Tuesday 18 June 2019

We aren’t a renting nation. Let’s fix the housing crisis

Minister for the Environment, Community & Local Government Simon Coveney TD (centre) with local residents (L to r) Debbie Mulhall & Veronica Lally during the announcement of details of the Regeneration Scheme for Dolphin's Barn at The Community Centre in DolphinÄôs Barn Dublin
Minister for the Environment, Community & Local Government Simon Coveney TD (centre) with local residents (L to r) Debbie Mulhall & Veronica Lally during the announcement of details of the Regeneration Scheme for Dolphin's Barn at The Community Centre in DolphinÄôs Barn Dublin
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

The goals set out in the ambitious €5.5bn ‘Rebuilding Ireland’ plan commit to 25,000 new homes every year by 2020.

Better late than never. The plan includes definitive action and partnerships to address homelessness, accelerate social housing, build more homes, improve the rental sector and utilise existing derelict housing, so that people have access to quality and affordable housing, through their own endeavours or with the support of the State.

Housing Minister Simon Coveney says he is head-hunting from the construction sector for his newly-established Housing Delivery Office in the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government.

This is good news, as many from that sector have picked up even more skills since they left – unlike many in the public sector who stayed and renegotiated their pay.

When members of the PBP-AAA attacked the Government’s plan this week, they protested about developers profiting from those in need of housing. Yes, we are only too aware of how the collusion of past governments, banks, and developers crippled our economy; but if we don’t incentivise business-oriented house providers, there will be nowhere to live.

With new financial sector regulations, solvent developers are entitled to make a profit after employing contractors, electricians, carpenters, plumbers and ultimately providing thousands of much-needed homes.

What they are not entitled to do is hike up prices for disproportionate profit so that property is not affordable. Nor are they entitled to skimp on design, quality, services and safety.

Rebuilding Ireland is a chance to establish sustainable and up-to-date design standards. In terms of social housing, the readily identifiable ‘council house’ design of yore is not acceptable as a norm for today’s welfare-reliant families.

Builder-designed faux-Victoriana or mock-Tudor private housing estates with paltry services and scant landscaping are also no longer acceptable– not that they ever were.

Many people on housing lists still expect to be accommodated within their established community. But this has become an unrealistic objective.

Young people who are not within this safety net have no choice but to move away from their local community and establish links elsewhere in a place they can barely afford.

Finding land to build adequate social housing in Dublin is a challenge and this is where public land around the country must be the focus.

The point of aesthetic and sustainable social housing is to enable individuals and communities to feel proud of where they live, not ghettoised. The ‘broken window’ principle has proven how crime develops in poorly maintained neighbourhoods.

 Prize-winning designs for community housing have been showcased in British and Irish architectural journals for years. On Thursday, Dublin City Council hosted a presentation by Lewisham Borough Council to the four Dublin local authorities on how it built houses for 24 homeless London families in 12 weeks.

Here in Ireland, we have talented architects who can work with local authorities to deliver 15,000 to 20,000 new homes under the new Local Infrastructure Housing Activation Fund, to which the Government has promised €150m, with a further €50m from local authorities between 2017 and 2019.

Another part of the plan, the Social Housing Current Expenditure Programme, will develop new design solutions under an initiative to repair and lease vacant city and town-centre premises for residential and rental purposes.

The Housing Department and the Department of Rural Affairs are to work together to fund pilot projects across the country as part of the €30m Town and Village Renewal initiative to bring people back into town and village centres.

Houses cannot exist in a vacuum. Village streets need to be revitalised with affordable rents for the local butcher and grocer, for small business to enhance the community. Schools must be available, as well as good public transport links to towns and cities.

The usual planning process for high-density development is altered under the new plan in order to accelerate planning decisions for larger housing developments (100-plus homes). Housing providers will seek permission directly from An Bord Pleanála under a new process for a specified four-year period to 2020.

It is also imperative that this process does not compromise quality and design for the sake of expediency. There is rarely an architect sitting on the board of An Bord Pleanála, and this needs to be addressed – hopefully the commitment to additional resources at An Bord Pleanála will address this situation.

The rental sector is a vital, and somewhat transitional, part of any thriving community. But constant comparisons with rental culture in Germany are futile. We are not a renting nation: we can rent for a while, but not forever.

My son pays triple my monthly mortgage on a (not very nice) one-bed flat with no security of tenure. That is not a tenable situation for anyone.

For those on social welfare, rent allowance is increasing to €1,250 per month – but this will find its way into the pockets of private landlords, who are not providing any security of tenure.

The return we are getting for this taxpayers’ money spent in the rental market is an area that needs serious investigation and attention.

As somebody who attended six different schools around the country, due to my father’s job, I understand what it is like to be uprooted from your community.

When my parents separated, my mother had to find rental accommodation and worked her way out of it. I saw what hard work could achieve.

We need a conscientious Government and Opposition to collaborate on these solutions for the homeless and those who cannot afford to buy at today’s prices.

We do not need to fall victim to a change of government and expedient vote-catching.

Online Editors

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