In 2017, I spotted a strange number in a very dull looking spreadsheet-style chart on a Government website. And it took me aback. So, as was my wont, I tweeted;
Grammatical infelicities aside, it was a reasonable question. When the state breaks with the habit of its entire existence, it is usually the result of some major contested policy decision. But the Government of the day, and its predecessors, hadn't declared any animus towards local authorities.
On the contrary, the Minister for Housing in 2017 seemed to be entirely in favour of local authorities building houses directly, denying any ideological basis to the state's failure to build.
"Mr Murphy said he wants to provide homes for homeless families and that means building new social housing homes.
Speaking to RTÉ News, he said that the State has to do more in this area.
He said unfortunately for quite a number of years the State was not building social houses and the private sector was not building houses either."
Why had the state unfortunately stopped building houses, an onlooker might ask. Apparently, it had just... not, for no particular reason.
At the same time, his party leader was complaining in the Dáil that looking to increase public housing delivered by the state was, itself, a "very hardline ideological position".
In 2017, the Minister for Housing said that, when it came to seeing Local Authorities delivering houses "it will not be a question of money, ideology or resources standing in their way."
The Government has nationalised evictions. Every eviction, usually a private crisis between a tenant and a landlord, is now framed as the result of the Government's policy.
If it wasn't money, ideology or resources, it must have been something else. Whatever Gelatinous Cube or Uncrossable Chasm Local Authorities found blocking their way, the trends of the previous decade continued. They basically failed to build houses. It seems, despite the Minister's words, that the policy set out by the Department of Housing in September 2012 remained
The current financial constraints have led to a significant reduction in the capital budget for housing.
To respond to this reality and to ensure that social housing need is met the Government has radically reformed housing policy, with a shift in focus towards leasing options
This chart shows the delivery of Local Authority house-building from 1999 to Q3 of 2022, the most recent figures available. They basically just stopped building at anything like the historical numbers as soon as Fine Gael became the largest party in the state. They have never recovered. They have actually been trending down since 2019. (Green Bars, years mostly led by FF Taoiseach. Blue Bars mostly led by FG Taoiseach)
For a chart which includes the delivery of new houses by third parties, you can take a look at this excellent piece by Christina Finn of The Journal, which confirms that nadir was not offset by other forms of building for public housing.
This week the government parties experienced a series of tactical successes. They won their various parliamentary votes. But in doing so, they suffered a massive strategic loss.
The Government has nationalised evictions in the popular imagination. Every eviction, usually a private crisis between a tenant and a landlord, is now framed as the result of the Government's policy.
The State now owns evictions in a way not seen since the Land League.
Politically, this is an almost unfathomable disaster. It will never go away as a story. The Government can never tough it out or move on. There will always be another unbearable story of eviction into homelessness to come- another infant or pensioner or carer or family- to be put to every government TD who steps in front of a mic.
Why no building?
The two main government parties, but in particular Fine Gael as the largest party since 2011, looked to play pass the parcel with the future on housing. Instead of Local Authorities, they would pay private landlords (via HAP or long term leases) to house people. As the Taoiseach told the Dáil in 2017;
"Just because social housing or public housing is not built directly by a local authority does not mean that it should not count."
The problem was that, generally, private landlords don't build their houses afresh. So, as private housing stock became occupied by people who would have once been housed in newly built Local Authority houses, it stopped being available for other private tenants, or for people trying to buy a home. By turning off the tap of Local Authority construction, the State was starting the clock running on a timebomb, to go off the day the numbers seeking housing exceeded in absolute terms the numbers of houses available. Pre 2011, they were adding thousands of new homes a year. After FG took over, that dwindled down to 75. But all those thousands of new households still needed to go somewhere.
While the music played this had multiple attractive advantages to the civil war parties and their supporters. As the scholarly work on the last election How Ireland Voted confirmed, there is power in Sinn Féin's contention that “If Fianna Fáil were party of the developers, Fine Gael are the party of the landlords.”
The Music Stops
Both parties have support bases who demand that property prices and rents continue to rise. By turning off the State supply, and diverting the state monies into subsidising private rent, they were ensuring that both blocs of supporters needs were met.
But now the music has stopped and the parcel can't be passed to the future any longer. Both parties responsible for this collapse of delivery of Local Authority building are in power at the same time. Neither can blame the other.
There's some evidence that they are starting to realise the serverity of their crisis. Fine Gael, over the weekend, launched a war on pictures in response to the SF housing spokesman posting a piece of political art on their policy. Nothing, of course, confirms the continuing power of political art as when the target of its critique reacts to it with hysteria.
This month the Government parties decided, as a matter of choice, to allow people to be evicted knowing that there aren't enough places for them to go. The current Minister for Housing conceded it could increase homelessness. And that was what they decided they wanted to have happen.
The effect of that decision will stay with the TDs and Ministers who voted for it every day the government remains in power.
It will stay with the people evicted and made homeless for the rest of their lives.