Let’s talk about…The housing crisis

The housing crisis needs to be treated as what it is: an emergency

One of my more distinct memories from last year’s Covid lockdowns came about one day after a rare in-person college class, when I was walking down Shop Street in Galway. As is well known, Shop Street is a place that is perpetually busy, but that day, I walked the entire length of it without passing another soul. It was sort of jarring, but then again, the quietness and emptiness of our towns, cities, and streets was something we’d all become used to by that point.

Of course, this is no longer the case. As we move further and further from restrictions, we’re continuing to see life return to our towns and cities. I doubt I’ll ever walk an empty Shop Street again; it’s once more returned to hosting an endless stream of students, buskers, tourists, etc, and the hustle and bustle is very welcome after two years of rolling lockdowns.

However, the mass return of third-level students to university towns and cities that came along with the easing of restrictions isn’t something that has gone extremely smoothly, and one of the clear reasons for this is the complete lack of available affordable housing.

Though students are by no means the only people being affected by this issue at the moment (or even the ones being worst affected), it’s worth acknowledging just how staggering the anecdotal evidence of the housing crisis is among students at the moment. Every second college student you talk to seems to have a horror story or two to tell about not being able to secure viewings, opportunist landlords, or exorbitantly unaffordable rent prices.

I’ve spoken to several students who’ve spent the last academic year cycling through crashing on friends’ couches and staying in hostels as a result of not being able to find any affordable housing. I’ve even spoken to a handful of young people who’re considering emigrating once college ends, despite being relatively financially comfortable, due to the lack of suitable available accommodation.

However, the reality of the housing crisis – while including issues that the likes of students and young people are facing, such as the significant inconvenience of trying to find a place within budget, or, otherwise, being forced to pay an above-average prices for the sake of securing accommodation – is having a far graver impact on Irish people than just stretching the wallet (and people’s patience). After all, what happens if you can’t find a place within budget or if you can’t afford the rising prices? Because apart from the students, the buskers, and the tourists, there’s another group of people I couldn’t help but notice appearing more and more on the streets in Galway in recent months: homeless people.

According to the Monthly Homeless Report for March 2022, homelessness has recently returned to pre-pandemic levels. The report put the amount of homeless people in Ireland at 9,825 – a figure which has been dubbed a “serious cause for concern” by Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien.

Of course, this figure does not just include single adults either, but families and children too. The report states that as of March, there are 1,238 families in emergency accommodation, with a total of 2,811 children associated with these families – and the problem is only getting bigger. More landlords are opting to sell or convert their property for short-term holiday rental use, leading to the eviction of countless families. And with the cost of living continually worsening, the strain of unaffordable housing continues to wreak an even greater toll.

While there is no consensus on the precise number, according to the GeoDirectory database, there were more than 112,000 vacant or derelict dwellings in Ireland in the last quarter of 2021. Clearly, we have the resources to have a serious impact on the housing crisis, and yet, we are continuing to see the situation worsen.

Despite the housing crisis having been an issue that Ireland’s been grappling with for years now, previous government policies have obviously failed to adequately address the problem. Measures need to be put in place to provide for the repurposing of vacant home for residential use, and the right to housing needs to be cemented into our Constitution. Having housing be a fundamental, constitutional right (a prospect which is already supported by the majority of Irish people) would strengthen the Government’s ability to implement housing policies without being restricted by constitutionally-protected private property rights, something which has become a major hindrance to enacting meaningful change for this issue.

Thousands of Irish people are suffering homelessness, and countless more are under severe financial pressure trying to meet rent prices – and what’s more, we also have thousands of incoming refugees being put in sub-par living conditions. But the reality is we have enough vacant and derelict homes to accommodate everyone. We’re theoretically capable of enacting policy that would do a world of good for this issue. So why aren’t we?

Ireland’s housing crisis is a multifaceted issue facing a multitude of different demographics, but we do not lack the necessary resources to make a difference. What we lack are government measures that treat the housing crisis as what it is: an emergency. Until we do that, the housing crisis will only continue to worsen – and regular people will be the ones to suffer for it.