Affordable housing for who?

On the Edge

THROUGH THE ROOF With the remote-working surge, house prices are rising, threatening to smother the dividends that a local authority can accrue from affordable housing construction.

On The Edge
Áine Ryan

WHATEVER about the minutiae, and various arguments, about the amount of social and affordable housing that Westport needs, one thing is for certain, the State must be involved.
We all know only too well what laissez-faire economics did during the Celtic Tiger boom, particularly to the housing market. So it is very welcome news that 25 affordable homes have been earmarked for the former Convent of Mercy site in the town, whilst the convent building itself will be developed into apartments for the elderly.
But is this just a drop in the ocean?   
Let’s not forget that time during the Celtic Tiger boom when a certain housing estate in Castlebar was called ‘Little Westport’ because so many of the town’s lower-paid workers – more often than not servicing the tourism industry – were forced to rent in the county town. Why? Because of the seasonal unavailability of rental properties and, indeed, prohibitive purchase prices.  
Interestingly, Mark Fitzgerald, the chairman of estate agents Sherry Fitzgerald, argues in a recent opinion column in The Irish Times that now is the time to deliver ‘a just society’.
A son of the late Fine Gael taoiseach Garrett Fitzgerald, he reiterates a view expressed in the 1960s by Declan Costello, also the son of a taoiseach, that ‘it wasn’t right to create prosperity unless you created social progress through a just society’.
Surely a basic element of ‘social progress’ and ‘a just society’ is the right for all citizens to equal access to housing? This has undoubtedly been exacerbated in recent years with the establishment of Airbnbs and the explosion of the staycationing holiday market in west Mayo. Add in the mass purchase of entire estates in other parts of the country by investment funds and the word ‘just’ doesn’t figure.   
Mark Fitzgerald writes: “Affordable home ownership, affordable rents and a social housing programme, unequalled in the history of the State are a national imperative.”
He agrees that it will be ‘a Herculean task’ to deliver 40,000 houses each year and raise home ownership to 70 percent, as suggested recently by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar.
Whilst welcoming the new Housing Commission, Fitzgerald argues that any public-private partnership ‘needs to recognise that the Government doesn’t work for the people in boardrooms, it works for every citizen’.
He is so correct, and the fact that he hails from a Fine Gael pedigree, but one which was on the left of its centrist to right-wing conservatism, is certainly to be welcomed. However, whilst he welcomes the positives about remote and flexible working, the realities of how the housing market is already responding to a surge of people moving away from Dublin are already being felt right along the Wild Atlantic Way. House prices have risen exponentially.
If this trend continues, it will quickly smother the dividends accrued from the building of affordable houses by any local authority.
Speaking at last week’s Westport-Belmullet Municipal District meeting, during which the announcement was made, Cllr Peter Flynn said: “While I welcome the talk of 25 affordable housing at the convent site, it falls well short of what is required. I think it will be an expensive site to be developed and I think that site is more suited to town houses rather than family houses but at this point in time all we want is houses in the wider Westport area.
“Isn’t that the problem? The number falls far short of the need.”
We lived in a very different  country when the then Taoiseach John A Costello, the father of the above-mentioned Declan, declared Saorstát na hÉireann a republic in 1949. Here in Co Mayo the majority of people were still going to the well for water, fixing the thatch on the roofs of their cottages and lighting Tilley lamps in the evening. De Valera’s policy of isolationism in the aftermath of ‘the Emergency’ still prevailed. There was a long road to Enda Kenny’s much-quoted quip that Ireland would be ‘the best small country to do business in by 2016’.
Isn’t it way past time then that the citizens who keep our thriving economy competitive on the world stage had equal access to housing?