by Peter McVerry SJ
The solution to homelessness is to give people a home. However, the number of people who can exit homelessness by securing their own home is less than the number of people who are becoming newly homeless. Hence the number of homeless people continues to rise. Unless we can prevent this constant flow into homelessness, trying to solve homelessness by giving people their own home is like trying to empty the bath water with the taps full on.
The majority of people who are becoming homeless today do so as a result of eviction from the private rented sector. During the Covid-19 crisis, there was a ban on evictions from the private rented sector from March 2020 to April 2021, when the moratorium was lifted by the current Minister for Housing. During those six months, there was a considerable drop in the number of homeless people.
In the first three months of 2021, when the ban on evictions was in place, there were 352 eviction notices given to tenants, most of which were suspended till the ban was lifted. In the following nine months (April to December 2021) after the ban was lifted there were 2,600 eviction notices given. In the first six months of 2022, there were another 3,000 eviction notices given. Not all those evicted will register as homeless – some will find alternative accommodation, some will go to live with family, some may emigrate, but it is clear that such a large number of evictions can only lead to a considerable increase in homelessness. In April 2021, there were 8,082 people registered as homeless, of whom 2,193 were children. The ban was then lifted, and in July 2022, there were a record 10,568 people registered as homeless, of whom 3,137 were children.
The number of people being evicted is due largely to landlords exiting the private residential market, by selling their property. Many may be choosing to sell because house prices have increased considerably and landlords have decided to cash in their asset. This trend, already causing a crisis in the private rented market, is only likely to become worse.
Proposal to Reinstate Temporary Eviction Ban
I propose that the government reintroduce a ban on ‘no-fault’ evictions for three years, to allow the number of people becoming newly homeless to drop, so that we can make progress in reducing homelessness, by housing homeless people. The government’s argument against this proposal is that it conflicts with the right to private property in the constitution. However, the courts have regularly asserted that the ‘common good’ can, in many instances, override the right to private property. This seems clearly to be the case here, particularly in relation to children who become homeless as a result of eviction, and if government has a genuine concern, the ban on evictions should be tested in the courts.
Damage to children in homelessness
The damage done to children who spend time in homelessness, sometimes a considerable number of months or even years, is well documented. Children need security, routine and stability which homelessness makes impossible and many are damaged psychologically, emotionally and educationally, as they become depressed and stressed, unable to concentrate in school, or to do homework in overcrowded hotel rooms or B&Bs. I have no doubt that the courts would side with the rights of children not to suffer the damage caused by homelessness over the rights of landlords to do what they wish, when they wish, with their property.
However, there can be no argument over a six month ban on ”no-fault” evictions from October to March, as is the case in several European countries. In France, for example, the trêve hivernale starts in November each year and bans evictions until the following April. During Covid, the eviction ban was considered to be constitutional because we had a health emergency. It could now be re-instated on the grounds that we have a housing emergency.
A ban on evictions has no impact on the vast majority of landlords who have no intention of exiting the market. However, it may inconvenience some landlords, but this inconvenience is not in the same league as the hugely damaging impact of homelessness on those evicted. Other landlords may be in serious financial or other difficulties and some mechanism by which these landlords can present their case and gain an exemption from the ban could be introduced.
Of course such a ban would not cover tenants who refuse to pay the rent, even though they have the means to pay, or those engaging in anti-social behaviour. But the regular evoking of anti-social behaviour by representative bodies and the media is misleading. In 2021, only 8% of the disputes before the Residential Tenancies Board were for anti-social behaviour. Breach of landlord obligations and invalid notices of termination represented over a third of cases heard.
Such a ban on evictions should be accompanied by a concerted effort to house homeless people. In every county, there are far more Airbnbs advertised than private residential properties, most of which do not conform to the regulatory or planning requirements. It should be illegal to advertise such a property. This would bring a lot of Airbnb back into use as private residential properties which and enable more homeless people to be housed.
Empty, often derelict, properties are an eyesore in every city and town in Ireland. A greater effort to bring these back into use, if necessary through compulsory purchase orders, would help more homeless people to exit homelessness.
Housing for All targets unmet
And of course, while acknowledging difficulties in the building of new social and affordable housing such as inflation in the construction industry, the government is nowhere near meeting its own targets under the Housing for All strategy. To meet its targets would dramatically reduce the number of homeless people. Some will argue that an eviction ban is just treating a symptom (evictions from rental market) of a wider pathology (a decades-long housing crisis) and that we should just focus on supply. This is a false dichotomy; we need to do both. Long-term solutions to the problem and immediate relief for people in rented accommodation can be put in place simultaneously.
There is much that can be done. The question is – is the political will there to do it?
Peter McVerry SJ is a Jesuit from Newry, Co. Down who has worked in Dublin’s north inner city since 1974, where he first encountered young people who were sleeping on the streets. He began to set up services and accommodation for young homeless people, which would go on to become the Peter McVerry Trust. He is also an associate social policy advocate with the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice.