Darragh O’Brien and I sat across from each other in a small private room in the Dail in Dublin. The Fianna Fail spokesperson on housing was eager from the start to give me his party’s views on the housing crisis in the Republic of Ireland.
Why housing? was my first question to him.
“I was in foreign affairs for over two years and then we had a reshuffle last year. Our party leader Micheál Martin asked me to take over housing, planning and local government.
“I’m delighted that I have this position as the issue of housing is acute. It is an absolute crisis throughout the country but it is particularly acute in Dublin. Being a Dublin TD and someone with a finance background and representing one of the youngest constituencies Fingal, where we see young couples not being able to get on the housing ladder, paying extortionate rents and homelessness.”
If it’s a crisis what is Fianna Fail’s solution? I asked him.
“The reason there is a crisis is twofold,” replied Mr O’Brien. “The first is supply and the second is affordability. There is no silver bullet, but first we have to take a look at what we did before which worked. The State was very good at housing its people, going way back to the 1930s and 1940s. Even when the State had no money it was able to build homes for people.
“One solution that we have been pushing very hard for is the re-establishment of an affordable housing scheme for first-time buyers. Let’s build affordable homes on State-owned land. We have it costed. We got €310 million in the last budget but the Government still haven’t started it because I don’t think they believe in it.
“Second is in relation to direct build social homes. We need to get the supply into the market now. We have about 130,000 people overall on housing waiting lists, many of them are stuck in a broken rental market with extortionate rents.
“If you look at the very worst years of the most recent crisis from 2008 to 2011 (following the global economic crash) Fianna Fail were building about 4,000 public homes per annum. That’s dropped to about 1,000 homes per annum now. We need to be building about 40,000 homes – private and public.”
I asked the TD about the number of private houses that should be built and given, the high rents at the moment, what were his views on what would happen to those mortgage holders in the event of another economic slump?
“There is an affordability issue which is acute in Dublin and to a lesser extent in the other cities about the purchase of homes,” said Mr O’Brien.
“That’s why we want an affordable housing scheme which is effectively a shared ownership scheme where the State would take an equity in a house. We’re looking at (for first-time buyers) that one would be able to purchase a proper three-bedroom house for between an average of €160,000 and €210,00. The State would be taking a 20 per cent stake in that house which you would be paying back over time.
“This was actually done before. Fine Gael and the Irish Labour Party set this scheme aside in 2011. Since 2014 we have been calling for this. If you get that supply into the market with the monies we’ve been allocated in the last budget we could build about 7,000 affordable homes on State-owned land. There is enough State-owned land in the Republic to build about
“The fundamental difference between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael is that Fine Gael don’t believe in State intervention, whilst we do. We believe that the State should lead by example and intervene where necessary.
“We also believe in home ownership. Sinn Fein has repeatably voted against affordable housing. They would rather that everyone was in public housing. Their priority is public housing and public rent.
“We have no issue with public housing but we believe it is an appropriate and justified aspiration for people and families to own their own homes.”
We then moved on to discuss Fine Gael’s housing strategy Rebuilding Ireland.
The Fianna Fail TD said: “This present government lacks the ambition to tackle the housing crisis and I don’t see the emergency measures being taken. Everything is too slow.”
“The Rebuilding Ireland strategy is failing,” he claimed. “There are aspects of it which focus on rebuilding which are fine but we’ve overcomplicated it.
“There is too much centralised control from the Department of Housing. In my view they need to get out of the way for a while. That’s not about dropping standards. It about letting the local authorities get on with it.
“At the moment we’re not even treading water, we’re drowning.”