Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on the 1st August 2016.
If you were a property developer and you found yourself in prison, in the last ten years or so, you would be forgiven for telling other inmates that you were instead an axe murderer or maybe a drug dealer, as there seems to be less social stigma attached to the latter two occupations. People forget, and I say this declaring myself as someone who was raised and still works in the construction industry, that developers created thousands of well-paid jobs and record numbers of dwellings that actually provided homes for people. Yes, they did this to make a profit, in some cases vast profits. But guess what? That’s their job. But it underlines why the strategy of successive governments to rely on the private sector to meet our national housing needs is essentially flawed.
I bring this up in the context of the ongoing debate as to how we house our people. Let’s be clear: housing, the right to shelter, to a home, is just that, a right. I’m not a great believer in socio-economic rights being enshrined in law as I don’t want unelected judges writing the budget, but housing is different. An orderly society cannot exist without adequate housing for its entire people.
The problem for us is that the private sector and the public need are both focussing on different things. Builders will try to sell houses at the highest price possible, to make a profit, and to berate them for wanting to do that is ridiculous, any more than it is to berate public sector unions for trying to get the highest level of pay for the lowest level of work from their members. Again, that’s their job.
We get angry with the private construction industry for not paying attention to social goals which are not its problem. The CIF didn’t run for election, the government did, and with that we have to recognise that the demand for affordable housing is a different thing from what the private sector is pursuing.
That’s not to say, by the way, that the state can’t sit down with a builder and pay them direct to build publicly owned housing. That’s how we’ve done it in the past. But that’s the state taking direct control of housing policy as opposed to just hoping that what the private sector builds will meet our needs.
There are two residential property seeking groups in the country. The first see housing as a home but also possibly as an investment. It can be a family home but it can also be a holiday home or a flat rented out with an eye to post-retirement income. The issue with that group is that it tends to have relatively easy access to funding and so can outspend the second group in the market, the people who just want a home. Indeed, many in that second group would be happy to rent long-term if they had some sort of continental-style tenancy security.
That second group struggles to access funding and, let’s be honest, shouldn’t really even be in competition with the first group. Instead, we should have a separate housing market for them, shielded from the influx of distorting funds driving up prices. But how?
It’s time for the state to go into the rental business. Isn’t it already, you ask? Yes, it is. For the class with the lowest income, where it provides effective ghettoization and where public housing can be dismissed as being for “those people”. A genuinely ambitious government would go much further.
First, it would set up a national rental company, a semi-state body which will probably become the single largest residential landlord in the country. Such a company could then acquire or build a large volume of decent quality housing, which it could then offer to anyone who wishes it at a fixed percentage of their income.
Initially, the middle class will turn their noses up at this. Even if it buys housing in the proverbial “nice” areas the middle class will still opt out because they don’t know who they’ll be living beside. That’s always being the stigma with social housing. Indeed, many a private tenant in a totally private apartment block will tell you of the shoulder-shrugging response of property management companies to anti-social behaviour from other tenants.
That’s the second part of the deal: each building should have a 24/7 live-in supervisor with the power, through a pre-signed social contract every tenant would sign, to summon a couple of permanently on-call Polish or Lithuanian security consultants to assist in the removal of those anti-social tenants who refuse fair warning. Yes, there’d be war and calls to Joe and talk of constitutional rights and all the rest, but after a few high-profile enforcements and recognition that you can get decent affordable housing and neighbours of all classes and creeds who respect each other, you will catch the eye of the middle class. It’ll be the ALDIisation of public housing.
Then, as with everything in Ireland, once the middle class start demanding it, it’s a whole different ball game.
The private sector can still carry on meeting the housing needs of those who can afford it, but this way we end up with a huge professional landlord setting a continental standard for rental properties for those who just want somewhere to live. That’s not an unreasonable thing to ask for.