Thursday, 20 August 2015

Does anyone have the vision to lead a housing revolution?

Nat O'Connor: While there is wide agreement that Ireland needs more housing supply, action is needed to encourage the right kind of supply based on a vision of the residential areas people are going to call home for the rest of this century.

The lack of supply stems from the bust in Ireland’s housing market which killed lending for new developments and caused the demise of many construction firms.

More people are now renting, while people on lowest incomes are squeezed out of the relatively small rental market and are at greater risk of homelessness.

In terms of encouraging supply, others have written about the need for investment in infrastructure to make land ready for development.

Likewise, proposals have been made to encourage more construction, to give people incentives to become landlords, and to boost the output of local authorities and housing associations. Short-term policies such as modular housing and priority access to social housing should help to alleviate homelessness while waiting for new housing supply.

However, these proposals are largely about increasing the quantity of housing units. A holistic vision and clear policy direction for Ireland’s housing system is needed so that those working in any aspect of housing have more certainty when making investments.

At the time of the Census in 1926 the vast majority of people in Ireland rented, and the main preoccupation in housing policy was moving families out of one-room tenements where over 7 per cent of families lived.

Action on housing was based on a pragmatic vision of slum-clearance, ending squalor and ensuring basic standards in housing quality.

By the 1960s and 1970s major State investment in housing had occurred, alongside considerable activity by building associations and others. This was the period when urban areas began to expand outwards. Rural electrification, the spread of telecommunications and the affordability of white goods provided new services and quality of life to people in their homes.

Urban sprawl
Yet the decision to favour houses over apartments meant the beginning of urban sprawl and car dependency, with all the problems of traffic congestion and the lack of easy access to jobs and services.

While the idea of “garden cities” has merits, sprawl without strong transport infrastructure restricts economic development and worsens quality of life in other ways, not least through the gradual creation of ghettoes at the periphery occupied primarily by the most socially and economically disadvantaged people.

During the boom, the vision – if there was one – was one of home ownership for most people; built on the legacy of selling social housing to tenants, reducing the scale of public housing and leaving the vast majority of people reliant on the private market to secure a home they could afford.
One major failure of the boom period was that so much housing was poorly integrated into the economy. Apartment blocks were built on the outskirts of towns and cities rather than in their hearts, requiring those living there to travel to access work or basic services.

Lowest level
There is an assumption that Irish people will only be happy in houses as currently over 40 per cent of people in Ireland live in detached houses and less than one in 10 households live in apartments, by far the lowest level in the EU.

Over half of people in Germany or Italy, and two-thirds in Spain, are apartment dwellers (and have stronger tenancy protection). However, the Irish desire for home ownership is shown by Census data to be a recent phenomenon and desire for rural and suburban housing with its car dependency may not be universal, not least for older people who can no longer drive or for working parents who would ideally work close to home and to their children’s schools.

Without prejudging what is the most desirable mix of housing types and tenures, there is a clear need for a vision.

The free-for-all of the boom years did not work and left behind a costly legacy of unfinished estates and poor quality apartments, many of which are in the wrong place to serve society’s needs.

Certainly one part of the answer is for housing to go up rather than to allow further rural or urban sprawl. Yet more apartment living and the need to design new types of neighbourhood requires leadership and vision.

No one wants to create housing ghettoes, yet apartment living is still culturally new. Joined-up thinking about apartment quality, infrastructure and services is needed to integrate people living in high-rise apartments with the wider town or city. That means having the basics, such as direct transport to workplaces and to services, local health and social services, local employment initiatives and so on. Social mix is also essential for any areas with high density housing.

Commuter belts
As an example of the scale of what’s needed, Ballymun was Ireland’s largest social housing development, yet it only housed just over 3,000 families. It had seven 15-storey blocks and 10 eight-storey blocks as well as smaller units. To address housing affordability, Ireland probably needs between five and 10 new Ballymuns as soon as possible, quite apart from any increase in housing in smaller towns, commuter belts and rural areas.

That is, 15,000 to 30,000 apartments (or more) are needed immediately in urban areas to make housing more affordable, and they ideally need to be fitted into the small parcels of land remaining close to town and city centres.

Housing lasts for decades. So what is needed today is leadership on housing policy for the next 30 to 50 years at least, because the quality of what gets built will affect generations to come.

But does anyone have the vision to lead a housing revolution?

Nat O’Connor is lecturer in public policy and public management at Ulster University and a member of TASC's Economists Network. This article originally appeared in the Irish Times on 19th August 2015.

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