For a country that had too many houses just a short number of years ago, it seems bizarre that now we are faced with a housing crisis where there are far too few.
But a housing crisis it is. It used to be the case that people who had difficulty finding a place to live were either single or separated or there were underlying issues such as substance abuse in the family. But now many ordinary families have literally nowhere to go.
Landlords are increasingly reluctant to take on rent supplement applicants. They can get a much bigger rent from the private market. Even families who are in long-term employment and who are long-term renters are on tender-hooks as they approach the renewal date of their lease. They don’t know how much extra their landlord is going to look from them and if they will be able to afford their new monthly rent.
People have started to queue to buy houses again; 90,000 households are on Council waiting lists; And each night in Dublin 2,500 people are either sleeping rough or are in temporary and often sub-standard accommodation.
The Government has promised action to tackle the problem but so far this has had no real impact.
But the Government doesn’t need to re-invent the wheel to increase the supply of housing. One proposal that has been largely overlooked is the role that good quality senior-citizen housing can play in dealing with the housing crisis. By providing high quality senior citizen housing, the Government could free-up thousands of family homes that are currently too big for an older person’s needs.
In my experience, there is huge demand for quality senior citizen housing from older people whose families have long since moved out and who struggle with the upkeep of their family home. Maintenance and heating of these homes is difficult for older people, particularly for those on small pensions. Often, due to disability, these homes require adaptations such as a downstairs bathroom or bedroom. But this work is expensive and grants have been cut. Security too can be an issue, as can feelings of isolation and loneliness. Then of course there is the issue of paying full property tax on a family-sized home when some of the rooms are not in use.
A senior citizen housing scheme to cater for people in these circumstances actually already exists. It’s called the Financial Contribution Scheme for Older Persons. Up to recently, it was run very successfully by some Councils. But it is now stalled because over several recent Budgets, the Government cut back drastically on funding for housing. In 2009 it was €1.5 billion. This year it was down to less than €500 million.
Under this scheme, older people could apply to the local authority to purchase their home. A market-valuation is set and the local authority purchases the home at an agreed discount. In turn, the local authority provides senior citizen accommodation to the pensioner who pays a rent just like any other senior citizen tenant.
Upfront funding is necessary for the local authority to build sheltered accommodation and purchase homes, but it is a short-term outlay with guaranteed returns and there are huge benefits.
Pensioners who avail of the scheme are accommodated in more suitable and secure housing while releasing the equity tied up in their former home. The local authority obtains a family-sized home in an established area at a discounted rate, which can be allocated to a family on the housing list. From a planning perspective, it achieves greater population density without the need for vast new housing estates or apartments. In addition, housing young families in established areas is much more sustainable and helps achieve a better social mix, which in turn benefits the community as a whole.
The Financial Contribution Scheme was very popular and heavily over-subscribed in my constituency. Seldom a week goes by, when an older person doesn’t ask me about it. There are of course upfront costs for local authorities but these costs are far less than housing families through rent supplement. This scheme represents an opportunity to unlock a significant proportion of the housing stock at a time when local authorities are crying out for family homes. Given the crisis that we are facing, it should be reinstated.
Whatever Government action is taken to resolve the current housing crisis, it should not be confined to simply building new homes on the outskirts of our towns and cities. To avoid the mistakes of the past, we need to think beyond simple supply and demand. The Financial Contribution Scheme is just one approach to a multi-faceted problem, but I believe that reinstating it would help tackle the current shortage of social housing while benefiting pensioners, young families, local authorities and communities as a whole.
The above article appeared in the Irish Mirror on 22nd September 2014