Friday 18 October 2019

Martina Devlin: 'We might have recovered from the crash but hard-working, decent people are being left behind because of the unrelenting crisis in housing'

'The housing sector is under enormous pressure, a situation which has led to record numbers becoming homeless – including more families, more children, than ever before.' Stock image
'The housing sector is under enormous pressure, a situation which has led to record numbers becoming homeless – including more families, more children, than ever before.' Stock image
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Keep your voice down - if you have to say the words, whisper them. There's something suspiciously like a Celtic dot-dot-dot (that stripy feline whose name we dare not mention) stalking through the Irish economy.

Look around. Luxury cars on the roads. Fancy restaurants crammed with diners. Shoppers laden with bags from designer stores.

Beauty salons and nail bars replacing corner shops, catering for customers with high disposable incomes. Property prices shooting up. People talking about new kitchens, bathrooms and home extensions.

Consider the advertising that surrounds us. Until recently, it was for cheap deals and bargains – now it’s for opulent goods and far-flung holidays. Order a gin and tonic in a bar these days and you’re inundated with varieties of both spirit and mixer – each pricier than the last.

Gone are the ghost estates, the spectre of idle cranes on the skyline, and no regrets there. The sound of drills and diggers is the norm again. Our emigrants are returning to Ireland because there are jobs to be had; also moving to Ireland are new arrivals with marketable skills, especially in the booming tech sector. Unemployment is 5.4pc compared with 15pc-plus during the collapse, a clear sign of the recovery. Indeed, it’s close to full employment now.

Those doing well are managing very nicely, thank you. Exactly as in the Celtic dot-dot-dot era.

Last year the economy increased by 4.7pc, significantly higher than the eurozone average – we’re roaring along as the fastest growing economy in the region. Top cat in the jungle?

Not if you engage on an empathy level with the issue of homelessness. Not if social justice impinges on your radar.

Undoubtedly, a recovery is afoot (“would madam like a twist of cucumber in this rare vodka imported from the Yukon?”) and that’s a positive. But decent, hard-working people are being left behind, priced out of the property ownership and rental markets alike.

They are bringing up the rear to such an extent they find themselves eating everyone else’s dust. And the cause of the disconnect between Citizen A and Citizen B is housing, that basic human right to shelter.

The housing sector is under enormous pressure, a situation which has led to record numbers becoming homeless – including more families, more children, than ever before. Almost 10,000 people are living in emergency accommodation, according to the Department of Housing’s latest report. It is no exaggeration to say Ireland is in the grip of a homelessness crisis, particularly Dublin. We didn’t go through a bailout programme for children to end up being raised in hotel rooms, surely?

The evidence is plain to see. Walk along any city street and you’ll pass sleeping bags spread out on flattened cardboard, with or without their occupants. A feral cat has better shelter against the cold and damp.

Elsewhere, tents have sprung up, a solution to the homelessness crisis that’s only marginally more adequate than sleeping bags in doorways.

Those are just the visible signs. Factor in people who are out of sight in hotels and hostels, or sleeping in cars, or sofa surfing in friends’ houses. This is a rabbit hole. The statistics, which can be manipulated, in any case do not even begin to tell the true story of human suffering.

Home ownership is beyond the aspiration of many, even those with well-paid jobs. But so, too, is a decent rental property. Dublin, for all its va-va-voom, its hipster cafe society and conspicuous modernity, is woefully short of affordable places to live. The State knows it but is failing to build social housing fast enough.

As for the private sector, it cannot pick up the slack; impossible for it to meet demand. Meanwhile, rents are on an upward spiral and overcrowding issues are arising. Ironically, our success in the jobs market is a contributory factor, with workers coming in to fill vacant positions but ratcheting up pressure on insufficient supply.

In 2018 Ireland, for the first time since 2009 (the onset of the austerity years), we’ve had more people arriving in the State than leaving it, according to the Central Statistics Office: demand is going to rise rather than subside.

Granted, the homelessness problem is not unique to Ireland. In Canada, cited as a model of liberal values, homeless people are given bus tickets to Vancouver because at least they won’t freeze to death from exposure there, unlike other parts of the country. It’s not exactly a master plan.

So, what to do? Build, build, build.

Supply sufficient funds for a major social housing programme on State land. Saving on spending in this vital area is a false economy, not just because of the social cost to our squeezed-out citizens, but because putting up people in hotels and hostels is not a productive use of money compared with building homes. Éamon de Valera was able to prioritise homes for citizens as Taoiseach in the 1930s and 1940s, when pressure on public finances was intense. There’s no excuse for the present administration to make such feeble progress.

One way citizens can play their part is by not objecting to planning applications. Take a deep breath and say to yourself “other people have a right to a home”. Unfortunately, nimbyism is alive and kicking with TDs and even the Taoiseach, I’m sorry to say, surrendering to pressure from constituents and lodging objections against developments.

Currently, there’s a bulge in the population’s childbearing cohort. This demographic needs homes to raise families in, and if they are built, they will move out of apartments or spare rooms and create space for others to move in.

For the best part of a decade, the private house building industry was static and the political class froze social housing because the State was bust: factors which combined to create a perfect storm. It’s going to take a long time for the property market to begin to correct itself.

But the Government needs to pick up the pace because disaffection is mounting, and we have enough Brexit-related problems to contend with. Today, a rally in Dublin city centre is due to be held by a number of housing groups – a necessary action because homeless people risk becoming invisible.

Irish Independent

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