Ireland's housing crisis has become its most glaring expression of social inequality

When Archbishop Diarmuid Martin spoke in Rome in May to promote the 2018 World Meeting of Families, which will be held in Dublin, he listed housing as one of the main challenges facing Irish families. As in many countries, housing has become Ireland’s most glaring expression of social inequality, a vicious cycle that has spun full circle in the last decade. The inflated housing market of the Celtic Tiger era precipitated the devastating economic crash of 2008 and cost thousands their homes and livelihoods. Now, with a recovering economy, Ireland is faced with a contradictory problem: a steep housing shortage after several years of stunted capacity growth.

In a small country where homelessness has never been a significant problem, the figures are striking. Focus Ireland, a charity for the homeless, reported that 366 families became homeless in Dublin in the first four months of this year. The charity found that the overwhelming number of homeless families had their last stable home in the private rental sector and were forced out by rising rents, landlords “selling up” what had been rental units and a shortage of properties to rent.

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Most had never experienced homelessness before and were now being accommodated by local authorities in shelters and hotel rooms. The waiting list for government-subsidized “social housing” has swollen to 90,000 people, meaning some Irish families will have to wait more than a decade for a home.

The victims of Ireland’s housing crisis appear on every step of the property ladder: overstretched renters, first-time buyers, owners caught in negative equity. Rents in Dublin are now higher than they were at the height of the Celtic Tiger period, while the lack of housing has made competition fierce. The arrival of U.S. “vulture funds,” swooping in on Ireland’s property market during the bust, is another problem that renters and homeowners have to contend with. The master of the High Court, a quasi-judicial figure in Ireland with the power to intervene in civil judgments, suggested in April that the government buy back homes sold to vulture funds after hundreds of renters in Dublin were given notice to leave from a fund run by Goldman Sachs.

Ireland’s housing problem has been creeping up for decades. In the 1970s, social housing made up over 30 percent of new houses in Ireland. That number dropped to 5 percent in the 1980s, while rent controls were deemed unconstitutional and abolished. The trend continued through Ireland’s economic prosperity, with policymakers slow to recognize and respond to the emerging housing problem. The new Fine Gael-led government, formed in May, has promised decisive action rather than the halfhearted and inadequate response of the past. The minister for housing, Simon Coveney, called the housing problem a “national emergency” but also said people will need patience.

Perhaps the most glaring irony of the crisis is that 230,000 homes, the majority privately owned, currently stand vacant all over Ireland. In addition, social housing in some areas has been left empty for more than a year between tenancies because of inefficiency on the local level. The government has also traditionally offered some social housing tenants the opportunity to buy their properties at a hugely discounted rate. While a worthy program, it adds another hole to the housing reserve’s already leaking bucket.

A challenge for the new government will be to coordinate the many proposed solutions to the housing crisis into a workable national plan. So far, the government has pledged to increase social housing significantly and to develop nonprofit “cost rental” housing while also addressing mortgage arrears. Perhaps most significant, the government has said it intends to press for the inclusion of a right to housing in the Constitution. More than anything else, this measure confronts the root of the issue, treating housing as a right however the economy may ebb or flow. Prior housing policy created a fundamental shift, one that has allowed markets to overrule the special place of the family in the Irish Constitution.

President Michael D. Higgins last year urged those in authority to apologize publicly for not valuing social housing in the past. He said that while newspaper headlines proclaim that the economy is roaring back in Ireland, inequalities are roaring back much louder. Which one the government pays attention to will make all the difference for keeping economically vulnerable families in their homes.

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