Last month saw the publication of the latest government effort at an action plan for rural development.  Realising Our Rural Potential takes the now familiar glossy format of recent government action plans replete with 276 actions, slickly produced with accompanying promo video and, for sake of appearances, an official launch in the suitably rural location of Ballymahon’s (soon to be staffless) public library.

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The plan places a welcome, and long overdue, emphasis on rejuvenating rural towns and villages which are recognised as essential lynchpins to sustain and improve the living and working environment of rural dwellers.  It is acknowledged that, as the populations of rural settlement centres have diminished, so too has the demand for and provisioning of essential services, hindering their capacity to compete for investment and employment opportunities. A new town and village renewal scheme is therefore proposed (a rehash of a scheme launched last August), at a cost of €12 million per annum, to encourage increased residential occupancy in over 600 town and village centres (€20,000 each!).

In these so-called ‘post-factual’ times, it is without any sense of irony, however, that the plan completely glosses over the inconvenient reality that it was the assiduous political commitment over successive decades for policies favouring unfettered suburban one-off housing sprawl that has done most to undermine and depopulate rural towns and villages. Between 2001 and 2011, 104,058 one-off dwellings were constructed in rural areas, 85% within 5km of a town or village. Since 2011, a further 18,500 have been permitted. The level of cognitive dissonance on this issue is all the more striking when you consider that the final report of the Commission for Economic Development in Rural Areas (CEDRA), upon which the action plan is largely based, also makes the same glaring omission. The reality is that, nationally, over 70% of dwellings in defined rural areas are built outside settlement centres, and higher still in some counties. This hemorrhaging of population is not deterministic but as a direct result of a sustained and deliberate policy intervention. As one insightful letter writer to The Irish Times noted, what is killing rural towns and villages is not population decline, but their irrelevance, as rural areas become progressively (r)urbanised and assimilated into the functional reaches of larger cities. No amount of fiscal incentives will reverse this trend in the absence of corresponding firm policy measures to restrict and reverse dispersed suburban housing in the countryside. Of course, such an idea would be an anathema in Ireland against a backdrop of political short-termism and patronage. So instead, the action plan includes a rather insipid reference to increase delivery of small housing schemes in towns and villages as an alternative to one-off housing.

Aside from the umpteenth re-launch of the national broadband strategy, one of the more eye-catching objectives of the action plan is the highly misleading target to create 135,000 new jobs and increase by 40% Foreign Direct Investment in ‘rural Ireland’ by 2020.  Ensconced behind the attention-grabbing target is the actuality that the action plan opportunistically conflates ‘rural development’ with ‘regional development’ for the sake of appearances. What is, in fact, targeted is the creation of 135,000 jobs outside Dublin i.e. primarily in cities outside Dublin. This sleight of hand epitomises the policy churning over successive decades on rural development issues in an effort to give the impression of doing something. As I have argued before, in a typical Irish solution to an Irish problem, in order to defer and displace the political strife that accompanies an implicitly urban-led national growth strategy, we have instead sanctioned the widespread (r)urbanisation of the countryside. Vague, populist and anachronistic concepts like ‘Rural Ireland’ and ‘Action Plans for Rural Development’ simply serve as a symbolic gesture to paper over and silence a more fundamental political discussion on the nature of urbanisation in Ireland – which is off-course the great taboo in Irish political discourse. Our lack of collective memory is all the more alarming when you consider that almost twenty years ago the White Paper on Rural Development (still available on DAFF’s website) was published which contained all of the symbolic rhetoric of the current action plan (including, as today, a commitment to create a twenty-year spatial strategy to promote balanced regional development – sound familiar?). Unfortunately, this latest action plan is simply yet another episode of opportunism over strategy where we are failing to accurately conceive the true nature of the problem. No doubt twenty years hence we will be back having the same discussion again.

Gavin Daly

 

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The National Spatial Strategy was officially scrapped in 2013 by then Minister, Phil Hogan TD.  Soon after, the development of a replacement strategy, the National Planning Framework, was announced.  On Thursday the initial consultation document was published by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, and launched at Maynooth University by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD, the Minister for DHPCLG, Simon Coveney TD, and Minister for State for Housing and Urban Renewal, Damien English TD.  It sets out the process and timeline for formulating the full NPF and provides an initial framing of government thinking with respect to what should be included in the plan.

The NSS was widely considered an unmitigated failure for a number of reasons: there were too many gateways and hubs; it was misaligned with its funding stream the NDP; it was not supported by government, agencies and local authorities and was actively undermined; and it was not implemented on a statutory basis (see this post for a full history and explanation). So have lessons been learned?  The Taoiseach would like to think so, stating at the launch that in the NSS, ‘towns were placed against towns, politics against politics … and we are not going there again.’ Instead, the NPF will seek to be more cooperative, coordinated, and regionally based.

The rationale for the NPF is broadly the same as the NSS.  It is to coordinate spatially the development of sectoral areas (economy, transport, housing, energy, education, health) and guide and drive balanced regional development as the population continues to grow.  If development is not managed and it is left to business is usual to deliver shared national goals, then Dublin will continue to expand, the regional cities will have modest growth, and smaller towns and rural areas will stagnate or decline, the document argues.  Instead, the document argues that there needs to be:

  • a coordinated, strategic approach with a twenty year time horizon;
  • this approach needs to be backed by government across departments/agencies;
  • be aligned with public/private investment, including capital spend;
  • a focus on health and well-being, the environment, North-South relations, as well as economic and property development;
  • a recognition that it is a strategy, not a wish list and that it will involve making hard choices;
  • address all parts of Ireland, avoid the perception of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, but avoid unrealistically seeking to treat all parts of the Country in the same way;
  • include a particular focus on implementation and evaluation, with capacity for review.

