums that killed up to two children in each family as a matter of course and saved the lives of thousands every year.

The 'social' problems didn't come from moving people into better houses but the other deprivations that remained. Those who fear crime nests should note that today's social housing list tenant is not an underpaid docker with 10 children, but two teachers with two children. In the 1970s, six months' salary bought a city home; by the 1990s it was two years' income.

Going on an average salary today of €30,000 - an average house costs 10 times that in Dublin. It could be argued the policies of the last few years -which placed social housing tenants next door to those paying full mortgages, have in fact created more social schisms and dissent. Plus social housing is now a genuinely profitable proposition for the State to get into. With rents at record levels, even the below-market rents that social housing tenants would pay can represent a decent yield to the State.

Irish Independent

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