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€400,000 per day and no homes to go to

This post originally appeared as an Opinion piece in the Irish Examiner on Thursday, 10th October 2019

What can you buy for €400,000?  A five bedroom house with pool outside Disneyworld Florida, a chateau in France, or one night emergency accommodation in Ireland.

Last year, Government spent almost €147 million on emergency homeless accommodation alone.  That’s €402,000 per day, every day, in 2018.  Budget 2020 again failed to adequately invest in tackling the causes of the housing crisis.  Instead it continues the policy of relying on the private sector to address the effects of bad policymaking in the face of overwhelming evidence that they cannot do so.

Figures provided in the Local Authority Regional Financial Reports, and published on the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government’s own website, show that the amount spent on emergency homeless accommodation has increased by 311 per cent since 2014, when it was almost €36 million.  Spending on homelessness prevention, tenancy sustainment and resettlement supports, on the other hand, received less than €10 million in 2018, an increase of less than 59 per cent on 2014.   

A lack of homelessness prevention supports coupled with failure to build affordable accommodation is contributing to the rise in homeless people accessing emergency accommodation.  The latest figures show 10,338 people accessed emergency accommodation in August this year, including 3,848 children, the second-highest number on record.  This figure, however, underestimates the real situation as it does not include rough sleepers, people ‘couch-surfing’ with family and friends, people in domestic violence refuges, asylum seekers living in transitional accommodation or those families incorrectly re-categorised on the basis of being temporarily sheltered in accommodation owned by the Local Authority. 

The private sector is not providing solutions to homelessness.  Government’s multi-million euro subsidies to private operators has created an industry built on the misery and misfortune of others.  In our Budget Choices briefing, Social Justice Ireland advocated for increased investment in Housing First and an expansion of this programme to support homeless families.  This investment could have been funded through the abolition of the Help to Buy Scheme, a scheme which provides subsidies to home buyers on high incomes and drives up house prices.  In 2019, the total allocation for this Scheme was €130 million.  By August, €206.4 million had been paid out.  Analysis of the Help to Buy Scheme by the Parliamentary Budget Office last month shows that the price of a home subsidised by the Scheme was above the average residential sales price, with at least 56 per cent of subsidised homes valued over the average asking price.  This is what Government chose to prioritise over real supports for families experiencing or at risk of homelessness.   

Failures of the private sector also pervade throughout the social housing system. 

The latest Rebuilding Ireland report on Targets and Progress makes concerning reading.  The ‘build’ target (which has been boosted by the inclusion of regeneration, voids and turnkey purchases of Part V properties in addition to Local Authority and Approved Housing Body builds) has not been met since 2017.  The ‘build’ for 2019 was below target by almost 40 per cent.  Almost 20,000 homes remain to be built in the next two and a half years.  Without intervention from Government to fast-track the development of social housing, these targets will undoubtedly be missed.     

In contrast, the number of private landlords supported through the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) exceeded target every year (up by 10 per cent in the first half of this year).  The Government, through Rebuilding Ireland, proposes to deliver over 60 per cent of its “social housing solutions” through this subsidy and has allocated an additional €80 million in Budget 2020.  In 2015, its first full year of operation, Local Authority Budgets allocated €10.65 million for expenditure under the HAP programme.  For 2019, the HAP allocation was €544.7 million – an increase of over 5000% in the intervening period. 

Families eligible for HAP continue to face discrimination from private landlords, notwithstanding changes in equality legislation.  Meanwhile those households in HAP subsidised tenancies are at the mercy of rent inflation and a system which continues to favour landlords over the security of the tenant.

Recent reports suggest that Google might subsidise housing as part of "good corporate citizenship".  This is a great idea.  And the mechanism they should employ to do it is to pay their fair share of corporation tax.  This additional revenue could be used by the State to deliver social and affordable housing, so desperately needed, at scale. 

Housing is a matter for the State, and the communities living in it.  It needs to be planned by people who want to see new developments become new communities and see them thrive; people who understand that, in addition to building housing, we need to build roads, and schools, and primary care centres.  Ireland doesn't need another block of unaffordable apartments developed by a multi-national whose primary reason for being here is our generous tax breaks.  We need homes.

National Budgets are all about choices.  Choosing not to adequately invest in social housing, which would create long-term tenancies and provide the State with an asset, means choosing to finance cost overruns for private sector subsidies.  This is what Government is doing.  These choices are unacceptable.