The proposed approach to organize and operationalize the NPF through the regional assemblies and in alignment with regional spatial economic strategies that are presently being prepared.  Rather than towns competing within a region, they should cooperate and work together as clusters.  And there should be stronger urban-rural interdependence, with large and small towns supporting rural communities.  Nonetheless, it is argued that there is a need for concentrated development of the five principal cities – Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford – and the towns around them, to create strong growth polls for business and to realise agglomeration effects and to create scales of economy/critical mass for service and infrastructure delivery.  Unlike other countries with a similar sized population – Scotland, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand – Ireland has a weak city structure with just five cities with a population above 50,000 (and only two above 100,000), that limits the ability to create balanced growth.  More modest growth will be sought in regional towns.  While growth would be welcome in rural areas, the priority is to stop further decline and to create resilience, sustainability and to improve quality of life.

There are a couple of big challenges in preparing the full NPF and getting it put on a statutory basis.  The first is the seeming paradox between ‘making hard choices’ and ‘addressing all parts of Ireland and avoiding the perception of winners and losers’.  The plan needs to make strategic decisions and prioritize areas for development and investment while also persuading everybody that those decisions are for the ‘national/regional good’ and that there is something there for them.  Given the legacy of the NSS, the localist/clientelist nature of Irish politics, and the siloed nature of government depts/agencies, that will be a challenge.  Second, and related, is given that the proposers are a minority government, the process of getting political support may involve a watering down of the plans aims, or the plan being tweaked in a way that undermines the plan’s logic to curry favour or ensure votes.  Third, in preparing the plan, it needs to be made clear how it will be implemented in practice, how it will be resourced, and how its progress will be tracked and steered back onto course if it falters, to persuade people to have faith that this isn’t a NSS v.2, but a strategic plan that will actually work in practice.

As someone who is in favour of a planned and coordinated approach – through a guiding framework, not a heavy-handed roadmap – the publication of the consultation documents for the NPF is a welcome first step.  The next step is to develop a full plan that can achieve political and public buy-in.  Part of the process to try and ensure this is, on the one hand, to produce a detailed evidence-base and various scenarios, and on the other to invite submissions as part of a consultative phase.

To make a submission about the proposed NPF go to the website and follow the instructions provided; or npf@housing.gov.ie; or write to:

NPF Submissions,
Forward Planning Section,
Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government,
Custom House,
Dublin D01 W6X0

The deadline for receipt of all submissions is 12 noon on Thursday 16th March 2017.

Some related media commentary: RTE 1, Drivetime interview; RTE Radio 1 News at One; RTE 1 Primetime.

For additional information see the Ireland 2040 website.

Rob Kitchin

A week into Trump’s presidency it is already clear how the new administration is going prosecute its election promises and objectives.  Here’s a short mapping of twenty-odd tactics in play or are muted to come into play shortly.  While protests and individual acts of resistance may have some effect, it is clear that those opposed to Trump will need their own organized playbook of tactics to counter each of those listed below.  And these need leadership and coordination as the more fragmented and dispersed the response, the less effective it will be. Please feel free to use the comments section to add to the list of tactics and to suggest responses.

Objectives

  1. Use power to further the interests of corporations, the uber-wealthy and conservative ideology.
  2. Maintenance of power at all costs and put in place structures and processes that work to ensure maintenance of power into the future.

Strategy

  1. To manipulate and reshape the political and legal landscape, polity, institutions and measures.
  2. Enact new and undo/rollback existing legislation and programmes, and deepen privatization.

Specific tactics

  1. Remove people’s voting rights – cast doubt on legitimacy of some voters and voting procedures; purge people from voter registration; make it more difficult to register, etc.
  2. Gerrymander – redraw the boundaries of election districts to ensure it is difficult for Democrats to secure enough seats and balance of power regardless of the popular vote.
  3. Push through restricting legislation that limits powers of administrations in democrat-held constituencies.
  4. Claim executive power for and rule on issues/domains, regardless of statuary basis, on the assumption will not be challenged (and if is challenged ignore and continue threats/bullying).
  5. Use budget and legal sanctions or threats of sanctions to bully agencies and jurisdictions that resist executive power.
  6. Appoint people to senior posts in organizations/agencies that are diametrically opposed to the values and logics of those organizations/agencies and have a vested interest in halting their work.
  7. Create manufactured crises – declare issues that have been on-going managed issues as crises that need specific interventions (such as border with Mexico, immigration, etc. with exceptions such as multiple gun deaths; they are everyday, normal events).
  8. Declare states of emergency/exception to override other legislation and codes of ethics, etc.
  9. Create personal exceptions, such as not properly disinvesting from companies or declaring taxes.
  10. Gag government employees and strictly control the flow of information from official sources.
  11. Undermine and discredit official and media sources and science with ‘alternative facts’, slurs, lies, gaslighting, funding cuts. Tenure and freedom of speech of academics will come under increasing threat.
  12. Intimidate media with threats, arrests, exclusions, new regulations, censorship, etc.
  13. Undermine/attack opponents as un-American, etc; expect new version of McCathyism and associated witchhunts and persecutions.
  14. Expect very strong prosecution of whistleblowers.
  15. Expect roll-back on transparency, accountability, open data, open government, open science, etc. with accompanying cuts in budgets.
  16. Undo lots of regulations that protects citizens rights, freedoms, health and safety, working conditions, etc., enabling companies and others to abuse/exploit people without penalty. Erode social justice in general.
  17. Normalize everyday discrimination, prejudice and violence (patriarchy and sexual assault, racism, white privilege, homophobia, disablism, etc).
  18. Adopt isolationist and selfish positions that might get short term effect but long term harm to economy and society (e.g., America First, withdrawing from trade agreements).
  19. Privatise state services (e.g., public administration) and commons (such as national parks, state-owned lands).
  20. Increase in militarized policing and increased powers to the police, security and intelligence agencies.

