The Brainstorm Long Read: Ireland's housing crisis is creating many problems, including mental health and well-being issues
Owning your home is more than just having a roof over your head. It's security, an asset, a place to call your own and it's something that is now largely out of reach for a growing number of Irish people. Unlike other European countries, property ownership seems built into the Irish psyche. A research report published by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government earlier this year revealed that 86.5% of respondents would strongly prefer to own their own home and some were willing to pay a 40% premium above their rent for it.
However, the State is now experiencing the lowest rate of home ownership in nearly five decades. Dáil debates on housing and homeownership are a battleground for political mudslinging and thousands are left caught in the middle with no prospect of their lot improving anytime soon.
House prices have risen faster than incomes and the average age of a first-time buyer is now 34. Couples and individuals caught in a vicious cycle find themselves unable to save for a mortgage; a mortgage that would likely be cheaper than their monthly rent. Some make the difficult choice to move back in with their parents to save money or opt for a long daily commute if it means lower rent. Others are faced with co-living options, sharing a kitchen with strangers, sometimes well into their thirties.
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But what happens to your mental health and wellbeing when you find yourself locked out? It’s not just a case of money down the drain. Home ownership is linked with a feeling of security and what sociologists and psychologists call eudaimonic wellbeing; the feeling of control, autonomy and self-realisation that we long for. The department's report found that 78% want to own their own home so their families can feel safe and 78% cited having control over what you do with your living space as a reason for wanting to own.
You don't have to look far to find stories about landlords who make use of legal exceptions to tenancy laws to turf out tenants under the guise of renovations or needing to move in a family member. A May 2019 survey of 3,000 people by activist group Uplift found 84% of renters felt insecure about their housing situation and more than half said their mental health was affected by it.
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A recent UK study from the University of Manchester found that the more years people spent in rented accommodation, the poorer their wellbeing was later on in life. This was even more pronounced for those whose parents had owned their own home.
"Home ownership gives you, on the one hand, a material security, it’s like a pension fund because it’s the most common form of wealth investment. On the other hand, there's also what people call ontological security, the feeling that no one can kick you out of your home, you have a place that’s yours, you feel safe there," says one of the study’s authors, Dr Bram Vanhoutte.
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"It’s not that [home ownership] is a basic human necessity. It really depends on the nature of the housing system: If policies change and renting becomes the norm, then maybe it has less of an effect on wellbeing. But if we have to learn from previous generations, what we can say is that [not owning your own home] has a pretty depressing effect"
Feeling like you're falling behind your peers or comparing yourself to previous generations can be 'very anxiety-inducing’ and can destabilise our relationships with other people, particularly if we feel they’re doing better than us, says Orla Muldoon, a professor of psychology at the University of Limerick.
An awful lot of what millenials expect from this phase of life is actually around having their own place
"There’s a thing called millennial angst", says Muldoon. "They’re the group that are now in early adulthood and you would expect people in early adulthood would be interested in having full-blown independence, maybe developing intimate relationships, setting up families of their own. An awful lot of what they expect from this phase of life is actually around having their own place."
Muldoon says that just as we use certain milestones to mark a baby’s progress (first steps, first words etc), adults have the same sense of milestones in life that they would like to hit. "There’s this notion of the secure base, that people need a secure base to flourish and sometimes that's talked about in babies as the mother or the primary caregiver from whence the child goes out and explores the world.
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"But equally, as adults we need a secure place, we need somewhere to go back to that we feel safe. The idea of home is really very important in that context. The only way you can be healthy is if you have this sense that there's somewhere you can be safe. It's important that people understand that much of the way they’re feeling and much of the problems we're experiencing are not in anyway attributable to them, there’s actually a systemic national crisis that's making them feel like that."
Social connections, being around family, friends and having a community can really help ground us and promote good mental health. Muldoon says one issue with renting is people don’t make the same effort to make connections and friends. "That then means that these resources, these supports that people would have if they were embedded in the community, they’re not really there. People become sort of anonymous, almost floating, rather than connected to other people."
From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Ronan Lyons from Daft.ie discusses the May 2019 report that the number of homes to rent is at its lowest level in over a decade
Along with impacting on current mental health, not being able to own your own home can also have a number of financial ramifications for the future. The department's report found that 86.5% saw owning as a good investment and 66% viewed owning as a good way to build up wealth that can be passed on to family. One of the big issues with long-term renting is that the accumulation of wealth gets delayed, which impacts on credit ratings as well.
"(This) can impact when you can retire, how you retire", says Ross MacMillan, the Chair in Sociology at the University of Limerick. "It may have implications for how you manage crisis issues like healthcare. The earlier the better and if you are delaying buying property you’re delaying the kind of process where you’re accumulating the main asset that you're likely to accumulate in life".
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MacMillan believes the issue is wider than runaway house prices or longterm renting in itself. Since the financial crisis of 2007, unstable jobs and fluctuating incomes have been "absolutely deadly" to banks. "There's not a lot of evidence that it’s about runaway house prices, it’s a small part. It’s really about the fact that the labour market doesn't really produce longterm commitments to individuals the way that it used to and that makes it really difficult to have both the cultural tools, what you look like as a person, as well as the financial assets to convince a bank to make a 25-year investment.
"The precarious nature of work which is becoming more and more normal, really operates against the ability of people transitioning into adulthood being able to buy property. There’s nothing about it that either increases financial assets or makes them more attractive to a bank or positions them socially so that buying a house make sense and is a feasible thing.
We are creating problems for a generation, effectively
‘Then what happens is that there’s a kind of delayed process that often gets initiated, particularly for the people who live at home, where you’re moving more slowly into permanent relationships, having children, putting down roots in a particular community, being part of the society that you live in. Most of the way we make connections in this world is through our kind of local networks, who we live next to. If you’re living in a rental property, people are transitional.’
With the housing crisis showing no signs of abating, the real ramifications of delayed home ownership and a full feeling of independence may not be visible for a long time to come. "We are creating problems for a generation, effectively," says Muldoon.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