Cabinet go to war while homeless are left out in bitter cold
As rent row rages with no solution to housing crisis in sight, coalition faces a catastrophe of its own making, writes Philip Ryan
The first anniversary of homeless man Jonathan Corrie’s tragic death is this day next month.
Candles and flowers will be placed at the doorway on Molesworth Street, opposite Leinster House, where Jonathan perished.
Around this time last year, we were led to believe his death focused the minds of those who walk by that doorway on their way into Dail Eireann.
And we were told the parallel homeless and housing problems, which were rapidly spiralling out of control, would be resolved with haste.
It would be a joint party response with both Fine Gael and Labour desperate to bring an end to the scandal of families living in shelters, hotels or even in the back seats of their cars.
The Coalition also pledged to clamp down on landlords increasing prices above rent caps and forcing young mothers on to the streets.
Environment Minister and Labour Party deputy leader Alan Kelly was to take the lead and it cannot be said that there has been no Government action.
Billions of euros have been pledged for social housing projects and modular homes are being introduced as a short-term solution.
But it’s not working. Charities say on average 70 families are becoming homeless every month and the State is picking up the tab for hotel costs.
On the housing front, there is agreement within the Government that supply is the central issue and the lack of new builds is feeding into the spike in rents.
The economic recovery has seen an increasing number of young people flock to Dublin as more jobs are created — and they all need somewhere to live.
But developers are not building in Dublin, in fact there has been a decrease in new builds this year in the capital.
There are 21,000 units ready to go with planning permission but there isn’t a sign of a sod being turned.
One of the reasons is that developers who overpaid for their land are not getting the bang for their buck on new developments.
EGO: Environment Minister Alan Kelly has been told from on high to settle down a bit and become more of a team player
Cabinet go to war while homeless are left out in bitter cold
The Central Bank’s strict new rules are also making it difficult for young people to get on the property ladder and for families to move to homes to raise their children.
This all puts increased pressure on the rental market and naturally, landlords are happy to make hay while the sun shines by pushing up prices.
Problems aside, we have been promised a solution.
In the weeks before the Budget, the Coalition was wrangling over the election date as Taoiseach Enda Kenny moved towards calling a snap election this month.
According to Government sources, one of the reasons put forward for going early by senior Fine Gael strategist Mark Mortell was to avoid further controversy during the winter months, when the homeless crisis will inevitably worsen.
“Fine Gael’s tactic on rent was to drag it out until the election was called,” a Labour source said.
Labour was vehemently against a November polling day and ultimately got their way, which led to some resentment within Fine Gael.
Finance Minister Michael Noonan’s give-away Budget was supposed to include a rent and housing package which would allay fears of Government inaction on homelessness.
Mr Kelly’s officials were responsible for developing ideas for the radical shake-up of the rental and housing sector.
There were plans to introduce sweeteners for developers to encourage them to build and proposals to bring about rent certainty, which would prevent landlords increasing prices unreasonably.
Neither was palatable to Mr Noonan who believes incentives for developers would signal a return to Celtic Tiger policy and rent certainty would curtail construction.
Kelly wavered on the sweeteners for builders but refused to give any ground on rent certainty.
Fine Gael ruled out rent certainty but offered rent caps to those receiving State help to cover rental costs.
An 11th hour meeting planned before the Budget was cancelled by the Taoiseach’s economic advisor, Andrew McDowell, when agreement could not be reached with Kelly.
Kelly’s team considered Fine Gael’s offer as “tokenistic” and a “pat on the head” from their senior Coalition partner.
“Separating rent reform from the Budget would have removed Kelly of all his bargaining power. He had to be willing to go to the very edge and risk near assassination in the press in order to get Fine Gael into a space of doing a deal,” a source said.
Kelly did not make any friends in Fine Gael during the talks.
“He wants to get things done but does himself no favours with his ego. It’s not that he cares about the homeless crisis but he wants to be the person who fixes it,” a Fine Gael Cabinet minister said.
Support among his Labour colleagues is also mixed. Some admire him for taking on the Blueshirts and believe Tanaiste Joan Burton could follow his lead on occasion.
Others feel he should tone down the aggression and become more of a team player.
“He has been told from up on high to settle down a bit. This macho stuff is doing us no favours,” a Labour source said.
The Tanaiste has not been overly supportive of Kelly’s rent certainty plans, instead favouring establishing a new regulator.
Meanwhile, as Coalition infighting continues, the markets have reacted to the uncertainty and rents are still soaring, with landlords fearing it is their last opportunity to increase prices.
Winter is now fast approaching, the homeless crisis is worsening and there is no sign of any agreement on rent.
It is the view of Kelly’s political team that the Coalition has left itself wide open to being damaged by another tragedy like the death of Jonathan Corrie.
“Coming into Christmas, homelessness is going to capture the media narrative hugely, and all the blame, rightly or wrongly, will fall on Kelly,” a Labour source said.
“Nobody is winning at the moment and Fine Gael know that,” the source added
There are at most 15 weeks of Dail sitting time left and — even with the best will in the world — it would take a mammoth effort to pass any legislation which would resolve the problem.
And given the potential for constitutional challenges, it is unlikely the Government will go to the polls with a cast iron resolution to the rental and housing crisis.