Lie, lie, lie … attack, attack, attack … distract, distract, distract … deny, deny, deny …

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Over the last month, strong attention in Irish public debate has concerned the dramatically deteriorating housing conditions of an increasing number of people in the country, especially in the main cities. Launched by a variegated network of activists and groups, the Home Sweet Home campaign has been centred around the occupation of a vacant building owned by NAMA in the city centre of Dublin to give a shelter to homeless people who experience on a daily basis the serious lacks of the Irish welfare system in relation to housing. Solidarity towards the campaign has rapidly spread in the city (with more than a thousand of people volunteering in the project) and all around the country. I here do not want to account for the actions and strategies occurred up to last week when the building was evacuated following a court’s injunction; my aim is to stress the political importance of the Home Sweet Home campaign since it brought back direct action in Irish political arena.

The main political aim of Home Sweet Home is to give a grassroots-led response to the “housing crisis”, an idea full of political ambivalence. In fact the “housing crisis” has been recently invoked and used by the Irish government to support new supply-centred measures, thus guaranteeing conspicuous profits for developers. However such specious rhetoric collides with the material constraints of thousands of households who struggle to pay the rent or are in arrears with their mortgage; quoting David Madden and Peter Marcuse, we see how “the state of their housing is critical indeed” (2016: 11). So the direct action promoted by the Home Sweet Home campaign represents a response by those whose lives are severely conditioned by the “housing crisis”.

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Direct action in housing through squatting vacant buildings is a long-standing political practice in Europe which has been traditionally associated by social and political scientists to several positive consequences for transformative politics, such as the experience of direct-democratic decision-making, and the prefiguration of another mode of organizing society through the challenge of private property rights and the power of making profit (exchange value) over material needs (use value). More recently the squatting of vacant buildings has re-appeared in southern Europe (where is has a strong social and political tradition), notably in Italy and Spain.

Spain represents a particularly relevant case for the Irish audience since the events leading to the “housing crisis” there echo what happened in Ireland with the boom and the burst of the bubble. Following a massive wave of evictions and foreclosures (made easy by a very punitive mortgage law) all around Spain, “mortgaged lives” (to quote the powerful concept introduced in a text edited by the current mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, a former spokesman of the PAH) soon started to organize to give a response to such a dramatic trend: the Plataforma de los Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) was created in Barcelona in 2009 and rapidly spread all around the Spanish country (currently counting more than 200 nodes).

For sure one of the main strategies leading to the success of the PAH has been its ability to cope with difference both in terms of people involved and repertoire of action, combining practices borrowed from anticapitalist/radical autonomy (e.g squatting of vacant buildings owned by financial institutions) with reformist practices (e.g. negotiating with banks, appealing the Spanish mortgage law in courts). Urban scholar Sophie Gonick has defined this encounter between different visions/perspectives realized by the PAH as agonistic engagement. Here the point is not to review all the different strategies and successes of the PAH, but emphasize how such agonistic engagement (deeply embedded in direct action in the form of blocking evictions or occupying buildings) has determined a double shift:

– in public discourse/popular narratives around the housing crisis, challenging those discourses/narratives blaming evicted/foreclosed people as irresponsible;

– in the material living conditions of thousands of people who got their eviction blocked or obtained new social housing agreements thanks to the direct action of the PAH.

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PAH activists occupying a bank

While I do not believe in the possibility of simply imitating/replicating what done by the PAH because it is the result of contextual factors and practices, I think it is important to keep it as a source of inspiration and reference for a campaign such as Home Sweet Home and for all those activists who struggle everyday for a more inclusive and equal system in which basic needs/rights (like housing) are acknowledged and defended.

Direct action like the re-appropriation of a vacant building destined to real estate speculation and private profit is important because it sheds lights on the political possibilities that we have here right now: while formal institutions are completely trapped in market/profit-centred measures/rationalities and some critical voices continue to call for a massive public intervention in the housing sector through new social housing construction, Home Sweet Home has unveiled another political possibility centred around re-appropriation, people’s engagement and the opposition to the power of non-transparent institutions serving private profit instead of promoting public wealth.

Of course the path initiated by Home Sweet Home is still new and will have to face a massive resistance from the part of conservative institutions (and the legal system developed to serve the interests of those in power and preserve the status quo). However direct action is able to create among those involved a passionate awareness and hope in the possibility of change, shaping new political subjects who do not see themselves anymore as passive receipts of the decisions made over their lives but are ready to create new worlds centred around solidarity, inclusion, respect, redistribution and mutual care.

Cesare Di Feliciantonio

Cesare Di Feliciantonio is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Geography Trinity College Dublin. His work lies at the intersection of social/urban geography, political economy, housing studies and urban studies with a focus on neoliberal subjectification and its contestations.

