Our complex housing crisis is worsened by a sense of entitlement

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By Eamon Delaney     in The Times.ie

Our current housing crisis has the potential to consume and divide our political landscape, for years to come. It’ll be just like the water controversy, except even more so, as that impasse was ended suddenly when the establishment basically gave in and surrendered to the public protest.

Fine Gael wanted to stay in power and gave in to Fianna Fail’s opportunist stance to scrap water charges and have it paid for through general taxation. If the service suffers, through leakage and quality, then so be it. Neither big party wanted to take the risk of not following the mob on this one, and risk big losses in the polls – even though most voters were paying water charges.

However, the housing crisis will not be so simple to shrug off. It is now the major issue, and getting worse. On Tuesday, RTE’s biggest listenership programme Morning Ireland spoke to Fianna Fail leader, Michael Martin, in the latest in a series of interviews with political leaders about current events. But the housing crisis opened and dominated the whole interview. And Martin is not even Taoiseach, but the leader of the Opposition.

Meanwhile, the actual Government struggles daily to deal with the deluge, changing policy rapidly and often confusedly. The latest measures are rent deposit caps and an extending of rent pressure zones to Drogheda and Greystones. Minister Eoghan Murphy (pictured above) is doing heroic work but why didn’t his predecessor, Simon Coveney, stay in this job, having made such a major personal commitment to the issue ?

Welcome to Irish politics alas and the musical chairs of responsibility and ambition.

The reality is that the issue will be front and dominant for years to come. Up to 50,000 new homes will be needed every year now and we are barely building 10,000. Indeed, from 2011 to 2016, when the when the population rose by 169,724, total housing stock grew by just 8,800.

So the political culture, in general, and our planners have serious questions to answer in not providing for this : not least our projected population growth, and its concentration around Dublin, that will only intensify in the years ahead and has been long predicted.

But in reality the housing shortage is a perfect storm. All the conditions have come together. With ghost estates littering the land, we built few homes after the crash, or none at all, and the banks wouldn’t lend. Meanwhile, the population grew quickly and the recovery brought in more immigrants and returned emigrants.

The Government hoped that housing development would recover, but it didn’t and what property there was soared in price, as did the rents to pay for it. In the Tiger years, social housing had been understandably wound down.

Of course, we also had NAMA’s sale of large banks of land to so-called vulture funds. They weren’t ‘vulture funds’, mind you, when they bought off distressed debts and effectively rescued the banks, thereby reviving the Irish economy. But now that these investors are holding on to their land banks, because the Government has made it unattractive to build, they are being demonised.

Adding to the perfect storm was the foolish abolition of bedsits, driven, ironically, by the housing agency Threshold. Yes, the ban removed sub-standard accommodation but it also took out a tier of perfectly fine starter habitation, as I know having lived in three cosy and convenient bedsits!

This bedsit ban was an overreaction as bad as the banks unwillingness to lend to builders. We seem to do these swings in behaviour in Ireland and throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Even the knee-jerk rejection of FF’s reasonable proposal to cut VAT for builders was totally influenced by the property bubble of the past: and acting as if circumstances don’t change.

Meanwhile, we have a Green party which, incredibly, is opposed to high rise – as is apparently the Taoiseach when it comes to his own constituency! And we have a hard left which is opposed to higher property tax, as we saw this week. Again, we do things differently in Ireland. Everybody gets a let off – and no hard decisions are taken.

But the critics of these proposals have no meaningful answers themselves, except to build loads more social housing and give it to everyone ‘on the list’. And this is where the housing crisis has the potential to entrench and divide the political and social landscape.

As with the water protests, the issue encourages and empowers a growing culture of dependency with thousands of people now openly reliant on the State, supported by Sinn Fein and the far left, and even by FF at times. Meanwhile, thousands more are expected to pay for this, but shell out for their own house and mortgage.

Once again, the even more ‘squeezed middle’ is expected to forgo any tax relief – and clear their mortgage.

There is great sympathy for people stuck in hotels or in bad accommodation, but the public know it is a complex and multifaceted problem. It knows too of the high refusal rate on social housing, in some areas as high as 40% and that is presumably why there is no real outcry among the public about this issue, and no big marches, or sit-ins. We have a housing crisis – indeed, a housing shortage – and not a homeless crisis, as such.

The reality is that most people believe that a home of your own is something that you have to work for and pay for. It is not perceived as an entitlement, and it’s clear that many working people who make huge sacrifices to get their own home are tired of seeing so many people just demanding a free property from the State.

But the politicians will not be saying this, even if voters do. ‘A roof over your head’ is holy writ in Ireland, due to our past and the struggles over land, and the TV and news pictures of people living in sheds and sleeping in doorways will dominate the airwaves, and discourse, for years to come.

It will become a mantra for protestors and activists and will make it impossible almost impossible for politicians to focus on other national or international matters

Of course, it shouldn’t be like that. It is not the State’s job to provide everyone with a house, but that is where we are. And in fairness, given our growing recovery and demographics, the political culture should have seen this shortage coming. So, although the arrival of water refunds before Christmas will give a seasonal lift, the housing crisis will not be easily dealt with. It is here to stay.