Public Affairs

Shaping an affordable housing market


While there was a change of government in 2020, there was no corresponding change in housing policy, writes ICTU Campaigns Officer, Macdara Doyle.

Of itself, this is remarkable, given the heavy criticism directed at Rebuilding Ireland – the flagship housing policy of the Fine Gael minority government – by the main opposition party at the time, Fianna Fáil.

That criticism was entirely correct, as Rebuilding Ireland proved to be an abysmal failure on almost every metric. For example, the plan prioritised tackling homelessness. When Rebuilding Ireland was launched in July 2016, the homeless figure stood at 6,525. Four years later it had hit a new record high of 10,148 and the plan was quietly laid to one side.

In 2018, then Fianna Fáil housing spokesperson Darragh O’Brien TD said of the then government that it “did not get” the severity of the housing crisis and were “waiting on the market to fix the problem”.

Again, the analysis was correct, which makes it all the more surprising that the Housing for All plan – launched with enormous fanfare in September 2021 – reprised the same essential policy flaw as that which sunk its predecessor, and which has bedevilled housing policy here since the 1980s.

In short, successive governments have displayed an almost slavish dependence of ‘the market’ to solve housing problems and seem utterly convinced that the private, for-profit development model represents the most effective means to deliver what is an essential public good and a fundamental human right.

Thus, the vast majority of homes to be delivered under Housing for All will come courtesy of private developers. Or at least that is the official hope.

But in reality, the Government has absolutely no control over the timescale of said delivery, much less on whether these homes will even be affordable to the great majority of buyers.

Consequently, although the Housing for All plan may be barely a year old, all available evidence is that it will fail to hit its key targets and, already, a spiralling homeless crisis has forced government to reverse policy and introduce an eviction ban.

Evictions are the single greatest cause of homelessness and they have doubled since Covid restrictions were lifted. As a result, the homeless rate has now hit (another) record high and the situation looks like it will worsen significantly over the coming months.

The fixation on the marketplace as a cure for all our ills belongs to an ideological world that came crashing down in 2008, but somehow still clings to life in some key policy areas. Essentially, this reduces and limits the role of the State to ‘market-fixing’ – stepping in only to correct market failures, as they arise.

However, analysis of the housing sector across Europe carried out by University College London’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (UCL IIPP), has shown this to be “a massive failure”. As the study points out, “not only has it failed low-income families, it has also failed the middle class”.

The primary problem is that ‘market-fixing’ rests on the mistaken assumption that the housing market is “perfectly competitive” and will respond in an appropriate manner to the need for secure, affordable housing. This is clearly not the case, as an entire generation of young adults and families locked out of the housing market will testify.

Thus, there have been calls for a fundamental shift in housing policy, from the clearly unworkable ‘market-fixing’ to what is termed ‘market-shaping’, with cities such as Barcelona now actively pursuing the latter approach.

In short, this latter approach entails both state and local authorities taking an active role in housing provision and working to “shape and direct the market to meet a public goal: the creation of an affordable housing market”. That would be a housing plan worthy of the name.

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