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Sixth Year Overall Winner: Michael Smollen of Virginia College, Co.Cavan

“Government policies are causing people to be homeless. On one hand, they’re talking about finding housing to house them and on the other hand by not increasing the rent supplement they’re driving people into homelessness"

– ­Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy, Focus Ireland founder and president. –

Whose responsibility is it to combat the homelessness crisis: government or charity? Respond to this question with reference to the above quote.

Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy, in her estimation that a failure to increase rent supplement is driving people into homelessness, is blatantly and categorically wrong. Such an augmentation of the housing benefit would drive up rents for all, as in simple economic terms, the number of people capable of paying for housing, ‘the demand’, would increase, while the availability of housing units, ‘the supply’, would remain the same. A dynamic suite of measures to increase both the supply of private housing and social housing is required to stem the homelessness epidemic in this country. It is only the government, not charity, that can end the crisis. It is equally the duty of the government to ensure building standards do not fall as a result, including regulating where developments can be located to avoid issues such as flooding. It is a fruitless, foolish policy to allow housing construction on flood plains, as the cost of repairs outweighs any benefits. Suitable, affordable residential units built in the correct location is, as is universally accepted, what this country needs. This is, with an appropriate plan, possible, and such a plan could fix the structural problems in Ireland’s housing market in the medium term. Election manifestos are filled with commitments in relation to this topic; however, many are flawed, and if they are all that is acted upon, the manifestos for the following election will be forced to contain similarly labelled promises.

The presumption of a self-balancing, auto-rectifying distribution of wealth in this country is, as evidenced by the shortage of affordable housing in this country, reckless in the extreme. The cliché of buying a house in one’s late twenties is becoming unreachable. Where developers would have been constructing houses ten years ago, where such a strong demand exists, today house construction is not occurring, as second hand housing is still priced lower than the cost of a new-build, in some parts of Ireland, the margin being near 50%. That being said, housing is still in short supply. Establishing a body similar to the Housing Executive in the North, with a wider scope, is a measure which could boost housing supply as well as provide a return to the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund. Such a body would, instead of the tradition of building ‘council estates’, build mixed estates, selling approximately 75 units out of every hundred built, while retaining the other 25% as affordable housing. Linked to this would be the Social Democrats proposal for a community banking sector, whereby affordable credit could be made available for the purchase of these dwellings. They estimate that there is €8,000,000,000 lying idle in Irish Credit Union bank accounts in pillar banks. Assuming half of that could be used for mortgages averaging €200,000, such a measure would provide 20,000 mortgages at an affordable rate, close if not at the European average of 3%, versus the cheapest available to first time buyers in Ireland at 3.65%. This represents a difference of €66 per month to families presently, a significant amount despite record low ECB rates. Should a rise in rates occur, this will undoubtedly leave thousands struggling and add to the current crisis of home repossessions. Another stabilising mortgage measure is to implement EU proposals for a Europe-wide mortgage market, making the market more accessible. These measures, combined with the Fianna Fáil proposal to relax requirements for deposits that take into account records on paying rent, will undoubtedly alleviate the spiralling cost of rent hitting those with the lowest incomes hardest and slash figures on families and other individuals in emergency accommodation, providing them with the long term homes they deserve.

Targeted locations of housing developments and development of infrastructure to link people to locations of employment, as well as providing the potential for employment, is necessary. An integrated, national plan to shift away from reactionary permission to planned permission for construction will provide a centrepiece for any lasting solution to this accommodation crisis. State construction of homes, as well as private sector building in competition around towns such as Navan, Drogheda, Shannon, Mallow and Gort, as well as in other areas, is one such move to house the masses. These towns, provided with additional public transport services, high speed broadband and additional office space in close proximity to major urban areas, will ease the concentrated demand for housing, as well as having the effect of allowing the government the opportunity to target investment in policing, health and education. Such a programme will undoubtedly require significant capital expenditure; however, such an investment is sustainable and the state will reap the rewards in years to come across the board.

At the present time, thinking along the lines of Thatcherism, where one must ‘get on your bike and use your own initiative’, is outdated. We must provide a framework where equality of opportunity exists, and such a plan as outlined above will provide steady foundations in which the people of this country can have a home they can afford, in a safe area with quality education and healthcare available. Levelling the playing field for all of our people, this country can restore the dignity of countless citizens in the medium term and avoid collapsing into the gully of vast inequality which awaits if we fail to slow, and ultimately reverse, growing wealth imbalance. The responsibility for this crisis does not rest solely with the Government of Ireland;, individuals themselves bear a large personal responsibility for their decisions which partly led to their current predicament However, the government must now take on the responsibility of ending the housing crisis and laying the framework to avoid any possible repeat.