Opportunity Won’t Knock

There was an interesting development in how the Government have decided to handle (spin) the housing crisis this week. After a raw and at times brutal interview with a homeless Secondary School student named ‘Amanda’, the Minister for Housing, Eoghan Murphy, rather than feel ashamed decided he’d side with the poor girl. He said:

“The piece that was broadcast this morning on Morning Ireland is probably one of the most important contributions to this debate that we’ve heard in the past number of months,” he said.

“The bravery that they had this morning to come out and tell the country about their particular circumstance was very brave but very important for people to understand what these families are facing.”

The family tragedy compounded by a Minister who is calling this crisis a debate. The time for debating is long gone. It is time for action, real decisive action.

Campaigns like #MyNameIs have raised the consciousness of the general public and the sense that more must be done is palpable. In reality we have the means to take much more ambitious steps than the planned 23,000 social housing homes by 2021.

More importantly, even with this limited plan, who will be held accountable should this target not be met? Given that only 22 of the 1,500 promised by next year have been completed to date, can we believe in any new plan? Where is the accountability?

The lack of accountability in Ireland undermines many facets of our society. But to just focus on housing we can identify the problem quite quickly. Unlike many other European countries, including Belgium, France and the UK, housing is not a right in Ireland.

In Ireland, under the 1988 Housing Act, our citizens run into a verbal wall.

 

10.—(1) A housing authority may, subject to such regulations as may be made by the Minister under this section –

  1. make arrangements, including financial arrangements, with a body approved of by the Minister for the purposes of section 5 for the provision by that body of accommodation for a homeless person,
  2. provide a homeless person with such assistance, including financial assistance, as the authority consider appropriate, or
  3. rent accommodation, arrange lodgings or contribute to the cost of such accommodation or lodgings for a homeless person.

2. A request for accommodation may be made to a housing authority by or on behalf of a homeless person.
The blocker in the system is a small word that covers all manner of excuses. The word is ‘may’; as in the housing authority may or it may not do a,b,c or d.

It is not compulsory, and if it is not compulsory then there is no accountability. If there’s no accountability then there’s no repercussions for missing targets. Until may becomes must and the power to act become a duty to act then nothing will change.

This crisis didn’t sneak up on us either. It is the result of decades of bad planning and even worse policy making. We have gone, progressively since the 1970’s, from State provision to a combination of NGO and Market provision.  Both are failing – for different reasons.  The NGO solution is common – the UK for example has a similar situation, with the important distinction that the State in UK decanted housing stock progressively to the NGO’s, thereby providing a balance sheet base from which the NGO’s could leverage collateral to fund future housing stock.
The NGO model is endemic in Irish Social policy – the same approach applies in Health, Disability Services and in the past in areas such as industrial schools.  Whatever about its origins – a pauper State seeking access to property and services from institutions such as the Church, it now represents either an abdication of responsibility or, worse, an adherence to Victorian attitudes to relative poverty and provision, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  Without diverting from the current crisis, this needs to be reassessed in all areas of Social policy.

Given the intolerable crisis we have today – 8,160 people homeless and nearly 3,000 children – anything less than “The State Will Provide” response from the Government will not suffice. Even if we are to only do so on a temporary basis until the crisis has abated.

There’s nothing in EU Law that forbids a country from acting to protect its citizens. Therefore it follows that there is nothing in EU Law (including the Debt to GDP rules) that can prevent the government from raising money to build social housing. The “off balance sheet” argument is a red herring. They raised over €5bn to pay off the IMF. To not do the same for our citizens is an indictment of Right Wing slaves to the “free” market ideology. It is an indictment of us as a society and a country.

It is within our powers, as the 14th wealthiest country in the world, to build 10,000 social houses in the next 12-18 months. Any legislative roadblocks can and must be given the NAMA treatment. Exceptional times call for exceptional measures.

If we can create NAMA overnight, ignoring legislative processes, to stop a Bank crisis and we refuse to do the same for our citizens then any plans from the Third Emergency Housing Summit are only window dressing.

The pressure is on, Fine Gael are rattled by claims that their ideological blindness to the less well off in our country have exacerbated this crisis. Campaigns like #MyNameIs have embarrassed them and stung a Taoiseach obsessed with his image into action. This action must happen now and it must be on a scale that dwarfs the current 2021 plan.

Time is of the essence here. While things are bad they are about to get much worse. There’s 14,367 Buy To Let Mortgages at repossession stage. There is no incentive or reason for the Vulture Funds that own these properties to rent them to the social housing/homeless part of the market. This will be like throwing petrol on a bonfire unless our government turns “may” into Must.

We have the means, the finance is available and the solutions are simple:

Make the provision of housing a right, at least until the crisis has abated.

Use the NAMA exceptionalist model to protect the citizens.

Commit to building 10,000 social houses in the next 12-18 months.

Make the Departments accountable and have repercussions for failure.

Incentivise/Legislate that the Vultures make their properties available to the Social Housing schemes.

Deliver.
Fine Gael are 84 years old today. The Taoiseach used this occasion to remind people that he wants “to build a Republic of Opportunity”. Well Leo, it’s no good waiting for opportunity to knock when you don’t have a front door.
Tony Groves  

 

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