By Cathal O'Connell and Joe Finnerty, UCC

The scale and complexity of Ireland’s housing crisis might suggest a social challenge of insurmountable proportions. Indeed, there is much evidence to support this pessimistic view. Many young adults wishing to purchase a house face a triple-whammy of rent and house price inflation coupled with job insecurity, often forcing them to live with their parents for extended periods. Tenants in the private rented sector, including those in receipt of housing benefit (Housing Assistance Payment or Rent Supplement) are facing steep rent increases, even for sub-standard and insecure accommodation.

The more unlucky or vulnerable tenants dislodged from the private rented sector end up sofa-surfing with friends or swelling the ranks of homeless persons. The number of our citizens in some form of emergency accommodation has more than doubled in three years, from around 4,350 persons in May 2015 to 9,900 in June 2018. Of particular concern is that this homeless population includes children, whose number has more than tripled from 1,211 to 3,824. The traditional policy response in the form of local authority housing has a backlog of almost 72,000 households on the June 2018 social housing waiting list, which actually means close to a quarter of a million people.

From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland, Susanne Bauer, Senior Housing Researcher of the City of Vienna and chair of the Eurocities Working Group on Housing, on what could be done to solve Ireland's housing crisis

It is understandable that people see the housing problem as interminable with one set of problems piling up on another making solutions difficult to ascertain. Many see these different facets of the housing crisis as evidence that the government is "doing nothing".

However, this popular view confuses inaction and ineffectiveness. The government’s Rebuilding Ireland strategy sets out a wide range of measures to remedy the housing crisis and includes establishing rent pressure zones, increased social housing expenditure, boosting private house construction and tackling homelessness. The government describes Rebuilding Ireland as "ambitious and imaginative in its reach, and radical in its approach".

But while it is important to acknowledge what progress is being made, it is equally important to point out where current policy clearly is devoid of "ambition" and fails to be "radical in its approach".

Most people look to the social housing system as the source of long term secure housing and rightly so. However, the policy trend in recent years has been away from secure social housing tenancies provided by local authorities and voluntary approved housing bodies AHBs and towards what the government terms social housing "solutions". This type of terminology should be read as code for the private rented sector. 

By way of illustration, 19,000 of the 26,000 social housing solutions delivered in 2017 were in some way sourced through the private market. Local authority building, acquisition and voids provided just over 6,000. Nationally, there are approximately 250,000 social housing supported tenancies, of which 170,000 are in some way sourced in the private tented sector.

It is evident that Ireland’s policy of relying on the private rented sector for large scale social housing  provision has failed

A social housing policy so reliant on the private rented sector can very easily become part of the problem it is trying to solve. Compared to other countries, private renting in Ireland is poorly regulated in terms of tenant security, housing quality and above all affordability. Tenants can be legally evicted on a variety of grounds such as refurbishment, health and safety, sale, etc. as has been seen in the case of the Leeside Apartments in Cork recently. 

How the government pays for this type of response is also an issue. There is now evidence that the HAP scheme, in the context of competitive urban rental markets, likely contributes to rent inflation in our cities especially where low income households are concentrated. In the three years between 2018 and 2021, the state will pay private landlords €3 billion in rent subsidies, including HAP, much of it in an effort to keep pace with rising rents. 

From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on how he believes there is no "quick fix" to housing crisis

What can be done to arrest and reverse the current crisis in housing? A multi-level response is needed involving national and local actions. At national level, a reformed private rented sector and a reformed HAP have significant roles to play in providing accommodation for households choosing to live in the sector.

However, it is evident that Ireland’s policy of relying on the private rented sector for large scale social housing  provision has failed and it is time to wind up that experiment, especially in urban areas where rents are highest and housing need most acute.

