In March 2019, the Department of Housing issued a report on the homeless that gave the figures of 6,484 adults and 3,821 children living in emergency accommodation. This was a new record figure, despite the government claiming it would make housing a priority.
At the end of 2017, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe stated that the success of the government would be determined by its ability to tackle the housing crisis over the course of 2018. Donohoe said it was the ‘most pressing problem of a generation’ and that the government ‘must reduce homelessness’ over the year.
Yet the Fine Gael / Independent government then presided over a huge growth in the numbers who were homeless. From when the government was formed, in May 2016, to the publication of the Department of Housing report of March 2019, nearly 1,000 more children had become homeless as did 2,400 adults.
Another significant survey was undertaken on the night of 9 April 2019, where 128 people were found to be sleeping outdoors in Dublin streets and shop fronts. This was 18 more than a similar survey taken in at the same time of year in 2018. Again, the evidence is irrefutable. If the success of the government was determined by the way in which it tackled the housing crisis, then the 2016 – 2020 Fine Gael government was an utter failure.
What is causing the housing crisis in Ireland?
The housing crisis is easy to explain: it is a result of allowing Irish property to be placed in the hands of companies seeking to maximise profit rather than to provide homes. Often this simple truth is lost because of an assumption that there is no alternative to the free market. Most other countries have policies in place to moderate the harmful consequences of a completely free market in property but Ireland provides a particularly dramatic case of what happens when you let vulture funds drive the agenda.
One important fact that underlies the current difficulties people face in finding homes is that in the aftermath of the 2009 crash, vulture funds such as those of Cerberus and Hibernia REIT spent approximately €200bn acquiring a massive portfolio of Irish property as prices collapsed. They now leverage their strong position to make a fortune at the expense of those for whom their disposable income is eaten up paying rents and mortgages.
Rather than regulate the market by introducing rent caps and a mechanism for lowering rents Fine Gael (and before them, Fianna Fail and Labour) made created an environment favourable to the vulture funds by reducing the alternative forms of housing construction. Direct spending on social housing was cut, then abolished in a move to redefine social housing in a way that allowed private developers to include a portion of their construction as social.
Based on ESB connections, it’s easy to see how the reliance on the private sector absolutely raced away from public building programmes, which were never that high in the first place:
So ideologically committed were Fine Gael and the ‘independents’ to the market as a solution to the housing crisis that they could not bring themselves to act, even when they would save money by doing so. According to that government’s own report for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, while rent support for a family home over a twenty-year period would cost the state €260k, to build the same dwelling would cost €130k. Our conservative parties, however, have no intention of altering the landscape by embarking on a serious programme of building public housing.
The 2016 – 2020 government’s strategy documents for housing promised significantly increased social housing, but the vast majority of the promised units were the same old private sector accommodation, now opened to recipients of Housing Assistance Payments (HAP). Only in the case of 35,000 houses did the strategy talk about the possibility of genuine public housing but the ambiguity of the plan was that there was no clear indication of how these would be built, only that it would happen through a ‘variety of funding models.’ It never did. A simple, direct promise to have state intervention in the housing market was beyond the boundaries of Fine Gael thinking.
Independent Left members, like Councillor John Lyons and Niamh McDonald, have no hesitation in calling for the state to embark on the construction of tens of thousands of public homes.
Social Housing Can Be Amazing
Councillor John Lyons has been battling on Dublin City Council for social housing to form a significant part of new developments. Always, there is resistance from the other political parties, as he explains:
Here in Ireland over the last few decades there has been an attack on one of the most important of public goods, social housing. The mere mention of it on the lips of Irish politicians nationally and locally, from Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party, Fine Gael, the Greens and others, is immediately followed by words like “ghetto”, “failed model” etc…
The failed model rhetoric employed today is used as cover by politicians who favour the private market, who see nothing wrong in handing over public land to private capitalists to extract maximum profit out of the social misery that is the housing and homelessness crisis.