The Rebuilding Ireland Plan has allocated insufficient funding, is manipulating the use of the term ‘social housing’ and misleading people with its promises

The government has been responding to the Apollo House action by stating that dealing with the housing crisis is its “number one priority” and that their housing plan, Rebuilding Ireland, will address the crisis through the investment of €5bn in “a truly ambitious social housing programme of 47,000 units to 2021”.

Minister Coveney claims that “There’s a real acceleration happening here in terms of delivery” and has stated that there will be more than “21,000 social housing solutions provided in 2017”. With Budget 2017 providing “for a very significant increase in housing funding (of €1.3 billion).

But the Minister’s figures and the Rebuilding Ireland Housing Action plan just don’t add up.

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The graph above is the forecast provision of social housing in the Rebuilding Ireland Plan from 2016-2021. But in this you see that the new construction of social housing (represented by dark blue shade at the bottom) is only a very small proportion of the overall 100,000 ‘social housing’ units to be provided over the next 5 years.

The majority of ‘social housing’ is in fact not new build social housing at all but are various housing support schemes provided through the private rented sector such as the Housing Assistance Payment and the Rental Accommodation Scheme.

These social housing ‘solutions’ (as the Minister’s refers to, note change of language from ‘new build housing units’ to ‘solutions’) are temporary, do not provide tenants with security of tenure and most importantly do not increase the much needed supply of real permanent social housing homes.

The schemes such as RAS and HAP have not met their delivery targets due to lack of availability of private rental housing (thus the governments social housing strategy also exacerbates the rental crisis – as it is taking supply from a sector that requires greater supply – a third of all tenancies are state funded social housing schemes.These should not be classified as social housing as it is not providing a secure form of tenancy).

Of course the HAP schemes suit government because they can reduce the housing waiting lists and make it appear as if the housing crisis is being dealt with – also while subsidising private landlords and avoiding allocating the necessary increase in funding to government/local authority state provision of affordable housing.

The Rebuilding Ireland Quarterly Review published in November gave the first official figures for what is represented in the graph above and breaks down the 47,000 ‘new social housing’ units figure.

This outlines that of the 47,000 social housing units by 2021:·

It is expected that 26,000 units will be built (construction, voids, Part V) exclusively for social housing

11,000 will be acquired (by LA, AHB & HA) from the market

And 10,000 units will be leased by LAs and AHBs – this will be a mix of units from the existing housing stock and newly-built units

Now the key figure here is the new build one because this provides additional housing supply. This is particularly important in Dublin, the commuter counties and other large cities (Galway, Cork) which need new units built and do not have the same vacancy level as other parts of the country. So the actual figure for ‘new build’ social housing units is 26,000 units (just over half the headline 47,000 figure).

Now as is mentioned this also includes bringing local authority voids back into use and new housing built under Part V (the 10% social housing provided in large private housing developments). But Part V delivered just 65 units in 2015 (but 286 were in progress).

Given that Part V delivered 3,246 units in 2007 (4.5% of total 71,000 private units delivered), and that was when Part V was 20% of all developments – which has since been reduced to 10% (but developers could pay cash to the local authority in lieu of the units and this is no longer available), then using the same percentage, then on the basis of 25,000 private units per annum, Part V is likely to deliver no more than 1,250 units per annum in the coming years.

That brings the 26,000 ‘new builds’ down to 24,750.

It was also estimated that 800 local authority voids would be brought back into use in 2017 so taking that away it leaves us with 23,950 new real social housing units planned to be built between now and 2021: which is 3,991 units per annum.

At that rate of delivery it would take 22 years to house all those of the current social housing waiting lists (90,000 households) into real permanent social housing homes.

How can that, in any way, be deemed an acceptable time frame of delivery to address the crisis? Particularly given that housing need is increasing significantly.

So what about the increase in the allocation in social housing investment in Budget 2017? The total exchequer Housing allocation in 2017 will be €1.2 billion –up from €814million in 2016.

However this is the same trick – the main increase is on temporary social housing through the private rental sector. Current (mainly spent on private rental sector schemes and leasing from private sector) increases from €382m to €566m while capital expenditure (includes new building and purchase of permanent social housing) only increased by an additional €150 million from €432m in 2016 to €655m in 2017.

But the ‘housing’ capital budget appears also includes €50m for an ‘infrastructure’ fund for local authorities to enable the development of private sites for housing, the payment for previous social housing already built by housing associations, the mortgage to rent scheme, urban regeneration, €70m for retrofitting existing social housing stock, €45 million for grants for private housing and funding for schemes such as the Pyrite Remediation Scheme. So while we don’t have an exact figure we can see that the actual budget allocation for new building (and purchase) of social housing is certainly under €400 million.

Therefore, the social housing units outlined in the Rebuilding Ireland plan are in fact largely various forms of private sector and privatised housing delivery. They are dependent on various forms of private financing, ‘off-balance sheet’ mechanisms, Public Private Partnerships, acquisition from the private market and delivery from Part V mechanisms.

The plan itself acknowledges that securing the social housing output is “dependent on a number of critical factors” including, most importantly,

“A functioning private residential construction sector, with levels of supply to meet demand (delivering 10% social housing units under Part V and providing a supply for targeted acquisitions).”

Social housing provision is being privatised onto the private rented sector– which has meant a failure to achieve social housing targets and reduced private rental stock available to the wider population. This is not a ‘social housing’ strategy!

And this is where the plan ultimately fails. Its output of social housing is dependent on a very significant increase in supply in the private housing market which has already proven in its inability to do so.

