Orla Hegarty

Orla Hegarty, Assistant Professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy at University College Dublin, believes we have a chance to change direction and prioritise decent homes

One of the striking things about this pandemic is how political consequences play out in real-time. We are used to delayed reactions and short political cycles that sometimes mean the following government deal with the fallout. Housing being a case in point. However, in this ‘new normal’ the consequences of some policy moves play out in weeks, and others – such as spikes in infection – in a matter of days.

When the pandemic hit in March, the response was fast and hard – the immediate priorities were medical services, food security and keeping all but key workers at home. Mike Ryan(1) of the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that “none of us are safe until all of us are safe”. Priorities shifted and some housing problems that seemed intractable were suddenly resolved, including a rent freeze and an evictions ban.

Rooms were found for people who were on the streets, and many families in shared accommodation were moved to safety. By June, the number of people in emergency accommodation had fallen by 1,200 (700 of them children)(2), and by August the number of rentals available in Dublin had almost doubled compared to the year before(3). Many students and migrants went home and tens of thousands of properties being let to tourists, on platforms such as Airbnb, became available. Not a single new home had been built, yet everything changed.

Perhaps there were enough homes all along? Aside from homes let to tourists, the 2016 Census of Ireland confirms 183,000 others that are vacant, excluding holiday homes and commercial buildings(4). Just 10 percent of this vacancy is more than the number of new homes that will be built in 2020. This opportunity is important because in September the housing crisis will still be with us, but the government’s ‘fiscal headroom’ will not. The luxury of subsidising high-cost, newbuild homes to meet housing need may be gone.

More broadly, building up and out while cities and towns are hollowed out is unsustainable. Sprawl, high-rise and costly new infrastructure don’t make sense when there is capacity elsewhere; and empty homes are often in places with services, infrastructure and an established community, the very supports that made the lockdown tolerable.

‘The ‘locked out’ generation were priced out of homes, with the low paid – many of them key workers – being hardest hit’

By July, the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) reported that “rents in Dublin fell year-on-year in April, May and June” and that “rent inflation outside Dublin also dropped sharply”(5). In the medium term this trend is likely to continue as tourists and students
stay away, hospitality workers are furloughed, and office workers stay online.

The pandemic, remote working, health concerns and lifestyle choices will change the economics of cities and property. It is early days, but the quiet street and struggling city businesses we see are a direct consequence of policies that prioritised hotels, offices, international students and tourists over housing for citizens. The ‘locked out’ generation were priced out of homes, with the low paid – many of them key workers – being hardest hit. In fact, the common feature of many outbreaks – care homes, construction, meat plants, direct provision – is people living in inadequate and over-crowded housing.

Housing policy is core to public health, fiscal prudence and sustainable futures. We have an opportunity now to change direction, to prioritise decent homes in strong communities as the building blocks of national resilience for pandemic, recession, and climate change.

• 1 (WHO, 30 March 2020) press conference transcript: – https://bit.ly/2D6lxVk
• 2 (Focus Ireland) Emergency accommodation, all: 9,907 (March 2020)- 8,699 (June 2020), & children: 3,355 (March 2020)- 2,653 (June 2020) – https://bit.ly/3hBzh9L
• 3 (Irish Times, 22 August 2020) https://bit.ly/2D7BPNH
• 4 (Census 2016) Vacant housing statistics – https://bit.ly/3b2RTNc
• 5 (RTB, July 2020) Exploring the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Rental Prices in Ireland from January to June 2020: Early Insights from a Monthly Rent Index – https://bit.ly/2QtWi2i

• To read our latest issue of VIEW, go to https://issuu.com/brianpelanone/docs/economy_issue_of_view

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