Sinn Féin - On Your Side

Ó Snodaigh moves Dáil motion on Social Housing and Homelessness

16 December, 2008 - by Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD


Sinn Fein Housing Spokesperson Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD has this evening moved a Dáil motion on social housing and homelessness. Speaking on the motion, which was jointly sponsored by Sinn Féin and the Labour Party Deputy Ó Snodaigh called for the construction of an additional 10,000 social housing units each year for the next three years to meet the glaring social need.

Deputy Ó Snodaigh said, "In recommending this private members motion to the House I want to outline Sinn Féin's approach to housing and homelessness and speak to a number of the central elements of the motion.

"Sinn Féin believes that housing is a right, not a privilege. While the majority of people living in the state can afford to own or rent their own home, an increasing number can not. That is a situation which unfortunately is set to worsen given the current economic climate and the rapidly rising level of unemployment. Indeed there is also an increasing number of people who because of that are being forced out of accommodation which they were in the process of buying through a mortgage and therefore onto the public housing lists.

"For such people, the state has a political and social responsibility to respond to their housing need and ensure that they are adequately housed. And that is not something which it can renege on simply because the economic climate has changed. Indeed addressing the housing problem is inextricably linked to the overall economy and particularly in an economy such as our own where construction has comprised such a major part.

"While benefit measures such as rent supplement, mortgage interest supplement and the rental accommodation scheme have a role in addressing housing problems, it is Sinn Féin's firm view that the provision of social housing, funded by government, via local authorities must be the central element in any successfully housing strategy. Unfortunately that did not happen over the most recent period when the resources were more available to the state than at any other time in our history.

"As the joint Sinn Féin Labour party motion makes clear, our parties believe that in the current financial climate, government and local authorities should do everything in their power to increase the stock of available social housing in the coming year. If unsold properties on the private market meet the standards required by local authorities, represent value for money for the tax payer, and are appropriate to the needs of families on the waiting lists, the government and local authorities should actively pursue the purchase of these properties. In addition to meeting housing need it would also have positive additional economic benefits.

"Equally, and with rising unemployment in the construction sector, the government should also provide additional resources, or loan guarantees to local authorities to commence an expanded social housing new build programme in the coming year. That would represent a significant boost to the sector and to the overall economy at the current time.

"At the very minimum we need 10,000 new social houses to be provided per year, net of tenant purchase, if the needs of the 59,000 households on local authority waiting lists are to be met. I say at the minimum because the actual demand is undoubtedly higher and also for the reason that the numbers seeking to leave private accommodation, which they are either buying or renting, will increase significantly over the next period if as predicted the economy continues to be in a depressed condition.

"There are approximately 5,000 people living without a home at any one time in the state and it is estimated that as many as 1,800 people become homeless each year. Figures released yesterday by the Homeless Agency in Dublin indicate a 4% increase in homelessness in the city. 2,300 people are homeless in Dublin tonight.

"When he launched the Way Home strategy, which commits the Government to eliminate homelessness by 2010, Minister Finneran said that an implementation strategy would be finalized and released before Christmas.

"This was to set out how the strategy would be rolled out, by who and at what cost. I hope he will report his progress in this regard to the House during this debate. It would be a troubling signal indeed if the government was not able to meet this simple commitment.

"However strategies and implementation plans alone will not end long term homelessness. Political will and adequate resourcing are needed if the vision outlined in The Way Home is to be realised." ENDS

Full text of Deputy Ó Snodaigh's speech follows:

In recommending this private members motion to the House I want to outline Sinn Féin's approach to housing and homelessness and speak to a number of the central elements of the motion.

Issues related to housing probably constitute the bulk of most public representatives work. Certainly that is the case at local authority level but I am sure even in this House that all TDs receive a large number of representations on the matter.

Sinn Féin believes that housing is a right, not a privilege. While the majority of people living in the state can afford to own or rent their own home, an increasing number can not. That is a situation which unfortunately is set to worsen given the current economic climate and the rapidly rising level of unemployment. Indeed there is also an increasing number of people who because of that are being forced out of accommodation which they were in the process of buying through a mortgage and therefore onto the public housing lists.

For such people, the state has a political and social responsibility to respond to their housing need and ensure that they are adequately housed. And that is not something which it can renege on simply because the economic climate has changed. Indeed addressing the housing problem is inextricably linked to the overall economy and particularly in an economy such as our own where construction has comprised such a major part.