What is required is an increase of the social housing capital allocation to €2bn per annum to local authorities and housing associations to ensure the building of at least 12,000 new permanent social housing units. This is alongside the changing of NAMA’s mandate to prioritise its social mandate over the maximising financial return and to ensure the 20,000 units it builds are affordable and public housing units – and to use its 3bn cash reserves to build an additional affordable and social 30,000 units.

It is only when we get close to building at least 20,000 new affordable and social housing units per annum that we can get close to addressing the national emergency of the housing crisis.

Ultimately the only guarantee of affordable supply of housing to a broad range of income groups (from the lowest income to middle income workers) is by the state through local authorities (with support from Housing associations). A social mix in developments can be achieved by the state building affordable housing available to different income groups.

This should be a mix of traditional public housing, cost rental housing, shared ownership, equity partnerships and cooperative housing. It is the time for a ‘New Deal’ in housing where we take this opportunity to ensure the provision of affordable and high quality homes as a right to all in this country.

It is great to see that Home Sweet Home’s Emergency Housing Plan includes these ideas as some of its core proposals.

Home Sweet Home outlines that there should be the provision of “a minimum of 10,000 new social/public housing units owned by Local Authorities and Approved Housing Bodies per year for the next decade in order to clear all social housing lists”.

The government should “suspend all sales by NAMA of land and assets and use its finances to deliver 10,000 new social and affordable housing units for families and low-income households”.

Most importantly Home Sweet Home outlines that this new social and affordable housing building programme can be financed through “ceasing all tax cuts until the current housing and homelessness crisis has been averted”. It states that it “is morally reprehensible that we have so far given more than €2.5 billion in tax cuts while homelessness has doubled and thousands of children are spending their childhoods growing up in hotel rooms”.

They also highlight correctly that “should borrowing be necessary, the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) has borrowed €500m at an interest rate of 0.81%. This low cost borrowing could provide up to 5,000 social housing units per year”. Furthermore, they point out that in 2014 the Irish League of Credit Unions formally proposed making up to €5bn available for social and affordable housing schemes but “two years on and Government has yet to formally respond. This source of funding should be accessed as a matter of urgency”.

The reality is that the government in its Rebuilding Ireland Plan has allocated insufficient funding to the new build of permanent real social housing homes. It is manipulating the use of the term ‘social housing’ and misleading people with the figures it is using in order to suggest its plans will address the crisis – when in fact there is much less new build of real social housing in the plans than the government is trying to portray.

Rebuilding Ireland is a fundamentally flawed plan as it driven more by an ideological aversion to the state building affordable homes than evidence-based policy solutions based on meeting the housing needs and right to housing for people.

The Plan is based on the taxpayer incentivising and subsidising the private construction industry and private speculative finance through the various private rental social housing schemes, the ‘help-to-buy’ subsidy (for which there was no cost-benefit analysis done!), Real Estate Investment Trust tax breaks, the sell-off and leasing of local authority land to developers and the sale by NAMA at discount of land and property to vulture funds and investors.

The alternative approach outlined above is, therefore, urgently required. And that is why it is really important that the Apollo House and Home Sweet Home campaign gain sufficient public support to achieve this policy change.

Rory Hearne

*Originally published on Broadsheet.ie

There is still time to use NAMA to do what it should have been used to do from the outset- to help heal the scars of the crash and austerity and the injustices of the bailouts.

Yesterday (3rd of January) at 12 noon the HomeSweetHome campaign marched from Apollo House to hand in a letter and petition to the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, calling on him to direct NAMA to use its property assets to address the homelessness and housing crisis.

The government and NAMA have been trying to hide from the public the significant role that NAMA could be playing in addressing the housing crisis. But the Apollo action means there is no more hiding for NAMA and the government.

This article provides a detailed overview and analysis of why and how NAMA should be used to address the housing crisis. A number of these points are included in the HomeSweetHome letter to the Minister.

While myself and other academics and housing activists have been making the case about NAMA for a number of years it has taken the innovative and inspiring Apollo House action to bring widespread public attention to this.

And it has become even more urgent as the homelessness crisis continues to worsen. The latest monthly figures show that there are now 1,205 families, with 2,549 children, living in emergency accommodation in Ireland.

These figures how that the occupation of the vacant NAMA building, Apollo House, and its transformation into safe and secure accommodation for homeless people is the correct, and socially just, thing to do in order to get public and political attention focused on our housing and homelessness crisis which is a national humanitarian emergency.

The figures show that the the dismissive criticisms made recently by various politicians and Dublin City Council officials about Apollo House are wrong.

Those comments are part of an-going attempt to undermine the massive groundswell of public support for the HomeSweetHome action.

This truth is the core injustice of NAMA itself – it is a truth that government and NAMA officials have attempted to hide from the Irish people.

The NAMA injustice is that NAMA is a state (i.e. belongs to me and you) agency that has the buildings, land and finance that is being used to enrich wealthy property investors rather than being used to end a homelessness crisis that sees hundreds forced to sleep on our streets and thousands of homeless families and children traumatised living in emergency accommodation.

The central problem with NAMA is that senior NAMA officials (operating under direction from the Minister of Finance) have prioritised NAMA’s purpose outlined in Section 10 of the NAMA Act 2009 which is to “obtain the best achieveable financial return for the state”.

 

The problem with this is that while it might appear that NAMA is maximising the commercial return to the state and taxpayer, it is in fact playing a major role in worsening the housing crisis and thus adding to the economic and social costs of dealing with the housing crisis.

NAMA has sold off loans, land and property to foreign vulture funds who have evicted tenants and raised rents to unaffordable levels.

