Seanad debates

Tuesday, 8 November 2022

Housing for All: Statements (Resumed)


2:30 pm

Photo of Frances BlackFrances Black (Independent) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Like my colleagues who spoke before me, I would love to see Housing for All work. I believe the housing crisis is probably the largest single failure of the modern Irish State. It is difficult to speak about it because it feels as if we are in a state of perpetual dysfunction. The debate in this House can sometimes feel a bit like a stage play that has been running for far too long. The exchanges between Government and us in opposition can feel repetitive, exhausted and increasingly embittered. It all feels out of touch and distant from the human tragedy of this crisis. We have to look at it and ask if the people languishing in homeless shelters or direct provision centres are tuning into this debate today.What about the children growing up in hotel rooms or the students commuting three hours each way to college because they cannot find or afford accommodation? What about the people in their 30s who are perhaps living in their childhood bedrooms or in shared housing that is bursting at the seams? They might be watching or they may be too busy mourning the adulthood they have been deprived of.

The housing crisis has a profound emotional and psychological impact on its victims. It strains family relationships, which are sometimes the only thing standing between adult children and homelessness. It creates pervasive feelings of shame, humiliation, and failure. Adults stuck living with their parents are grateful for the support they receive, but they are acutely aware of the privacy, autonomy and freedom they are being deprived of. It negatively impacts their social, sexual and romantic lives. There are so many people who work incredibly hard and who are conscientious and responsible for whom home ownership is totally out of reach. It creates a sense of defeat and futility that is incredibly distressing. Many of the talented young people emigrating from this country every day are not doing so because of an insatiable appetite to travel the world. They are leaving with great sadness and regret because the dysfunctional Irish housing market makes it impossible for them to imagine living their lives here. It is so sad. They leave behind families and friends who miss them terribly. They are being exiled from their homes due to the compounded failures of successive governments. I was thinking about those failures when I saw photos of Brazilian citizens living in Ireland lining up to vote in their presidential election a week and a half ago. It seems only fair that Irish emigrants around the world are given the right to vote, in particular when the policies enacted in this House directly impact their ability to come home and build lives for themselves here.

As a member of the Joint Committee on Health and the Chair of the Joint Sub-Committee on Mental Health, I cannot count the number of times I have heard from witnesses about their staffing shortages. There are many reasons for the shortages, but a critical lack of affordable housing is a major contributor to the problem. It is also driving the shortage of teachers. Ireland produces many qualified and talented researchers, teachers, nurses, doctors and other health and social care professionals and we are losing them in droves. In their absence, our ability to care for the old and sick, to support the mentally ill and to educate young people is critically undermined. The housing crisis does not just impact on people on low incomes and young renters but also generates broader labour market and social dysfunction that spills out and impacts us all.

One strand of the Housing for All strategy is making housing more accessible and affordable. When assessing whether the Government is meeting that aim, I thought about two recent developments. First, a recently released ESRI report estimated that Irish house prices are overvalued by 7%. This elicited a warning from developers who claimed that if house prices fell at all, new builds would no longer be profitable for them and they would cease construction. That is a very shocking announcement. All this time we have been told to believe the Government line that an adequate supply would make house prices fall, but all along, it has been an open secret that developers have no intention of letting the prices fall because it would hurt their profits. Presumably, if prices did start to fall, they would make a concerted effort to obstruct supply until prices increase again.

Second, the Central Bank relaxed its mortgage lending rules at the same time as the ECB raised interest rates, so now people can take on more debt but they will have to pay even more interest on the larger debt. The Central Bank report pointed out that a 2 percentage point interest rate hike could lead to households spending up to 40% of their monthly take-home pay on mortgage repayments under the new lending rules. That is unsustainable. We have two stories there: one that says house prices cannot fall, and another that says people may now be taking on so much debt to afford the overpriced housing that they will not be able to pay it back. In fact, all the extra debt that is available will push up house prices even more. Housing for All's reliance on the private developers is a fatal flaw as they are unwilling or unable to resolve this crisis.

I grew up in Charlemont Street tenement houses. Throughout my childhood I remember my neighbours leaving to relocate to the new local authority estates being built and expanded in Crumlin and Drimnagh, which was then on the outskirts of the city. These communities became the backbone of this city and produced some of its best and brightest. They are some of the greatest achievements of the Irish State in its 100-year history. The construction of large local authority estates allowed thousands to escape the horrendous conditions of tenement living. They improved health outcomes, created greater educational and professional mobility and they gave some of the hardest working people in the history of this country a chance to grow and thrive. It was a post-colonial triumph: a poor backward State marshalling its resources to provide for its people and to undo some of the criminal neglect and cruelty of the colonial occupation that had come before. Much of this work was Fianna Fáil's doing. It was fantastic work. It was the State-building project of a republican government. In 2022, I find myself asking what happened. What happened to the party that built Ireland's local authority housing and lifted people out of poverty? What happened to the party that my family, like most working-class families in Dublin, voted for? I believe the housing crisis is the result of a failed economic orthodoxy and the neoliberal ideology shared by all the parties in government. They are treating housing as an investment vehicle to enrich the wealthy rather than as a human right and an essential social good. This State responsibility has had disastrous consequences which reverberate through the lives of ordinary people. The status quohas failed. There is an alternative. I hope the Government will change course soon and that we can begin to repair the damage done.


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