Tackling the housing crisis requires political will

Posted: May 2, 2016 in Housing, Irish Government, Politics

Emily is nine years old. She will soon have spent a full year of her young life living in a hotel. She is one of almost 2000 children across the state who will sleep in emergency accommodation tonight.

It will cost €36,000 to keep Emily and her mother in that hotel for 12 months. €100 for every night they spend cooped up in a small room, living out of suitcases.

Emily’s mother is unable to cook for her daughter. Emily has to do her homework stretched out on a hotel bed. When she is done she can’t go out to play, the corridors are off limits on health and safety grounds.

Her mother is left feeling ashamed. She thinks that she is letting her daughter down. Emily is confused, tired and sad.

Elsewhere in the hotel, staff and guests are asking why it is taking so long to form a government. Surely after 50 days a deal can be done.

Back in her small room Emily asks her mother why it is taking so long to get a home. Surely after 270 nights a house can be found.

But Emily’s mother can’t find a landlord that will accept the Housing Assistance Payment. The Council has no houses, there are 20,000 families on the list and the wait is 10 years long.

So every morning Emily’s mother leaves the hotel, drops her daughter to school, travels to work, collects her daughter from school and returns to that small cramped hotel room.

She is exhausted, at her wits end, wondering if she will ever be housed.

It should be a national scandal that so many children are living like Emily. Tragically it is becoming normalised.

Next week it is likely that a new Fine Gael minority government will be formed. The indications are that that government will include a new stand alone Department and Minister for Housing.

On taking office the new Minister should take a moment and reflect on Emily’s story. The conditions of her daily life are not just a scandal, they are a screaming alarm bell telling us all that our housing system is broken.

The growing number of homeless families is not some quirk of the housing market. It is the direct result of decades of failed housing policy pursued by successive governments.

Homeless service providers have been shouting this fact for years. They have been warning that a failure by the state to invest in large scale social housing by local authorities would result in a social emergency.

Previous Ministers refused to listen. A failing policy consensus prevailed. As a result Emily and hundreds of other homeless children are paying the price. The social emergency that was warned of is all around us.

The new Minister for Housing has a very simply choice. Will she continue on the well worn path of her predecessors or will she accept that the system in broken and fundamental policy change is needed.

If she is open to change then I would respectfully suggest the following steps.

Step 1: Declare a State of Emergency. If we don’t admit the scale of the problem then how can we hope to solve it.

Step 2: Tear up everything in Alan Kelly’s Social Housing Strategy 2020 except the multi annual housing targets. A social housing plan that depends on the private sector to deliver 80% of its 100,000 units is doomed to fail.

Step 3: Double capital investment in local authority and housing association social housing. Use whatever is the most efficient funding source – revenue, borrowing, SPVs. If necessary negotiate an exemption for social housing investment from EU spending rules with the European Commission for the duration of the emergency.

Step 4: Prioritise the immediate purchase of properties to meet housing targets in year one. Use Compulsory Purchase Orders if necessary to get vacant units back into stock or keep housing list rental tenants in rental properties that are being repossessed by banks or sold onto vulture funds.

Step 5: Apply the same fast track procurement process for standard social housing as that used for the Ballymun rapid build houses. This would cut project times by up to a quarter bringing on new build units within 12 months rather than two years plus at present.

Step 6: Introduce emergency legislation to give tenants in private rental properties greater protections when the properties are repossessed or sold to vulture funds.

Step 7: Amend the Mortgage to Rent Scheme to make it a more attractive option for both lenders and housing bodies and apply greater pressure to banks, backed up with threats of legislation, to meet ambitious targets.

Step 8: Amend the Housing Assistance Scheme to allow recipients to remain on the Councils primary housing list.

Step 9: Introduce rent certainty, linking rent increases and decreases to the Consumer Price Index and adjust rent supplement/housing assistance payment rates to current market rents.

There will be lots of people who will give the new Minister for Housing lots of reasons why any or all of these steps can’t be taken.

But before she allows her desire for change to be neutralised by those with a vested interested in the status quo the Minister should ask herself one question.

If Emily were her granddaughter would she not move heaven and earth to get her out of emergency accommodation and into a secure and appropriate home? Of course she would.

Emily is homeless because of political failure. The only thing the new Government and their Minister for Housing needs to help Emily is political will. Once you have that, moving heaven and earth is child’s play.

 

This article was first published in the Sunday Business Post on 1.5.16

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