Following the property crash Ireland found itself with an oversupply of private sector housing and the unprecedented phenomenon of unfinished and unwanted ‘ghost estates’ semi-abandoned all over the country. Yet in a very short time since then, amid all the indicators of a robust economic recovery, there is general recognition that Ireland now faces a different housing crisis – primarily one of spiralling homelessness and a critical shortage of affordable housing, particularly in Dublin.
Although the economy has been recovering quite strongly in the last two to three years this has largely resulted in higher house prices and higher rents while the incomes of prospective owner-occupiers have remained relatively flat and the lending terms offered to them more restricted. The result is that many people who in different times would have either been on the housing ladder or able to rent in the private sector find themselves homeless and applying for social housing.
In 2014, under the previous Government, a social housing strategy was launched with the principal goal of delivering 35,000 new units by 2020. However, although the strategy represented a significant increase in provision (the State’s social housing newbuild had reduced to a trickle during the downturn years) it did not attempt to address affordability in the private rental market or the increasing difficulty facing those trying to obtain or even retain home ownership. Subsequently in June 2016 an Oireachtas Committee on Housing and Homelessness recommended the provision, by local government and approved Housing Associations, of 50,000 new social units over the next five years.
It was therefore welcomed, as a sign of the high priority the new minority Government has attached to addressing the housing crisis, that Simon Coveney unveiled his Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness after less than 100 days in the ministerial hot seat.
The Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness is built around five main themes or ‘pillars’. These are:
- Addressing homelessness
- Accelerate social housing
- Build more homes
- Improve the rental sector
- Utilise existing housing.
The Action Plan’s priority in addressing homelessness is to replace emergency hotel and B&B accommodation (particularly for families) with 1,500 ‘rapid build’ units and 1,600 units of existing accommodation to be acquired from the books of financial institutions by the Housing Agency. The aim would be to phase out the hotel/B&B option by mid 2017. This action would be backed by increased rent supplement and Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) as well as enhanced support services for homeless families with children and homeless people coping with mental health and addiction issues.
Accelerating social housing
There is a clear commitment in the Action Plan to deliver 47,000 new social housing units by 2021 backed by a financial investment of €5.35 billion. Alongside this are new delivery arrangements including the establishment of a high-level Housing Delivery Office in the Department alongside a new Housing Procurement Unit. There is also action to speed up payment of HAP and to bring NTMA funding in to support delivery. The Government will also support mixed tenure development on publicly owned land and increase support for local government and approved housing bodies.
Building more homes
In addition to a step change in the delivery of social housing, the Housing Action Plan targets a doubling of private sector newbuild to around 25,000 per year over the 2017-21 plan period. The priority here is housing that can meet demand from both purchasers and renters at affordable prices. The Government’s Action Plan proposes to make public land available to developers who are prepared to build for long-term affordable rental units and to provide further assistance including from NTMA for on-site infrastructure costs. The Plan also signals an easing of planning regulation around residential newbuild particularly for larger schemes.
Improving the private rental sector
In the private rented sector the Action Plan seeks to encourage more ‘Build to Rent’ and student accommodation schemes. Also a fundamental change in the profile of landlords and investors from the small buy-to-let ‘accidental landlords’ to large professional managers and long term infrastructure investors including pension funds. The Plan also promises a new strategy for a ‘viable and sustainable rental sector’ which is expected to be published later in the autumn.
Utilising existing housing
Coveney’s Plan also targets better delivery from the existing housing stock. In the social sector this includes more rapid turnaround of voids, the introduction of choice-based letting and a review of tenant purchase arrangements. In the private sector the intention is to bring more empty houses back into use by physical improvements and urban and rural regeneration initiatives as well as removing certain regulatory barriers. The Government will also support the purchase of existing empty houses and provide finance for the work required to complete many of the unfinished estates.
Overall, the 114-page Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness is brim-full of specific intended actions set against a challenging timetable. It goes to some length to show that it has addressed many of the recommendations in the recent Oireachtas Committee Report. The introductions from the Taoiseach and Minister Coveney also indicate a high level cabinet commitment to delivery of the Plan.
However, the Action Plan has received a mixed reception. Fianna Fail described it as “good in parts” but pointed to serious omissions. Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin recognised progress but disputed some of the figures while Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan gave the plan a cautious welcome but warned about the challenge of delivery. Nonetheless, beyond the political parties the Action Plan has been broadly welcomed by other key stakeholders including the CIF and charities such as Barnardo’s and COPE.
Although some commentators have argued that the newbuild targets in the Action Plan could have been higher, particularly given the much higher level of housebuilding that existed in the years before the crash, there is no doubt that overall Simon Coveney has set out an ambitious plan to address the serious housing shortfall. Time will tell if the Government and its many partners can deliver it.