This election is fundamental for housing. Whoever gets elected on Saturday will implement policies that will shape our housing system for decades to come.
As a country we are deciding if we think that children growing up in hotels and Family Hubs is acceptable? Or should there be a right to housing? Is it ok that young people are forced to emigrate and those living abroad cannot return because of housing costs, while global real estate investors buy up swathes of apartments and housing and rent them out at unaffordable rents?
The Irish housing system is broken. Despite the drop in homeless figures there are still families being evicted from their homes every day across the country. While the crisis extends to an entire Generation Rent.
The supply of housing has increased to 20,000 houses per year but demand and cumulative deficits mean we need closer to 50,000. And much new housing is at exhorbitant prices out of reach of most average earners, or ‘build-to-rent’ by investor landlords and expensive student accommodation.
Demand side subsidies for home ownership such as ‘help-to-buy’ and deposit schemes are more likely to maintain unaffordably high house prices than help those seeking a home to compete in this investor dominated market. Meanwhile, social housing policy compounds the crisis. It is claimed 11,000 social homes were provided last year, but only 2,000 new homes were actually built by Local authorities and housing associations. The remaining 9,000 units were either bought or leased from the private sector, reducing the stock available for home purchase and private renting.
There are solutions. Here are seven important and innovative evidence based policy ideas that candidates should be asked about in the closing days of the campaign.
The first is the need for a new national housing plan based on the game changer of a new form of public housing, instead of stigmatised social housing restricted to very low income households, it would be available to low and middle income workers and professionals, who would pay a rent or mortgage based on their income. This is internationally known as cost rental, and should be adapted for Ireland to include affordable home ownership. This would revolutionise our housing system as it would deliver quality, long term, renting and affordable home ownership – as in many European countries. Guards, teachers, nurses, artists, architects, IT and retail workers, could live and work in mixed income communities in our cities and towns, and avoid socially and environmentally unsustainable commutes. 30,000 of these public ‘affordable and sustainable homes’ need to be built every year, for the next decade.
Without this, Generation Rent will be stuck in unaffordable and insecure rental housing for their entire lives, homeownership will be a preserve of the top 20%, and homelessness will continue to increase. Public land should be used solely for this new public affordable housing.
Secondly, in order to drive the delivery of this new housing on scale, a new dedicated state Homes Building Agency is needed to quickly put in place the capacity and skills to build, in partnership with local authorities, housing associations and cooperatives.
Thirdly, we need a fundamental shift in our attitude to housing from being treated as an investment asset to its primary use - a home. The recent debate around rent freezes highlights the need for clarity on this. It is time for a referendum to insert the right to housing into the Constitution. The United Nations Housing Rapporteur has called on Ireland to implement such a legal right to housing. Putting the right to affordable, secure, decent, housing into our Constitution and legislation would provide a new guiding principle for housing policy for all future governments and an obligation to solve homelessness.
Fourthly, for Generation Renters to live affordably and make a stable home in the private rental sector, there is a requirement for life time leases, and mechanisms to make rent affordable such as controlling rents, and linking them to accommodation standards.
Fifth, housing policy must aim to end (not just reduce) homelessness. Finland did it by providing the homeless with homes and support services, without preconditions. There should be a moratorium on evictions into homelessness and a time limit (such as two weeks) on emergency accommodation after which a local authority is required to provide housing. Family Hubs should be phased out, as they are becoming a form of long term institutionalisation of homeless families.
The sixth proposal is to tax speculative real estate and vulture fund investors, and implement a punitive vacant site and derelict property tax to stop the hoarding of land and derelict buildings.
Finally, housing policy must ensure we exceed UN climate targets. A new Homes Building Agency could design and build zero carbon homes, undertake the deep retrofitting of social and private housing for people who cannot afford it, as part of a socially just transition to ensure all homes are energy efficient and carbon neutral by 2030.
The solutions are there, but who is prepared to implement them?
Rory Hearne is a postdoctoral researcher in the Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute (MUSSI), working on the Re-Invest Participatory Action Human Rights and Capability project in relation to social investment with a particular focus on homelessness and water infrastructure.
He has a PhD in political and economic geography from Trinity College Dublin. He is also a former policy analyst with TASC and has worked as a policy researcher and community development worker with Barnardos on social housing regeneration and human rights in Dublin's inner city. He was lecturer in human geography in the Department of Geography, Maynooth University and has researched and published extensively in the areas of housing and social housing, political economy, human rights, social movements, and politics.
He is author of Public Private Partnerships in Ireland (2011) and co-author of Cherishing All Equally (2016). He is also a regular economic and social analyst on various national media.