3 questions to ask your would-be TD about housing

Image: RTÉ Brainstorm
Feb 06 2020 Posted: 09:50 GMT

Author: Dr Padraic Kenna, School of Law

Opinion: how to assess your general election candidate's seriousness about housing and homelessness

Housing is a key issue in this election as the cost of housing to rent or buy and the terrible situation for homeless families are huge political matters in Ireland. It is important to recognise that those who put themselves forward for public office do so to improve the lives of their fellow citizens, yet all candidates are expected to have simple solutions for housing problems. How realistic is this, and what questions should we ask them?

The housing 'crisis'

Rents in Ireland are the highest in the EU, relative to house prices and are beginning to match the exclusive districts of New York and London. Private tenants in Ireland have the highest house costs overburden of all groups, showing the flavour of our housing policies.Those on low incomes, especially families with children, are being squeezed out of the private rental market altogether. This, at a time, when State subsidies to the rental market have reached record levels. Even Eoghan Murphy, the Minister for Housing since 2017, accepts that competing for a home today in the private rental market is becoming intolerable.

Low cost public or social housing is not widely available as an alternative. The numbers of homeless households with children remains at record levels and many others risk losing their homes through rent and mortgage arrears, although this issue has not figured much. Emerging defects in apartments are causing great concern.

From RTÉ 1's Six Ones, a report on what the party manifestos have to say about policies in housing, public spending and agriculture

A whole generation of people who want to form a household, and perhaps, buy a home, are finding that buying a home is out of reach (9 times average annual earnings in Dublin). The simple fact is that housing is too expensive in Ireland.

Remarkably, public views on this are clear. A Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission survey in 2018 found that 82% saw housing as a human right, and 63% wanted to put it into the Constitution. Ireland presents itself internationally as a human rights superpower, adopting human rights instruments but not actually putting them into Irish law. This is particularly important for those groups which the market will never house, such as those on low incomes, and those with particular housing needs.

The Irish housing conundrum

In Ireland, we have one of the lowest average housing costs in Europe. One third of our almost 2 million homes are owned outright without any mortgage. Indeed, housing assets of €537bn. make up the greatest part of Irish households personal wealth – and of course mortgages on high priced homes make up a large part of the assets of our ECB supervised and State protected banks. In Ireland, we have the lowest levels of overcrowding in Europe, meaning that we have lots of space in our homes. All these facts are known to politicians. But, of course, these averages hide a great many small and expensive places where people live.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Lorcan Sirr from TU Dublin and Orla Hegarty from UCD on how housing is being dealt with during the general election campaign

Do you really want to reduce house prices to make them more affordable?

So how realistic are our would-be legislators in their proposals on housing. How would they deal with the Irish housing conundrum - housing as property or housing as homes?  One question which goes to the heart of the issue might be: do you really want to reduce house prices to make them more affordable?

Of course, there is the question as to how legislators could reduce house prices (assuming they wish to), beyond the somewhat simplistic answer of "increased supply in the market". The reality is many other policy goals are advanced through housing policy – expanded property ownership (which boosts certain political values), urbanisation and sustainable development, fairness in society, consumer markets, and bank lending. Indeed, the State is just one player among many (not even the most powerful).

We can really only speak of a housing policy environment - policies and interventions which motivate, enable or constrain action in housing. Housing systems, which include both market and non-market elements, involve property rights, finance, infrastructure, regulation and State direct or subsidised provision for those excluded from the market. Increasingly, EU standards are being developed and adopted, in such areas as construction materials, fire safety, tendering and mortgage lending, as well as the levels and types of State supports to those in need.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Sean O'Rourke, an Election 2020 housing and homelessness debate with Fine Gael's Eoghan Murphy, Sinn Fein's Eoin O'Broin, Fianna Fail's Darragh O'Brien and People Before Profit's Richard Boyd Barrett

The approach of Irish political parties is to enable markets to work, with regulation to ensure optimum outcomes, namely an opportunity for everyone to have adequate and affordable housing. When this does not work though, we have a problem. Blind faith in markets is not enough. Talk of broken or dysfunctional markets reveals a shallow understanding of the issues, many of which are common across all globalised cities. But it leads to a default question: will it require more tax breaks or should the Irish State become a bit more courageous?

How would you make rents more affordable?

The response to this one might also be the simplistic one about supply and demand, but here it gets more personal and political. A high proportion of our 173,000 landlords are individuals, but the candidate on your doorstep might know some of our 540,000 private or 250,000 social tenants, or at least have read about them.

Big political ideas from Germany like five year rent freezes, and national tenants organisations in Sweden and Belgium might make for some interesting conservations. Unless, of course, the Constitution comes up,and the rights of Irishmen and Irishwomen to own property. Of course, balancing property with the common good has been legislated many times. But what’s that I hear about giving private tenants a right to buy the property they rent from foreign landlords, as happened in Ireland 100 years ago, with land?

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Juliette Gash reports on how Finland has reduced long term homelessness by 38% .

Both the Kenny Report (1974) and the All Party Oireachtas Report on Private Property (2004) still gather dust. While focussed on the transition of agricultural to development land, both accepted that the State, in pursuing the common good, must operate in a complex and dynamic property market and can still bring down land costs. The principles of those reports can be applied to the internationalised land ownership of today. Pretending that the laws on development land are the same as those applying to people's gardens helps no-one.

When will quality, affordable and secure housing be available for all to rent or buy?

The homelessness problem now features in every Irish town and city. Significantly, Irish politicians accept responsibility to address this. Thus, one question might be: how will you prevent and reverse the problem of homelessness in Ireland and ensure that no child is homeless in Ireland in 2021? Clearly, the answer will illustrate the commitment of the candidate, and how realistic they are. Of course, they might rightly refer to the complexity of housing system. But, the expected political outcomes in Ireland involve preventing homelessness, advancing rights of children to a decent childhood, and ensuring access to affordable housing for all. Not easy.

A good one to round off the conversation – assuming it is still going on - might be: when will good quality, affordable and secure housing, to rent or buy, be affordable for all? 2020, 2030 or 2040? Now there’s a question.

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