FAILURE to make faster progress in the provision of social housing and a further falling behind in efforts to tackle homelessness are going to come back to haunt the government parties in next month’s local elections because the public has lost patience with them.
For the past several months, the government’s Department of Housing has been manipulating the homeless figures every which way it could in order to keep them below the 10,000 mark, but the dam burst in February as the number of people now counted as homeless shot up to 10,264 – including 3,784 children – who are living in various forms of emergency accommodation from cramped hotel rooms to family hubs. The figures for February last year showed that there were 9,807 individuals homeless across Ireland, of whom 3,755 were children.
Back in 2016, when he was Housing Minister, now Tánaiste Simon Coveney had pledged that the practice of accommodating homeless families in hotel rooms would cease with effect from July 2017. It hasn’t yet, which is a damning indictment of the government’s efforts to date to tackle homelessness.
There was a certain irony that, in the absence of his successor as Housing Minister, Eoghan Murphy, in the Dáil last week, Mr Coveney had to field the brickbats from the opposition benches following the release of the latest homeless figures. Later, Mr Murphy said that the figures were ‘hugely disappointing,’ but he did not look deflated about it and, outwardly, seems to lack empathy with the homeless.
We acknowledge that it must be frustrating for him, as Minister, that more people are entering emergency accommodation despite improvements to the supply of both private and social housing. However, almost three years on from the launch, with much fanfare, of the government’s Rebuilding Ireland Action Plan for Housing & Homelessness by Mr Coveney, with its ambitious pledge to have 47,000 social housing units built in the five years to 2021 through local authorities, progress has been slow and it will fall well short of the target set.
The Coveney plan was revised by his successor, but it has had mixed fortunes and the nett result to date is the disturbing increase in the homeless numbers to more than 10,200. More worryingly, the Peter McVerry Trust, which works at the coalface of homelessness, speculated that the true figure could be closer to 15,000 people.
Coinciding with the release of the statistics to the end of February, was the publication of an independent report on the Irish housing crisis by UN special rapporteur Leilani Farha, which criticised the government for allowing multinational vulture funds to buy up properties, and rent them out at high rates, adding that ‘landlords have become faceless corporations wreaking havoc with tenants.’
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald’s comment that the report was ‘a wake-up call’ for the government was something of an understatement – unusually for her – and, like other left-leaning politicians, she slammed the powers-that-be for allowing corporate interests to trump the needs of ordinary families in the housing market, echoing the thrust of the report.
In response to her in the Dáil, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that the solution to the problem is supply and, while the government is lifting thousands of people out of homelessness every year, the same amount are becoming homeless and this has made it difficult to get the numbers down.
It is obvious, therefore, that more security of tenure in the private rented sector is the best way to stave off more tenants joining the growing list of those who cannot afford increasing rents being demanded due to the shortage of supply, especially in the bigger population centres. There should be more protection for tenants when landlords seek to sell housing units or say they need vacant possession to carry out renovations, but it is easier said than done to balance the rights of both parties.
The trend here nowadays towards people renting rather than buying property needs to be recognised through the provision of longer leases with rents fixed well ahead, as is the case in most other countries. However, to have any hope of easing the current homelessness crisis, which is out of control, an immediate and dramatic escalation of the provision of social housing is necessary.
Candidates from parties associated with the government – Fine Gael mainly, but Fianna Fáil by association – could be in for a tough time over failures in housing during the European and local election campaigns, as left-wing parties and the trade unions have organised a ‘Raise the Roof’ national housing demonstration on May 18th, the Saturday before polling day, and this will be fresh in voters’ minds when they go to cast their ballots.
The clocks have gone forward and the longer evenings have finally arrived which can only mean one thing – the lawn mowers are out. A wealth of knowledge is on hand at Bandon Co-Op’s three stores in Bandon, Enniskeane and Kinsale thanks to each of their in-store experts who are there to share their vast experience