News Opinion

Saturday 22 October 2016

The funds are there, the demand is there, so why is there no real action on housing?

Published 08/04/2015 | 02:30

Vanuatu has a housing crisis; Ireland has an unplanned, unmanaged and unnecessary shortage of habitable accommodation.
Vanuatu has a housing crisis; Ireland has an unplanned, unmanaged and unnecessary shortage of habitable accommodation.

Vanuatu has a housing crisis; Ireland has an unplanned, unmanaged and unnecessary shortage of habitable accommodation. There's a big difference between a housing crisis and trying to hold on to your ideal home or finding your perfect starter home.

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We haven't had a natural disaster wiping out the entire housing stock, but thousands have been forced to leave their homes, uproot their children and find temporary shelter. It is the greatest social crisis of our time. It will lead to more civic unrest, more pressure on the health service and an inevitable, inequitable drain on social services.

Three months ago, Environment Minister Alan Kelly announced his five-year plan for housing. Given his staff have exposed a 'spin' on the promised figures of 46,000 housing units, his plan for 2020 is merely a vision, not a reality.

Figures from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive recently revealed a 40pc increase in homelessness in Dublin. Last month alone, there were 371 families (including 803 children) in emergency accommodation. They were mainly from the private rented sector. Rents have shot up by 30pc in Dublin in the last two years. The housing shortage is mirrored in Cork city where rents have increased by 10pc. An average of one in five is renting nationwide; one in four in Dublin.

For those whose homes have been repossessed, the solution has been hotel rooms at a cost of €4.5m last year, compared with €1.3m in 2013 and €455,000 in 2012. Are we looking at €7m in 2016? This week, 200 families in Dublin are living in hotels courtesy of the State.

Yet every village, town and city in Ireland has empty property and much of it is owned by Nama. In Dublin city, properties are falling into decay while Nama waits for prices to increase. Nama sold lavish hotels at a loss with no return to the State, while modest city dwellings are now on hold while prices rise - property that could be sold for residential development.

The banks are lending again, investors from Israel to UK are buying here, builders are available. But derelict city properties purchased two years ago are still in the planning process. It is the logjam of bureaucracy that is shoring up the housing shortage.

In the meantime, the rental debacle is a win-win for landlords. Local authorities have delegated far too much responsibility for housing to the private sector.

One landlord received €700,000 in rental supplement last year and 78pc of properties in receipt of rental supplement were in substandard conditions.

Threshold (the national housing charity) is suggesting rent regulation of a type that will not discourage investment and encourage better standards and fairer rent. Rent control is seen as unfair on landlords and was challenged in the 1980s as unconstitutional.

Threshold is advocating rent certainty to incorporate agreed periodical increases so that the tenant can plan.

There is still a supply of bedsits on the market, but some landlords will hold off selling until an inspector closes them down.

For those tenants coming on to the market, former bedsit properties have been converted into one-bed apartments at much higher rent, adding to the numbers seeking affordable shelter.

The Housing Agency, set up in 2010, has been an epic failure and the Taoiseach admitted in an interview this week that mortgage-to-rent plan has not worked. The system is overbearingly bureaucratic. In five years, only 70 transitions from ownership to rental have been established.

If this facility had been set up within the local authority the mechanism would be on a better statutory footing.

With 100,000 people nationwide on housing lists, local authorities are going to have to re-think supply, using existing property and converting alternative property to residential.

Last year, the Revenue Commissioners collected more than €450m in Local Property Tax (LPT).

Let's assume that the same amount, if not more, will be collected this year. It would go a long way to solving local housing issues by ring-fencing at least half the LPT to renovate empty buildings and provide affordable and social housing.

The funds are there, the need is there, nobody seems capable of matching the two. Local authority staff have adapted to Irish Water; it is time to adapt to a new approach to city housing. Owners of derelict buildings hold the key to transforming city centre accommodation.

Many have been derelict for so long that they should come under a CPO by the local authority, especially if they have protected structure status.

So many parts of our towns and cities streets are decaying, which is bad not just for communities but even worse for tourism.

All stakeholders, particularly the Housing Section of the Department of the Environment, need to get away from the desk and walk the streets and alleyways and see the real potential that exists for housing supply, instead of making up pre-election figures.

Deirdre Conroy specialises in urban and building conservation

Irish Independent

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