The outgoing CEO of the Irish Housing Agency, John O’Connor, has warned that the country needs to lose its “fixation” with large homes.
Mr O’Connor was speaking ahead of his retirement this weekend, after overseeing the agency for a decade. He will take over as chair of the Housing Commission, which will focus on the building of sustainable and affordable homes, and the communities that will support them.
In his office on Dublin’s Lower Mount Street last week, he said “as a society we have failed to adjust our mindset” when it comes to expectations over living space.
“If there is one thing I would say that exists in our psyche, it’s that owning a big house is seen as a status symbol — it should be seen as unsustainable, using up energy and resources, and therefore inappropriate.”
He stresses the need for higher density developments in urban areas, but adds: “I don’t think Dublin needs to build over five or six storeys. There isn’t a need for super-high buildings.”
According to Mr O’Connor, the lack of one- and two-bedroom homes will lead to “significant problems” in the private market in the coming years.
“I can see it becoming more of an issue as time goes on. We really need to recognise that 55pc of all households in the country are either one- or two-person households. And that is growing.”
State and private developers continue to build bigger homes, he says, because “there is a perception out there that that’s what people want. Whereas they are better off to focus on providing good living space.
"In Ireland, we have a fixation on bedrooms. In other countries, like Germany, you won’t hear ‘it’s a three-bed house’ — they will tell you what the property is in square metres.”
Mr O’Connor argues that not acknowledging our changing demographics has already impacted people on the waiting list for social housing.
"Some local authorities allocate homes on the basis of how long a person has been waiting on the list. But others operate on the basis of who is seen as a ‘priority’.
"So someone who is single and who doesn’t have children who has been on the list for many years may see someone else coming along with children who is given a house before them.
"Local authorities are constantly trying to address that issue. It would be seen as wrong to allocate a two- or three-bedroom house to a single person over someone who has a child.”
A former executive manager at Dublin City Council, Mr O’Connor was born and raised near Clanbrassil Street in the south inner city. His family later moved to Rathfarnham.
At age 24, he and his wife Bernadette bought their first home — in Balbriggan — paying IR£16,500 at a time when mortgage interest rates stood at 12.5pc. It was “considered a bargain at the time”, he says.
But when the recession hit in the 1980s he was forced to sign on the dole.
"It was not pleasant. Queuing was extremely difficult. It affects your sense of worth when you want to contribute and work. You learn to appreciate work. I definitely learned a lot from it,” he says.
Now living off Roebuck Road in Clonskeagh, his own journey has shown him “how you manage your money is important. You have to ask yourself if you really need that car. Do you need these expenses?”
He is keen to point out that he understands how difficult it is for the current generation who want to buy a home, due to high rents and spiralling house prices.
“Rents are too high and house prices are too high — and we do need to do something to make it more affordable.
"But there are choices that we have to make.
"In the Housing Agency, we do the underwriting for local authority lending, so we have all that information — in terms of people’s circumstances and their savings and how they manage the money — and a lot of lessons can be learned from those who are on lower incomes.
"We find that people on lower incomes are very, very good at managing their money and it’s something that we should all learn from.”
He compares this group to those on higher wages who he says can “become less disciplined” after their earning power has increased.
“You often find that in a lot of the other European countries they are better at it — maybe it’s taught as part of their education system.”
While he “would always be concerned about someone who is homeless”, he suggests that not enough attention is given to others who have different problems related to housing.
"There is a huge amount of mental stress for people who are in mortgage arrears. I don’t think there is a balance between the focus on homelessness relative to other issues.”
Experts, he believes, should listen to the people on the ground.
"It’s really important to involve people and to listen. What do they want? And what are their issues? People know best about their own situation.”
For that reason, the State should allow people in council homes to design their own living space in social homes.
"We need to get away from this mentality we had in the past — where the people who provide council houses say: ‘We better not make them look too good!’ That’s not a good idea. We need to build quality housing.
"What happens in a lot of social housing is that it’s built by the local authority and a simple kitchen is put in that — in some ways — is too modest. And then typically a person moves in and they take out the kitchen and they pay for their own refit.
“So maybe we need to allow people to choose the fit-out of their housing themselves.”
Although the vast majority of people living in social and affordable accommodation are on lower incomes, “a small percentage are on a good income”. They include, he says, some households who earn six-figure sums each year.
Would he like to see a mechanism where these homes are given to more deserving cases?
"No, but I would say that the rent which that person pays should be higher than it currently is. The rent system is based on household income and — as it goes up — more has to be paid. But it’s limited. So maybe their rent should be higher than it currently is.”
To facilitate higher density living, Mr O’Connor says he is also in favour of communal laundry rooms and car parks, built a distance from developments to allow for more residential units. He is also in favour of people in shared housing communities coming together to manage the upkeep of their communal areas, rather than employing an outside maintenance firm to do the work.
"It would encourage more community interaction.”
On the subject of who is going to build all the new homes, he criticises the "snobbish” attitudes many in Ireland have towards trades.
“If you take a country like Germany, there is no snobbery between jobs. Only half of school leavers go to third level, and trades are respected and highly regarded. We need to stop over-pushing third-level education in this country.”
Having spent much of August meeting representatives of those affected by the mica crisis — where homes have crumbled, due to the use of defective blocks — he says that he “can’t see a situation where there is 100pc redress paid to rebuild a very large home”.
"But,” he continues, “I think we need to address the concerns of homeowners. And in a lot of cases I would support 100pc — other than for very large homes.”
As for where the affected residents will live in the meantime, he draws on his previous experience with solving pyrite problems.
“There were big concerns about where would people move to. But we have found it hasn’t been an issue. When it came to it, they moved in with friends or relatives — and if they genuinely can’t find somewhere, then the options of mobile homes or temporary homes is a possibility.
“If a house is being rebuilt, then it might make sense that they would get a mobile home on a site where the family can live — and then that mobile home then can be used by others afterwards.”
Asked when he sees the housing crisis finally turning the corner, he suggests “2023 or 2024” as a likely timeline — but offers a caveat.
“We need to fix the planning system.”