Opinion

Housing policy debate needed

IT IS an interesting reflection on Irish society that as the property market has begun to recover in the south, the level of homelessness there has sharply increased.

The increase in property prices has inflated rent levels in the private sector, with the result that many families and individuals can no longer afford a roof over their heads.

In Dublin, for example, a 25 per cent rise in property prices in the past year has inflated rent levels in the private sector by more than 10 per cent.

According to social justice campaigner, Fr Peter McVerry, this has contributed to the surge in the number of homeless people in the Republic to 5,000, which represents an increase of 2,000 in the past three years.

Fr McVerry suggested at the weekend that homelessness is now increasing so rapidly that the Dublin government should introduce emergency rent controls.

The government already supports 78,000 low-income households through a form of financial assistance known as rent supplement.

However, Fr McVerry has argued that government is merely trying to manage the problem, rather than solve it.

His on-going campaign on homelessness highlights the intricate relation-ship between government responsibility on one hand and the operation of a market economy on the other.

Welfare reform has now raised that relationship in the north.

It will be interesting to see where Stor-mont looks for housing policy guidance.

Most political parties here reject the free market approach for housing welfare, which has been adopted in England and Wales.

Households with a spare bedroom, for example, suffer a reduction in housing benefit.

However, will MLAs go as far as copying the Scottish Parliament? It has opted for a system of state housing outside the market by scrapping the right of social housing tenants to buy their homes at a discounted rate with effect from 2016.

Or perhaps Stormont will come full circle and look at Dublin?

More than 60 years after pre-fabs were seen as a solution to the housing crisis in the north, Dublin Corporation is now suggesting them as a remedy for home-lessness in the south.

Housing conditions which helped to trigger the north's civil rights campaign are now seen as a possible solution to a social problem in Dublin.

Tackling homelessness in the context of social housing policy represents a level of sophistication which the welfare debate has not yet reached here.

Whatever the outcome of that debate, we need a housing policy based on respect for human dignity.

We also need more people like Fr McVerry to articulate housing needs and to campaign for government to meet those needs.

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