If there’s a more comforting word than “home”, I don’t know it. Our home is our castle, our sanctuary, our port in a storm – it represents shelter and peace. Never mind financial security – homes offer emotional security, the real treasure chest.
And so to those people who stand to lose their home when the eviction ban is reversed at the end of this month.
The public interest is being invoked for this controversial decision, but it is difficult to see how the public interest is served by the tidal wave of homelessness set to follow.
If one person hoping to rent can’t find somewhere to live, that’s the individual’s problem; but when large numbers can’t find a home, it becomes society’s problem.
Every group, with the exception of the landlords’ lobby, is predicting a rise in homelessness when the moratorium ends. Consider the dread that people who rent must be experiencing. They will be terrified to log on to their email, check their phone messages or open an envelope in case of finding a notice to quit. While the ban was not ideal, it gave protection to thousands of people. That safety has now been stripped away.
This disaster waiting to happen is not an accident or an act of God – it is a deliberate act by the Cabinet. A new surge of homelessness is about to be caused and will not be random, because a decision was taken after options were weighed. And it will be piled on top of record levels of homelessness.
The housing crisis continues to be mishandled, and it is frustrating to watch this latest blunder. Over the past 10 years, a hodgepodge of failed policies, sticking-plaster solutions, some misfortune and a lack of joined-up thinking have contributed. There has been an over-reliance on the private sector and an under-reliance on building social housing.
But this week we see a delicate situation changed without any mitigations put in place. Private property rights may mean the Government has no choice but to wind up the eviction ban, although the constitutionality of that remains to be tested. But even if the Cabinet feels it must heed the Attorney General’s advice, it has an obligation to do so in tandem with concrete measures. Promises of jam tomorrow – or towards the end of the year in the Budget – are no use to people who have already lost the roof over their heads.
We are not machines, but human beings whose dignity must be respected. A home is a necessity rather than an optional extra. It is an extraordinary situation whereby people meeting rent obligations and behaving like responsible tenants can find themselves homeless and forced to couch-surf, live in cars, sleep rough on the streets or seek refuge in garda stations.
The Government must not undo the eviction ban without offsets. Some are in train, such as funds available to local authorities to buy houses for rent, but more ambitious schemes are essential. We are all connected. If one sector of society is seriously disadvantaged, as people living in the rental market are by this abrupt reversal, the social tapestry risks unravelling. That has repercussions for general cohesion.
Sometimes, a problem can be untangled by one bold slash of a sword, as Alexander the Great proved when faced with the Gordian Knot. That story’s moral suggests the answer to a complex issue is often the easiest one. But the housing crisis requires a series of solutions. What’s the priority? Stop people becoming homeless. How do we achieve that? Make more properties available, both private rental and social housing. How do we provide accommodation? Build it, refurbish derelicts, incentivise people to become or remain landlords.
In Ireland, we tend to have a negative view of private landlords for historical reasons. But some people became accidental landlords due to the financial crash. They couldn’t sell and move on as their personal circumstances altered, as the mortgage exceeded the likely price they could achieve. Their solution was to rent out the house or apartment.
Single property landlords have been turned into the whipping boys for the State’s failed housing policy, but the true cause is a woeful lack of afford-able housing built since the collapse. There has been an over-reliance on private landlords, and many are pulling out now: between 2017 and 2021, almost 44,000 landlords exited the market, according to the Residential Tenancies Board. Although such properties are bought mostly by owner-occupiers, possible rental properties are taken off the table.
That 43,000 equates to maybe 100,000 people who either want or need to rent and are apt to share accommodation with others in a similar position. Something else to consider. Fewer rental properties will lead to higher rents, even where rent pressure zones cap rises, because reduced supply pushes up demand.
The private rental market is disappearing, and no wonder – 52pc tax on rental income is not much of an incentive to landlordism. Talk is floating of offering landlords a preferential rate to keep them in the market, and some will feel that’s unfair. But which is the greater evil? To my mind, it’s people toppling into homelessness.
A “meaningful” Budget 2024 package with measures for landlords and tenants has been flagged, but interventions need to be ready now, not in October, no matter how loud the grumbles from the Department of Finance about tax changes midway through the year.
A total of 2,700 eviction notices were paused by last October’s veto, while others (the numbers are unknown) have since been served. All can shortly come into effect. Despite the ban, homeless numbers have risen, but perhaps they would have climbed even higher without it.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar believes there is a deficit of 250,000 homes. A house-building programme is under way, and that’s welcome, but it will take years before demand can be met.
Meanwhile, a vote on overturning the ban will be held in the Dáil after the St Patrick’s Day exodus, and some government members, never mind supporters, will struggle to support it. Rocky times lie ahead.