As the housing crisis rages across this island Stewart Smyth assesses the need for a state construction company and welcomes the announcement of new NIHE homes being built in the North. However, major battles on housing lie ahead.
Irish Housing Minister, Darragh O’Brien, is the consummate bourgeois politician. While the housing crisis rages on causing havoc and distress for hundreds of thousands, he’d have you believe that not only is everything under control, but his solutions are working. Through a combination of blarney and gas-lighting – check out his appearance last summer on The Echo Chamber podcast – you’d be forgiven for thinking O’Brien had saved us all with his innovative and successful housing policies.
Of course, reality has a habit of puncturing the spin from mainstream politicians. Just one set of numbers is the pin we need to burst O’Brien’s bubble – in October 2023 there were 13,179 people homeless and accessing emergency accommodation. This is a new record high.
So, on the most basic function in housing, the ability to house everyone in the state, the Government is failing and has continued to fail throughout its existence. When the current coalition took office in June 2020 there were 8,699 homeless people.
When the Bath is Full
When faced with such stark numbers Fr. Peter McVerry has often used the metaphor of a full bath – if you want to stop it for overflowing you have turn off the taps. The immediate policy designed to do this is an eviction ban to stop people being made homeless in the first place.
This time last year a ban was in place covering the winter months from November to March. The government refused to extend it despite calls from homelessness charities and housing campaigners. Amid a flurry of half-truths and spin to justify the lifting of the ban, one argument stood out – the Government said there was no evidence the ban was effective, as homeless numbers continued to rise.
This, of course, is a deliberate misinterpretation of what the eviction ban was expected to do. It was never going to reduce existing homelessness – that can only happen with an increase in housing supply, particularly public housing. The ban was expected to slow or maybe stop the flow of new people becoming homeless.
And here there is some evidence that it was working. For the four months of the ban from November to March homelessness increased by nearly 450 people. However, for the four months after the ban was lifted homelessness increased by nearly 900 people, and has continued its sharp increase since.
Lifting the plug
The Government has shown it is unwilling to consistently implement a policy that has proven to be effective at slowing the rate of new homelessness. Instead, they have bet all their policies on increasing supply, with the hope that this will reduce the homeless numbers. Not only has this not worked to date but it will not in the future, no matter how much O’Brien promises that “we’ve turned the corner.”
This is because the model of housing supply the government purses relentlessly is through the market and private developers. Further, the government have had a policy of letting the vulture funds and corporate landlords into the state. None of these parties have any interest in solving the housing crisis – for them housing is a commodity from which they seek to extract value either through buying and selling or in the form of rent.
And even when the government does seek to delivery social housing the main source of new homes is from local authorities buying turn-key projects direct from developers. This is a hugely expensive way to acquire such housing as all the parties involved – developers, contractors, land-owners –take a slice of profit.
The closest thing to a Silver Bullet
You’ll often hear defenders of the status quo in housing say that the issues are too complex and there is no easy solution. This is a deliberate obfuscation. There was a time when we did not have over 13,000 people homeless in the country and there have been multiple times, when we had considerably less public funds available, when we built council housing in the tens of thousands.
Even by this Government’s inadequate ambitions they are still failing to reach their social housing targets. In 2022 the overall social housing target (including the landlord subsidy schemes HAP and RAS) was 26,620, but the government only achieved 20,000 new tenants.
The numbers for 2023 look even bleaker with a target of 22,700 for the year but delivery in the first three quarters of just 12,200.
Understanding the impact of these numbers is the key to solving the housing crisis. Rather than seeing social housing as an afterthought which doesn’t matter if the targets are achieved, social housing is actually the closest thing we have to a silver bullet for the housing crisis. The question then becomes, what do we need to do to build social housing on the scale necessary to abate the crisis?
State Construction Company
The policy solution proposed by People Before Profit is the creation of a state construction company. This policy was included in the party’s 2020 Housing Policy, but PBP representatives in the Dáil had been arguing for a state construction company for at least 5 years before then.
PBP’s leadership on this policy has been vindicated by increased support in the Dáil and a report published by Maynooth University academics in June. The Homes for Ireland report argues that the scale of the housing crisis requires a similar scale response. So a whole state-led response that coordinates the various elements needed for a programme of mass social housing building is required.
In addition, because profit is not a concern, a state construction company could play a major role in building homes to the latest environmental and energy efficient standards, could retrofit the existing housing stock, provide secure jobs not based on bogus self-employment, deliver a new generation of apprenticeships, build public housing on public land – the list goes on.
What underpins the state construction company policy is a recognition that we need to provide housing stock that is outside of the market and commodity relations. In other words, it is a policy that does not benefit the property developers and speculators, but ordinary people.
A Central Demand
The call for a state construction company is backed by the Raise the Roof campaign and if raised consistently and backed by mobilising large numbers of tenants, trade unionists and other campaigners, it would put the Government on the back foot.
However, the Raise the Roof group is dominated by trade union leaders and Sinn Féin representatives, both of whom have adopted the strategy of waiting until the next election for a new Government to address the housing crisis. What that means in the first instance is at least another 12 months of wasted time when new public housing could be being built.
We Can’t Afford to Wait
Secondly, there is no guarantee that the next government would adopt the state construction company as a policy. Sinn Féin have been silent on the question which does not bode well for the future, particularly if Sinn Féin go into coalition with Fianna Fáil, who will fight this kind of policy tooth and nail.
Further, the absence of a state construction company in essence means reliance on the same old housing delivery mechanisms as this Government, just with the rhetoric that a Sinn Féin-led government will make them work more effectively. Certainly the idea of trying to decommodify part of the housing system is not a priority, if it is present at all.
The point then is that we need to revitalise a housing movement from below that will campaign against the current government’s policies, but also pressurise union and Sinn Féin leaders to keep to the radical housing solutions they have espoused in the past.
A Christmas Miracle in the North
Now, I’m not one for miracles at any time of year. But sometimes things happen that are quite simply unexpected. And so on 13th December the public housing body, Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE), announced they had started a project to build new public housing.
This is a major deal as the NIHE has not built any new homes since 2002. Funding that would have been used by the NIHE to build new public housing was instead diverted to housing associations, which are private, not-for-profit companies. This form of privatisation in a fancy wrapper never reached the level of new house building that the NIHE had achieved in the mid-1990s.
It is also welcome news that this NIHE project will focus on new building techniques and reaching Passive House standards of insulation and energy efficiency. But before we get too excited, this project is only a pilot of six new homes.
Welcome as this development is, it does not herald a new age of mass public housing construction. That battle is yet to be played out when the executive government is restored.
For more the NIHE see, Stormont’s Plan for Privatisation of Public Housing.