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Irish Politics

Biggest problem of the housing crisis is the Department of Housing

The minister with responsibility for housing policy and delivery, Darragh O’Brien has been rightly criticised for his dismissal of one of the most important recommendations of the Housing Commission’s report, namely the establishment of a Housing Delivery Oversight Executive (“HDOE”), a body which would for a limited period mobilise and oversee what Ireland needs so badly – a crash five to seven year programme in delivery of new housing.

Minister O’Brien indicated his opposition to the HDOE by describing the proposal as problematic and one which he disagreed with on “first examination”.

The provision of a hugely increased housing supply is vital to social and economic wellbeing of Ireland. With an expanding population and major constraints on the supply of affordable homes, Ireland is facing a crisis of its own making.

The term “problematic” is far more aptly applied to the Minister’s own department. A succession of ministers in the Department of Housing have failed utterly to appreciate that it is the department itself that is the problem.

In 2009, Minister John Gormley at the behest of Threshold, a housing charity, made a regulation which effectively banned the letting of bed-sits from 2013 onwards. The idea then was that nobody should be obliged to share a bathroom or kitchen facility with any other tenant in a building.

And so, over the course of 4 years, the bedsits were abolished, removing the bottom rung of the housing market ladder for students, young home-leavers, single people, and many others. Perhaps between ten and twenty thousand such dwellings were abolished in the city of Dublin.

There were many substandard bedsits; but the total abolition of bedsits was unfair, unwise and ill- thought out, even if naively well-intentioned.

The ludicrous aspect was that house-sharing and apartment-sharing which involves shared bathrooms and kitchens were still available for those with the money.

Equally extraordinary was the decision by the same department to promote new “shared living” developments for students and young people just a few years after killing off bedsits. Did no-one see that absurdity of the u-turn involved in those policy initiatives.

Then, the same department turned what passes for its mind to the private rented dwellings market. Forgetting the disaster that rent control in the form of the Rent Restrictions Acts, which effectively froze the private rented dwellings market,  had been for the nearly half of the twentieth century, a period where lessors were effectively dispossessed by an unconstitutional statutory regime of rent freeze and eviction bans, the department started to freeze rents and make repossessions almost impossible for many private lessors (I prefer the term “lessor” to the pejorative term “landlord” in Irish minds).

All tenancies were converted into tenancies of “indefinite duration” accompanied by prohibition on termination except on a few very narrow and restrictive grounds. Coupled with Rent Pressure Zones measures, the law was tilted massively against private lessors. They began to leave the market.

And when Sinn Féin briefly looked like being the largest party in the next government and promised to prevent lessors from recovering possession of rented homes to offer them for sale with vacant possession, the exodus of lessors from the private rented market became obvious to all.

Some people naively state that lessors leaving the private rental market meant that the houses will become available for purchase and the market for homes to buy will improve. Theoretically that is true. But there will always be a private rented dwellings demand by people who are not in a position to buy their homes.

The Department also introduced and rapidly abandoned its “strategic housing development” patchwork system of suburban high-rise developments permissions granted by An Bord Pleanála.

What is needed now is a massive, sustained increase in home building. That, in turn, demands a massive mobilisation of the relevant resources in terms of land supply, the construction industry, servicing and related infrastructure, planning permissions, zoning, building standards, and urban site assembly.

We have got to be prepared to use reformed and much simplified compulsory purchase powers to deliver supply.

One department, the housing department, has shown that it simply lacks the understanding or motivation to deal with the housing problem. It has consistently stifled local authorities as providers of land and development projects for social and affordable housing. It designed and introduced the Office of Planning Regulator system, now run by its own proposer, to enforce restrictive controls on housing development across Ireland.

That system has actually led to de-zoning of development lands in places like Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown. Local authority members are now strictly controlled in their powers to decide on county and city development plans.

Darragh O’Brien needs to ask himself just why the department he heads, and the system of local government that he oversees, and the state agencies under his supervision, have failed successive ministers of all parties for so long.

The Housing Commission did not propose a new quango as an optional extra – it is vital that the HDOE is established now.

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