NewsChallenges for planning social housing needs

December 15, 2014

Construction 2020  Last week saw the release of the government strategy to deal with social housing, in detail. The broad strategy was outlined in Budget 2015 last month, however, it was criticised for being light on actionable details. This most recent report goes some way to address those criticisms.

The main provision is the increased budget, from €2.2 billion euro to €3.8 billion euro over the next six years, which is to be welcomed. The primary focus of the spending will on constructing new social housing across the country. This equates to 35,000 additional houses and apartments being made available.

This latest report and plan is undoubtedly the most cohesive step that the current government has taken to tackle many of the housing issues face. The planned development aims to generate an estimated 29,000 construction jobs. This is an important strand of the planned strategy not just in general terms of reducing live register figures, but because of the huge proportion on unemployed people who came from the construction industry.

The Housing Assistance Payment and the current Rental Accommodation Scheme, or RAS, have been given a boost as they struggle to meet the needs of 75,000 households in private rental properties. This is the least preferred and least cost-effective method of delivering social housing solutions – and one that the government should be decreasing their reliance upon, rather than increasing – but it is the closest this government have come to an immediate solution. This in itself is a pretty damning indictment of State’s performance in this area and their failure over the last few years to marry the over-supply of existing stock – finished and unfinished – and rising demand.

Over the longer term, the proposal to reform how social housing is delivered and subsequently managed on an on-going basis, will be the key to regaining some control over this spiraling issue.
The establishment of the Dublin Social Housing Delivery Task Force – providing that task force is made up of a wide range of both social and commercial on-the-ground experts – has the potential to deliver reform. But real reform will only be possible if all stakeholders can be bright together rather than competing with each other for scraps of funding, as is the current situation.

One criticism that I find with the task force’s mandate, which is to deal with the current chronic lack of supply, is that the focus is on accommodating every one of the 90,000 people on housing lists today by 2020. This has been little consideration of the fact that this housing list is growing at an unprecedented rate. Working towards a five or six year solution to a current problem simply sets us up on the path of perpetual failure.

An herein lies the primary challenge of planning for social housing; it is essentially a moveable feast. It is understandably difficult to get a handle on how to plan due to the fact that the goal posts keep changing. We know that homeless figures are rising dramatically at the moment. For example, last year in Cork last year there were approximately 30 people homeless and sleeping on the streets of the city, twelve months on and this figure has multiplied to 230. If the task force are not actually tasked with providing for the people in need to social housing today and those likely to be in need in one month or one year, then it cannot possible be successful over its term.

On the positive side, this social housing strategy is the first time that the current government has taken real responsibility for delivering solutions, rather than farming it out voluntary, non-State housing organisations who compete for scant funding. This to my mind is the most revolutionary development. The big problem is that this strategy will not help people like ‘Yvonne’, a homeless caller into the Cork96fm opinion line earlier this week, who is sleeping in her car.

There is a palpable lack of urgency and few options for immediate relief, that many like myself, will find frustrating – and avoidable. One example of this is the recently renovated Fr. Scully House on Gardiner Street in Dublin 1. The house, owned by the Catholic Housing Aid Society, has undergone a €17 million euro renovation over the last eight years, but despite being ready for more than 6 months, a row over rents that tenants are to be charged means that this building is lying idle.

While Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government, Alan Kelly said the commitment to building new social housing marks a ‘fresh start’ for social housing in Ireland, the lead-in time has been squandered and patience is running thin. Tonight, more than 3,000 people are without a home and their only support will from non-State organisations.

Carol Tallon