More of the same on social housing

Housing policy is one of the issues that goes to the heart of our current economic crisis. More than health or education, it is an area of policy that successive governments left to the mercy of the market. Some of the consequences are widely acknowledged, such as the massive property bubble and subsequent house price crash. Unfortunately, equally important consequences continue to be ignored, namely housing inequality.

At the peak of the boom, when we were building more homes than at any other time in our history, homelessness remained a consistent problem. The 4,500 people denied a secure and permanent home were just the tip on an iceberg of people living in inappropriate or inadequate housing. 

At least 130,000 households are currently on local authority housing lists, up from 56,000 in 2008. The number of people claiming rent supplement has risen from 60,000 to almost 100,000 during the same period.

Some 80,000 households are currently in serious mortgage distress. Since the start of the year at least 500 families fall into serious mortgage distress every week. Clearly levels of housing need are set to increase dramatically in the coming months and years.

In response to this growing crisis the new Labour Party Junior Minister with responsibility for housing, Willie Penrose, has released a Housing Policy Statement (see below), setting out how he and his Government intends to meet housing need. The short document launched with little media attention and claims to represent "a fundamental reconfiguration of the landscape of housing support in Ireland".

That the Minister and his officials could claim this while keeping a straight face is truly remarkable, as the document is nothing more than a restatement of housing policy as pursued by the previous Fianna Fáil junior minister Michael Finneran.

The policy statement re-announces the ongoing review of the operation of the Private Residential Tenancies Board, something the Department of Environment has been working for a number of years.

The statement formally admits what has effectively been official policy since the housing crash, namely the end of state-run affordable housing schemes.

Without even a hint of irony the statment announces the continuation of Part V planning arrangements - the 20% affordable or social housing rule - which would be good news except for the fact that nobody is building any private houses.

The most significant part of the document is the section on social housing. It promises to make meeting acute housing needs the 'main focus' of housing policy.

And how does Junior Minister Penrose plan to achieve this? By reviewing the operation of rent supplement and extending the previous government's social housing leasing initiative.

A review of rent supplement is not in itself a bad thing, depending on its outcome. However the previous government already conducted a review which led to the introduction of the Rental Accommodation Scheme. At this stage it is unclear how the current government's review will differ from its predecessor's.

However the idea that the leasing initiative will somehow manage to address the housing needs of the 4,500 people who are homeless, let alone tens of thousands on council waiting lists is pure fantasy.

Michael Finneran introduced the leasing initiative with great fanfare in 2009. The idea was to divert monies intended for building new social houses into long-term leasing arrangements between private landlords and local authorities. Councils would lease properties from the private sector for 10 to 20 years, allocate them to families on council waiting lists, and then either extend the lease or return the properties to the owners at the end of the agreed period.

Tenants would have some of the rights of regular council tenants, with the crucial exception of the right to tenant purchase. However the uncertainty regarding what would happen at the end of the lease period gives rise to serious security of tenure concerns.

In the first year of its operation the leasing scheme resulted in zero new social tenancies. It represented the very worst of housing policy under Fianna Fáil. Local authorities, developers and ultimately tenants all failed to respond to the proposal.

In 2010 the majority of leased units were not from the private sector, but from local authorities, as they leased unsold affordable units from themselves for periods of four years rather than turn them into long-term social housing.

Throughout 2010 and early 2011 discussions between the Department of Environment, local authorities and voluntary housing bodies sought to amend the scheme to make it work. However it is clear that whatever number of new social tenancies are created via the leasing scheme, they will not be sufficient to put any meaningful dent into the rising levels of social housing need.

In light of the failure of the leasing scheme to date, the fact that it forms the centerpiece of the new government's social housing policy is surprising to say the least. It certainly can't be defined as a "fundamental reconfiguration of the landscape of housing support".

Crucially, like its previous incarnation under Fianna Fáil, it will fail.

That the Housing Policy Statement assigns the central role for delivering these leased units to the voluntary sector underlines the fact that the new Government is not serious about meeting social housing demand. The voluntary sector currently manages about 23,000 social housing units across the state. It will continue to play a role in meeting housing need. But it does not have the capacity - financial or managerial - to deliver the number of units than the state currently requires.

The statement also includes commitments on issues such as improving existing social housing stock, tackling homelessness, supporting struggling mortgage holders and reducing levels of anti-social behavior. In each of these areas there is either a lack of detail on what is being proposed or the detail is simply a restatement of existing Department policy as framed under the previous government.

Housing need in both the public and private sector reached crisis levels two years ago. The previous government simply refused to acknowledge the scale of the problem. Unfortunately it appears that the new government, despite its claims to the contrary, intends to do likewise.

We urgently need a change of direction in housing policy. Central to this must be the provision of 200,000 local authority housing units with appropriate community, social and economic infrastructure and supports. This is almost double the current number of local authority housing units.

Achieving this target would require the government to abandon its reliance on hybrid private sector solutions to social housing need. Instead the new government should map out how it intends to build or buy an additional 100,000 new social units over the next five to ten years, some in partnership with the voluntary sector but the majority provided directly by local authorities.

Without direct provision of housing by the state for those unable to afford to buy or rent in the market housing need will continue to increase.

Despite all the pre-election bluster it seems than under the new Fine Gael-Labour government it is more of the same when it comes to housing policy.

Housing Policy Statement