Tuesday 25 June 2019

Deirdre Conroy: We talk about housing but when it comes to action the Government seems clueless

'For the last four years, nobody in the Coalition has seemed to know how to make housing happen. It is now time to take some real responsibility'
'For the last four years, nobody in the Coalition has seemed to know how to make housing happen. It is now time to take some real responsibility'
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

On my journey each day across the south suburbs through the city, across the Liffey to Dublin 7, I pass vacant sites, boarded up for decades, derelict Victorian houses and crumbling cottages; in the back streets off the quays are abandoned warehouses, boarded-up shops with empty accommodation above. All of this is in a city where property is more expensive than in Paris. The anomaly between our empty buildings, vacant sites and the housing crisis appears to be an imponderable mystery to those in charge. Space is not at a premium, we have the capacity, just not the joined-up thinking.

The crisis was well under way when Phil Hogan headed off to Europe, leaving it in the hands of Alan Kelly and Paudie Coffey. But four years of this Government have seen the crisis lurch from bad to catastrophic. It is a situation where children are living in one room with their parents, only slightly less destitute than in the slums of the turn of the last century.

The alarming paradox is that Ireland is the fastest-growing economy in Europe. How can that be true if homeless charities report that 70 families per month are being made homeless?

Local authorities and charities have to bear the cost of finding temporary accommodation and hotel rooms for these people and there is no sign of this changing, except for the worse. Funding is found for quick fixes but not actual housing support. Yet it is within the power of local authorities and the minister to acquire vacant sites and empty buildings. There are streets of derelict houses in Dublin 1 and 7 that could be transformed by redevelopment and extra policing, generating whole new communities within walking distance of the city, train stations, the Luas, the financial centre and digital hubs.

As far as new house-builds are concerned, there has been a dramatic fall of 59pc in planning permission applications between the first and third quarters of this year, according to figures from the Society of Chartered Surveyors, proving the many systemic failures which have led to our housing crisis.

Availability of suitable land is blocked by the new, faceless landlord class of international funds, receivers and American 'vulture' private equity. One building contractor had their application turned down yesterday, on the basis of a typo.

The 381-house proposal by two Arklow builders is located near St Anne's Park in Clontarf. Local residents could hardly contain their unbridled joy at the invalid application. Minister and Labour TD for the area Aodhán Ó Riordáin said the development was "excessive".

What is going on in the Labour Party? Ó Riordáin's party colleague Alan Kelly, Minister for the Environment, agrees on the urgent need for more housing (according to the ESRI, 25,000 nationally and 7,000 units in Dublin are needed per year) but can't seem to do anything realistic about it.

The rent cap he introduced will be challenged and the proposed modular housing units are already being criticised as more expensive than 'proper' houses. According to one prosperous UK house-building company (Lioncourt Homes), it priced sites for housing development here and found the costs prohibitive.

These costs include the large development levies imposed by local authorities. Many builders are holding out for the new local area development plans, to see if rebates on development levies are introduced on houses under €300,000. In short, there will be delay after delay.

Socio-economic rights are not guaranteed under the Constitution. There is no automatic right to water and there is no automatic right to a home. But under Article 43, there is a right to own and transfer property. Having the right to buy, own and sell your house is a distant, if not impossible, hope now for many working couples stuck in a rent trap, paying €1,500 per month for a one-bed apartment.

It could be more cost-effective to have a mortgage on a small house, a place they could call their own and start a family, without fear of landlords' whims. The obstacle between that hope and reality is the bank, that flawed and unregulated institution that we've all rescued from complete failure. In a recent televised discussion, chairman of the Housing Agency, Conor Skehan, announced that this prolonged wait to purchase a home was the right economic model to match the housing strategy. It seems to me like a strategy designed by the 'well-off' to send young adult couples back to their parents to save for indeterminate years ahead.

The secret service that is Nama and its announcement of 20,000 homes has been challenged in a complaint to the EU Commission by five leading property developers as a plan likely to "descend into a state of crisis" by the time Nama winds up operations in 2020.

They say many developers not supported by Nama will have exited the market because of an inability to compete with the agency in terms of its cost of funding at about 2.5pc and that the agency lends money to its debtors, as part of work-out agreements, at 5-6pc. Developers not supported by Nama can expect to pay 14-15pc for funding.

The Department of Finance will have to come up with an alternative model before our young working couples are marooned at the mercy of landlords forever.

With the surprise €3bn windfall from corporate tax now in the State's coffers, the response from Brendan Howlin was that it would be treated "prudently". Whenever the Government has acted "prudently", it has been to pay back the bondholders. It is now time to take on some real responsibility after the austerity it has imposed on Irish citizens and deal with homelessness, and the housing shortage, effectively and affordably.

There is a Housing Agency, there is a Department of Housing, there are Harvard graduates in that department, educated and paid at our expense, but they don't know how to make housing happen.

For the last four years, nobody in our Government has seemed to know how make housing happen. Scrambling around now with policies for 2020 in the weeks coming up to Christmas and seeking to curry favour before a New Year election is not credible.

Irish Independent

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