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26/10/2019 Comments are off Patrick Cole

Sunday Read: Building an alliance for public housing

Some commentators are cheering the fact that Dublin house prices are ‘moderating’, ‘slowing down’, ‘levelling off’ or some such. Such cheers may be premature.

In Dublin, demand may be slowing for two reasons: one, an affordability ceiling has been hit with fewer and fewer people able to afford an average-priced €400,000 house. Second, more people are becoming nervous about committing to a long-term expenditure with all this Brexit uncertainty about.

The problem is that if demand starts to weaken, developers could reduce supply, leaving prices high. Sound strange? That’s how markets work.And outside Dublin, house price growth is still outstripping inflation and wage growth.

  • And rents are still rising.
  • And homelessness remains at more than 10,000 for the sixth month in a row.
  • And, of course, the Minister for Housing still maintains government policies are working

Yet, while all the failures of Government housing policy are well- known, housing struggles to move up the political agenda. This is despite the fact that, according to the Eurobarometer, housing is the biggest issue of concern apart from the healthcare system.

The key question is how to generate political traction from the high level of concern. There are two key points here. First, there is a substantial number of people in housing need – but those needs impact in different ways. The needs of a homeless family are different from the needs of those facing high rents or attempting to buy a home.

Second, the crisis is not experienced uniformly across the country and age groups. Nearly 70% of people live in owner-occupied houses. Though they may experience vicarious need through their children or relatives, they are not homeless, are not renting on the private market, and seeking to buy a house.

Even the issue of affordability is not experienced equally throughout the country.

In the Midlands, rent for a one-bedroom house/apartment averages less than €600 per month – half the level of Dublin rents (though Mid- land rents can still be a burden on the low-paid). In much of the country outside the main urban areas, house prices are much more affordable.

This suggests we should give additional focus to critical constituencies – young workers (under 35s) in the main urban areas who are at ground zero in the private rental sector or are trying to save up to buy a house. More than 50% of under-35s are in the private rental sector, while only 11% of over-35s are renting privately.

In urban areas facing the rent crisis, this figure is even higher. Nearly two-thirds of under-35s rent in Dublin city, rising to over 70% in Galway. And it is within the under-35s that we will find the highest proportion of those seeking to buy a house for the first time. Statistics won’t capture the full picture. More young people are remaining at home because they can’t afford the rents or are saving up for a house.

And many of those renting outside Dublin are actually working in Dublin. They have moved out because of high rents, which has implications for environmental sustainability and life quality.

To rehabilitate the image of public housing, to show that public housing is not for ‘the poor’ but for all – this could help mobilise younger workers be- hind a new programme of cost- rental and cost-purchase housing.

This is not to downplay the issues of homelessness and waiting lists – just the opposite. Those in extreme housing need have the least political and economic power. They need allies to get public housing on the agenda. To win over young workers (along with their families and peer group) to public housing would be a great boost to all those in need.

And most of all it could help combat that most pernicious of ideas – that high rents and high house prices are the new norm, that they are somehow ‘natural’, and that political action is futile.

The housing crisis arose out of national policies put in place by national politicians. It can be ended – by building the broadest possible alliance of those in housing need.

Young workers are key to this fightback. The trade union led Raise the Roof campaign is best placed to mobilise this group.

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