The housing crisis – solutions and political accountability – The Irish Times

Sir, – As Government and society grapple with the issue of a sustained exit of primarily small landlords from the market, there is an obvious attraction to lobby for consideration of fiscal policy interventions only to both private landlords and renters in an attempt to plug the leak and to retain the supply chain. Such interventions, in themselves, offer no firm guarantee of sustained tenancies and reducing numbers of evictions. The market is crying out for effectiveness in terms of policy setting with effectiveness measurement included, leading to increased private sector rentals, affordable rents, longer-term tenancies including tenancy protection, and an enhanced platform of respect between private landlords and Government.
One consideration maybe for government to make a more strategic use of approved housing bodies (AHBs) and not just the larger developing ones but all subject to compliance and accreditation.
Approved housing bodies could be directed by Government to put in place strategic partnerships with small portfolio landlords to offer an approved regional economic net rent by way of a five-year head-lease and the property sublet to tenants at deemed affordable rental levels on a maximum five-year lease. Any such head-lease payment to the primary landlord rent could be tax free, with the AHB effectively becoming the tenant’s landlord under the sub-lease and dealing in a standardised and professional fashion with all resulting tenant issues.
This measure could be subsidised by Government directly to the AHB and any such subsidy to effectively support a full repairing head-lease with the exception of major capital improvements or pre-defined scheduled property upgrades. This could afford landlords a net rental return within a fixed term head-lease period. This would also retain the ownership within the private sector and possibly encourage and empower new or intending landlords to invest further in the private rental sector. Options to purchase within the head-lease period could be included with the safeguard of in situ tenants afforded the head-lease tenancy protection.
The net economic return to the landlord must be realistic to attract a sustained commitment to such a scheme and the head-lease costs could be regional based to take account of geographical variations. This could add to the quantum of landlords and effectively place accredited AHBs at the heart of social and affordable renting bringing into play their expertise, experience and network. This could also provide tenants with standardised affordable rental properties and minimise the fear and risk of tenancy adjustment or termination. This could effectively lead to a one-stop social renting shop and possibly offer choice and suitability to prospective tenants. The applicants and beneficiaries of any such scheme could be persons on the local authority social housing waiting list and an additional category could be key workers in hot-spot areas.
Any such scheme must run in parallel with a sustained social housing new build programme with tenancy transfer mid-lease guaranteed where relevant.
Regulation within any framework is essential but it must also be empowering, lead to improvement and be subject to effective measurement criteria. We must enhance the opportunity for strategic public-private partnerships in a way that affords dividends both financial and societal. A fluid housing market must be dynamic and responsive. – Yours, etc,
(Former president of
public housing section of the
European Liaison
Committee for Social
Housing, now Housing
Europe; former
chairperson NI Housing
Co Louth.
Sir, – I note that the Government is finally, if belatedly, considering some tax breaks to help stem the exodus of landlords from the market (News, March 14th).
It is quite astounding and unfortunate that the necessity for such a move is only dawning on our legislators at this late stage. Notwithstanding, in order to protect tenants and encourage residential investment, I suggest that taxation tiers should relate to the duration of a tenancy – the longer the tenancy, the more attractive the tax rate (with a base rate of 25 per cent). This would encourage landlords to maintain standards and incentivise them to keep tenants. One way or the other, both landlords and tenants deserve better than the current debacle. – Yours, etc,
Co Wicklow.
Sir, – Una Mullally’s favourite insult is to label something “ideological”, a word she employs five times in her article blaming Fine Gael for the housing crisis (“Government has lost control of the housing market”, Opinion & Analysis, March 13th).
The crux of the housing crisis, as Una Mullally sees it, is Fine Gael’s supposedly “ideological” drive to serve institutional and international investment funds rather than the Irish people. Given the narrow margin by which Fine Gael has remained in consensus-based coalition or minority governments over the past decade, the belief that it would cut its own political and electoral throat in this way is self-evidently ludicrous. A simple review of recent history suggests that your columnist herself is perhaps hindered by an “ideological” bias against Fine Gael.
Ireland had already been suffering a serious housing crisis for well over a decade before Fine Gael came to power, as house prices spiralled from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s due to shortage of supply and rapid population growth. At least during the boom, Ireland had enough money and enough builders to ensure new housing kept being built, but then came the crash. Fine Gael took over a bankrupt country in 2011, and had to spend the first five years getting it out from under the Troika and turning around a basketcase economy. Very few new houses were built in this period, but pressure on housing was temporarily alleviated as people emigrated for work.
As the economy turned around the population began to grow rapidly again, as large numbers of emigrants returned and immigrants arrived to take up the enormous number of new jobs being created. The negative side-effect of this great recovery was an increasing gap between the number of homes available and the number required. This shortfall has grown now to around 250,000 homes, a level that is, as Una Mullally correctly notes, anti-worker, anti-business and anti-foreign direct investment.
Fine Gael is not without fault; there was a period between 2015 to 2018 when the economy was back on track and the current crisis was just beginning that more could perhaps have been done, but the full extent of the problem was not apparent then, and political, media, and public attention was elsewhere. Since the 2020 election, Fine Gael, well aware of the criticality of housing as a political issue and the challenge posed by Sinn Féin, has turned on the money tap, and the Taoiseach’s office is directly overseeing the Housing for All programme. The buck stops there, and the dog on the street knows that Fine Gael will live or die in the next election based on how many houses are built.
The pandemic didn’t help the situation, and there are a host of systemic problems that have contributed to the crisis over many decades for which there are no quick political fixes – a slow and unpredictable planning process, lack of water and road infrastructure, lack of land suitable for development, an ingrained anti-urban culture that prizes one-off rural houses and denigrates dense urban development – particularly apartment living, and so on.
However, the real crux of the problem is not lack of Government investment into housing – it is that Ireland does not have enough builders. Ireland’s property developers were annihilated in the crash, and our pool of construction workers shrank from over 230,000 to around 130,000. Every one of them is already working flat-out. The industry needs another 50,000 construction workers to cope with demand, but builders take years to train, even if you can find people willing to take up the trade.
Una Mullally believes that getting local authorities to build homes would solve the problem, but evidence going back to the 1960s is that delivering of housing via local authorities is both slower and more expensive than employing private firms.
This was called out as far back as 1973 in the famous Kenny report.
But this is just an “ideological” diversion. It doesn’t matter who does the work – with a limited number of builders, we can only construct a limited number of dwellings. If Una Mullally really wants to help deliver more homes, she should give up slinging “ideological” mud from the sidelines and sign up for an apprenticeship. – Yours, etc,
Dublin 7.
© 2023 The Irish Times DAC
© 2023 The Irish Times DAC


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