Social housing, public housing, call it what you will, can be amazing – just look at the following short video.
But alas, we have a crowd of politicians wedded to the failed private market ideology that demands that the state do everything within its power to facilitate private capital – cheap land, low-to-no taxes, favourable planning regulations – at the expense of the general public.
We can and must do better.
Social Housing could be synonymous with quality of life, health, environment, beauty and security, as this Channel 4 insight into Vienna shows.
Independent Left Solutions to the Housing Crisis
The demands raised by Independent Left to help solve the housing crisis are based on the principle that housing is a right:
The right to housing features in the laws and constitutions of 81 countries worldwide. It is also provided for in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights and the European Social Charter.
In October 2018, a majority in the Dail passed a motion demanding action on evictions, a major programme of public housing and the creation of a legal Right to Housing.
In line with this principle our solutions are:
A full programme of directly built, public and affordable housing.
An end to evictions into homelessness.
The introduction of rent controls and reductions: ensure that nobody is paying more than 30% of their income on rent.
A stop the the sale of public land that could be used to address the housing crisis.
A deposit protection scheme (to prevent landlords keeping deposits unfairly).
Increased security of tenure so that the majority of tenancies are indefinite i.e. ‘no fault’ evictions are ended. This policy was introduced in Scotland at the end of 2017 with immediate benefits to tenants.
As a Dublin Councillor, John Lyons has been helping people in the Dublin Bay constituency campaign for more social housing. Supporting movements such as the Oscar Traynor Land Action Group. John explained:
‘If the City Council won’t consult and engage with the communities regarding their Housing Land Initiative proposal for the 17 hectare site on the Oscar Traynor/Coolock Lane site, I will. If the City Council thinks that we’ll accept just thirty percent of the houses and apartments built on the site, they’re mistaken: public lands should be for public housing.’
Affordable childcare and homelessness are closely linked
On 24 June 2020, Focus Ireland launched a campaign to highlight the importance of childcare provision in preventing homelessness. Mike Allen, the Director of Advocacy for Focus Ireland explained:
If we want to end the nightmare of family homelessness, we need understand the root causes of it and help people to avoid the slippery slope which can result in them losing their home…
We have seen how access to childcare can cause families to lose their footing and slip towards being at risk of homelessness.
The case study that Focus Ireland used to illustrate the situation that parents – and especially single parents – can face was provide by Independent Left’s Niamh McDonald. Niamh explained how she was caught in a poverty trap where low wages and high childcare costs made the kind of jobs she was offered unviable. Crucially, council housing has provided the way out of the trap and this is a solution that Independent Left advocate for, alongside a radical overhaul of the costs of childcare in Ireland.
In 2019, Independent Left gave support to the #raisetheroof campaign against homelessness
Both Cllr John Lyons and Niamh McDonald, Independent Left candidates in the local government elections were supporters of the #raisetheroof march on 18 May 2019. Organised by a coalition of trade unions, civil society organisations and political parties, a major national rally was staged in Dublin on that day to insist the government take serious steps to solve the housing crisis and to show Fine Gael that people have not been taken in by their posturing on the issue.
Niamh McDonald said:
‘the need for a massive increase in public housing is one of the most important issues in the local elections.’
Councillor John Lyons added:
‘The housing crisis is a “recipe for social unrest” according to the Irish Times editorial of 16 May. Well yes, indeed, only a movement of people power, of the generation locked out of affordable renting, social housing, and home ownership combined, can force a change in housing policy.
‘Passing motions in Dail Eireann and the City Council hasn’t done it, and by itself won’t do it; we need a sustained campaign on the streets of Dublin and every other city and town demanding public and affordable housing.
Fr Peter McVerry was one of the organisers of the march and recently said that the figure for homelessness is closer to 15,000 than the often reported 10,000 and that figure was going to increase. He added that the channeling of €2m per day via HAP payments to private landlords instead of building public housing was not sustainable.
During election 2020, John Lyons stood for the following measures to solve Ireland’s housing crisis: