In recent times, one of the most prominent political and social issues in Ireland has been the increasingly more severe problem of homelessness, particularly in Dublin’s inner-city. The Department of Environment, Community and Local Government recorded the number of people homeless in Ireland in December 2015 as being 5,440. That figure includes 1,616 children. Between December 2014 and December 2015, the net increase in the number of people recorded as homeless was 1,700, an increase of 43%. The official rough sleeper count in November 2015 recorded 91 people sleeping rough in Dublin. I am going to explore how government policy is having a detrimental effect on this crisis, as well as how it is the responsibility of the government to enact appropriate policies to combat it.
Rent supplement is paid to people living in private rented accommodation who cannot provide for the cost of their accommodation from their own resources. You will generally qualify for a rent supplement if your only income is a social welfare payment and if you satisfy various other conditions. The amount of rent supplement you get is calculated to ensure that your income after paying rent does not fall below a minimum level. In November 2015, rent supplement recipients in Dublin made up over a third of the number of people using the scheme nationally. There have been calls from various charities and the opposing political parties for the government to increase the rate of rent supplement in response to the dramatic increases in rent in recent years. However, the government has refused to increase rent supplement, and there was uproar from homelessness charities and homeless people when there was no increase included in Budget 2016. This decision by the government is actively contributing to the problem.
The Local Government Charges Act of 2009 introduced regulations on the standard of rented accommodation which were brought into effect on February 1st 2013. This act stated that rental properties were required to have separate bathrooms, independently controlled heating appliances and adequate food preparation and storage facilities, as well as access to laundry facilities. What this means in plain English is that they banned bedsits, a large rental market in Ireland, Dublin in particular. This removed up to 1,000 properties from the rental market as many were unsuitable for upgrade, or else the cost of upgrading them was too high. While I agree that in theory this would be a good law to introduce, were there sufficient houses available to deal with the current crisis, I strongly believe that the government must bring in a moratorium to postpone this upgrade until the housing crisis has eased.
Similarly, the government has failed to penalize property owners who have neglected to develop sites in their possession. Developers are holding sites in the hope of further value increases, while they should be forced to develop these sites by financial penalties. This is a further failure in government policy. These property owners should be forced to pay considerable penalties if they do not develop their sites within a realistic time-frame.
The fact that the government hasn’t done enough to push new employment creation towards the regions has made a large contribution to the housing crisis. While a lot of the counties in Ireland, particularly in the west and in the border region are very lowly populated, and have very few employment providers, Dublin is being crippled by over-population. 1.8 million people, that’s 39% of the country’s population, reside in the Greater Dublin Area (counties Dublin, Meath, Wicklow and Kildare), while 49% of all the employees in the state are located in this area. This is a huge problem because there simply isn’t enough housing to deal with the astronomical demand. The government needs to enact policies which will result in less concentration of available employment in the Dublin area.
The Central Bank has recently introduced a policy preventing the banks from giving out mortgages of greater than 80% of the property value. This has resulted in aspiring property owners being unable to purchase properties because of the difficulty of raising the 20% deposit. This has prevented mobility from rented accommodation to home ownership, thus exacerbating the rental problem. This has also prevented properties from increasing in value, thereby reducing the incentive for developers to build new properties as the profit margins are too low.
On the issue of charities, while the role of charities has been essential in alleviating the acuteness of the homelessness crisis, charities have little or no role in the planning and policy measures required to reduce and prevent homelessness in the medium to long-term. Charities play what is essentially a fire brigade role, called out to attempt to fight the flames, while it is the government’s duty to introduce policies to deal with the crisis itself and to deal with the problem from a planning/structural point of view, thus ensuring that this ‘fire’ will not break out again. While the work of charity founders and workers such as Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy and Fr. Peter McVerry is of the utmost importance in dealing with problem on the ground, their role in prevention is very limited.
The government didn’t do enough to prevent this crisis, and now that it is in full swing, they aren’t doing enough to ease it. The government policies on rent supplements, the standard of rental accommodation, property development, job creation, and 20% mortgage deposits have done nothing to alleviate and in some cases have, in fact, exacerbated the ongoing crisis. It is the government’s policies that are at fault in this matter, and only government policies can cure it.