Wednesday 22 November 2017

No homes to go to

Soaring rents and property prices have changed the way we live over the past four years. Kim Bielenberg counts the human cost of Ireland's present housing dysfunction

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You only have to look at the raw statistics to see that Ireland is in the depths of a housing crisis that affects wide swathes of society - from the unemployed struggling to get by, to professional people in well-paid steady jobs.

David Hall, director of the Irish Mortgage Holders Association, says: "We have helped over 11,000 people over the years, and there are only two job categories where we have not had clients - Taoiseach and President."

Up to 32,000 families in the State are in long-term mortgage arrears of over two years, a legacy of the crash that has never gone away. That aspect of the housing crisis still has to be resolved.

What happens to these indebted homeowners if they have to leave their homes - and who will provide them with accommodation?

Up to 8,000 people in the State are now officially classed as homeless, including 3,000 children. It is an appalling indictment of our state of affairs that the fastest-growing age group of homeless people are children up to the age of four.

At the same time, figures from the Central Statistics Office show that almost one-fifth of people who are homeless have jobs. That is a symptom of how far the crisis is spreading.

The official figures are bad enough, but there are also many individuals who are suffering desperate difficulties in finding homes, but are not technically homeless.

They may be "couch-surfing" with family members or friends to avoid the necessity of going into emergency accommodation.

Dave Nugent, who helped set up the ­#MyNameIs campaign on behalf of homeless children, said: "Thousands of people have moved backed in with their families, because they cannot afford accommodation. They should also be considered homeless."

Pipe dream

Soaring rents and property prices have meant that we have changed the way we live over the past five years. The property market has enabled the phenomenon of the extended family living together to make a comeback.

In previous generations, young people could aspire to flee the family home soon after they reached adulthood, and by the age of 30, they might be hoping to buy a home of their own. That now seems like little more than a pipe dream for all but the most wealthy.

Now, young adults are clinging on at home beyond school and college, dependent on their parents for a roof over their heads.

The number of young working adults who are still living at home increased by 19pc between 2011 and 2016 to 215,000, according to census figures.

Who would have thought that a housing crisis would even spawn a nostalgia for bedsits, dwelling places more commonly associated with Stygian gloom?

Lead balloon

Among those lucky enough to have found a home, there can still be intense pressures.

If Enda Kenny was looking for a clue to why his slogan 'Let's Keep the Recovery Going' went down like a lead balloon, he could have found it in figures on what proportion of our income now goes on housing.

The Central Statistics Office figures show that every week, the average household spends 20pc of their total just to keep a roof over their heads.

Back in the more laid-back era of 1999-2000, housing costs made up just 10pc of expenditure.

That is just an average. There are thousands of people who are spending a much greater proportion of their income on accommodation, leaving little room for any kind of feel-good factor.

Dave Nugent says: "The exorbitant prices for accommodation are no longer sustainable, and we are just at the start of something quite catastrophic when it comes to rental property."

This week, the Government extended its list of rent pressure zones to Greystones in Co Wicklow and Drogheda in Co Louth. They will have a 4pc cap on rent increases.

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But so far, critics believe the measures taken to solve the crisis have been sticking-plaster solutions.

Nugent says the introduction of rent pressure zones to limit hikes in rents have been ineffective.

"Landlords have been able to get round these restrictions. A landlord can get a tenant out by claiming that they need to renovate the property.

"Then an apartment that cost €2,000 is put back on the market for €3,500."

Overall, rents have risen by 7pc over the past year, according to figures published this week by the Residential Tenancies Board. In Dublin they are 11pc higher than they were at the peak of the Celtic Tiger boom.

The common scenario where tenants are moved on as rents rise creates a sense of transience and dislocation. Parents are left wondering whether it really is a home if they have to move on after a few months.

As we get deeper into this crisis, Nugent believes that homelessness will affect more working people.

"I know a family with three children where both partners are working. She is an audiologist and he is a chef.

"They were moved out of their last property, because the landlord claimed he was moving back in.

"They have been homeless for five months now, because they can't afford the rents, and because of their incomes, they are not entitled to Housing Assistance Payments."

The family is now living on the side of the road in a caravan with no water or sanitation.

Among those who have found themselves homeless is IT consultant Dean, who was forced into emergency bed-and-breakfast accommodation when he became ill and could no longer afford high rents.

Emergency accommodation

Dean had a good job in Cork, providing computer services to businesses. He designed IT systems and installed security packages.

"The last thing I would have expected in my wildest dreams was that I would be living in emergency accommodation," he says.

Fortunately, after a stint in a bed and breakfast, Dean eventually found an inexpensive apartment in Macroom through the housing association Clúid, but he says the housing crisis in Cork has only got worse.

"An apartment goes up for rent, and you find that over 20 people turn up to look at it."

With rents and house prices soaring in the capital, it is hardly surprising that many families feel their only option is to move far away from Dublin to cheaper property. But it can prove to be a false economy when commuting costs are added in.

Of course, not everybody is damaged by this dizzying spiral of high prices. There are plenty smug homeowners who bought two decades ago - and may be renting out properties that are soaring in value. The State's biggest landlord, Ires Reit notched up profits of €33m in the first six months of the year.

For the hard-pressed homeseeker, however, the outlook is bleak, and it is hardly surprising that there has never been a feeling of recovery.

As David Hall of the Irish Mortgage Holders Organisation puts it: "Between 2009 and 2014, the worry was: how am I going to pay back my debt. Now it is: where am I going to live?"

@KimBielenberg

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