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Eoin Ó Broin: 'Rebuilding Ireland has failed -the Government must accept change or it faces stronger protests'

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The Take the City Back protest marches along O’Connell Street last autumn. Photo: Tony Gavin

The Take the City Back protest marches along O’Connell Street last autumn. Photo: Tony Gavin

The Take the City Back protest marches along O’Connell Street last autumn. Photo: Tony Gavin

IN 2004 the National Economic and Social Council published 'Housing in Ireland'. This landmark study was the most detailed analysis of the State's housing system ever produced. The 200-page report was backed up by scores of more detailed background briefing papers.

While its muted language was a product of its corporatist social partnership production process, many of its observations were prescient. Moreover, if its key recommendations had been followed, our current housing crisis wouldn't be as deep as it currently is.

Central to its proposals was the need to dramatically increase investment in and output of social housing, owned and managed by local authorities and approved housing bodies. The report also strongly advocated the creation of a significant affordable cost rental sector for those 'intermediate' households ineligible for social housing but unable to afford to rent or buy a home.

The report also made far-reaching proposals regarding better use of planning, design, land use and land management in order to meet the challenges of the coming decades.

The document was not blind to the possibility of a property crash and explicitly advised that one of the best ways to prevent a hard landing was to expand the non-market housing sector.

In the years since its publication, successive Governments have produced three housing plans. Fianna Fáil published 'Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities' in 2007. Fine Gael and Labour published 'Social Housing Strategy 2020' in 2014. Most recently Fine Gael published 'Rebuilding Ireland' in 2016.

Despite their different contexts and rhetorical justifications all three contain the same fundamental flaws; a modest output of social housing; an increasing reliance on subsidised private rental accommodation to meet social housing need; zero non-market affordable rental or purchase housing for 'intermediate' households; and increasing use of market-based financing mechanisms for delivering social and affordable housing.

The consequences over the 14 years are indisputable; rising levels of social housing needed, ever greater levels of homelessness; and growing numbers of people locked out of buying or renting their own home.

Contrary to Leo Varadkar's bizarre claim earlier this week that the housing crisis may have turned a corner, his Government is continuing to implement a failed housing policy that across three successive administrations has served to increase the financial and emotion hardship felt by tens of thousands of households at the sharp edge of the housing crisis.

So what must be done? What would a Government serious about tackling the housing crisis do differently?

The Dáil motion passed with the support of the entire Opposition on October 3 would be a good place to start.

Capital investment in social and affordable housing must double to at least €2.3bn, doubling the output of real social and affordable housing to 14,000 units this year. This would include 10,000 social houses as recommended by the cross party Dáil Housing Committee report in 2016. It would also provide for at least 5,000 affordable homes, including affordable cost rental to be delivered by councils and approved housing bodies.

The scale of our housing crisis is such that non-market social and affordable housing delivered by councils and approved housing bodies must make up at least 50pc of all new construction if we are to build a public housing system large enough to meet existing and future need. As noted by the 2004 NESC study, the great benefit of having a larger public housing sector is that it stabilises the entire housing system, especially at times of shock.

Alongside this, the Government must introduce a series of emergency measures to stop the flow of families into homelessness, including passing the Focus Ireland amendment to prevent buy-to-let landlords evicting tenants when selling due to mortgage distress. Greater efforts to keep those at risk of homelessness due to mortgage arrears and stronger protections for tenants including a rent freeze and refundable tax relief, must also be priorities.

Of course these are just some of the emergency measures that are required. But we also need to focus on the long term. There is a strong case to be made to ask NESC to undertake a new study of the housing system on the scale of its 2004 report.

Such a study could update the recommendations made 14 years ago to take account of the cataclysmic impact of the economic crash and help us chart a pathway to a more stable and equal housing system.

However, there is no point in calling for such an enterprise if like the 2004 report it is then left on the shelf.

The end of 2018 was marked by significant housing protests led by Raise The Roof, the Housing and Homeless Coalition and Take Back the City.

Those protests are set to grow in size and intensity in 2019. The Government has a simple choice - accept Rebuilding Ireland has failed, that the crisis is getting worse and that things must change, or face the growing anger of all those left behind by the failed housing policies of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

  • Eoin Ó Broin is a Sinn Féin TD

Irish Independent