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15 May 2003 Edition

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No right to housing - Bertie Ahern

Record figures for homelessness, waiting lists and house prices



BY ROBBIE SMYTH


Forty-seven years to tackle homelessness, ten years to make inroads into housing waiting lists and record prices for new homes, Could there be a connection? It is certainly good news if you are a landlord or a builder in Ireland today.

These are just some of the findings from the Simon Community's annual report and the Central Statistics Office (CSO) Housing Bulletin, published this week.

The Simon Community report offers particularly bleak findings. They found that the number of "new contacts", people using their services for the first time, has doubled. Already this year, the number of new contacts for the first three months is higher than for the first half of 2002. 110 new people were using Simon services such as their night-time soup runs in 2002.


BROKEN PROMISES



Calling on Fianna Fáil to fulfill their election pledge to set targets for the elimination of homelessness, Greg Maxwell, Simon Community chairperson, said that at current rates it would take until 2050 to rehouse Dublin's homeless.

Also of issue for Simon is how many homeless people living on the streets there are in Dublin. Last November, a study carried out by the ESRI found that 312 people were sleeping rough in the city.

Recently though, Noel Ahern, Minister of State for Housing, has claimed that there are "about 79" people sleeping rough. His figures were based on a two-hour survey conducted in the Dublin City Council area. The ESRI survey took a week to conclude. Maxwell believes that homelessness in the city is "one of the most urgent social issues in the capital city today".

It seems though that this crisis and homeless figures are not the only problems that the housing minister finds it difficult to grapple with. Ahern also has problems with housing waiting list data.


TEN YEAR WAIT FOR HOUSING



The CSO's annual Housing Statistics Bulletin found that despite the fact the number of houses and apartments built last year reached a record level for the ninth consecutive year, it has done little to reduce housing waiting lists.

There are, as in 2001, still 48,000 households, 109,000 people, in need of housing. Minister Ahern found it "incredible" that it will take another ten years of building at the same rate to reduce these record waiting lists.

Unfortunately for the homeless, those on housing waiting lists and even the government, the problem is clearly much more complex than just maintaining current housing output, even though this won't happen this year because of budget cutbacks on the social housing programme.

House prices are continuing to rise steeply. The average cost of a new home in Dublin rose to §256,109 last year, an increase of §13,000. Outside of Dublin the average price of a home rose 8.3% to §198,087 in 2002. If people were finding it difficult to buy a home before, still rising prices are putting home ownership even further out of reach of the ordinary person.

Much more perplexing though, is government policy and behaviour on the housing and homeless issues. Over a hundred million euro is spent annually in the Dublin region on subsidising rented accommodation for people living in the private sector. This is money lost every year and yet not only is there no real legal protection for tenants' rights or rent control legislation enacted, there is no long-term strategy to house these families in social housing schemes.

This week, Teagasc is seeking to sell its headquarters in Dublin's exclusive Ballsbridge area. §10 million is the asking price for the 1.5-acre site. The property supplements say it would accommodate up to 60 apartments. No doubt we can expect the glitzy promotion of these luxury dwellings, just minutes from the DART, with lotto-like price tags.

Why is no one in government saying 'there's a good site for social housing, good neighbourhood, good amenities and transport infrastructure'. Instead, it will be a quick sale, with lots of profits for someone else, definitely not for the taxpayer who owns this site!


SQUANDERED MILLIONS



Also lost on the government is the fact that rising house prices means that rents are rising too and not only is this putting more people on the waiting lists, it is also rising the costs of rental subsidies paid for by government into the hands of landlords.

The squandering of money does not end there. This week, defending its record with regard to the homeless, the government hyped up the §22 million annually given to agencies dealing with homelessness. While not an insignificant amount of money, it is only marginally higher than the §19.5 million paid by Dublin City Council last year to landlords running bed and breakfast accommodation for the homeless.

Again, while it is clear that emergency accommodation needs to be provided, why is there no strategy to move beyond the crisis into formulating a long-term solution?


HOUSING RIGHTS


This week, minister Ahern said that the government was examining options for dealing with the housing problem. These included a referendum on property rights, enhanced compulsory purchase orders for land, and a "use or lose it" condition to planning permission which would prevent land hoarding by developers.

This comes from the same government who gutted some of the progressive elements of their own Planning Act last December at the behest of the builders, developers and property speculators. What has changed since then that means the government will actually carry out these new promises?

The first of these proposals, the referendum on property rights, will not take place this year, according to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. So what hope do we have for any of the others happening soon?

Speaking in Leinster House this week, Bertie Ahern, dealing with the startlingly obvious, told us that that there is no constitutional right to housing. We all know too well the truth of this but it doesn't mean that there should be uncontrolled profiteering on the backs of the misery of homelessness and the exploitation of the basic desire to live in a warm dry comfortable home. Does it?



Housing and Homeless in Ireland - the figures



§19.5 million - amount of money spent by Dublin City Council on B&B accommodation in 2002

§22 million - level of government funding for homeless agencies

§57 million - the fall this year in government spending on social housing

§179.5 million - level of government subsidies to private landlords in 2001

48,000 - number of households still on housing waiting lists

109,000 - number of people affected by lack of proper housing

49,000 - number of new dwellings needed annually to keep housing waiting lists from increasing

§198,087 - average price of a new house outside Dublin last year

§256,109 - average price of a new house in Dublin last year

§15,000 - rise in Dublin house prices for the first three months of 2003

4,060 - number of homeless people in Dublin last year

1,140 - number of young people homeless

5,581 - number of homeless people in the 26 Counties last year

47 years - how long it will take at current rates to tackle homelessness

10 years - how long it will take at current rates to reduce housing waiting lists

39% - the expected drop in social housing units to be built in 2003, down from 5,077 to 4,000

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