Eviction ban furore underlines need for public housing


The eviction ban announced by Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien earlier this week, will prevent even more people (especially families with young children) becoming homeless this winter. The Oireachtas Housing Committee has just passed the bill to move speedily through the legislative process, so it will be implemented soon, to the relief of everyone who works in the homelessnessness sector.

The temporary ban on evictions is not a panacea to the homelessness crisis, but things are so bad that even the ‘least worst’ option has been welcomed by homelessness organisations. The situation is now so severe that there is no space in emergency accommodation for families, which means that a family with young children who find themselves evicted could – literally – end up on the streets.

Backlash by landlord groups

Organisations representing private ‘mom and pop’ landlords have threatened legal action to stop the ban being implemented. Homelessness in Ireland is the worst it has ever been, making their reaction seem disproportionate, self-interested, and even callous. But we should take care to place the blame for this situation where it belongs. Private landlords did not create this situation; the State did.

It is easy to demonise people who are more concerned about their income than the fact that more than 3,000 children in this country do not have a home. But this feeds into the polarisation of groups with opposing interests that – in reality – solves nothing. Politics is often called the art of compromise, but just being a citizen of a democracy requires us to accept that people and groups we do not agree with also have the right to air their grievances, and to be heard.

Roundtable between advocacy groups

Last Monday [October 17th] – in advance of the announcement of the eviction ban – Minister O’Brien and Department of Housing officials hosted a roundtable discussion with representatives of several housing and homelessness organisations (including the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice), and groups advocating for the rights of property owners and landlords. This meeting of two groups with ostensibly opposing interests was an opportunity to hear each other’s point of view on this crucial issue.

Despite the opposing points of view, the discussions remained genial and the need to maintain good relations was emphasised at several points during the meeting. An ‘us vs them’ narrative is unhelpful in situations like this. The current disaster in housing is something which is now affecting us all, albeit in different ways. The fact that private rental accommodation now occupies the place in the housing sector that State-owned public housing should inhabit has got us into this crisis situation. Restoring the culture of public housing built, owned, and administered by local authorities is the way out.

Private landlords want to protect their return on investment; that is their prerogative. Profit, not altruism, is why people become landlords in the first place. Many are now leaving the rental sector to sell their asset in a market where house prices are now above their Celtic Tiger peak. This decreases the supply of available homes for rent and will is causing further damage to an already malfunctioning system, and is another reason why the private rental sector has never been an appropriate substitute for an adequate supply of publicly owned housing stock.

Even when landlords are not selling up, tenants in private rental accommodation have limited security. One recent example reveals that private tenants in receipt of HAP don’t have the same security of tenure as someone in local authority housing, yet subsidising tenants in private rentals has been used by the State for years as a substitute for directly providing a functioning social housing system.

The least worst is all we have

Expanding the current number of homes available for rent – especially cost rental and social housing accommodation – is crucial to reduce the pressure on homelessness services, and on the dwindling private rental sector. We urgently need more homes, so that space in emergency accommodation can become free again. The only way that people can move out of emergency accommodation is if there are homes for them to move in to.

As has been said again and again, we desperately need more social and affordable housing to be built. But while this is happening, we need emergency stopgap solutions.

The eviction ban is the ‘least worst’ option right now. It does not solve the problems. It stops some of the problems from intensifying. It is  temporary, an emergency measure to deal with a crisis, and we have to hope that some real progress is made during the months it is in place.

Nobody could be said to be happy with this situation. Homeless people are not moving out of homelessness, and advocates in the sector would rather see houses being built than have to argue for a temporary stay on evictions. Property owner groups are not happy for obvious reasons, and presumably the Minister and his Department officials hoped for more constructive achievements. But here we are, and the ‘least worst’ option is all we have to prevent a disastrous situation becoming even more of a catastrophe.

When the ban is lifted early next year, it is important that the concerns of homelessness advocates, tenants’ rights organisations and property owner groups are heard again. Communication between all groups affected by the housing and homelessness crisis reveals that our concerns at the moment are different but the aim is ultimately the same – to resolve the current crisis so that these emergency measures will not be necessary. A stable, well-functioning housing system would benefit everyone.