Friday 21 October 2016

Now is the time for less talk and more action on housing and homeless crisis

Published 05/06/2016 | 02:30

Fianna Fáil's environment spokesman Barry Cowen Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Fianna Fáil's environment spokesman Barry Cowen Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins

The housing and homeless crisis was such an issue in the recent election that the new Dail set up a special committee to find solutions a month before the Government was actually formed.

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While the public at large was growing more exasperated at the various political manoeuvres behind the formation of the Government, this committee, for the past seven weeks, has been taking evidence from a range of ministers, individuals and expert groups.

In all, the committee heard submissions from over 70 people and evidence from almost 40 experts in their fields. This is the kind of behind-the-scenes work that goes virtually unheralded, but is capable of producing impressive results.

The committee, under the chairmanship of Fianna Fail TD John Curran, and with members across all parties and Independents, has now produced a 196-page draft report.

The report contains over 3,000 words in various “policy options” and “key recommendations” under the headings of social housing, the private rental sector, private housing, mortgage distress, housing finance, Nama, homelessness, social inclusion, special housing needs, as well as legal issues.

So while the public at large may remain critical, for whatever reason, of public representatives in general, there is no doubt the work done by this committee to date, and in such a short timeframe (the draft report was completed almost three weeks ahead of schedule) must be commended.

Indeed, if the various options were whittled down and the recommendations contained in the draft report were agreed and implemented, the crises around housing and homelessness would be resolved, if not quite overnight then within a relatively short and defined period of time.

That is the real challenge now for the committee, and after that for the wider Dail and Seanad. If the housing and homeless crisis is to be resolved, or if meaningful headway is to be made, then all concerned must maintain the pace set and implement the actions required and agreed.

For example, at a committee hearing last Thursday, Fianna Fail’s Environment spokesman, Barry Cowen, made a relevant point to Minister Simon Coveney: he said it was too long and costly to deliver residential units, from conception to design, planning, procurement and construction, in both the public and private sectors.

“The minister stated that the process within the department and local authorities from conception to handover of keys has been reduced from eight stages to four. I believe that was done over a year ago, but it is today still every bit as slow and cumbersome as it was some years ago,” he said.

As it happens, the issue of financing housing takes up a large proportion of the draft report, which outlines potentially significant policy options and recommendations in this area.

The committee is recommending that the rate of VAT be reduced by 4.5pc on a trial basis, in order to encourage the immediate building of houses.

Alternatively, the committee also recommends the rate of VAT remains at 13.5pc, provided that the 4.5pc difference is ring-fenced for social housing projects and a possible National Building Programme.

Other recommendations in this area include that the Government examines and utilises all off-balance-sheet options for the additional development of houses.

In addition, the committee recommends that consideration be given to whether this should operate through approved housing bodies or otherwise and whether the State acts as guarantor on such finance.

The committee was in particular told of the Irish League of Credit Union’s capacity to make funds available at 3.5pc, with the main obstacle being Central Bank rules.

The committee was also told of finance available from the European Investment Bank at 2pc, via the Housing Finance Agency.

If the housing and homeless crisis is to be at least eased in the short term, the committee, and the Oireachtas, is going to have to make urgent decisions and not allow itself become bogged down in what we might call ideological issues.

For example, perhaps the largest section of the draft report relates to the homeless issue.

Under legal issues related to this, two recommendations are made which have the potential to cause significant delays.

The committee recommends that a referendum be held to “firmly enshrine” a right to housing within the Constitution, providing a strong base on which housing policy can be built; alternatively, the committee recommends legislative — as opposed to constitutional — changes to the law to address the housing problem in an “efficient and timely manner”.

One can imagine the tortuous debate the committee will have on this admittedly important either/or proposal, but while that debate continues, the immediate problems will persist.

From the draft report, however, it can also be taken that an air of urgent reality will inform all actions taken.

For example, the committee emphasises the need for a National Building Programme and consideration of how this may be structured, whether through the local authorities, Nama or the approved housing bodies.

The committee recommends that the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, in conjunction with local authorities, approved housing bodies and Nama, leads a housing programme that focuses on building housing, with a “streamlined administrative process”.

A key issue for the committee will be the Central Bank rules on mortgage lending and access to credit for those who wish to buy in the housing market.

In 2015, the Central Bank introduced new mortgage lending rules for banks which were aimed at controlling the level of lending in the housing market. A major issue identified as a result of these rules is the effect on first-time buyers.

The draft report states that the committee “may recommend” that “urgent consideration” is given to the Central Bank rules with a view to ensuring better access to mortgages for young people and those who cannot raise deposits.

It is also suggested that consideration be given to making the market easier to access for first-time buyers and that the Central Bank reviews the current mortgage interest rules “as soon as possible”, in particular the deposit requirements.

Alternatives include the recommendation for the establishment of a deposit savings scheme by the Government to assist first-time buyers.

The language in this area is predictably vague, and certainly far from definitive, because no matter what the committee recommends, the Central Bank will hold its own position.

But that should not prevent the committee, and the Oireachtas, from strongly making the point, not just to the Central Bank, but to all of the various and intertwined interested parties, that the housing and homeless issue will not be resolved without a series of joined-up actions taken in an urgent manner to meet a critical need. In other words, just get on with it.

Sunday Independent

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