High stakes as housing now a key political battleground

Updated / Thursday, 2 Sep 2021 21:42

By Mary Regan

Housing has always been a big political issue, given its importance in all our lives. But in the past ten years its prominence in political debate has intensified to become the key political battleground of our time.

In the 2011 general election, housing did not even feature in exit polls that are taken to survey why people voted the way they did.

It registered as an issue for the first time after the 2016 general election when 6% of people said homelessness or a lack of social housing influenced how they cast their first preference vote.

Later that year, concerns around rising homelessness rates crystallised in to a demonstration at Apollo House – a former government office building which was to be demolished.

That, in turn, prompted a wave of activism and protests, mainly involving Generation Rent – young people in their twenties and thirties who are either stuck living with their parents or paying high rents and feeling locked out of the market.

As the problem widened to encompass more sectors of society, the issue became a significant driver of voting intentions in last year's general election, when 26% of voters said it was the issue on which they based their vote.

"The housing crisis became a big political issue as a result of it affecting so many people," says Dr Rory Hearne who is a lecturer in Social Policy in Maynooth University and the author of Housing Shock: The Irish Housing Crisis and How to Solve it.

"We are seeing now an entire generation being locked out of affordable homes to buy, to rent and that really emerged over the last decade that did not exist ten years ago.

"We have doubled the amount of people living in the private rental sector – the majority young adults. We also have a generation stuck at home – 450,000 young people living at home.

"So the housing crisis itself has extended to effect people like we have never seen before," he says.

Gary Murphy, Professor in Politics at DCU says that over the past seven years or so the twin issues of homelessness and the lack of affordability have come to the fore.

"The middle classes are worried about housing, they are worried about where their children are going to live," he says.

This has coincided with a change in how people choose who to vote for. Before the crash, Prof Murphy says, there was a loyalty to parties and a consistency in how people voted.

Now politics is all about issues. "What we have seen is a move away from traditional voting patterns to a situation where voters have no loyalty.

"Party membership has all but collapsed. In that context, people now go out and vote for people who promise solutions to issues."

The dominance of housing as an issue has in some ways been driven by a number of grassroots movements including the protest around Apollo House, Raise the Roof and Take Back the City.

They have, according to Dr Hearne "highlighted that there are alternative policies" which have driven the dominance of housing as an issue in political discourse.

The investment fund purchase of housing in Maynooth earlier this year, was "the straw that broke the camel’s back for generation rent," he says and resulted in an explosion of anger "over what [people] see as a failure of the Irish state to provide that key responsibility, of a home".

He believes the housing crisis is causing a lot of wider tragedy.

"There are people in situations of family breakdown who can't leave the family home; people with disabilities who can't find accessible housing; people emigrating, people putting off having children to the point that they can't have them - all as a result of the housing crisis," he says.

"People are rightly putting the responsibility at Government’s door to fix it, and I think that is not going to abate until this crisis is fixed," he says.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have already seen their support slide in recent elections and they know housing has played its part in that.

They know there will be consequences of not delivering, and that is why there is so much at stake with this latest plan.

"Housing will be the dominant political issue for the next election and Sinn Féin have all but set out their stall that housing will be their priority," says Prof Murphy.

"If there are no dents made in housing – house building and house prices – I think over the course of the next two years, the issue will become more pronounced as we loom towards the next general election.

"It will become the all-encompassing issue for Fianna Fáil and FIne Gael. If they don’t get this right, I’m not sure what else they can get right to save their proverbial bacon," he adds.

From a peripheral issue, the housing crisis is now the biggest battleground in Irish politics.

Fixing it is both the biggest challenge and biggest opportunity for the Government parties. Get it wrong and they will pay a heavy price, get it right and they could turn around their political fortunes.

The stakes are high. While their ambition has now been set out, the parties will need to show it is working well in advance of the next election.

For now, their biggest enemy is time.