Minister, forget public perceptions and focus on fixing housing crisis
IT WAS Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe who admitted six months ago that this Government would be judged on its ability to tackle the housing crisis. He said it was the “most pressing problem of a generation”.
Yesterday, embattled Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy said this was a “young Government” that is “ambitious for the future of our country”.
The two statements fit a nice narrative – which is that progress is being made, if everybody would just back off and give them a chance.
But that isn’t going happen as Sinn Féin is weighing up whether to make Mr Murphy collateral damage in a political game of cat and mouse with Fianna Fáil.
Anticipating an onslaught from the Opposition, Mr Murphy’s office circulated a memo earlier this week to Fine Gael TDs in which he set out his achievements over the past year.
They were broken down into five categories: Supply More Homes; Social Housing; Affordability; Protecting Tenants in the Rental Market; and Homelessness.
It began by noting that we need 25,000 homes built each year from 2020, rising to 35,000 from 2022.
But does the document stand up to a stress test? Not really.
The figures cited for the past year are already outdated because of the analysis which the CSO produced yesterday.
Under social housing, he begins by listing all the problems inherited by the Government in 2011.
It is true that there was an awful mess, with 3,000 ghosts – but at some point Fine Gael has to start dealing with the here and now, rather than what Fianna Fáil did. It’s been seven years.
The third section is on affordability. It points to the Rebuilding Ireland Home Loan, which is “a new affordable home loan for first-time buyers”. Then there is a “new Affordable Purchase Scheme” which involves buying houses on local authority lands.
And finally the “pilot Affordable Rental Scheme”, which uses a cost rental model on local authority sites.
Perhaps what’s more telling, though, is that the paper omits that house prices have soared by 13pc so far this year – and experts anticipate more rises.
Rent Pressure Zones are credited with creating a “slowdown in the quarterly growth rate in Dublin”.
“New rents increased by only 1.1pc towards the end of 2017,” it says.
But if we look at the bigger picture, we find that rents throughout the State actually rose by 7.1pc in the past year. In Dublin, they have increased by 7.8pc.
Admittedly, there are some positive developments listed in this area, including plans to beef up the powers afforded to the Residential Tenancies Board.
Finally, Mr Murphy’s document talks about how “more than 9,000 people” are in emergency accommodation. Again, this figure is disputed.
Officially the Department of Housing reported 9,652 living in emergency accommodation in April – but this came after hundreds were purged from the list as part of a reclassification exercise.
And therein lies the problem at the heart of the Government’s argument that it is making headway on housing.
It is living in a fantasy land where ambition is enough to get by. For the people on the streets and the first-time buyers losing hope, the reality is much different.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar effectively warned Fine Gael on Wednesday night not to let his sidekick be turned into the ‘bogeyman’ for a snap election.
There’s no doubt that Fine Gael is ready for an election. Meticulous planning is taking place behind the scenes – but the party is wary about getting the blame for causing it.
Because everything that happens with this Government is about public perception. With housing, it’s not possible to spin past the real stories with a set of nicely presented statistics, especially when they are questionable.
“This is not like clicking one’s fingers,” Mr Murphy said this week before, in his own words, “escaping” the Dáil for a quick dip in the sea.
We were treated to some Twitter pictures of the minister in his pink trunks as he highlighted the plastic in our oceans.
But maybe, just maybe, he could limit his ambition to fixing one problem at a time.
Right now the Government’s success rating on housing is very low.