More vacant homes than homeless people? Housing is the answer!

Posted: December 30, 2016 in Apollo House, Coveney, Home Sweet Home, Housing, Uncategorized

Housing dominated the political agenda in 2016 like never before. Decades of underinvestment and bad policy across all tenures created a dysfunctional housing system.

The recession didn’t just make things worse, it lit the fuse that has resulted in an explosion of housing need.

Council housing lists grow ever longer. Homelessness, including child homelessness, has reached epidemic proportions. Affordability in the rental and purchase sectors has become out of reach for many people, including those in stable employment.

The most graphic illustration of successive Government failure is the fact that 2500 children will spend Christmas day in emergency accommodation.

The response of the new Minister for Housing Simon Coveney has been underwhelming.

None of us doubt Simon’s sincerity. But earnestness is no substitute for good policy and it appears that the Cork South Central TD appears has the former in inverse proportion to the latter.

The 2016 Dáil term came to a close last week with three major housing moments. On Tuesday Minister Coveney launched his long awaited strategy for the reform of the private rental sector. On Thursday housing activists occupied Apollo House in Dublin and opened a homeless shelter. On Friday the controversial Planning and Development (Housing) and Residential Tenancies Bill passed Final Stage in the Dáil.

Running through these three developments is a fault line between the old and failed policies of the past and a new emerging housing policy agenda. This new agenda may have growing public support but has yet to penetrate the obsolete thinking in Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil HQ

The Governments new rental strategy was billed as a long term plan to transform the sector. The reality is very different. It is hastily cobbled together, lacking coherence, substance or detail.

It contains 26 specific actions. Ten have already been announced, some for the fifth time. Of the remainder most are vague commitments to do something as yet undefined at a later stage.

The key proposal was what Minister Coveney calls ‘rent predictability’. In truth it is a form of rent certainty but not the one that hard pressed renting families were hoping for.

For those tenants due a rent review in Dublin or Cork next year the only certainty is that their rent will increase by 12.5% over three years. This will cost the average renter in Dublin €4500 and the average renter in Cork City €3200 over the next three years.

Minister Coveney says that this rent increase is necessary to incentivise investment in the rental sector. But when pressed he seemed unsure of the argument underlining his big policy proposal.

At the press launch he was asked where the 4% annual increase figure came from. He responded that is was based on the Strategic Investment Fund investment yield benchmark of the same amount.

Yet at current market prices for property and rents an investor in Dublin or Cork is already getting an investment yield of at least 6%.

Despite repeated questions from myself and others in the Dáil Minister Coveney couldn’t explain why he was conflating annual rent increases and annual investment yields.

The Minister claimed that real rent certainty, linking rents to an index such as CPI, would deter investment and force existing landlords out of the market. Despite being pressed to publish the evidence on which this claim is based he refused to do so.

More fundamentally when asked where he though working renters would get the extra thousands of euros in rent increases he was legislating for he simply ignored the question.

His response to all of these questions was to return to the issue of supply. It seems that he believes nothing will change until private sector supply increases. In the mean time struggling renters, homeless families with children and aspiring first time buyers will just have to continue paying the price for bad Government policy.

The problem of course is that supply alone is no guarantee of affordability or indeed of meeting acute housing need. During the 2000s when housing construction was at historic highs, purchase and rental prices soared upwards as did Council housing lists, rent supplement dependency and homelessness.

Unless supply measures are combined with affordability and access measures then our two tier housing system will not only continue but become even more entrenched between those minority who have secure quality homes and the rest who at best have temporary accommodation.

During the debate on the controversial planning and rental Bill this week these arguments were trashed our in great detail. Unfortunately as Coveney and his petulant accessory Barry Cowen held the line the Dáil majority stuck with the policy status quo. However out on the streets something else was happening.

A group of concerned citizens under the banner of Home Sweet Home occupied a vacant building in Dublin’s city centre. Their plan for the NAMA connected property was very simple, to provide shelter for some of those people who would otherwise sleep rough over Christmas.

They had the support of non political cultural icons like Christy Moore, Damien Dempsey, Glen Hansard, Saoirse Ronan, Dean Scurry and others.

When Glen explained to the Late Late Show why they occupied Apollo House the audience exploded in approval. In the days that’s followed thousands of people donated money, food, supplies and time to this initiative.

If the choice is between illegally occupying buildings or leaving people to die on our streets peoples gut instinct is with Home Sweet Home. It may be simplistic and it may be short term but it highlights the absurdity of 189,000 vacant houses across the state while 6847 people remain homelessness. It exposes the key fault line in the housing debate.

When the market fails to meet peoples housing needs the state must step in. It must build, buy and renovate in sufficient numbers and regulate with sufficient strength to stabilise the housing system. It must ensure that every child has a place they can call home and that no one sleeps rough or spends more than six months in emergency accommodation.

We have a long way to go before we reach these objectives, but in a week where the failed housing policy consensus of the past continued to dominate the Dáil debate, the actions of Home Sweet Home give cause for hope.

Originally published by the Sunday Business Post on 23.12.16

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