“Housing For All” Radical Solution Or More Of The Same?

North Wall from John Rogerson’s Quay – William Byrne

Dermot Carmody

The government’s Housing For All plan was launched on September 2nd, replacing the Rebuilding Ireland plan of 2016, with the Taoiseach Micheál Martin saying it would “provide the basis for a long-term sustainable housing system for this and future generations.” Housing For All attempts to take on the housing crisis in Ireland by addressing four broad areas it calls Pathways to Housing For All:

Supporting Home Ownership and Increasing
Eradicating Homelessness, Increasing Social Housing
Delivery & Social Inclusion
Increasing New Housing Supply
Addressing Vacancy & Efficient Use of Existing Stock

The plan involves €20.5 billion in funding through a combination of direct Exchequer funding, funding through the Land Development Agency (LDA) and funding through the Housing Finance Agency (HFA). 15,000 new homes are planned through transfer of State lands to the LDA and the scheme promises to deliver 33,000 new homes on average each year, while adding 4,000 affordable homes each year for purchasing.
A new Affordable Purchase Scheme is intended to help first-time buyers purchase affordable housing from local authorities and Approved Housing Bodies (AHBs). In addition a new national First Home shared equity scheme aims to help first-time buyers. In addition there are proposed changes to the Local Authority home loan scheme, with income levels for single applicants to be raised in some areas and lower mortgage rates for all applicants.
Public lands are to be made available for the building of affordable housing through the Land Development Agency, and the perceived untapped resource of unused vacant properties is to be tackled with a vacant properties tax intended to be aimed at developers holding onto property and not building housing on it. Developers will be required to provide 20% Social and Affordable housing in new developments, an increase to the current requirement of 10%.
Additional support for those most in need is promised with the provision of 1,200 housing first tenancies over the next five years for those most vulnerable people who are sleeping rough or are long-term users of emergency accommodation. Additional access to health and other supports for people who are homeless are promised too.
Some of the additional measures in the plan include improved mental health services and improvements in intervention services for families, and the establishment of a National Homeless Action Committee.

Response To The Plan
The Housing For All plan has been welcomed by many in terms of its goals and its attempts to address issues around homelessness as well as seeking to increase availability of housing in general, but there was also some concern and even skepticism in some quarters as to the achievability of some of the headline goals. Homeless advocacy organisations, for example, welcomed both the increased awareness of the real scale of housing problems and commitment to “end homelessness” by 2030, rather than to continue merely managing the problem through emergency measures such as hostels or other temporary emergency accommodation provision. Focus stressed that a great deal of detail needed to be worked out and said it would be important for all stakeholders, including homeless support and advocacy groups like itself, to work out in detail how to achieve the improvements needed. Focus Ireland also criticised the lack of attention given to family homelessness in the document.
Opposition politicians were critical of the report too, with some such as Labour spokesperson Rebecca Moynihan claiming the plan offered too much to developers, and others like Sinn Fein housing spokesperson Eoin O’Broin, claiming that the plan was largely a rehash of earlier plans like Rebuilding Ireland in 2016. Critics like O’Broin point out that the plan is too reliant on demand being met by private developers. Over half of the target for new homes in the plan is expected to be built by private developers rather than the state and other non-commercial parties. This suggests that the government is not in a position to guarantee the achievement of such targets realistically, as it cannot forecast whether private developers, who naturally build homes based on the business decision of whether it is profitable, will actually deliver. In addition the real “affordability” of social housing which is part of the required quota in private developments is in question. This issue has come sharply into focus in the case of the development of the Pembroke Quarter on the Irish Glass Bottle site in Poolbeg. It was recently suggested that the affordable housing units there could cost around €600,000. Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien said the Department does not consider this an affordable price, but many would feel that the €450,000 limit of affordable housing in the Dublin City area continued in the Affordable Housing Bill passed in May is already out of the reach of many if not most of the people who need these homes.
Measures to increase social and affordable housing by raising the required amount to 20% in new developments might also be welcomed, but the fact that the requirement for properties bought by developers before 2021 remains at 10%, meaning there could be a significant time lag before the measure results in increased numbers of affordable new homes. Another example of a measure in the plan which would broadly be welcomed is the use of a vacant property tax to stimulate the release of property owned by but not yet used by developers. However any such tax looks likely not to be payable for at least another year and so falls short of the demands of those looking for radical policy initiatives to free up land for building houses in the city. And even if these vacant sites were to come on stream immediately, the Department of Finance itself does not believe it would have a great impact on housing supplies in cities, including Dublin, as the vacancy levels in the city are thought to be very low.

Further Criticism of the Plan
Another group critical of the Housing For All plan are Dublin City Councillors, with Cllr Dermot Lacey, the chair of the Housing Strategic Policy Committee (HSPC), and others bemoaning the lack of consultation by government with local councillors on housing. This is especially frustrating for councillors who then “bear the brunt” of anger and disappointment from people with the failure of local authorities to provide housing, despite the fact that, as Cllr Lacey and others on the HSPC feel, the major obstacles to councils effectively building homes is the Department of Housing itself and the layers of bureaucracy encountered when trying to plan such development. At the September 12 meeting of the HSPC, Lord Mayor Alison Gilliland also queried claims in the Housing For All document that waiting lists for housing in Dublin had declined significantly, suggesting that around 30,000 had been moved off the list onto HAP schemes, which did not it fact represent a permanent reliable housing solution having been found for them.
Ultimately the Housing For All plan may represent a welcome step forward from previous major policy initiatives in terms of its attempt to address somewhat the scale of the problem, and its acknowledgement that related areas of homelessness and inadequate social care services for the most vulnerable in society must be addressed at the same time as the imperative to increase the housing supply. However, the reliance on the private sector to provide the majority of homes, and the continuation of incentivising private development and subsidising people to buy such houses, with the perceived danger of increasing house prices as a result will seem to many a familiar iteration of what can be seen as a failed policy approach. There will be many devils in the detail of the implementation of Housing For All, and meanwhile many desperate people hoping that things will improve.