Posts By Eoin O'Mahony

Rebuilding Ireland: Long on Promise, Short on Detail

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In July, the government announced a new housing plan. Called Rebuilding Ireland, it is designed to tackle the current shortage in housing supply. It is an ambitious plan with praise for itself as radical and innovative. In truth, it is neither of these things. This plan was put together after the previous Housing Strategy document of 2014 but states that this is “having a positive impact, but not at the pace necessary to meet current pressures and pent-up demands.” It is not at all clear how Rebuilding Ireland will address this question of pace. The central problem with Rebuilding Ireland, however, is that it relies on the notion of ‘access to a home’. At best this is a poorly worded substitute for the right to a place to live. At worst, Rebuilding Ireland’s underlying vision relies on a flawed model of provision. We have to give the plan some time to produce something tangible but the way the plan is written does not inspire any confidence that the shortage in housing here will be addressed.

The plan is structured under five ‘pillars’. These are billed as “high level actions [which] will support a range of actions across the five key pillars of the Action Plan”. The plan seeks to address homelessness, accelerate social housing, build more homes, improve the rental sector and utilise existing housing. In time worn tradition, these have targets and deadlines for delivery across government departments and local authorities. A few days after its launch, a senior public servant spoke on the radio and bumbled his way through some of these targets testily insisting that there would be 47,000 social houses available by 2021. Considering that local authorities acquired about 1,000 units in 2015 and constructed just 75 in the same year, there are a number of problems with these targets. Chief among these is a reliance on the private rented market and Approved Housing Bodies. Relying on the private and voluntary sector to provide that many units in five years would require an immediate four fold increase in both building programmes and municipal acquisitions.  The plan makes it clear that this figure would be supported by €5.3 billion worth of investment, including accelerated Housing Assistance Payment delivery. As recent high profile cases have shown us, the HAP scheme moves people seeking housing off the local authority housing lists in return for subsidy payments to private landlords. These landlords can evict the tenant if they sell this property later, throwing people back on to some housing safety net which does not yet exist.

Rebuilding Ireland is neither innovative nor radical. One of its guiding principles is a reliance on private providers of housing. This means more money given to landlords, both individual and institutional / financial ones. Why fall back on a model of housing provision which currently does not support people in vulnerable housing situations and which, on other scales, has shown that it can sell property from under people’s feet? One of the reasons identified for an oversupply in the years to 2008 was a reliance on private developer-led speculative building. Developers relied on the continuation of credit to provide home loans to people needing a place to live. More worrying still, the plan promises that it will “work closely with the ESRI and the Housing Agency to improve understanding of conditions in housing markets around the country”. Such understandings are already available: from the ESRI, the Housing Agency as well as the National Economic and Social Council and a number of other bodies concerned with housing rights. Measuring supply and demand is easily done, right now.

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Housing Policy is More Than Pulling Levers

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This article originally appeared on Eoin O’Mahony’s blog 53 Degrees on the 17th of August

In the new online newspaper, Dublin Inquirer, Lorcan Sirr stated that the most serious problem ”with housing in Dublin…is this:  at the state level, housing policy is dominated by an inappropriate and politically motivated rural ideology…” This ideology is made manifest by a constant drive for home ownership.  This leads to discrimination against urban housing and elected politicians who are concerned only with ”road frontage  and planning permissions.” I understand that Lorcan’s article was a version of a talk he gave at the MacGill Summer School in late July. But there are a number of problems with his argument as presented, the biggest one of these being that you cannot talk about housing in Ireland unless you talk about social class.

Houses  and flats are built, rented and bought.  People live in housing of all sorts and sizes and communities develop around these forms of housing. We find things in common with people around us and we build and sustain communities. These are productive relations  and housing is one outcome of these relations.  In this way, housing is not simply a matter of sufficient  units being built but decisions taken about how we should live.  It is a matter of politics, not technical capacity.  Lorcan’s argument about a rural ideology owes more to the second than the first.  Recent research  has pointed significant changes to housing over the years. In a report for hardly radicalised Jesuit  Centre for Faith and Justice  (JCFJ) earlier this year, the authors wrote that:

The  prolonged  period  of growth in the owner-occupier  sector reflected State-driven tenure strategies [since the mid-1940s], employing a range of direct and indirect incentives.

In other words, there is nothing natural or essential about an increase, post-1940s, in the proportion of the population living in owner-occupied  tenure. It is a matter of policy, an effort by strategy and tactics reflecting particular relations within a class, to achieve particular ends.  As the authors of the JCFJ demonstrate, owner-occupation is actually in decline since the early 1990s. The NESC has written recently on social class and tenure in Irish housing. They have noted a trend amongst different social groups:

Mortgage-holding is declining most among young people in the un- skilled, semi-skilled and skilled manual classes, particularly the former.

… [And] with the sharp decline in local-authority housing construction and other supports for low-income buyers from the mid-1980s, this option is no longer available for many younger people in socio-economic groups with lower incomes.

Sirr states that ”housing [policy] is regarded as being about three things only: planning, selling price and construction cost.” He is correct to point out that professions like planners have an overweening influence on housing in Ireland but local authority housing sections are not ”endured” by their staff. The electoral cycle is also a powerful influence on decision making. Local authorities are constrained by decisions by the last few governments, and particularly the current one, that are determined to starve social housing of funding. The last time the Irish government completed over 1,000 local authority houses was in 2010.  In the four year period since (for which data is available) about 1,300 local authority houses have been completed (source: CSO). In contrast,  during the same time period, over 35,000 units of private housing have been completed.

What this research and much more show is that these are the results of choices and political ones at that.  When  sufficient political pressure is brought to bear, much like the water tax struggle since 2013, things get changed.  It is not a matter of personnel and the over-familiarity among housing associations and local councils. Levers don’t get wearily pulled out of habit; political choices are argued for and, at times, forced. An argument that relies on an abstract sense of housing form, for ex- ample one-off housing, and the capacity of people to reproduce living conditions are both problems. We only have to drive through Leitrim, Longford and Roscommon to notice the longer-term effects of trying to cluster houses at the edge of villages ill-suited to suburban  housing forms.  These  are, however, the results of political decisions, not individual choice. It seems to me that Sirr’s argument relies on blam- ing ordinary people for putting themselves in poorly-planned housing. Decisions on housing are made on many scales.

I agree with him when he argues we need better data but a housing policy must serve people first, not a technocratic process of ’build and they will be housed’.  There is no sense that this ’rural ideology’ can be seen in material terms other than its rep- etition for want of an alternative just appearing.   I argue therefore that we need to understand social class when housing is considered,  particularly from a formal policy point of view. The use of adequate data is a necessary step. So too is avoid- ing unhelpful categories like rural and urban or more importantly between renters and owner-occupiers.  Housing in Ireland, particularly right now, is a more dynamic process of class relations than is evident from Sirr’s analysis.

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