It is essential to note that it has taken the deaths of multiple homeless people on the streets of Dublin for the government to even consider addressing this urgent issue. For years they have happily ignored it while implementing policies which served to increase the amount of people without a home to call their own. Thousands of people across the country live in hotels and bed and breakfasts as there is inadequate access to affordable housing. Hundreds more live in homeless shelters or on the streets. The solution to this issue is apparently "Modular housing".
"Modular housing" basically means glorified prefabs. Recently a number of examples were exhibited to the Dublin local authorities. Six companies (including Ronakabin, a subsidiary company of Denis O'Brien's Siteserv) showed off their wares. The proposal to house homeless families in up to 250 of these two bedroom units seems to be gathering pace with DCC signing off on the plan and the Peter McVerry trust expressing support. At around €100,000 a go these temporary units are not cheap, there will also be a number of ancillary costs such as sourcing land and ensuring the connection to and provision of basic amenities like water, electricity and sewage. The sites themselves will have to be developed. There are also concerns about the safety of these units, highlighted this week by the tragedy in Carrickmines where ten people died when a fire engulfed their prefabricated housing.
On the other hand the average cost of constructing a social housing unit (an actual bricks and mortar house) is €185,000 according to the Irish Times. In the grand scheme of things €85,000 extra for a permanent, secure house is very little. While the interiors of these modular housing units are undoubtedly impressive we need to ask ourselves if the millions apparently destined for these units would not be better spent on actual houses? There is also the possibility that the government may look at leasing these units from the private companies rather than outright purchasing them, enriching private business interests rather than investing in social assets. (which brings us back to Denis O'Brien) If something is worth doing, is it not worth doing right?
The homelessness crisis undoubtedly needs to be addressed urgently. With rents spiraling out of control and the banks more aggressively pursuing repossessions it will only get worse unless urgent action is taken. The immediate priority needs to be to get people off the streets, out of hotels, hostels and B&B's and into appropriate housing. Modular housing can play a small role in this but the only long term solution is the construction of more social housing and the imposition of strict rent controls on the private market. (Unfortunately there was no sign of any of this in the government's budget for 2016)
We have been reassured that modular housing units will represent a temporary part of the solution. But how long is temporary? One year? Five? Ten?
Minster for the Environment Alan Kelly's comments at a recent Labour party think-in in Wicklow give us an idea;
“Obviously we’re only going to put people in here for a certain period of time. We want more permanent solutions, but the lifespan of some of these units is 60 to 70 years.”
Sixty to seventy years? That is stretching any definition of "temporary".
While any efforts to address the crisis are to be applauded there is a need to be realistic about things. The past is the greatest indicator we have as to what form tomorrow will take. There is a great deal to indicate that once the homelessness crisis is out of sight it will once again be out of mind for the government and people will be left to languish in these modular housing units for decades to come.
When I initially wrote this blog post I was working with provisional sums when discussing the costs of modular housing units versus that of conventional social housing. It turns out that these figures were grossly incorrect. It has now emerged that the cost of constructing a modular housing unit is in fact far higher than the €100,000 figure I quoted. Almost double in fact, each unit will cost €191,000. This is more than it costs to construct an actual house.
As predicted this enterprise is shaping up to be an ineffectual waste of money.