The scale and complexity of the housing crisis requires the local authority sector to be restored to its lead role in building homes for low to middle income households

This means it is important that we have a properly functioning social housing sector which provides secure, affordable tenancies and contributes to flourishing families and communities. While the voluntary housing sector has a valuable contribution to make, especially for vulnerable households, the scale and complexity of the housing crisis requires the local authority sector to be restored to its lead role in building homes for low to middle income households. Loan finance is available and local authorities, many of whom have significant land banks, need to avail of the borrowing facilities offered by the state’s Housing Finance Agency.

Local authority rent policy also needs to be reviewed. The income related rents regime has been very beneficial to low income households, but has starved local authorities of revenue to invest in and maintain housing stock. Cost renting, whereby the rents charged reflect the cost of provision, could potentially put social housing on a much more sustainable financial footing.

From RTÉ Radio One's Today With Sean O'Rourke Show, Fr. Peter McVerry and Damien English, Minister of State for Housing and Urban Development, talk about the Take Back the City campaign

Selling off local authority homes under the tenant purchase scheme also needs to be reviewed. While it has given thousands of families a foothold on the property ladder, this scheme eliminates valuable stock from local authority estates. Bizarrely, a proportion of these end up in the private market for rents that are far higher than local authority rents. 

The obsession with so-called "mixed tenure" estates is a major impediment to effective action. Arguments that local authorities should not build large scale social housing schemes because of "ghettoization" are spurious and are not supported by a convincing evidence base. There is much more evidence of a longitudinal nature showing the success rather than the failure of social housing estates. Instead of obsessing with mixed tenure estates, policy should focus on building mixed income estates, thereby opening up social housing to a diversity of households who chose to rent their homes and put down roots in these communities.

There must also be vigilance that newly announced initiatives such as the Land Development Agency do not compound the problems they are set up to solve. The public interest must be protected by ensuring that the public lands are not parcelled off to the benefit of private developers while social housing need goes unmet.

Actions at local level

Much is currently being done by local housing providers in Cork and the proposed development at Horgan’s Quay in particular promises a significant boost in housing supply. However, the crisis demands that these efforts be redoubled and this is the time for local initiatives and leadership. Here are a number of actions where Cork could lead in addressing the housing crisis.

Firstly, the extension of the city boundary presents an opportunity to develop land for social housing provision by the city council. This would restore the primary role of the local authority in providing accommodation for low to middle income households and reduce the unbalanced reliance on private renting. It would make inroads into family homelessness, where 93 homeless families in Cork and Kerry, including 257 children, were housed in B&Bs and hotels in June of this year.

Long term homelessness on our streets and in hostels could be solved with a Housing First approach

Secondly, Cork should pilot new models of provision such as cost renting which cuts out the developer profit margin and development levies making housing more affordable and accommodating middle income households. It should also pioneer the development of mixed income estates as a far more sustainable option over mixed tenure.

Third, the elimination of long term chronic homelessness is within reach in Cork city. The extent of this population here in Cork is much smaller than in Dublin. Using a Housing First approach, involving the provision of supported rental accommodation for single persons with mental health and addiction issues, long term homelessness on our streets and in hostels could be solved.

From RTÉ Radio One's Ray D'Arcy Show, chief executive of O’Cualann Co-housing Alliance Hugh Brennan talks about his proposed solutions to the Irish housing crisis

Finally, initiatives such as these require a conversations at local level. Local fora such as the housing and homeless strategic policy committees already operate within the local government structure. More broadly, the Cork Evolves initiative explores good housing practice from Ireland and abroad, pitching new ideas and innovations and actively listening to local communities, charities and NGOs.

There is no denying the depth of the housing crisis and the challenges it poses in providing homes for our fellow citizens. However local leadership and initiatives, combined with national reforms, can make real differences to the lives of our fellow citizens whose housing needs are currently unmet. In time, Irish society can look back at the current housing shortage as a crisis which will never be repeated.

Professor Cathal O'Connell has been a staff member of the School of Applied Social Studies at UCC since 1990 and an active researcher in the areas of social housing, regeneration and social inclusion. Joe Finnerty is a lecturer and researcher in the School of Applied Social Studies at UCC

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