Lots of talk at the moment about the Pandemic Unemployment Payment and how to taper it down; of course we need to think about Jobseeker's Benefit, minimum wage, and living wage. But the cost of living is the elephant in the room - most acutely, the cost of accommodation.
Three months ago, an election was won and lost on housing. As the lockdown began in March we acknowledged the extra challenges faced by those in hotels, in family hubs and in hidden homelessness.
The next government will still have a housing crisis to address.
Although there's "no running commentary" on the talks, the two largest parties involved helpfully outlined the approach they expect to come next. This is what Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael's Joint Framework Document had to say about housing:
It's hard to argue with the Housing First approach to addressing homelessness. But then we move onto the more general housing shortage.
Here, it's telling that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael perceive land prices to be a greater barrier to affordability than, say, overall supply. But a referendum on land prices in the middle of a pandemic? Depending on how it's spun, it's either populist tokenism or (like the Seanad) a chance for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to throw their hands up if the public vote against an unnecessary constitutional change.
Till then, could we build on public land? Enter the Land Development Agency, self-described as "a commercial, State-sponsored body that has been created to coordinate land within State control for more optimal uses where appropriate, with a focus on the provision of housing."
Created in September 2018, they're meant to work with state and semi-state bodies in a way that Local Authorities can't, and build 150,000 homes by 2040. According to the ESRI, we'll need at least 30,000 units every year - and the LDA could supply a quarter of these.
It is difficult to argue against having an organisation to look at the surplus lands of, for example, the HSE and match them with neighbouring Dublin City Council lands and devise a plan to provide houses; or exploring the potential of an underused Irish Rail site, or a local authority site for which there are no plans, and do the same.
There's a catch. Remember how they defined themselves as a "commercial" entity? Most of the units it plans to build will be neither affordable nor social. Olivia Kelly ably summarised the issues in the Irish Times last February.
This isn't the hoped-for "public housing on public land". Bear in mind that 'affordable' housing is targeted at households with a combined annual income under €75,000. whereas 'private' housing is sold at market rates to those outside the social/affordable bracket.
According to the CSO, less than a quarter of Irish households earn over €75,000 a year - and yet up to 60% of LDA homes (built with public money, don't forget) will be 'private' units for the highest earners in the State.
Scrutinising the bill that founded the LDA (as part of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government), Sinn Féin's Eoin Ó Bróin also raised these concerns - and pointed out the inability of the state to scrutinise the LDA's activity:
“The LDA will be an independent commercial entity. It will not be subject to Freedom of Information requests and it will not subject to scrutiny by the Department of Housing on the delivery of housing projects.
When inevitable conflicts of interest arise between the LDA’s commercial remit and Government housing policy, as was the case with NAMA, the commercial interest will triumph with workers and families in need of social and affordable housing left paying the price.
"In terms of the functions of the agency, astonishingly, the LDA will not have a statutory obligation to deliver social and affordable housing."
Significantly, most of the LDA's senior executives were recruited from NAMA and the NTMA. The board is drawn from the public sector and private construction industry, reflecting its dual role, though no engineers or architects setting its direction.
The board is drawn from the public sector and private construction industry, reflecting its dual role, though there are no engineers or architects setting its direction.
This is the backbone of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael's grand plan to solve the housing crisis. They want to cap the price of development land, fund the LDA to build lots of houses - public and private - on state land, then let the LDA will use the profits to buy or CPO fresh land for building.
So the state has set up a new actor with a vast bank of state land (enough for 110k units) that can compulsorily purchase useful property and sell into the private market. Even if you're not interested in public housing on public land, is that allowed under competition law?
The Attorney General had concerns about equipping the LDA with CPO powers, given EU rules on state aid. Indeed, in November 2019, the EU started talks with the LDA to determine whether its powers are justified to facilitate "economic development"
That takes us to point (iv) in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael's grand plan, which is just a reiteration of the past 40 years of Irish housing policy.
(iv) Prioritise home ownership and affordable purchase schemes, which will enable more people to own their homes and increase the number of new social houses.
Reminder: those ESRI numbers tell us that we need at least 600,000 homes by 2040.
The LDA will build 150,000. But we need 460,000 social/affordable units, of which the LDA is only going to build 60,000. Where are the other 400,000 social and affordable homes going to come from?
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael's joint framework document doesn't give us any hints.
And should the Department of Housing's main aim really be sorting a mortgage for the 30% of households who rent?
Spoiler alert: as a Green, I don't think so. That approach, plus leaving the vast bulk of supply to private developers, has left us with a homelessness emergency and a general housing crisis. We told FF/FG as much before coalition talks began.
Our solution is cost-rental. For some reason, the Joint Framework Document proposes it for student accommodation, but not for meeting our general housing needs. This involves initial long-term borrowing by the state, but over 30 years generates a profit for the Department of Housing.
Our model of public housing is open to anyone, irrespective of income, and rent is capped at 30% of the tenant's household income. Leases are long-term and tenure is secure. Lots of policy objectives, one simple solution.
It's also fully compatible with the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael drive for home ownership, but it allows more choice. With rent that's affordable for every tenant, those who wish to buy a home of their own in the private development market actually have the disposable income to save for a deposit.
Finally, with cost-rental, the rental income continues to accrue after the cost of building has been paid off. That money is used to fund more cost-rental developments, and keeps construction workers in employment even during economic downturns.
Sounds great, right? Well, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael don't agree. Their reply should ring alarm bells for anyone worried about cost-of-living and housing post-COVID. Because amazingly, they think the LDA - a semi-state microcosm of all that's wrong with our housing sector - is going to fix it!