Opinion

Saturday 19 January 2019

Creating a special designation category for older people's housing needs would help old and young

It makes sense to build specific elderly people's accommodation on infill sites in our cities, writes Roisin Shortall

EMPTY NESTS AND FLEDGLINGS: Different demographic groups have different housing needs. Photo: Stock Image
EMPTY NESTS AND FLEDGLINGS: Different demographic groups have different housing needs. Photo: Stock Image

Roisin Shortall

As the housing crisis continues, it appears that the Government has almost completely overlooked what is a very obvious and doable part of the solution.

Clearly, there is an urgent need for the Government to be far more pro-active to ensure the building of large-scale affordable and social housing. However, a more strategic approach that takes into account our ageing population could make a very useful contribution to tackling the general demand for housing while meeting the needs of older people.

Large numbers of houses, especially in our cities, are currently under-occupied. In more established housing developments in particular, it's common to see older couples and single people, or those who are widowed or divorced, living in three or four-bedroom family homes.

Thankfully, many people can now expect to live well into their 80s, however many will struggle to maintain and heat a home that may be bigger than they need. It also means that substantial equity is tied up in the house from which the homeowner cannot benefit. Then, of course, there is the issue of paying full property tax on a family home when some of the rooms are not in use. Yet people stay put in costly and unsuitable homes because naturally they don't want to leave their neighbourhoods and their neighbours.

So wouldn't it make sense to build specific older people's accommodation on many of the small infill sites in our cities and in this way facilitate people to move to more manageable and affordable housing in their own neighbourhoods? The fact is that many empty-nesters want to downsize if there was suitable accommodation available locally, and they could be assured that it was secure and peaceful.

Other countries have special designation for older-people's homes in housing developments. In Germany, for example, housing estates have 10pc of their units for this purpose, meaning that empty-nesters have the option to down-size within their own estates after their children have left home.

In London, some housing has a special designation so that it can only be purchased by buyers aged over 55. However, there is no such designation for homes in Ireland. By introducing such a designation, the Government would be meeting an obvious demand from older people while at the same time freeing up possibly thousands of family homes. Other models of bespoke housing for older people - often termed sheltered housing - should also be developed.

There are two existing schemes in local authorities which have been in abeyance since the economic crash. These need to be restarted on a wide-scale basis. The first of these is for older local authority tenants who wish to move to more suitable accommodation in a sheltered housing scheme. There are many examples of excellent senior-citizen schemes and these are always in high demand. Many older council tenants want to move to modern, smaller and more manageable accommodation if that is available in their local area.

There is also another scheme called the Financial Contribution Scheme whereby homeowners can sell their homes to their local authority. In return for a contribution from the sale proceeds, these people are provided with a high-quality, accessible and well-insulated housing unit in a sheltered housing scheme.

Both of these schemes have been extremely popular with older people in the past. In my own constituency of Dublin North-West, these schemes were the central plank of housing provision in the 1990s and proved to be very successful. Six sites were identified as suitable for older-people's housing and approximately 400 units were built. There was huge over-demand for these units from both tenants and home owners. Older people were enabled to move to good quality and manageable accommodation while the city council got back hundreds of family-sized homes in established areas which could be refurbished and let to families on the housing waiting list. From a planning perspective, this approach achieved greater population density without the need for vast new housing estates or apartment developments.

The Minister for Housing should urgently consider creating a specific new older-people's housing designation to cater for a clear demand that exists from older people.

He should also fund an extensive programme of local authority sheltered-housing schemes so that people who wish to down-size have more suitable options. There are many small in-fill sites in local neighbourhoods which are in public ownership and would be ideal for this.

Taking this kind of holistic and creative approach to housing would allow older people's housing needs to be better met, while at the same time, freeing up large numbers of family homes in both the public and private sector which are dispersed in already established communities. It would be a win-win situation.

Roisin Shortall is a founding member of the Social Democrats and a sitting TD for Dublin North-West

Sunday Independent

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