THIS WEEK, MINISTER for Housing Eoghan Murphy survived a second no confidence motion against him in the Dáil in 15 months.
The embattled minister has overseen a continuing rise in homeless figures and spiralling rents, despite suggestions that the housing crisis would ease as the delivery of new homes under Rebuilding Ireland continued.
But Murphy narrowly survived Tuesday’s motion by three votes, and defiantly dismissed the attempt to remove him as a “stunt”.
During a speech ahead of the vote, he defended his record on housing and Rebuilding Ireland, pointing to several figures which he claimed demonstrated that the government’s housing action plan was working.
We still have two years to go [on Rebuilding Ireland], but we have already delivered 64,000 new places to live. In the last 12 months, 26,000 new homes started under construction on new sites.
More than 30,000 homes have planning permission. These numbers are increasing. Only 4,500 homes were built in 2013, as I have said, but this year we will build more than 20,000 homes.
But how many homes are actually coming into the market through Rebuilding Ireland? And how many of these are new homes, as opposed to tenancies secured through the private rental market?
With so many different statistics cited when it comes to housing, let’s look at how many houses the government is really delivering, as well as how they’re doing it.
New builds versus deliveries
To unpack the figures mentioned by Murphy, it’s important to look at the language used by the minister when he talks about the number of new homes that make up official housing statistics.
In the quote above, he mentioned the ‘delivery’ of 64,000 new homes in three years, and said that 20,000 new homes will be built this year, which are not the same thing.
When the government says that it has ‘delivered’ a home, it means that one unit of housing has become available for an individual or family to live in.
But every ‘delivery’ does not just mean a new house or apartment has been built; deliveries can also come from the private rental market.
If a local authority builds a house, that counts as one ‘delivery’, as it does if a house is leased from a private developer.
But every time a tenant rents a house from a private landlord using the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP), that also counts as one ‘delivery’ – at least according to the figures cited by Rebuilding Ireland, the government’s five-year housing action plan.
And what’s more, the 64,000 figure cited by Murphy isn’t even the same as the number of homes which are counted deemed to have been delivered under Rebuilding Ireland.
So where does the figure come from?
When asked to clarify, a Department of Housing spokesman said Murphy was referring to CSO statistics on ‘new dwelling completions’, which state that 64,595 new places to live were delivered between July 2016 and September 2019.
That statistic is made up of 52,647 ’brand new’ completions, another 3,657 completed homes in unfinished housing estates, and 8,291 more homes which were returned to use after they were deemed to have been vacant for at least two years.
But it’s been argued that this method could over-state the delivery of housing.
The primary data source used by the CSO for ‘new dwellings completions’ is new ESB connections, where the date that a house is energised determines the date it is completed.
However, this means a big number of vacant homes which have simply been re-energised being counted – one in eight ‘new completions’ in that 64,000 cited by Murphy, for example, is simply a home that has been re-energised.
Another method of counting new completions is commencement notice data, which is what Murphy was referring to when he said that “26,0000 new homes were started under construction on new sites” in the last 12 months.
But there’s another issue using this method: it could lead to the opposite problem of using ESB connections, as entire blocks of apartments and estates can be covered by one notice.
Similarly, many houses, estates and blocks of apartments aren’t completed in the same year they are commenced, so it’s hard to know how useful this method is for evaluating the delivery of housing.
Rebuilding Ireland deliveries
The CSO figure cited by Murphy is also problematic because it is divergent from the number of homes that have been delivered under Rebuilding Ireland.
According to the latest Rebuilding Ireland progress report, the government delivered 84,147 homes between the launch of the plan in 2016 and the second quarter of this year.
By the end of 2019, the government hopes to have delivered more than 91,000; and given that it was just 7,000 short of that by the end of the second quarter, it seems likely that it will reach that target.
However, 60,379 of those homes have come from the private rental market: 57,002 through HAP, and another 3,377 through the Rental Accommodation Scheme (RAS).
Critics argue that such an over-reliance on the private rental market is not sustainable. Last year, the government paid almost €700 million to private landlords through rent subsidy schemes like HAP and RAS.
An additional 23,000 HAP and RAS tenancies are expected to be delivered by the completion of Rebuilding Ireland in 2021, which will only increase the large amount of money the government is paying to landlords.
Built, Acquired and Leased
In contrast, just 28% of the homes delivered under Rebuilding Ireland have come in the form of social housing: 23,768 new or second-hand homes have officially been delivered under Rebuilding Ireland.
These homes, delivered through local authorities or approved housing bodies (AHBs) – non-profit organisations whose purpose is to provide and manage social housing – are categorised in one of three ways.
2,949 new homes have been delivered through the social housing leasing scheme, where local authorities pay near market rent to private landlords for social housing over a period of 25 years.
Another 7,783 homes have been acquired from banks’ investment or loan portfolios for use as social housing.
But the number of new homes the government has actually built through local authorities or AHBs stands at 13,036, including just over 1,200 new builds during the first half of 2019.
The government is targeting an additional 5,300 new builds by the end of 2019 and another 16,600 in the next two calendar years.
That would meet the target set out in its 2016 action plan, which aims for over 5,000 new units of social housing to be built per year by 2021.
And if it is met, around 30,000 homes – or 6,000 units a year – will have been built by the government over the lifetime of Rebuilding Ireland.
That’s significantly less than the final figure used by Murphy in his speech, which said that “this year we will build more than 20,000 homes”.