Saturday 24 March 2018

Comment: It’s time to stop faffing about and start treating this housing crisis like the emergency that it really is

Once again, Ireland needs to decide whether we have a housing ‘crisis’ or a housing ‘emergency’

Stock Photo: PA
Stock Photo: PA
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

ON an autumn day in 1948, architect Herbie Simms consumed a bottle of whiskey and threw himself under a steam locomotive in Dún Laoghaire.

The English-born son of a train driver left a suicide note proclaiming overwork to be the cause of his self-designed demise.

When Londoner Mr Simms came to Ireland to take up the job of Dublin City Architect in the early 1930s, the city centre was a seething hive of overcrowded slums. That TB and cholera would kill one to two children in every slum family was accepted as a fact of life. A long-retired former Irish Independent journalist I talked to, who made his way daily to work through the north city streets, said: “You’d pass them by every day sitting on tenement steps. Little children who got thinner and thinner and then one day they’d be gone.” Around 80,000 people needed to be rehoused.

This was not a housing crisis, it was a housing emergency.

Backed by a City Council which took the task at hand seriously and with a young “can-do” Irish government fully behind him, Mr Simms waded into the job with his sleeves rolled up. He came up with a basic palette of no-frills blocks of flats comprised of decent-sized family dwellings and a basic set of three or four house types, which could be erected rapidly and cheaply by pouring concrete into giant metal ‘sandwiches’ to get the walls up in days. Then he started rolling them out, and rolling and rolling. Neither Mr Simms nor the City Council nor the Irish State – itself at the poorest it would ever be – would let up on this task until it was done.

Almost all of Mr Simms’s homes – the ‘Corpo’ estates of Dublin along with his blocks of flats – are still standing and occupied today. The 80,000 were finally rehoused from when Mr Simms started his work in the 1930s until the 1960s, when his successors completed that job. It killed Herbie but it could be argued that 10,000 children did not die because of him.

Once again, Ireland needs to decide whether we have a housing ‘crisis’ or a housing ‘emergency’. And if it is the latter, we need to start solving it with the vim and venom required.

This week, we were presented with a smorgasbord of statistics from different sources, all of which tell us that despite the State’s best efforts, the housing situation is getting much worse.

Most strikingly of all from two sources, the National Census and from Sherry FitzGerald, the country’s largest estate agency network, we can see just how desperate the supply side situation has become. Supply nationally hit an historic low at the start of this year, with just 1.2pc of homes for sale – the norm is 5pc. In Dublin the figure was much worse, with between 0.4pc and 0.7pc for sale – running at 10 times less than what is ‘normal’. The data, published in the ‘Sherry FitzGerald Irish Residential Market Report for Q1’, shows 22,100 homes for sale in January, representing a 17pc drop on the 26,600 homes offered for sale 12 months previous.

It comes at the end of a seven-year downward spiral of available homes for sale. Supply has collapsed by 59pc, from 54,100 houses and apartments available in 2010.

The reasons people are not selling include lingering negative equity, tracker mortgages and a fear among those who wish to trade down that they just won’t get a property. We saw CSO figures this week stating that house prices increased 11pc in the last 12 months – an overheated market in anyone’s book. ‘Average’ homes in Dublin now stand at €400,000.

We have rents rising at rates that exceed those seen in the boom years and we have a sluggishly recovering new-home sector which is just not keeping pace with demand. All this despite the launch last year of Housing Minister Simon Coveney’s well-thought-out monster housing plan, ‘Rebuilding Ireland’, which promises tens of thousands of new homes by 2020. But the data released during the week reasonably suggests that ‘Rebuilding Ireland’ might be two or three years behind its time – that the plan itself needs some fast-track rebuilding to enable it to address the fast-emerging emergency.

It means it’s time to stop faffing about and to treat this housing crisis like a ‘true’ emergency with proper emergency measures.

In a true ‘emergency’, we need more sweeping and direct measures than those contained in the Coveney plan. We need to cut corners. The obstacles left in the way of housing provision are still not being dealt with.

We should start with ditching ‘free market’ doctrine when it is obvious that private sector developers are not building at the rate required, nor can they.

Quite simply, the State needs to become a developer, as it did in Mr Simms’s day. There is no choice. No one else will do it. So put the resources in place and let’s get on with it.

Next, the housing types. Dublin’s old corporation stock was built cheaply and is still among the finest built housing 70 years later. An international design competition with real rewards for the winners is required right away to establish a basic palette of home types which can be (a) built cheaply so they are affordable without being shoddy and (b) built rapidly. We need to establish the types and then issue them with a general passport through planning.

We need to start getting houses up fast and whoever builds them will need to make good on their deadline promises or suffer real financial penalties.

The State needs to dig out more land from its banks and from elsewhere – a compulsory purchase order (CPO) campaign in the right areas is now required.

We need to deal with the obscene situation whereby the State takes around 40pc of the price of every new home in taxes and charges. For a temporary period, we have to abolish all VAT on building and building materials and reduce local authority charges and other costs to minimal levels.

If we want the private building sector on board, we need a proper fund to be put in place from which developers and builders can borrow at reasonable rates. Banks are not lending to builders, who must seek private finance at rates as high as 14pc. All of this adds to the end cost of new housing.

Lack of infrastructure is also a serious problem – again, the State must provide. Beg, steal, borrow. Whatever it takes to get the cash. Quite simply, we need to get in right now and remove every single barrier we can towards rapid-build housing provision.

Finally, we need a Herbie Simms to drive it all. We may have one in Mr Coveney, who seems to be the first minister in a generation to truly understand the housing sector and its mechanisms at all levels and to have the earnest, hard-working mentality to push the necessary changes through. He also has an expert team in place already to channel it all through, but his plan needs a quick reboot, with far more radical and sweeping measures added, and he needs more support from other facets of government.

If we have a real emergency on our hands, then let’s treat it like one. That or throw ‘Rebuilding Ireland’ under a train.

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