As Covid-19 hopefully recedes in our collective rear-view mirror, it is time to look at all our long-fingered agenda items, chief of which is tackling the national housing crisis.
There is no time to lose, we must borrow heavily from the can-do spirit of national solidarity with which we collectively faced two grim years of pandemic. This emerging post-Covid era is also an opportunity to review how the nation’s government and administration faced the crisis and what lessons the health service can learn from that experience.
We know that Covid-19 is still with us in many ways and its varied consequences are yet to fully emerge and be explored. But a big part of moving on is to put the focus on the issues which were, out of necessity, relegated to the background since the spring of 2020.
The noise of party political competition has clouded the many issues which are contributing to the lack of housing supply and the spiralling costs of both purchasing and renting. We need to strip out that political noise as much as possible.
The opposition has grounds for saying government efforts to resolve problems often compound the basic difficulties because these efforts ultimately diminish overall housing supply. Equally, the Government is frequently right to counter that its political opponents’ key aim is to gain advantage from mainly younger people’s difficulties in getting a home of their own.
But the nation’s housing difficulties cut across all generations and classes, as parents and grandparents look at their younger loved ones, often with good work and earning power, being excluded from sustainable housing.
Last July, during a by-election in one of the most prosperous constituencies in south Dublin, we saw just how deeply the housing issue goes.
This weekend we are again reminded that 100,000 homes across the country lie idle. We also know the entire country has dozens of strong market towns with former town-centre commercial properties now left empty and falling into decline.
There has been big talk and elaborate plans for some years about redeploying these properties to help ease our lack of housing supply. It is past time that talk was changed into action and some of those plans were put into effect.
In doing so we must not let the perfect become the enemy of the practical. The housing authorities have high standards on items like energy efficiency and disabled access. These can be hard to achieve too readily in buildings built in the 19th and/or 20th centuries.
We are encouraged by the Housing Department acknowledging real problems here. Complex rules and prohibitive costs can be a disincentive to repurposing older buildings as homes.
A rules review is currently being undertaken and a more practical regime is promised soon. But we have heard such promises before and all of us know properties which we have watched lying idle and deteriorating as years turn to decades.
Cutting red tape could bring up to 100,000 vacant homes back into use. That would knock a considerable hole in our housing supply crisis.