While benefit measures such as rent supplement, mortgage interest supplement and the rental accommodation scheme have a role in addressing housing problems, it is Sinn Féin's firm view that the provision of social housing, funded by government, via local authorities must be the central element in any successfully housing strategy.

Unfortunately that did not happen over the most recent period when the resources were more available to the state than at any other time in our history. Figures released by Minister of State Michael Finneran last week demonstrate two stark facts.

The first is that housing need in the state is increasing every year and has now reached crisis proportions. In March of this year 59,000 households were living in housing need, languishing on local authority waiting lists. More than 40,000 thousand children live in these households. And the most frightening aspect of that figure is that it has grown to such an extent over the years of economic prosperity. With the inevitability that unless immediate and urgent action is taken to tackle the waiting lists through a programme of public house building that it will continue to grow and perhaps even at a faster rate.

The second is that government housing policy is failing. This is demonstrated by the fact that since 2005 housing need has increased by 30% and has doubled in the past decade. And again as I said this was at a time when arguably the state was in a better position than ever before to do something positive to turn that situation around. Unfortunately it was content to allow the private sector and property developers to dictate the housing agenda often in ways that were detrimental to people either buying or attempting to buy their own homes. And many of those issues are fundamental to the current overall economic situation and the so-called credit crunch.

The simple fact is that the Government is not spending enough money on social housing and as a consequence local authorities are not able to provide sufficient social housing to meet local needs.

In 2005 the government's own think tank, the National Economic and Social Council, stated that the state would need 200,000 social houses in stock by 2012 if housing need was to be met. On the basis of the existing stock in 2005 this would require the building of 10,000 social housing units every year for 7 years.

Since then government has committed to and completed significantly lower numbers of social housing than suggested by NESC, especially when one takes into account tenant purchase.

I have no doubt that Minister Finneran will tell this house that in 2007 and 2008 the government is meeting its NDP commitments of 9,000 social units a year. However this is still nowhere near the level of new social units required to meet either the NESC targets or the levels of need. It is also the case of course that Fianna Fail's current partners in Government in the Green Party made a commitment, prominently highlighted by themselves, to building 10,000 social housing units a year if part of the Cabinet. Well you are in the Cabinet now so you must explain yet another failure to fulfil a promise to the people who put you there.

Sinn Féin also believes that the figure of 59,000 households in need is a significant and deliberate underestimation of the actual level of need across the state. When drafting the guidelines for the triennial housing needs assessment, the Department of Environment instructed local authorities to remove a number of categories of households from the final figures. These households included people designated by the local authority as in need of social housing, but who are either living in local authority housing that was overcrowded or materially unsuitable or living in the private rented sector.

This is a cynical exercise in massaging the figures and in doing so undermines attempts by local authorities to develop housing plans based on an honest and objective assessment of the levels of need in their areas. It also grossly underestimates the true level of unsatisfactory accommodation and effectively condemns a significant number of people to continue to live in below standard accommodation and to be unable to improve their situation by accessing local authority housing.

But of course from a political perspective it serves the short term and self defeating purpose of pretending or seeking to portray the housing situation as not as bad as it actually is. Such tactics tend to backfire however as the many thousands of people affected are unlikely to be fooled themselves.

Today I am challenging both the Minister for the Environment John Gormley and his minister for state Michael Finneran to come clean and release the full figures for households deemed by the local authorities to be in need of social housing. That at least would give us a clearer and more accurate picture of the actual situation and allow housing policy to be guided by a response to that. Assuming that is that the political will exists to do so.

As the joint Sinn Fein Labour party motion makes clear, our parties believe that in the current financial climate, government and local authorities should do everything in their power to increase the stock of available social housing in the coming year. If unsold properties on the private market meet the standards required by local authorities, represent value for money for the tax payer, and are appropriate to the needs of families on the waiting lists, the government and local authorities should actively pursue the purchase of these properties. In addition to meeting housing need it would also have positive additional economic benefits.

Equally, and with rising unemployment in the construction sector, the government should also provide additional resources, or loan guarantees to local authorities to commence an expanded social housing new build programme in the coming year. That would represent a significant boost to the sector and to the overall economy at the current time.

At the very minimum we need 10,000 new social houses to be provided per year, net of tenant purchase, if the needs of the 59,000 households on local authority waiting lists are to be met. I say at the minimum because the actual demand is undoubtedly higher and also for the reason that the numbers seeking to leave private accommodation, which they are either buying or renting, will increase significantly over the next period if as predicted the economy continues to be in a depressed condition.

