Cork housing must be based on human need – not private profit

Originally published by the Evening Echo, 2 February 2017

Cork housing provision came back on the agenda last week with news that Cork County Council had passed a motion to fast-track the construction of a proposed new town at Monard. As it stands, it is proposed that the construction of the new town will be led by private developers. The draft County Development Plan, which has set a target for the construction of 1,727 houses at Monard by 2022, states that housing provision is dependent on the “willingness” of property developers. The issue that arises is that developers cannot at this stage offer housing to the market at prices that the majority of people can afford.

Private developers will, by their nature, only build homes when they deem it to be sufficiently profitable to do so. At present, wage levels are such that few can afford new houses, and so developers aren’t building at the necessary scale, which is perpetuating the housing crisis. The government’s only solutions to date – such as those outlined in the “Rebuilding Ireland” plan in July 2016 – have been to announce huge transfers of public money and land to private developers in order to incentivise them to build homes.

At this late stage in the housing crisis, drastic changes are required in the way that housing is provided. A campaign led by People Before Profit is underway to pressure Cork County Council – rather than private developers – to lead in the provision of housing at new developments. Proposed towns such as Monard provide an excellent opportunity for large state-led house-building programmes. Vast sums of public money will be spent on the town in order to construct the required infrastructure. Under existing policy, this will be an effective subsidy to private housing developers. It seems logical then that the housing in the town should instead be provided by public bodies based on human need rather than on private profit and being subject to the “willingness” of private developers. It is at this stage clear that the housing crisis will only be addressed by a policy that sees quality houses delivered to communities at truly affordable prices. A reliance on the private sector to address the housing crisis is almost completely futile.

The responses to such proposals – offered by a number of county councillors on a recent radio discussion on the topic – are that such ideas are “too ambitious” and that “the money isn’t available”. However, a brief look at history shows that such arguments have little relevance. In Ireland in the 1950s – a decade of austerity and recessionary conditions – over 50,000 social houses were built. The UK delivered over 220,000 social houses in 1953 alone – at a time when the government was ravaged by post-war debt. What this history shows is that the public balance sheet was of little importance – both states were heavily in debt and managed to deliver housing that people needed. Furthermore, these public initiatives in house-building have been proven to have had a positive effect both on the livelihoods of residents and on future economic growth. Public housing provision was motivated not by the availability of the required funding but by political will.

The lack of political will is today’s barrier to a socially just housing policy. The housing policies of successive Irish governments have favoured property developers and unregulated investors. Vulture funds didn’t arrive in Ireland by accident – they were invited in by the Irish government. If current policies continue, Ireland’s future will be led even more by vulture funds as they exploit the leftovers of more failed policies.

We are living through the reality of what happens when the private sector is relied upon for delivery of housing in Ireland, and, as things now stand, citizens will be paying for the fallout for a long time to come – through high rents, households in mortgage distress and bank bailout payments. We can’t expect the housing market to regulate itself – the “Rebuilding Ireland” plan put forward by Simon Coveney even recognises that, “left to its own devices, the market would not ensure all households are housed appropriately or at all”.

An ambitious new means of providing housing is long overdue. The situation has already spiralled out of control. Nationwide, homelessness has topped over 7,000 for the first time (this doesn’t include those staying temporarily with parents or friends). Existing housing policy will soon begin to deter foreign investors – they will look to other countries which provide lower housing costs for their employees – something that could have a devastating effect on Irish society. Even IBEC, the Irish business lobby, has called on the government for massive investment in social housing for this reason.

In Cork, there is both a social and economic need for public housing. Rents in Cork city have risen by 16% in a year. The combined (city and county) housing waiting list now amount to over 13,000. In both the short- and long-term, public investment in housing would bring huge benefits to communities and businesses in the area.

Monard provides an excellent opportunity for the development of a sustainable town through public investment in housing and jobs. The only barrier to developing publicly-led towns for the future is the current lack of political will. Housing must be thought of as a human right, provided based on human need, not on private profit. The alternative has been tried, and it has failed catastrophically.

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