Above: Photo by Paul Reynolds.
Ever heard of a Housing Passport? Patrick McCusker takes a look at a scheme that’s been talked about by the government as a way of addressing the housing crisis, in which you can transfer your place on the waiting list to another county so as to start a new life in the countryside rather than spend several years waiting for a house in Dublin.
It’s a response to two problems – inner city homelessness and the decline of rural areas. Tiny villages across rural Ireland face an arduous battle to keep their schools open due to a lack of families with young children. Attracting families unable to find anywhere to live in the cities is certainly one way of sustaining communities which have suffered greatly from emigration in recent years. The village of Kiltyclogher in Leitrim has even gone so far as to place advertisements on Facebook and radio stations extolling the virtues of moving there.
The Housing Passport idea is currently under review by the Housing Department. It’s already gotten a cautious endorsement from Leo Varadkar, who claimed that “It’s eminently logical that parts of the country where there’s been rural depopulation, where there are properties available, where there are places in schools, where there are services available, I can certainly see a place for a rural resettlement scheme”. The relocation of city families to the countryside could be a reality in the very near future.
Such a plan, however, ignores how much the housing crisis has spread outside Dublin. Skyrocketing rents, questionable landlords, substandard housing and living in the fear of unscrupulous landlords like Paul Howard are no longer an exclusively urban nightmare witnessed only on a screen by country dwellers. Homelessness is now a genuinely national problem.
According to the latest figures from the Department of Housing, almost a third of all homeless people are based outside Dublin. Of these, counties Kildare, Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Galway and Louth have more than 100 people relying on emergency accommodation.
The other 19 counties make up about 10.8% of Ireland’s overall homeless population. Only Leitrim had no registered cases of homelessness as of January 2018. Even such unlikely places as Cavan and Monaghan had people sleeping in emergency accommodation, to say nothing of a startling 78 people in Kerry or 60 in Clare.
These figures represent an 81% percent increase between 2014 and 2017. In some areas, it has been even more drastic. The charity Novas West Cork reported a 342% increase in people seeking its services between August 2015 and 2017. Groups such as Threshold and Simon have begun operating much more outside Dublin than ever before. Homeless hostels have opened in once-unthinkable locations such as Letterkenny – a town with over 400 vacant houses.
This rural homelessness has suffered from being largely overlooked in the mainstream media due to the much more dramatic increase in the cities.
Speaking to rabble, Threshold CEO John-Mark McCaffrey put it as follows: “the rent level increases in cities that started in 2013-4 have over time reached into suburbs, satellite towns and gradually rural areas, as has an increasing lack of available rental housing. Whilst not as acute as in the cities, a lot of rural areas have seen a significant rent increases over the last five years.”
Rents increased nationally by 10.4% in 2017. This figure can be easily dismissed as the result of the rental crisis in Dublin. However, this surge has also included huge rises in rural areas with much higher rates of unemployment and lower average incomes than our cities. For example, rents in Offaly and Laois have increased by more than the national average. Rents in Monaghan and Galway County have increased by an average of 11% and 14.1% respectively. The latter figure actually excludes Galway City.
As in Dublin, this is compounded by the near-total absence of any social housing program in recent years. For several years the construction and acquisition of social housing ground to a near-standstill. Several counties neither built nor acquired any houses at all at various points during the crash, and even now are only very slowly adding to their stock. Leitrim plans to build a mere 7 homes in 2018, and Longford just 8. A “housing passport” is worth little if there aren’t any houses to move into.
These hikes have continued even as vacant housing stock remains a huge problem outside Dublin. In Connaught, there are 1741 vacant units to every homeless person. There are 1040 in Ulster. Initiatives such as the Repair and Leasing Scheme, in which landlords can turn over property to the state to be used as social housing, have had some success in rural areas, but whole housing estates lie empty across our rural villages.
Local authorities haven’t done as much as they could have to address this situation. Six county councils have declined to hire a Vacant Buildings Officer despite being legally obligated to. Shamefully, this even extends to their relationship with the voluntary sector, as there is a lack of information about tenants’ rights for those suffering inadequate accommodation for what they feel is a lack of viable alternatives.
When asked about this, John-Mark McCaffrey described Threshold’s own efforts in this regard.
“The rural authorities have failed to provide a robust response in a number of cases to those who present as homeless or at risk of falling into homelessness. Local authorities outside the Greater Dublin area haven’t been to the forefront in promoting public information and the public interest – for example, Threshold run a service that helps prevents homelessness among renters. It has been promoted strongly in the greater Dublin area, but outside of that’s there very little promotion by local authorities. It’s been up to organisations like ourselves to promote it in the local media. But there just hasn’t been corresponding awareness, and rural renters are missing out because they don’t know about the protections that are provided by Threshold – how we can help, how we can prevent evictions. We need to see local authorities promoting services like ours.”
Much like the urban housing crisis, the rural one is the fault of decades of neglect in social housing policy and tenancy legislation. However, local authorities in rural areas have been allowed to effectively ignore the problem by declining to build houses, address issues with vacant housing stock or co-operate with the voluntary sector to provide services.
Without demanding constructive action from local authorities with regards to preventing homelessness, providing housing and pressuring for greater action from national government on this issue, we run the risk of letting rural homelessness become as accepted as urban homelessness, despite it being so easily resolved.
Photos by Martin Leen