Most disgracefully NAMA has sold development land (sites) to investors that had the potential for up to 20,000 housing units. However, just 1,100 (5%) of these have been built or are under construction. The investors have hoarded the land, waiting for (and contributing to) housing prices to rise.

NAMA’s current approach is thus worsening the housing crisis and resulting in a significant cost to the state through the necessity for increased spending on homeless accommodation and private rental schemes such as RAS, HAP etc.

It also means that there is no guarantee that the sale of its land and assets will be used in the provision of affordable housing (or other uses). In all likelihood in the current market – financiers are purchasing them to hoard and accrue value before resale in future years rather than redevelopment.

As I wrote in an opinion piece published in the Irish Times on NAMA in 2014:

“By pushing for maximum commercial returns, Nama is working against the interests of those looking for an affordable and secure home. It is continuing the speculative-asset approach to housing that fuelled the crisis. This promotes residential property as a commodity rather than a social good.

Nama is facilitating a massive transfer of wealth created by the Irish people to foreign and domestic capitalist investors.

But Section 2 of the NAMA Act 2009 states that NAMA’s mandate is “to contribute to the social and economic development of the State”.

So why is this not NAMA’s priority?

Furthermore, under the provisions of section 14 of the NAMA Act the Minister for Finance has the power to issue a direction to NAMA.

The Minister Finance could, therefore, as part of converting NAMA into an affordable housing agency, direct NAMA to prioritise its Social Mandate (section 2) over its commercial maximising mandate (Section 10) in all of its operations. Also this Social Mandate should be made to include the prioritisation of the delivery of social and affordable housing.

The Minister should then direct NAMA to sell its property related assets in Ireland (loans relating to land and residential property and holdings of property and land) to local authorities, housing co-operatives, community land and housing trusts, and housing associations rather than vulture funds and REITs.

NAMA should also use the 6000 residential units currently in its possession to house homeless and people off the housing waiting lists as these units become vacant.

Most importantly, NAMA is planning to build (finance and develop) 20,000 houses by 2020 and 90 % of these are to be in the greater Dublin area).

However, the only legal obligation on NAMA is to provide 10% of these units for social housing.

Furthermore, while NAMA states that these units will be ‘starter homes’, at market rates they will be out of reach for many first-time buyers. In 2017 3,500 of these are expected to be built (2,500 are already under construction in the Dublin area). A third of these units- 1,100 of these units – should be used to house all families who are currently living in emergency accommodation, such as hotels and B and B, in Dublin.

Such accommodation is totally unsuited to their needs and particularly those of children who may suffer lasting damage from such accommodation.

It should be noted that NAMA has provided around 2000 social housing units to date. In fact, local authorities have been offered 6,635 units by NAMA e.g. over 800 houses were offered to Dublin City Council but only were 400 taken up, largely because of insufficient funding being made available to local authorities by government and issues relating to over concentration of social housing in certain areas.

The Minister for Environment, should immediately direct local authorities to take up all NAMA offers of social housing and that these will be funded and sanctioned by his Department.

Furthermore, NAMA could build tens of thousands of additional homes on its own and local authority land through the use of its cash reserves and delaying the repayment of its remaining debt. NAMA has already paid off 81 per cent of its debt of €31 billion (€25 billion), so that only €5 billion remains to be repaid.

Currently the Minister Finance and NAMA are planning to pay down the remainder by 2020 and Michael Noonan, has repeatedly defended NAMA’s ‘maximising of the commercial return’ from the sale of its land and buildings in order to pay back this debt as soon as possible.

But that timeframe is arbitrarily set by NAMA and the Minister for Finance. NAMA can fulfil its commercial mandate and pay down the debt – just over a longer time frame – through the development of affordable housing schemes using its cash reserves and ability to raise low interest finance to fund development.

This can be staged over a longer time frame than that currently fixed. For example, NAMA could fund through its cash reserves and lending to local authorities and housing associations the building of upwards of 50,000 affordable (affordable homes for broad range of income groups through social rental, cost rental and affordable purchase) housing units in coming years using NAMA and other state land.

The 50,000 figure is based on 20,000 units on NAMA land and using NAMA’s cash reserves and other assets at a cost of €500 million per 10,000 units of affordable housing and €1bn per 6000 public/social units.

This would save the State a substantial proportion of the €100 million annual expenditure in emergency accommodation and hundreds of millions more euro on various social housing schemes in the private rental sector.

So if NAMA, for example, provided 20,000 social and affordable units, it could save the State at least €1 billion over five years, and at least €2 billion over ten years (this would increase if 50,000 units were built), which equates to the return NAMA is supposed to provide to the taxpayer anyway.

Furthermore, this approach would provide a longer term rental income stream and housing assets to the State, and would address the humanitarian disaster of homelessness and the social and economic costs of the wider housing crisis. NAMA has already developed a model for doing this using its NARPS special purpose vehicle, and is building some social and affordable housing across the country, although at very low numbers.

But there is still time to use NAMA to do what it should have been used to do from the outset- to help heal the scars of the crash and austerity and the injustices of the bailouts.

It could do this by contributing to the social recovery through social and affordable housing provision for the Irish people rather than fuelling the economic recovery of the already wealthy global and Irish investors.

As I wrote in 2014:

“When our financial system was in peril there was no obstacle too large for the State to overcome. Now we face an equivalent crisis in housing needs. It is legitimate to ask why the same radical approach is not applied to the housing crisis. It appears the Government is unwilling to stand up to the financial and property investors”.

