Saturday 27 May 2017

We must declare a national emergency to solve this long-running crisis

The machinery of the State must fully mobilise and tackle this problem, which not only impacts on hundreds of homeless families, but people across all sections of society
The machinery of the State must fully mobilise and tackle this problem, which not only impacts on hundreds of homeless families, but people across all sections of society
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

With almost 5,000 people, hundreds of families and over a thousand children now living in State-funded emergency accommodation, it is clearly time for the Government to declare a full-blown national housing emergency.

The machinery of the State must fully mobilise and tackle this problem, which not only impacts on hundreds of homeless families, but people across all sections of society.

The social and financial impact of our accommodation shortage impacts on young people paying close to €1,000 a month for grubby flats, professionals sharing rooms in overpriced, cramped house shares and families moving further away from their workplaces in the quest to find an affordable home.

For many, starting a family has been postponed. Parents are handing over their nest eggs to adult children to help them on to the property ladder. The ramifications extend in all directions, including on the economy, as too many of us spend too much on housing.

As this Government nears the end of its life, its dealings with a breaking housing crisis can be summed up in two parts: Abject denial - an initial refusal to acknowledge the existence of a problem at all until mid-2014 - followed by token offerings of moribund bureaucracy largely based on the already failed Construction 2020 Plan.

Today we can see it has not at all dealt with the trio of big problems: a lack of development finance, the cost of construction and the maze of planning bureaucracy that has hamstrung supply.

Property Industry Ireland describes the plan as "a failure" which has "produced more infrastructure to oversee a problem rather than solve it".

So what needs to be done? Based on the views of homeless organisations, housing groups and the construction industry, we need a three-year plan.

The Government needs to:

1. Set up an emergency State housing board executive

It should direct a national campaign and link all groups involved in housing - including civil servants, homeless groups, social housing agencies, architects, planners, local authorities and the construction sector. It should have set targets and be answerable if they are missed.

2. Design a 'menu' of approved and viable emergency homes

Engage a panel of architects, planners and professionals to come up with a handful of high-quality, basic designs for one, two and three-bed homes which can be constructed quickly and cheaply using kit technology. These should be tendered at set budgets with penalties for overruns.

This is already happening in the UK, where 'Y:Cube' schemes of 36 one-bed apartments across three-storey blocks can be delivered for €50,000 each. The 'menu' designs could secure automatic planning approval.

3. Get the State to build homes

With more than 100,000 families on social housing lists, Ireland now has no choice but to embark on a massive State-funded social housing programme not seen since the 1940s.

4. Temporarily abolish local authority levies and VAT on new-home sales

They should go for three years, to reduce costs by as much as €60,000 per unit. At the same time, channel all local property tax revenues directly to councils so they have no excuses for failing to fund social housing.

5. Create a properly resourced State construction fund, as Nama has done, to provide builders with seed capital.

6. Put manners on Nama.

Direct the ultra-secretive body, which has been flogging off cut-price apartment blocks to vulture funds, to fast-track sites in cities for home development.

7. Temporarily abolish the 13.5pc VAT on new-home sales.

Anything that makes new homes unnecessarily expensive is undesirable.

8. Reinvigorate the 'shared ownership' scheme.

Lower-income couples would pay a mortgage on half the value of the home and rent to the local authority for the other half. A buyout arrangement can be availed of by the owner/tenant at any stage during the loan.

9. Stop wasting space.

Provide grants for the conversion of existing large buildings, such as multi-storey 'Pre-63s' flats, into individual, family-sized homes.

Irish Independent

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