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EDITORIAL: Focus more on housing emergency

July 30th, 2017 5:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

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WHETHER or not there is internal political payback involved in new Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy's review and possible overhaul of his predecessor Simon Coveney's ‘Rebuilding Ireland' plan – to prevent it becoming solely the legacy of the man who opposed Leo Varadkar for the Fine Gael leadership – is a moot point. 

The fact is that, in spite of Mr Coveney's best intentions, there are few early signs of the housing crisis easing to any great extent, with some of the shorter-term targets missed and the challenges looking even bigger than ever as house prices and rents escalate due to the ongoing acute shortage of houses on the market. Just over 3,000 people were rehoused in 2016, which was a good, but still very modest start, considering the total on social housing waiting lists nationally is in the region of 140,000.

At the time he launched ‘Rebuilding Ireland,' Simon Coveney did state that there wasn't going to be any radical overnight quick fix and that it would take time to revive the housing supply to anywhere near the levels required. However, this is of little consolation to people who are still homeless and in need of social housing.

One of the actions was that the practice of putting families into hotel rooms as emergency accommodation would cease by the end of June by which stage they would be provided with social housing. This target was not met and another just as unsatisfactory interim solution arrived at lately is the creation of hubs where families could stay until social housing became available for them, but some families described this as like living in a shoebox.

This aspect alone of a far bigger problem illustrates the need for a greater government focus on the housing emergency. Increasing the supply of new housing units is key to the overall solution and the government, for its part, has made a considerable amount of funding available for more social housing, which should be coming on stream in the next year or so.

As regards private housing, all it can do is to incentivise developers to build units for people to purchase and for landlords to make more houses and apartments available for renting. There are also a lot of vacant properties that could be used to house people – 260,000 according to the Central Statistics Office – but the owners need to motivated to make these available and, before that can be done, they need to be identified.

It seems that the Help to Buy scheme has led to an increase in the supply of houses available  for first time buyers. However, this success is tempered by continuing price increases, making it very difficult for people to get a foot on the property ladder.

A reduction in VAT might help keep a rein on new house prices as long as builders and developers pass the cost savings on to buyers. Punitive measures, such as a tax on developers or speculators who hoard land, are also worthy of consideration. 

There have been suggestions of a vacant homes tax – perhaps by considerably increasing property tax on them – and the government needs to encourage landlords to remain in or to enter the rental market in order to increase the supply of properties for rent. Recent claims that the attractions of lucrative Airbnb lettings were taking properties out of the rental market have been dismissed as a red herring.

The housing potential of defunct State properties is something that should also be looked at, including former army barracks, industrial or commercial estates. The suspected arson which saw part of the former Our Lady's Hospital in Cork badly damaged by fire recently is one example of a publicly-owned building that could have been usefully converted for housing and there must be plenty of such buildings around the country.

Floors above shops in towns and villages could also be used for housing and incentives are needed to encourage property owners to consider this as an option, especially in navigating all the red tape involved. The most important lesson that needs to be learned from the Celtic Tiger era is that housing units must be provided where they are needed.

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