Saturday 1 October 2016

State won't solve housing crisis unless it becomes main provider of new homes

Pat Doyle

Published 12/04/2016 | 02:30

Passive land management by the State has allowed hoarding, speculation and profiteering to ensure that, even before a single block is laid, units of accommodation will be significantly more expensive than they ought to be. Stock Image
Passive land management by the State has allowed hoarding, speculation and profiteering to ensure that, even before a single block is laid, units of accommodation will be significantly more expensive than they ought to be. Stock Image

The current housing and homeless emergency is an opportunity to correct the widespread failings in Ireland's housing system. We need to make this a pivotal moment that leads to a more inclusive and sustainable system of housing provision.

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Today's acute housing shortage, homeless emergency and rapidly rising rents are not solely down to measures introduced by governments in times of austerity, but are also linked to deep-rooted failings in the broader housing system.

In order to achieve the reforms necessary to create a coherent and fit-for-purpose system of housing provision, action is needed across a wide variety of areas.

The Peter McVerry Trust believes that there are four key political measures that must be taken in order to provide politicians with the tools needed to do their job effectively.

The first is for the incoming Taoiseach to declare an emergency, securing the necessary levels of urgency, giving greater powers to local authorities and even opening up new borrowing options for the State.

The next step is to appoint a Cabinet minister for housing and homelessness. As these two issues are intertwined, and given that the State's policies focus on a housing- led solution to homelessness, it would be counterproductive for responsibility for homelessness to rest with any other minister.

Politicians inside and outside of government need to have the ability to scrutinise, discuss, inform and support the creation of better housing policies - thus the creation of an Oireachtas Committee on Housing and Homelessness is essential.

Our final proposal in this area regards recognising, at long last, the right to a home - so the often-cited Constitutional impediment to bringing forward improved legislation in the area of housing can be removed.

The single biggest gap in commentary and debate on the housing and homelessness crisis debate surrounds land management.

Unfortunately, passive land management by the State has allowed hoarding, speculation and profiteering to ensure that, even before a single block is laid, units of accommodation will be significantly more expensive than they ought to be. There is a very significant body of work to be done in this area, and a national register of sites, empty properties and underused buildings is an essential component.

This needs to be backed by a compulsory purchase scheme to create a more robust and assertive system of land management by local authorities, which can then be combined with more effective planning and regulatory systems.

Another area that is often overshadowed by the need for family homes is the broken rental system. There is an urgent need to put in place a strategy to move Ireland as quickly as possible to a unitary rental system. This system is one that has a large number of units available to rent via a cost rental model, where rents cover the cost of building and maintenance but do not seek to profit or speculate.

In this model, non-profit housing associations grow over time to play a key role in competing with the for-profit rental market, leading to increased affordability and security of tenure for tenants. These cost rental units would eventually grow to provide for more and more household types, not just those in need of housing benefits. They would also help with students, low-to-middle income households and others. This has been recommended to governments by their own advisors as far back as 2004.

Obviously politicians want to be seen to provide more housing. There are varying and complex issues at play and it would be wrong to say that it can be remedied by blunt, incentive-based measures. The key action needed here is for the State to become the main driver and deliverer of housing.

There must be a direct intervention by the State to build housing units for those across the whole spectrum of housing need - from the homeless to the very large segment of society priced out of the for-profit housing market.

The potential for approved housing bodies (AHBs) to play a role in the housing system remains largely untapped. A key barrier is the lack of a single centralised unit in a government department to support and work on the sector's needs.

The AHBs provide for a variety of niche housing need groups such as the homeless, Travellers, people with disabilities and the elderly. They can also provide cost-effective housing solutions to the thousands on the social housing waiting list and those in need of affordable rental accommodation, if given the support to achieve their potential role in the system.

Finally, when it comes to dealing with the legacy of past mistakes in housing policy, urgent action is needed to tackle the mortgage arrears crisis, as current measures are clearly not working.

This will help prevent more people entering homelessness at a time when homeless services are overwhelmed by the constant flow of new and preventable cases into the sector.

Sustainable, coherent and inclusive actions are the only way to transform this emergency into a watershed moment in the history of Ireland's housing system.

Pat Doyle is CEO of the Peter McVerry Trust

Irish Independent

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