The Receivers appointed by the NAMA to Apollo House obtained an injunction from the High Court directing the occupiers to vacate the premises by noon January 11 2017. The effect of this is that at least 40 people, currently housed at Apollo House, will be rendered homeless and forced to live on the streets.

In the coming days a lot of public support is required to convert this brave citizen’s act into an unstoppable movement for a right to an affordable and secure home for all in Ireland.

You can start by signing the HomeSweetHome Open Letter to Michael Noonan, demanding he use NAMA’s resources to help end the homelessness crisis here

Rory Hearne

* Originally published on 3rd January, 2016 on Broadsheet.ie

There has been much discussion, and not a little disagreement, about the Housing Bill 2016 (Housing Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2016) currently going through the Seanad.  In essence, it is the Government’s attempt to ‘fast track’ the delivery of new housing units.  And while there has been some debate about a small number of legislative changes that will, potentially, give tenants more rights, the bill offers an example of more of the same, rather than fundamental departure, in terms of the housing policy pursued by successive governments.

In this post, I want to do two things. Firstly, I want to look briefly at some core points of the bill with a view to identifying where they depart or continue existing policy.  Secondly, I want to place the state’s approach to focusing on stimulating supply through incentivizing the development sector in a historical context.

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The Housing Bill 2016

The Housing Bill 2016 is generally a continuation of the kinds of housing policies successive governments have been pursuing for years now. Its basic premise is to remove (more) barriers to development in order to increase supply quickly. Most fundamentally, it assumes that supply is the single most important element of the housing problem and that remedying the issue of supply will have a ‘trickle down’ effect to subsequently alleviate the other crises of housing affordability, homelessness, and tenure insecurity.

As I want to argue below, this assumption is highly problematic, as borne out from historical evidence in the Irish context.  But before I get to this, I want to briefly focus on three key points from the bill that have gained media and activist attention.

Firstly, the bill includes a clause to curb wholesale evictions when a property is sold to a large investor. It builds on the so-called ‘Tyrllestown amendment’ by including a provision that landlords with 20 properties or more cannot evict tenants when selling to an investor.  This protects against a particularly high-profile form of eviction, but one which is perhaps very limited in the overall scheme of things.  Some estimates suggest that this will affect only 0.56% of landlords*.  Moreover, a new get-out clause was also included in the bill, which allows a landlord to pursue a vacant sale (i.e. evict existing tenants) if they can prove that the value of the sale is decreased by 20% as a result of occupancy.  Given the current market conditions it may not be difficult for landlords to ‘prove’ this.

Secondly, the bill makes provisions to amend Part 4 Tenancy by removing the six-month window at the beginning and end of a four-year lease agreement in which a landlord can terminate a tenancy.  This improves the rights of tenants but offers limited protections in a context where a number of other gaping loopholes exist that allow landlords to terminate tenancies. Moreover, in a context where rents have increased by 40 per cent since 2011 this will do little to combat the tsunami of economic evictions taking place.

Thirdly, the bill proposes to give increased powers to An Bord Pleanála by introducing new ‘fast-track planning permissions’ for ‘strategic housing development’.  This removes planning powers, in particular instances, from the local authorities.  The bill proposes that:

“Applications for permission for strategic housing developments shall be made direct to the Board (An Bórd Pleanála) and not to the local planning authorities.”

The rationale here is to reduce the time it takes developers to secure planning permission, and thus reduce the overall time it takes for new housing supply to come on stream.

In the Irish planning system, An Bord Pleanála operates as an adjudicator of last resort on planning decisions made by local authorities: “Anyone applying for planning permission and anyone who made written submissions or observations to the planning authority on a planning application, can appeal a subsequent planning decision to An Bord Pleanála”.

As such, the ‘fast track’ approach, while ensuring a quicker process for developers, potentially removes one more avenue for community opposition to new development. Given the less than exemplary recent history of sustainable development in Ireland, the removal of recourse to objection is potentially worrying.

It has been documented in academic work by Linda Fox-Rogers and Enda Murphy and Gavin Daly that during the boom local authority planning departments were put under pressure to deliver favourable planning outcomes.  One mechanism used was the incorporation of ‘pre-planning’ talks, whereby a developer submitting an application could avail of extensive meetings (even negotiations) with the planning authority to ensure that a planning application could fit the criteria to be granted permission.  Will An Bord Pleanála, which is an independent body, now also be expected to engage in pre-planning discussions with developers given the political pressure to quickly increase supply?  If the answer is yes, it could seriously undermine the independence of the authority.  If the answer is no, the new measures might well fail to deliver the fast-track supply of housing the bill promises.

Underpinning the bill as a whole is the assumption that the supply of housing is the biggest challenge to overcome.  This dogma, although increasingly challenged by various housing experts, is stubbornly trotted out in the media by politicians and vested interests.  This simple formula for solving periodic housing crises, namely increase supply through removing barriers to development and incentivizing the construction and investment sector, has had a long history in Ireland, with highly variable outcomes.

 

Build it and they will come

This approach has deep roots in the history of Irish Housing Policy. Indeed, the first Fine Gael government sought to deal with a crisis of tenement housing by offering grants to incentivise higher income families to take out mortgages to buy their own home, thus freeing up units in tenements for low income families.  When Fianna Fail came to power in 1932, they instead embarked on a programme of building social housing, in the process offering incentives for the construction sector during a period of relative economic stagnation.  These two moves set in place the conditions that have remained stable in Irish housing policy since – a focus on homeownership as the optimum model of housing tenure and a close relationship between the successive Governments and the construction sector.  These close relationships have provided fluctuating outcomes for Irish housing.

