Much of the talk surrounding the housing crisis has been focused on problems facing tenants in the private sector. Dramatic rent increases and spikes in homelessness in recent years have been especially severe in Dublin making this inevitable. However, long-term policy failures within the provision of a functional social housing sector are being ignored. Patrick McCusker takes a look at how repercussions of this are being felt across the city.
State participation in the provision of housing has fallen from 33% in 1975 to 5% in 2014, a year in which a mere 515 social houses were provided. Private constructions have consistently overtaken public constructions every year since 2000, reaching a high of 7223 private housing units to 523 social housing units in 2006. Social housing construction collapsed alongside private sector constructions during the recession, with a mere 172 being completed in 2014. Not coincidentally, private renting has increased from 19% of the market in 2006 to 32% in 2011.
This is easily explained when the collapse in mortgage holders by 6% from 32% of the market to 26% and social tenancies from 17% to 13% over the same period are taken into account – the private rental sector thrived in the period immediately after the crash as lending and social housing provision collapsed.The rental crisis and spiralling cost of buying a home didn’t spur the government or councils to action since then– if anything the opposite. A mere 19 social housing units were built in Dublin in 2015. The provision of social housing by the state was once described as “non-market”, a term which has disappeared almost entirely from the conversation on housing with disastrous results.
The roots of this disastrous course of events lie in the overly pragmatic character of Dublin City Council’s housing policy, which can charitably be said to suffer from a poverty of ambition and uncharitably be described as uninterested in addressing the deeper problems of supply and affordability for the most vulnerable in society. This stands in direct contradiction to the third core principle set out in their Housing Strategy, which claimed in its opening pages that the housing policy of Dublin City Council was motivated by an intent to “ensure adequate provision of social rental housing for those unable to afford housing from their own resources”.Instead, Dublin City Council’s social housing policy is in a state of crisis that has largely gone unreported characterised by inadequate and unsustainable policies and severe financial constraints.
Whereas traditionally the emphasis was on building houses and flats, Dublin City Council has increasingly come to favour passive rather than active engagement in the housing sector in which Dublin City Council’s role is to accommodate tenants within the existing market rather than do anything to alter the market itself. Consequently, Dublin City Council housing policy has been characterised by an inclination to outsource the costs and responsibilities involved in housing onto the private sector and tenants.
Rather than building housing independently of trends in the private market, Dublin City Council has been emphasising acquisitions and schemes such as HAPP in recent years. Acquisitions came increasingly into favour from 2010 onwards, and in fact overtook constructions between 2010 and 2012. This has been complemented by an increased reliance on schemes intended to assist renters such as HAPP. Both of these are only really capable of alleviating the fundamental problem of supply and spiralling rents at the heart of the crisis, as both are subject to the problems inherent to a private and lightly regulated market, be it a massive slowdown in construction as occurred during the recession or a sharp increase in rents as has occurred over recent years. As was recently stated in The Irish Times, almost 90% of available rooms to let are too expensive for a HAPP or Rent Allowance tenant to afford.
Part of DCC’s response to these mounting costs has been to try to shift the burden of maintenance costs onto tenants through the recently launched Tenant Incremental Purchase Scheme. This scheme grants tenants the opportunity to buy their own houses at a reduced rate determined by the local authority’s valuers, provided they have been on social housing support for over a year, earn over €15,000 and have paid their water charges. Revealingly, the burden of property tax, maintenance and insurance on the property then passes to the tenant rather than the council.
What compounds the demonstrable failings of existing policy are the signs that Dublin City Council intends to withdraw even further from the provision of housing. The 2015 Planning and Development Act lowered the existing obligation for developers to provide social housing to a mere 10%, and Dublin City Council is by no means obliged to even accept those houses should they be made available. A recent policy document claims that DCC will not purchase 20% of houses on a row with under 40 houses or more than 15% of houses on a road with over 40 houses.
As well as this, they decline to purchase adjoining houses or apartments. Curiously, Dublin City Council can elect not to acquire in situations where “to do so would increase an existing social imbalance” – what this may entail is left entirely up to the reader’s imagination but may go some way to explaining their choice of location for social housing acquisitions. There are some exceptions to this trend such as the increasing willingness to buy derelict properties to which they are legally entitled under the 1990 Derelict Buildings Act, but the 20 sites which are currently in the process of being acquired come after a decade from 2005-16 in which only one such acquisition was made.
This passive stance makes much more sense after seeing the enormous financial constrictions which confronted Dublin City Council’s housing budget over the year just passed. The homelessness crisis is understandably, given its urgency and visibility, the foremost item of expenditure. A staggering €118,065,146 was made available in grants to homelessness services, representing an increase of €27,298,399 on the year beforehand. You might need to read them figures again such is the drain on finances that DCC is spending to cushion the most vulnerable victims of this housing crisis.
However, there are several ominous increases in administrative and maintenance costs, such as the €1,056,547 increase in the service support costs of the maintenance of local housing units, the €685,836 euro increase in the cost of maintaining local authority housing units and the €1,495,633 increase in the administration of rent and tenant purchase schemes which indicate the strain which the aging status of the existing social housing stock is placing on the means of Dublin City Council.
All of these figures are increases of 10% or more on the previous year’s spending.This will only get worse in the years to come, as exemplified by the problem of voids. Voids are housing units which have fallen into disrepair in the absence of a tenant, requiring renovations before tenants can be moved in. Dublin City Council puts the number of voids at a mere 1%, whereas a recent article in The Dublin Inquirer revealed that if the NOAC’s (National Oversight and Audit Committee) criteria are applied, the real figure is much closer to 6.29%.Given that the average cost of renovating a void is €19,986, it is far from surprising that the NOAC claims that €1,000,000 is spent every year simply making existing housing habitable.
The tragedy of this state of affairs is that a genuinely sustainable long-term solution to the housing crisis is impossible without a properly maintained, supported and consistent social housing policy which resuscitates the idea that the state and local authorities are “non-market” providers of housing rather than simply a glorified letting agency placing people in suitable vacancies or enabling them to survive a nightmarish private rental sector.
Social housing provides a safety net desperately needed by the most vulnerable in society regardless of the overall health of the economy, rental sector or building trade. As it stands, policies of acquisition and support cannot and will not suffice in the face of a problem which only stands to get much worse if existing trends continue.
Dublin City Council is demonstrably failing to live up to their aforementioned principle of providing adequate social housing, thereby punishing the vulnerable for their own misfortune through neglect and shirked responsibility.
The National Homeless Demonstration takes place on Saturday June 17th meeting at the Custom House from 1PM.