Following a series of delays, the Government’s Housing For All plan was published earlier this month. The strategy provides a roadmap of new initiatives, targets and timeframes up to 2030, and replaces the beleaguered and now politically redundant Rebuilding Ireland.
The hesitation to publish seemed to be the result of mounting unease about the pressure on policymakers for Housing For All to be successful. Political careers and, more crucially, government longevity would be bound to its fate. The strategy needed to demonstrate clear learnings from the mistakes of Rebuilding Ireland, whose philosophical devotion to the private market supercharged a steadily growing housing crisis to create a generational crisis.
Housing For All had to be definitive enough to convince both supporters and sceptics that the increased capital investment would provide enough secure and affordable homes to end the housing affordability crisis. One of the final absurdities of Rebuilding Ireland was the revelation that local authorities were now long-leasing former council homes that had been purchased by institutional investors. Change was required. Housing For All was predicted by the Minister to surpass the council housing heyday of the 1970s when the State engaged in the literal work of (State)building.
Initial responses have naturally run the gamut as the new plan has been parsed by individuals and organisations within the housing sector and beyond. A multi-annual plan of this scope is an exercise of compromise and trade-offs; few sectors will ever be able to say that the strategy satisfies all of their hopes and requests. Developers and industry representative bodies welcomed the strategy, while reflexively flagging issues of possible labour shortages. NGOs and AHBs, providing direct services, gave a cautious welcome to the increased funding made available for rehousing schemes and the construction or purchase of social rented homes.
Yet, Housing For All has received strong criticism from many quarters; particularly among academics, housing activists and opposition politicians. Much of the critique is warranted. Legitimate arguments can be made over whether the scale of the capital funding is even sufficient to meet unmet and future housing needs. Emerging policy instruments such as a more severe windfall tax on rezoned land are only scheduled to come into effect in 2026, and there are salient concerns over whether this will reduce house prices in the longterm. Promising models of affordable housing such as cost rental homes are not on the scale required to have a dampening effect on the private rented sector. Little in the way of additional protection to the most vulnerable cohort – private renters – is evident.
Much commentary concludes emphatically that there is little of value in Housing For All. It could be described as “Rebuilding Ireland 2.0” as critics suggest no change in overall policy trajectory is evident compared with its predecessor. But even the most scathing critique should at least acknowledge that Housing For All does represent a break from Rebuilding Ireland as it aspires to carve out a much larger role for the State in the provision of homes. Time will tell whether this aspiration becomes reality.
By and large, Housing For All has been received by the policy punditocracy with much suspicion. Weaknesses and a perceived lack of commitment in one area of housing policy negates any development or progress in others. Housing activists are aware that the majority of the electorate are supportive of rising house prices. Many will retire with an asset of greatly increased value. It will be difficult to convince this cohort that schemes which dampen house prices or control rents are necessary to prioritise the common good over individual gain.
Suspicion and Trust
Reflecting on the past five years of Rebuilding Ireland alone, the default position of suspicion towards the new housing strategy is logical and reasonable. Trust in Housing Ministers and the Department of Housing is probably at its lowest ebb. Repeated sleights-of-hand have eroded trust between housing policymakers and activists. Homelessness numbers were reclassified in a way that the European Commission found unacceptable. Social housing was redefined to breaking point where rental subsidy in the increasingly precarious private rented market was classified as “housing need being met.”
The past year also eroded trust as the modus operandi of institutional investors was laid bare. First-time buyers were gazumped by billion-euro investment vehicles. Local authorities were long leasing properties at market rates, only to return the appreciated property at the end of the lease. The exemption of institutional investors from stamp duty was hidden within a Covid-19 bill. Even when Housing For All was published, the media were assured that all lobbying documents were available online, but just 1,000 pages of records were published more than two weeks later. Suspicion has been fostered by a Government carrying out its business without transparency, while favouring profit for investors over homes for families. Distrust of politicians is relatively high in Ireland when compared to other western European democracies. In the political sphere, the future effects of squandering trust has many unknown future effects, which should be a worry to the current Government.
Reading a policy document with scepticism is a not a bad starting point for engagement; in fact, it may be essential. French philosopher Paul Ricœur asserts that all hermeneutics—the interpretation of texts— involves suspicion. I believe this core philosophical idea holds true for social policy. Policy papers and strategies should not just be taken at face value. They must be read with a critical eye to reveal their hidden meanings or obscured agendas. Their true meaning will emerge via an interpretation in which suspicion plays a crucial role.
Theologians, sympathetic to those wrestling with unwieldy texts, suggest that we must also have a “suspicion of suspicion.” It is too easy for the reader/interpreter to impose an invalid understanding as they may unwittingly bring their own pre-understandings and emphases to bear. When positions are taken across the housing debate – whether driven by profit, political philosophy, job requirements or public persona – it can become difficult to stand down from them. They can become entrenched.
Interpretation – the ability to describe social and political reality clearly – is central to policy analysis. Policy recommendations depend on this. But – staying with Ricœur’s framework – to avoid a premature and invalid interpretation, a continual attitude of suspicion must also provide a prominent place for “openness.” The continuing, worsening housing crisis of recent decades makes any new housing strategies deserving of suspicion but we must maintain an openness to elements or schemes within the new plan which indicate the State taking tentative steps towards providing affordable and secure homes.
Housing For All may just be the strategy that was required back in 2016 when Rebuilding Ireland was launched. Six years later, we have it; let’s hope it’s not too late.