“There was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7) – The Housing Crisis in Ireland Today


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“Christmas is built upon the beautiful and intentional paradox that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.” GK Chesterton.

As we approach Christmas, many people are homeless and many more live under the pressure of trying to keep a roof over their heads. On the 1st October this year, the Irish Bishops released their pastoral letter on the housing crisis, A Room at the Inn? It is equally as relevant today in the midst of advent as when it was published over two months ago. The bishops called for urgent action to be taken by the State reduce the cost of housing and rent as well as to increase the provision of affordable, secure and quality accommodation in our country.

The annual Social Justice Ireland Conference – From Here to Where? – took place on Tuesday, 13th November in the Ash Suite of Croke Park. The Conference was chaired by Michael Clifford of the Irish Examiner, with contributions from a range of speakers throughout the day. Among the many problems facing Irish society discussed was the housing crisis and how we came to reach this point.

Tony Fahey, Professor of Social Policy at UCD, discussed the fact that young people and children growing up in Ireland today, for the first time in generations, will be worse off than their parents. His lecture focused on the housing supply-crisis in Ireland today and traced its roots over the past 30 years. He outlined that after a hundred years of progressive housing policy, the past thirty has seen a return to a situation comparable with the late nineteenth century at which point Ireland was engulfed by the Land War.

Professor Fahey detailed that, as a proportion of the rental sector, private renting has increased from 10 to 40 percent of units. The private rental sector is more precarious than social housing because it is more expensive and tenure is less secure. From a highpoint in 1991, when 80 percent of homes were owned by the householder in Ireland, homeownership has been on a steady decline and private renting on a steady rise. This has not been a consequence of the economic crash of 2008; rather this is part of a deeper trend that has remained consistent over the last thirty years in spite of what point we were at in the cycle of boom, bust and recovery.

Since 1987, housing policy has steadily removed responsibility for housing from the hands of government to leave it to the market. There has been a steady reduction in the new construction of council housing, as well as privatization of existing social housing stocks. The reduction in social housing has forced people, who would otherwise have lived in social housing, into the private rental sector. This has increased the demand for private renting and has thus driven up private rent prices. The increase in rental income for landlords has in turn has raised the purchase price of housing.

This has obviously had a negative impact on people with lower-incomes because their rent has increased and their security decreased. However, it has also affected middle-income earners too who have seen the cost of buying a house rise, and with it the size and length of their mortgage repayments. As a result, homeowners face a greater drain on their income for longer. Ten years after the crash of 2008, there has been a steady increase in the number of late-term mortgages arrears as people enter retirement and find that they are unable to maintain repayments.

At the same time, high rent prices make it difficult for young people to save, and high house prices make it more and more difficult for young people to buy a home. As a result, they must wait until they are older to buy a home which in turn pushes their mortgage repayments further into their later years. Perhaps most strikingly, at its peak in 1991, 69 percent of householders between 25 and 35 years old where homeowners; now only 30 percent of the same age bracket owns a home: the proportion has more than halved.

One of the key social and economic effects of homeownership that people fail to acknowledge, and that is being eroded, is the social benefit of widespread homeownership. Popular homeownership is an important means of wealth redistribution in Ireland because over the preceding decades housing wealth was more equally shared than income wealth. Homeownership has played an important factor in alleviating financial burdens because it eliminated rent as a drain on income. This was especially the case among older people who have reduced income because they are not in employment and rely on a pension, and especially poorer older people who lack savings and rely exclusively on a state pension.

As ever increasing numbers of old age pensioners live in privately rented accommodation, and have to pay high rents, a further burden is incurred by the exchequer. The State will be required to provide ever increasing rent supplements in addition to pensions. This would not have happened if housing policy had ensured the high levels of homeownership we saw in the past which granted people security in their old age.

The question we must ask ourselves, the question that the Irish Bishops ask in their pastoral letter: is a house simply another commodity to be bought and sold, to be left up to the market to provide, to turn a profit on? Or is it something more: is a house really supposed to be a home? If so, then after thirty years of one way of thinking about housing, we must begin to think anew.

For a brief summary of the Bishops’ pastoral letter on housing and homelessness go to:

https://www.catholicbishops.ie/2018/10/01/a-room-at-the-inn-bishops-pastoral-letter-on-housing-and-homelessness/

Irish Bishops' Pastoral Letter on Housing and Homelessness.pdf

John McGeady, OLA Justice Officer (14th December 2018)