Broken promises on social housing provision

A government leasing scheme that promised to provide up to 4,000 social housing units in 2009 has yet to provide a single home. Meanwhile, the number of people in need of social housing spirals upward. By Eoin Ó Broin

The government this week announced plans to lease properties from the private sector to house families on Local Authority waiting lists. The announcement comes following a Cabinet discussion on the housing needs of low income families that took place on Wednesday, 13 January.

On Monday 18 January, Minister of State with responsibility for Housing, Michael Finneran TD told reporters that he believed there were more than 100,000 vacant properties across the state, some of which could be leased by Councils from developers and used to provide social housing.

This is not a new proposal.

First announced in February 2009, the Government Leasing Scheme set aside €20m from the then social housing budget for leasing unfurnished private sector properties for terms of 10-20 years. The local authority would be responsible for insurance, maintenance and repair of the property, and would return it to the landlord at the end of the leasing period.

Speaking at that time Minister Finneran said that the scheme, “would allow local authorities to provide at least 2,000 units and perhaps up to 4,000 units” in 2009. Minister Finneran defended the leasing proposal arguing that the same capital spend would allow only for the “purchase of something in the order of 100 properties”.

To date no properties have been leased by local authorities under the terms of the Government Leasing Scheme. Meanwhile housing need continues to spiral out of control.

In 2008 the Department of Environment conducted its triennial Housing Needs Assessment, which counts the number of households on local authority housing waiting lists. Released in early 2009 the assessment concluded that there were 56,000 households in need of social housing. This figure was 30% higher than the previous Housing Needs Assessment conducted in 2005.

However this figure does not represent the complete shortfall. Dublin City Council, for example, submitted a figure of 4,991 households in need of local authority housing to the Department of Environment Housing Needs Assessment. This figure did not include 2,379 households deemed by the Council to be living in “overcrowded or materially suitable accommodation”. Nor did it include 359 homeless households known by the Council to be living in temporary transitional accommodation programmes.

In December 2009 the Irish Independent published figures obtained from the Department of Environment which indicated that the total number of households on local authority lists could be as high as 99,846, an increase of 130% on 2005.

In addition to families on local authority housing waiting lists there has also been a dramatic rise in the numbers claiming Rent Supplement, an emergency benefit paid by the Department of Social and Family Affairs to households experiencing difficult in paying their rent.

During 2007 and 2008 there were on average 60,000 households claiming rent supplement at any one time. However this figure started to rise steadily with the onset of the recession. In September 2009 there were 90,000 households in receipt of the benefit.

Once of the reasons why housing need has risen so dramatically is that Government is not providing a sufficient supply of social or affordable housing. The Towards 2016 partnership agreement committed government to meeting the housing needs of 60,000 households between 2006 and 2009.

Figures from the Department of Environment from 2006 to the end of the 2nd quarter of 2009 indicate that the government has provided 42,074 social and affordable houses. While figures are not yes available for the remainder of 2009 it is likely that the government will be as much as 20,000 housing units short on its own commitments.

The greatest irony is that there have never been so many homes, including vacant homes, in the state. The 2006 census found that there were 174,935 vacant homes, of which 50,000 were holiday homes. Today, the National institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis said that there are 302,625 vacant properties in Ireland, including those available for sale or rent. The research found that houses are now more affordable than at anytime in the last 25 years.

With social housing output set to decline further in 2010 and little uptake in the Government Leasing Scheme, new approaches are urgently needed if the housing need of thousands of families is to be met.