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Budget 2020 must contain the first major steps to tackling Ireland's accommodation crisis

The provision of adequate, and appropriate accommodation is a key element of Social Justice Ireland’s Social Charter framework. The Government has thus far failed spectacularly to rise to this challenge and provide sustainable, long term homes, opting instead to rely on the private sector for the vast majority of its ‘social housing solutions’. The policies being pursued are not only fiscally irresponsible and unsustainable, but are damaging entire generations forced to live in unsuitable accommodation, hubs and emergency homeless accommodation.

To achieve the objective of providing adequate and appropriate accommodation, Social Justice Ireland believes that in Budget 2020, Government must pursue the following four proposals.

Build more social and affordable housing

There are currently 71,858 households (not people) on the social housing waiting list, and with the inclusion of almost 50,000 households in receipt of the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP), the real number of households in need of long-term, sustainable social housing is closer to 120,000. The Government’s build targets under Rebuilding Ireland display a startling lack of urgency, at only 24% of the total social housing target for the period 2019 (6,545 homes). Even at this rate, the fact that the definition of ‘build’ includes turnkey properties bought by local authorities from developers is a cause for concern, proving far more expensive than if local authorities build on their own lands. In 2018, 45% of local authorities failed to meet their build targets, with 40% of all builds provided by Approved Housing Bodies. Central and local Government must recognise the scale of the challenge and show ambition and leadership in rising to it.

Housing cost overburden, particularly in the private rented sector, is becoming an increasing problem in Ireland.  Government must invest in an affordable rental model, cost rental, financed off balance sheet as proposed by Social Justice Ireland in our submission to the Department in 2018.

Proposal: Invest a further €1bn in social and affordable housing, and reduce reliance on HAP to provide social housing.

Protect Tenants in the Private Rented Sector

In 2017, over 1 in 5 tenants in the private rented sector in Ireland spent more than 40% of their disposable income on housing costs. Almost 1 in 10 spent more than 60% and more than 1 in 20 spent more than 75% of their disposable income on housing costs. Asking rents have increased, quarter on quarter, for the last 27 consecutive quarters, according to the latest Rent Report, and the average national asking rent is now almost €1,400 per month. 

While individual landlords continue to dominate the rental market, with an increasing number of Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) buying large swathes of properties and the development of the ‘build to rent’ market contributing to the reduction in building standards, there is a real need to ensure that tenants rights are protected in an increasingly dysfunctional market. Social Justice Ireland welcomed the enactment of the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act, 2019 and looks forward to its implementation. However, it  must be adequately resourced to fulfil its objective. The role of the Residential Tenancies Board will expand under the new legislation.  The current rate of inspections is inadequate and should be replaced with a new system whereby all rental properties are routinely subject to inspections and receive a certificate of compliance which can be verified by prospective tenants.

Proposal: Increase the allocation to the Residential Tenancies Board by €5m to allow for increased inspections and enable them to fulfil their duties under the new Residential Tenancies Act.

Support households in Mortgage Arrears

There are currently approximately 64,000 households in mortgage arrears, owing €2.5bn in arrears payments. Given the decrease in the number of mortgages in arrears, the likelihood is that those who remain are in persistent, long-term arrears, with a consequent risk to the home. The sale of residential mortgages to unregulated funds may provide a quick way of cleaning the banks’ balance sheet, but it also reduces the consumer protections available to the borrower and puts their home at greater risk. Insolvency legislation introduced in 2012 did not provide the necessary solutions, especially for low-income borrowers.  The creation of a  personal debt industry did not serve the most vulnerable who cannot afford to pay upfront charges. Voluntary interventions can be effective, but are at the lenders’ discretion. 

Proposal:  Invest €2m in the development of a Public Insolvency Practitioner Service through MABS National Development.

Provide Homes not Hubs

The recent report from the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman was a damning account of the experiences of children living in Family Hubs for up to 2 years. When introduced in 2017, IHREC warned of the possibility that Family Hubs risked institutionalising families and normalising family homelessness. Family homelessness is now four times what it was in 2014. There are almost 4,000 children accessing emergency accommodation, and that is just the ‘official’ data. The real figures are likely to be much higher when the number of families housed in own-door temporary accommodation with local councils, those sleeping rough, those couch-surfing with family and friends, and mothers and children seeking refuge from domestic violence are included. The 1919 Democratic Programme pledged as its first duty to secure that “ child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing or shelter…”.  One hundred years later, the physical, educational and emotional development of children is being stunted by a lack of space to play, read or study in peace.  Children are being born into homelessness and hubs, into rooms already overcrowded with their parents and siblings.  The Government must stop providing additional funding to build more hubs and instead redirect this money to providing long-term homes for families experiencing homelessness, with wraparound services provided  in line with Housing First principles.

Proposal:  Redirect any proposed allocation to increase the provision of Family Hubs to a programme of Housing First for families experiencing homelessness and abolish the Help to Buy Scheme, diverting the €70m savings to an expansion of the Housing First programme to homeless families.