My advice to Minister for Housing Simon Coveney

Posted: May 16, 2016 in Housing, Simon Coveney, Uncategorized

The new Minister for Housing has an opportunity to end the homeless crisis and start to fix our broken housing system. This will only be achieved if he abandons the failed policy consensus that has dominated government thinking for the last three decades.

Simon Coveney is a serious politician. He has a reputation for knowing his brief. He has also demonstrated an ability to build alliances with disparate interests.
He will need all of these skills if he is to undo the damage of decades of bad housing policy.

The new Minister is also clearly ambitious, considered by many as a future party leader and even Taoiseach. His political future now hinges on his success or failure in his new department.

That future is now dependent on the Minister making a simply choice. Will he remain within the framework set out by his predecessor in Social Housing Strategy 2020? Or will he be bold and chart his own policy course?

The signals from Government buildings are conflicting.

The housing section of the Programme for Government is deeply disappointing. The targets and timeframes for social housing delivery remain unchanged. So too does the excessive reliance on the private sector to deliver 80% of the social units over the next five years.

Where new ideas have made it into the Programme they are couched in works like explore, examine and consider rather than definite commitments for action.
But there are signs that change may be afoot.

Minister Coveney has described the crisis as a ‘national emergency’. He is the first Minister to do so. He has also said that the crisis needs a ‘comprehensive response’ suggesting that the response to date has been less than comprehensive.

But he, and the thousands of families living at the rough edge of the housing crisis, doesn’t have much time.

Last week the Department of Environment released the latest homeless figures. Almost 6000 people, including 2000 children are homeless in the state.

In 2008 the number of people without a home was 1394. When Fine Gael took office in 2011 there were 2348 people homeless across the state.

Last week also saw the publication of the rent report. Rent inflation is soaring at 10%, rents have now exceeded their boom time peaks.

The figures confirm what many of us warned, that Alan Kelly and Michael Noonan’s 2015 rent certainty measures had no positive impact whatsoever and in some cases made matters worse.

So what must Minister Coveney do? What are the key policies changes that we need to see in his Housing Action plan that is to be published by August?

The plan must focus on two key challenges – stopping the flow of people into homelessness and increasing the supply of affordable and stable social, rental and owner occupier housing.

To achieve these objectives he needs immediate actions and more medium term proposals.

Rent certainty –linking rent reviews to the Consumer Price Index- must be a priority. Raising Rent Supplement and Housing Assistance Payments levels alone will not halt the growing numbers of people being forced out of the private rental sector.

Greater protections for tenants living in repossessed buy-to-let properties, proper regulation of investment funds who are purchasing distressed mortgage books, and reform of the mortgage-to-rent scheme must also be immediate priorities.

Minister Coveney should combine these moves with a more thorough reform of the personal insolvency service and greater profesionalisation of the private rental sector. The first is contained in the programme for government. The second isn’t even mentioned. Both are required.

However the single most important policy intervention that Minister Coveney must pursue is a major social housing programme. The claim made by Alan Kelly and repeated by Minister Coveney, that Social Housing Strategy 2020 is the biggest social housing investment in the history of the state is simply not true.

Investment in social housing has fallen from €1.1bn a year in the early 00s to a low of €585m in 2014. Under the Governments current strategy that figure will rise to approx. €800m for three years only to be cut to €400m for the next three years.

This is in fact one of the lowest levels of direct state investment in social housing in the history of the state. The numbers speak for themselves. In the 1950 the state built 50,000 council houses. In the 1970s they build almost 70,000. Under Alan Kelly’s plan the total number will be somewhere in the region of 12,000 over 6 years.

And here is the fatal flaw. Almost 80% of the ‘social housing’ units contained in Social Housing 2020 are not social houses at all. They are private rental properties subsidised by the state under schemes such as Rent Supplement, Rental Accommodation Scheme, Housing Assistance Payment or the Leasing Initiative.

More than any other policy, this overreliance on the private rental sector –first introduced by Fianna Fáil in the 1980s and continued by every Government since- is at the heart of our housing system failure.

Investing in real social housing development, on the scale of the 1950s and 1970s will not only tackle the homeless and social housing crisis. It will benefit the private renter and first time buyer by reducing demand and with it rents and property prices.

If Minister Coveney is serious about social housing he will also need to shake up the cumbersome procurement process with slows the development process down. And he will need to change the way we think about public housing to focus on greater income mix and better estate management.

Simon Coveney’s political mettle is about to be tested like never before. As Minister he can change the direction of housing policy in the state. Whether he does will be revealed in August when he publishes his Housing Action Plan.

This article was first published in the Sunday Business Post on 15.5.16

  1. marshleon says:

    Excellent Article well written and presented.

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