At a time of rising demand and deepening recession, it makes both social and economic sense for government to invest in social housing. Failure to do so will not only further exacerbate our economic difficulties, but lead to a further increase in levels of need, with more families and children languishing on waiting lists, in overcrowded or materially unsuitable accommodation, or in accommodation that they simply cannot afford.

There is another serious problem with regard to housing and that is homelessness. A phenomenon that has been increasing in recent years and which appears to have worsened again in the current economic downturn.

There are approximately 5,000 people living without a home at any one time in the state and it is estimated that as many as 1,800 people become homeless each year.

For some of these people, issues of drug and alcohol addiction, family breakdown, domestic violence or psychiatric illness are the triggers that lead to homelessness. Others, however are people who are actually part of the economy or who have been recently let go from their jobs. That is a particularly frightening aspect of the problem and illustrates both how it is possible to reach that situation and how difficult it is to escape it.

However, whatever the reasons people are homeless, for all of them their central problem is the simple fact that they can not access a place to call home. And because of that they almost attain the status of 'non persons'. Everything becomes far more difficult when you have no home. Life becomes precarious and often dangerous.

As I said earlier housing need has reached crisis point. 59,000 households are stuck on local authority waiting lists. And on top of that there are many people living in homes that are unsuitable, overcrowded or too expensive. These people are those most vulnerable to becoming homeless given their profile and problems.

Of the estimated number of people in that category, 80% of whom are single men, and they represent the sharpest end of housing need in this state. That is especially so given that they rate as a lower priority on the housing lists than others, for example adults with children. But that is not an excuse for failing to meet their needs.

That figure is also a symbol of the government's ongoing failure to meet the housing needs of the most vulnerable in our society.

Figures released yesterday by the Homeless Agency in Dublin indicate a 4% increase in homelessness in the city. 2,300 people are homeless in Dublin tonight. They represent a cross section of our society including as I said people who have recently been part of the workforce but have lost their jobs and been unable to keep up rental payments and have been forced onto the streets.

There are also the myriad of other reasons I referred to including alcohol and drug abuse and domestic factors including violence and abuse that have made people choose the dangerous alternative of the streets in preference to a dangerous and abusive home situation. There ought to be reliable safety net mechanisms to ensure that people do not end up on the streets because of those factors.

When he launched the Way Home strategy, which commits the Government to eliminate homelessness by 2010, Minister Finneran said that an implementation strategy would be finalized and released before Christmas.

This was to set out how the strategy would be rolled out, by who and at what cost. I hope he will report his progress in this regard to the House during this debate. It would be a troubling signal indeed if the government was not able to meet this simple commitment.

However strategies and implementation plans alone will not end long term homelessness. Political will and adequate resourcing are needed if the vision outlined in The Way Home is to be realised. If Fianna Fáil believed in developing a society that is equal and just basic rights to food, shelter and security of person for all our citizens would have been delivered a decade ago.

So what needs to be done? The government needs to ensure the right policies and legislation are in place, backed up by adequate resources. It must oversee a strategy in which stakeholders work together towards a shared objective.

The government needs to provide greater access to appropriate long term housing and a dedicated revenue stream for supported housing, to enable people develop the skills necessary for independent living.

Crucially the government needs to increase access to long term housing; to provide supports where necessary; and to increase measures to prevent people becoming or returning to homelessness, particularly for those coming out of state institutions like prisons, psychiatric hospitals and care institutions.

As the motion outlines, to date Fianna Fáil led government's have had a shameful record on meeting social housing needs in general with the needs of the homeless who are worse affected.

But this can be turned around. Fianna Fáil's current Government partners in the Green Party have been shamefully quiet on this issue and also have a heavy responsibility to address the housing crisis.

Unfortunately they have shown little sign that this is a priority for them nor have they used their influence to implement the type of housing policy they espoused while in opposition.

No doubt they will claim that the current economic climate has forced them to change tack. However, as I said earlier, the sort of building programme required to fulfil their promises on social housing and to eliminate public authority waiting lists would represent a significant economic boost at the current time.

Fianna Fáil and the Green Party need to remember their political mandates. They need to remember who gave them that mandate. The Government may not recognise this, but the people do. It's time for Government to listen to its people. I commend this motion to the House.

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