By placing the goal of creating sustainable communities at the heart of our housing policy, we can meet current and future needs without making the mistakes of the past, writes Kevin Loftus

The challenge
After nearly a decade, Ireland’s housing crisis is more acute and growing. The most shocking part of this crisis is the recently reported homeless figures showing that 11,754 people are in emergency accommodation, including 3,431 children (with numbers likely to rise following the raising of the eviction ban), but the scale of our failed housing system is even greater.

Approximately 60,000 households are currently on the social housing list, with an estimated 290,000 hidden homeless, according to The Simon Community. When you consider the increased pressure brought by refugees fleeing conflicts in Ukraine and other regions and the fact that Ireland is projected to have some of the highest population growth in the EU over the coming decades, the government’s annual goal of 33,000 homes per annum between now and 2030 as set out in the Housing for All plan seems wildly underestimated. In fact, unpublished research from the Housing Commission referenced in an article by The Irish Times Jan 26 2023, estimates a need of up to 62,000 homes per annum between now and 2050. That’s a total of 1,674,000. When we consider Ireland’s current housing stock according to the 2022 Census in 2,124,590, then the scale of the challenge becomes clearer.

The current approach to housing delivery focuses on rebooting the pre-2008 model with seemingly little reflection on the implications. The bubble and crash not only plunged us into a decade of austerity; it left us with a legacy of badly planned housing. Estates with little connectivity and accessible only by car, the proliferation of three bed semi-detached houses, unsustainable land-use, a lack of public amenities or quality recreation space, non-compliant apartments blocks – the list goes on. Is this really the model that should be resurrected to solve the current crisis?

The opportunity
While badly planned housing negatively impacts the economy, the environment and society, the converse is also true. If delivered in a considered and holistic manner, a good housing strategy will not only provide shelter, it will also create more affordable, inclusive and sustainable living patterns which are better for social cohesion, wellbeing and the environment. By placing the goal of creating sustainable communities at the heart of our housing policy, we can meet current and future needs without making the mistakes of the past.

The solutions
Enshrine the right to housing in the constitution
Our current housing policies fall far short of what is required to meet the challenge. While the right to property is protected by the constitution, the right to housing is not. Enshrining the right to housing in the constitution, as it is in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, will create legal pressure on the government to enact policies that are sufficient to meet the challenge.

Use what we have
The latest census puts vacant dwellings at 166,752, which is about 10% of the upper 2050 requirement. Currently, another 16,181 entire homes or apartments are listed on Airbnb. These are units that are ready to be lived in. New regulations, including impactful taxation and restrictions to unlock this supply, should be enacted and enforced.

Reform our planning system
Ireland’s discretionary planning system is bureaucratic with the potential for long, expensive delays. According to the Construction Industry Federation, 70,000 homes are awaiting decisions after being appealed to An Bord Pleanála or the Courts. Reforming this in favour of a regulatory system like that of The Netherlands or Germany would provide more certainty and speed, thus reducing risk and encouraging development.

Masterplan for the future
By reforming our planning towards a regulatory system, we create the need for strategic masterplanning (no bad thing). While zoning is a part of our planning system, it still results in nimbyism and ad-hoc outcomes that fall short of real masterplanned zones where infrastructure, connectivity, services, density and land use are integrated into an all-encompassing strategy. Masterplanning would demand long-term thinking and result in appropriate housing, built in the right places.

Build dense, liveable communities
Ireland’s cultural preference for houses over mid-rise living is contributing to the crisis. According to Eurostat in 2019, 9% of Irish people live in apartments, compared with the 46% European average. This unsustainable living pattern uses more space and resources, is more expensive and is contributing in no small way to Ireland’s greenhouse emissions, which were the highest in the EU per capita in Q2 of last year. Building communities with appropriate densities to facilitate efficient public transport and the provision of services and amenities will meet our housing need more effectively, while also creating vibrant and sustainable places to live.

Support diversity of delivery
Silver bullets are dangerous. If you miss, you have nothing. This is evident by the failure of the current system which is over reliant on the market to provide homes. A variety of delivery and tenure models will create more resilient housing that meets the diversity of social needs. In Vienna, which is considered one of the world’s most liveable cities, 30% of residents live in social homes, owned and built directly by the municipal government, with another 30% living in state-subsidised, co-operative housing. High quality social housing, combined with a relatively high-income threshold, has taken the stigma out of social housing.

Community-led housing as described in SOA’s ‘Roadmapping a Viable Community-Led Housing Sector for Ireland’, provides a variety of grassroots models that will allow a community to design, finance and deliver their own housing, built on the principals of collaboration and sharing. A community-led housing fund and framework would help in the rollout of this approach.

Embrace Modern Methods of Construction (MMC)
Traditional wet trade construction is labour intensive and costly. It is also carbon intensive, with approximately 40 tons of carbon released in the construction of a three-bed semi-detached house, highlighting a direct contradiction between our climate action plan and our housing approach. By growing indigenous MMC industries, particularly those that embrace circularity and use natural materials that sequester carbon, we can improve build time and quality while also minimising climate impact.

Establish a State construction company
The boom bust nature of private delivery has resulted in a lack of skilled workers, precarious job prospects and an industry that is risk averse and struggling to access finance. Like the ESB and the electrification of Ireland, a State construction company could lead the way in revitalising the industry by providing secure employment, adopting new forms of construction, accessing finance and realising social housing projects on scales that deliver cost savings.

Spend our rainy-day fund
For many of our citizens it’s raining today and if we don’t act now, tomorrow it’ll be pouring. Following windfall corporation taxes last year, the national reserve fund has increased to €6 billion. A substantial portion of this money could be used to directly fund the above points. This would create secure employment, encourage indigenous industry and directly fund the construction of social and affordable homes, thus reducing the current expenditure the State provides to the private sector to meet its social obligations. For reference, in 2021 alone, the government spent close to €900 million on rent subsidies in the private sector, equivalent to 15% of the €6 billion.

Act bravely
Arguably, this should be point 1 but it’s best understood following the previous points. How we respond to the current housing crisis will have wide reaching impacts on the type of country we build. If we are to create an Ireland for all, we need to reimagine how and why we build. While the points above provide some solutions, the biggest obstacle to change is our collective mindset. To challenge this, admit that our current approach isn’t working and act bravely in implementing new approaches.

Kevin Loftus is one of the principals of ACT – Accelerating Change Together – a social enterprise of architects, urbanists and policy specialists


Michael McDonnell Managing Editor of Irish Construction Industry Magazine & Plan Magazine


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