If the State is not in a position to deliver a solution, then its need to get out of the way of the people who can
There have been many reasons to feel angry and frustrated and let down by the State about its response to housing over the past decade – many reasons – but this week, I find myself unable to breathe evenly as I write this. The frustration is overwhelming. In the last week, together with a volunteer team of 65 people and business, coming mainly from the property and construction industries, we built a small house in three days with zero budget. The idea was to show government how quickly low-cost housing could be provided if anyone cared enough to do it. The RIPPLE team cared enough, as did each of the suppliers and sponsors who made this project possible. We did it, but now that house lies empty – when there should be a family in it by Christmas – while we jump through hoops to get the necessary permissions and certifications and rubber stamp seal of token State approval. It is utter nonsense. The day after this completed home – the first shipping container home within the republic of Ireland – was celebrated and showcased then locked up for the night, a young, homeless man died on the streets of Dublin, within a short walk of this state-of-the art little home.
It feels like genuine and immediate solutions are being ignored while our collective attentions are being drawn away by grand announcements delivered with fanfare about the €3.8 billion euro that has been thrown at the problem of social housing for the next few years. Solutions in two and three years do nothing to help today’s homeless people. There are 20 per cent more people on Dublin’s streets in the last year. We know of families with young children sleeping in their cars because of the unavailability and in some cases, dangerously unsuitable nature of existing emergency accommodation.
I accept that any solution needs to be cognisant of the bigger picture; we need to strive for long term solutions but not at the cost of our children and homeless people today. The solution is actually as simple as we choose to make it. By turning the government proposals to deal with social housing on its head, we can prioritise the emergency housing needs and cut the red tape that is currently prohibiting vulnerable people from using the living areas available immediately.
For example, facilitating immediate housing units that can be delivered within days – yes days – on vacant sites that are currently within the control of the State would take many families off the streets in time for Christmas. This is how fast we could work if the State actually got out of the way.
When we were building our new container home in 3 days, we opened the building site to the public and more importantly, we publically invited local authorities and voluntary housing organisations to come and visit the build, to talk to our engineers and the team. Essentially, we wanted them to come and learn how to deliver a solution – that could be rolled out immediately – using the vacant sites available to them at the moment. There was no commercial angle; access to all of this expertise was freely available on-site. A few local authorities did take us up on the offer but it was not until the day after Mr Corrie’s tragic death, close to Dàil Èireann, did we see a Minister for State arrive on-site – two days after we finished and closed up. This epitomises the government reaction to dealing with any difficult problem, throw a long term plan and theoretical budget at the issue and hope that this is enough to buy them a few years of political relief.
After so many years dealing with this, I no longer expect the government to be able to deliver real solutions to the 3,000 people who are without a home tonight but I do expect them not to get in the way of the people who can. If this has to be a commercial solution then so be it. Allow landowners to put these interim housing units on vacant sites and rent them to government to provide immediate short term housing. This is not the ideal scenario but we are gone so far from the ideal that we need to look to the practical. What we need is an immediate response to help people this week, it is too late for Jonathan Corrie and many others before him. These are people that we have all failed, but it is not too late to help others and that it what we need to do now, today. The housing units may not be what we are used to and there is no doubt that we are looking into the changing face of housing in Ireland right now but we cannot allow that to stop us. There are opportunities for all through the delivery of low-cost housing, if this charge can be led by voluntary organisations or even the State delivering through private investors, the end result will be immediate and suitable accommodation while we wait for the €3.8 billion long term strategy to be rolled out. Before embarking on the RIPPLE container home build I was certain that the main challenge was to find a way to deliver low-cost housing, I no longer believe this to be true. The principal challenge to delivering immediate solutions is bureaucracy.