To take two broad, and broadly different, examples.

Firstly, attempts by the state to solve period social housing crisis have in the past focused on strategies to increase supply and/or renovate existing stock.  Moreover, this has often been achieved through incentivizing the private sector.  For example, the plans to create Ballymun emerged in the context of a crisis of tenant housing in Dublin city centre.  Built using new rapid-build materials, Ballymun was intended to as modernist utopia delivering a large supply of working class housing.  However, while the development proved a relative success in the early years, the state’s failure to deliver local jobs coupled with the withdrawal of Dublin Corporation investment and general upkeep of the flats led to spiralling social problems in the area.  The supply of housing alone was not enough to make the community sustainable.

However, when the regeneration of Ballymun was slated in the 1990s, the focus was once again overwhelmingly on the ‘bricks and mortar’ approach to supply.  Although the plans included provisions for community and economic regeneration, these promises remained largely undelivered by the state.  Moreover, the regeneration was to be financed by the construction of new private housing units on site, which was expected to also lift the economic profile of the area.   Thus, what the community got was new public and private housing units, but less in terms of long-term investment in the community or the local economy.  The regeneration during the 1990s failed to deliver on long-term community development because of a focus on a supply of housing units rather than taking a more holistic view of housing.

Despite these problems, the Ballymun model of regeneration became the template for regeneration schemes in places like Cork, Limerick, and Dublin.  Using a Public Private Partnership (PPP) approach, regeneration of social housing was expected to deliver new social housing, enhance community development, and deliver private sector housing supply.  Moreover, it was expected to do this by incentivizing the private development sector.  Many of these PPP schemes collapsed with the property crash, leaving communities high and dry.

Secondly, from the 1986 Urban Renewal Act on, the state introduced a series of tax incentive schemes to increase the supply of property development in urban and rural areas.  This was a major factor in kick-starting the Celtic Tiger property bubble, which saw an astronomical increase in the supply of housing.  Between 1991 and 2006, 762,541 housing units were built in Ireland.  However, this supply did not lead to more affordable housing. In fact, house prices increased by between 300 and 400 per cent in different parts of the country.

The tax incentive schemes were extended far beyond the point at which they were necessary.  These policies to increase supply were a key factor in the creation of the 2,846 unfinished housing estates identified in 2010, including 78,195 complete and occupied units, 19,830 under construction, 23,250 complete and vacant, and planning permission in place for a further 58,025.

Moreover, the unregulated development that resulted from reducing the barriers for developers actually undermined the creation of sustainable communities built around strong transport links and services.  One of the reasons planned developments like Adamstown and Clongriffin failed to deliver on their promises, for example, was that unregulated development in neighbouring local authorities undermined plans for the timely delivery of schools, transport links, and other amenities in tandem with the phased delivery of housing.

Following the crash, there was little legislative change introduced to the planning system. And while the development sector has been significantly affected by the financial and housing crash, this has been the impact of external factors rather than designed through government policy.

The current housing and homelessness crisis is a direct outcome of the series of systemic problems created throughout the boom and the policy responses to the crash that ignored issues like mortgage debt, the decline in social housing provision, and the changing character of the rental sector, and continued to support existing and new development interests.

 

More than supply

The Housing Bill aims to solve a series of complex problems in the housing system through a short-term intervention to increase supply.  While this might be what vested interests in the sector need to get building in the short term, it will only exacerbate conditions for most of us with regard to our access to secure and affordable housing.

It foolish to assume that focusing on the needs of the same vested interests will remedy these problems.  Firstly, because they have never solved these problems in the past and indeed created many of them. Secondly, because the housing market has changed since the crash.

For financial actors, the rental market has become more profitable in recent years as a form of investment.  For international funds, in particular consistent rising rents is essential for them to return growing profits on their investments.  As such, a greater supply of rental stock will not mean more affordability – there will still be pressure to push up rents.  In combination with the incentives for first time buyers, measures supporting developers, landlords, and investors will only serve to further inflate the housing market.

In the meantime, the clear and modest demands to increase the supply of social housing, or improve tenants’ rights are being side-lined.  For example, the Secure Rents campaign asks for three things:  to regulate increases in rent by linking rents to the Consumer Price Index; to revoke the right of landlords to evict tenants for the purpose of sale; and to move from current 4 year leases to indefinite lease terms. These provisions are not radical by any means, but rather start to address some of the imbalances between the rights of tenants and those of landlords.  Indeed, tenant rights are particularly poor in Ireland in comparison to the rest of Europe. These provisions would not unnecessarily penalise developers, landlords, or investors. But they would slow down some of the crisis conditions.

More starkly, within the context of a housing crisis of unprecedented proportions, the Irish Housing Network have made a call for a complete ban on evictions.  It is worth remembering here that the number of homeless people in Dublin has risen by 35 per cent in a year.

In sum, the Housing Bill is unlikely to change the current system to any great extent – in terms of tenants, the new amendments will not make much of a dent, while in terms of development interests, the changes are just the latest iteration in a long-standing state support for this sector.  But in the context of the current housing crisis, this response is inadequate at best and has the potential to worsen the problem.

The assumption of supply being the most significant factor is highly problematic, as we can see from historical evidence.  The evidence suggests that relying on the logic of supply (without considering issues of affordability and security of tenure) will create increasingly dysfunctional housing systems.  It is time that we finally took stock and addressed the bigger housing problems that repeat themselves.

This is an emergency. And an emergency requires new thinking.

Cian O’Callaghan

*My thanks to Lorcan Sirr for providing this figure