From building new homes to improving the private rental sector and tackling the issue of vacant land, the path forward is clear
Build homes. Build quality well-designed homes in the right locations at the right price. Sure, a ban on co-housing from Minister Darragh O’Brien would be a good start in tackling our housing crisis, but the lesson from other European countries is that the State needs to construct significant numbers of homes to reduce the numbers in need of housing.
As an MEP, I’ve seen how other countries tackle their housing challenges. In Denmark, the State plans ahead and gives certainty about future housing numbers. This allows the building industry to tool up and deliver. I’ve visited Ørestad in Copenhagen with Irish architects and builders to see what the Danes do best.
They have a hybrid blend of private/public/pension-investor funded accommodation that has delivered a mixed-use community with well-designed apartments, generous balconies and quality green space. Prefabricated wall elements have cut costs and speeded up production. We can do this here.
Austria held a 2018 ‘Housing for All’ conference to showcase the ‘Vienna Model’ of rental housing which integrates people from all walks of life under the same roof, instead of segregated neighbourhoods. Dublin City Council brought an exhibition from that conference to Dublin, so there’s lots of knowledge in how to make this happen – it only requires political will.
A real challenge is improving conditions in the private rented sector. Rent controls have helped, but we need laws that allow indefinite tenancies – removing the fear of evictions. Other countries such as Belgium place rent deposits in separate bank accounts, rather than in the landlord’s back pocket. We should link rent reviews to a cost-of-living index. Landlords and tenants would benefit from greater certainty.
We could reform the Fair Deal Scheme as too many people whose parents are in nursing homes leave homes vacant rather than rent out the house since 80pc of the rent goes to the State. It is also time to stop selling off council properties, as this limits the supply of public-housing stock.
The move by former Minister Eoghan Murphy incentivising student accommodation and co-living went too far. It’s all very well to provide for ‘niche’ living. But, as the pandemic rages, it would be wise to provide for more generous apartment sizes and remove guidelines that allow 40 people to share one kitchen. The point is to have developers provide quality homes for all – not generate vast profits.
We also need to retrofit existing homes, starting with those at risk of fuel poverty. Why not bring every local-authority home up to an A2 energy rating? It won’t be cheap, but there are low-interest loans available from the European Investment Bank and others. Lower fuel bills and healthier homes will reduce the risk of respiratory illnesses at a time when we’re all concerned about our health. In the European Parliament, the Recovery Plan presents a golden opportunity to access the funds that are needed.
Look around, and you’ll see a lot of vacant land and properties. We should amend the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015 to remove the get-out clauses that exempt many properties from the derelict sites levy. This would allow councils to build on empty and under-used lands.
Introducing a Site Value Tax on all zoned lands could also encourage optimal use of lands and reduce land prices.
I won’t harp on about the Kenny Report, but we should reinstate the section of the 2009 NAMA Act which had an 80pc tax on land rezoning which was removed under the 2014 Finance Act. This would reduce the price of homes that we intend building on under-used industrial lands in places like the Dublin Industrial Estate. Local Authorities should also sell housing sites for decent terraced homes at an affordable price to co-operatives.
They have the power to do this, but it’s rarely used. Let’s encourage councils and the Land Development Agency to draw up masterplans for the lands they own, but whatever we do let’s not dispose of all of our State lands to speculators.
We need to reform Planning Regulations to regulate short-term lettings. No-one wants Airbnb and others to displace long-term renters. We could reform the 2001 Planning and Development regulations which allows homeowners 16 overnight guests without planning permission.
Perhaps we could also mandate semi-state pension funds and credit unions to invest in affordable housing? It’s wrong the children of CIE workers can’t afford homes, but their parents’ pensions are locked away in international funds.
A referendum on the Right to Housing is overdue, but there are initiatives that can tackle the housing crisis in the short term. Now is the time to ramp up the construction of both public and private homes in our towns and cities.
Ciarán Cuffe is the Green Party MEP for Dublin