Wednesday 21 February 2018

Housing isn't the answer - our focus should be on homes

Aerial view of the new estates of Crumlin in Dublin during the 1950s from the NPA/Independent Newspapers Collection
Aerial view of the new estates of Crumlin in Dublin during the 1950s from the NPA/Independent Newspapers Collection
Des Geraghty

Des Geraghty

I'm glad to see that housing has at last moved centre stage in the political process and that there's a new optimism that serious steps will be taken to deal with our unacceptable housing emergency. The Programme for Government has many references to this subject, from Leadership on Housing, to Housing Supply, Protecting and Promoting Tenancy Rights and Home Ownership, Interest Rates, Land Hoarding and Student Accommodation, among others.

All this presents a formidable challenge for a minority Government. The core issues requiring attention are increased supply, affordable prices and appropriate locations for all the categories of people needing accommodation. And it has to be more about homes than houses.

This focus on the provision of homes and the creation of a single Minister for Housing, in the Programme for a Partnership Government, is a very welcome development.

The creation of an Oireachtas Committee on Housing also enhances the consultation process and allows for a much greater input from stakeholders into the policy development process.

These developments underline the general recognition that we now have a very serious accommodation crisis in need of urgent political attention. However, success will not be achieved by a return to a free-for-all housing market. We now need a more sophisticated, social market approach, which effectively coordinates both public and private provision, in sustainable communities.

The new Minister for Housing, Simon Coveney, has already displayed a welcome determination to address all these complex issues and has accepted the task of producing a 100-day Action Plan for Housing. If such a plan is agreed, whatever the exact time-frame, the much more difficult task will be its implementation. That will require progressive management, a steely determination by the Minister and strong political support which could prove difficult to sustain. Because despite near-universal recognition that we have a Housing Emergency, he will find no shortage of obstacles and objectors to each and every proposed action.

The need to increase the supply of homes through new builds and greater utilisation of existing buildings is recognised, but achieving that at affordable prices for those in need is equally important. The tendency towards 'boom and bust' economics is still deeply rooted in the property sector. Keeping the proper balance between supply and price is always problematic, as is delivering homes speedily where they are most needed.

There is clearly an urgent need for immediate short-term responses to homelessness and the undignified temporary hotel or institutional accommodation. However, the recent modular homes experience illustrates some of the hazards associated with any form of emergency response. And I'm old enough to remember some of the stop-gap solutions to housing needs which in the past created as many problems as they solved.

Growing up in the Liberties of Dublin in the 1940s and 1950s, I well remember the population clearances, with the exile of closely-knit families and friends to the new public housing estates in the 'far-off fields' of Ballyfermot, Crumlin and Drimnagh. And I recall the Housing Action Committee's campaigns for decent accommodation in the early and late 1960s (of which I was a part); and the 'Ballymun Solution' which was supposed to provide a panacea for Dublin's social housing needs, but later required the City Council to engage in an expensive demolition programme.

Given the importance of political leadership in dealing with this crisis, I certainly hope the present political fragmentation does not result in too much fragmented thinking, which could prove very costly and might even be counter-productive in the long run.

The Programme for Government has a long list of aspirations, many of which are highly desirable but reflect the diversity of inputs more than a coherent policy approach.

The Minister has no shortage of reports, analyses or opinions to work from, such as the Social Housing Strategy, 2020 - a report launched by the previous Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly; the various reports of the Housing Agency, such as 'Tackling Empty Houses'; the National Statement of Housing Supply and Demand; Construction 2020 - the 2014 Report of the Housing Supply Coordination Task Force for Dublin; and many more. Given the number of agencies and interests involved, the real challenge for the Minister will be to ensure that he has the appropriate delivery mechanisms in place to achieve early progress on the agreed policy proposals. That won't be an easy task.

He will also have to resist demands that Government spend more resources on boosting private sector housing demand, before he is sure there is an adequate supply in place to meet that demand. Increased subsidies now, on the demand side, will only serve to increase prices further and could quickly create even more unsustainable household debt.

There are many influential voices clamouring for such expenditure and in my view they need to be seriously challenged. The continuing existence of more than 80,000 mortgage arrears on dwelling houses (over 60,000 of which are in arrears for more than 90 days), should be sufficient warning not to repeat the blunders of the past.

I also have a serious concern about the constant suggestion that public policy should be about 'getting people on the property ladder'. In the not-too-distant past, the rungs of that ladder proved very slippery for a lot of people. For many, it was more akin to a game of 'snakes and ladders' - with more snakes than ladders.

Notwithstanding high levels of home ownership in the past, the future mix, particularly in urban areas, is likely to be different. More mobile young people may find rental accommodation more suitable for their needs. So we need more built-to-rent accommodation, as well as better-managed properties, with greater security of tenure, particularly in the private rental sector.

Social provision must be dramatically increased, now and in the future, but the State cannot ever provide for all the accommodation needs of a growing population. But it can create the conditions necessary to increase supply in all genres through an effective planning process and the activation of existing planning permissions supported by selective investment in infrastructure.

From my own experience with affordable home provision, there will continue to be reluctance in many quarters to accept a social mix. Many people think, with little evidence, that social and affordable provision will devalue their property. It has also been evident that public representatives, of most persuasions, are more susceptible to pressure from existing residents than from people who are urgently seeking accommodation.

We do urgently require greater housing provision, but we do not need another speculator-led property boom bolstered by more and more State subsidies, tax reliefs and incentives. I wish the Minister and the members of the new Dáil well, in their endeavours to achieve the necessary balance.

Des Geraghty is a former President of Siptu and was Chair of the Affordable Homes Partnership from 2005 to 2010

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