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Pressure mounts on Government after ‘wasting breathing space’ of eviction ban

Opposition correctly judges Coalition risks a fast-moving crisis that will renew focus on its housing policies

“The main driver of a Fianna Fáil politician is what comes into your clinic,” says one backbench TD from that party. Last year, there was an uptick in representations from people facing eviction, and it played into the decision to put in place the winter eviction ban.

Now, the Opposition is making the Government feel the heat, conjuring the very real prospect of constituents with nowhere to go.

“They wasted the breathing space created by the winter ban and are now throwing tenants to the mercy of a shrinking and dysfunctional market,” said Sinn Féin’s housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin on Monday.

The Dáil is in recess but Sinn Féin is eager to keep the issue on the boil. The Opposition correctly judges that the Government risks a fast-moving crisis that will renew the focus on its housing policies.


While housing has consistently been a key concern for voters, this Government has by and large not faced the sort of pressure that ultimately crushed Eoghan Murphy, Darragh O’Brien’s predecessor in the Customs House. Partially that is because of the other crises it has faced – Covid and the war in Ukraine. But it is a double-edged sword – both of these crises have compounded the challenge.

Significant increases in homeless figures would increase the pressure: as would instances of families sleeping in Garda stations. There is huge demand on a range of Government schemes to deliver.

First of these is the tenant-in-situ purchase programme, when a landlord sells to a local authority rather than evicting a tenant on housing benefits. This scheme has purchased only a handful of homes – critics say it is under-resourced in councils, who themselves can be overly dogmatic when deciding what homes to purchase, leaving the scheme burdened by bureaucracy and slow to respond.

But it’s now being asked to step up significantly. A circular sent by O’Brien to local authorities last week makes clear that new targets (1,500 units to be purchased this year, up from 200) approved by Cabinet must act as a brake on people entering homelessness. “I want to be very clear in my message to you,” he wrote, asking that chief executives give the issue their “personal attention”. “My expectation, and that of colleagues across Government, is that this opportunity for additional acquisitions will be focused entirely on the acquisition of properties where a HAP or RAS tenant has received a notice of termination.”

Councils are to “ensure that all steps are taken to address the early acquisition of such properties as a key homeless prevention measure”.

The Government must also figure out how its new policies, announced in tandem with the ending of the ban, are going to work. The first of these is for a “first refusal” giving a tenant an option to purchase. The second is that a “backstop” kicks in if the tenant can’t afford the purchase, with the renter becoming a cost-rental tenant. The Government is also planning to raise the income limits for cost-rental eligibility.

How will this all work? How will it fit together? Will someone be able to avail of the backstop before the first refusal element, which requires legislation, is ready? The Government has said people availing of the backstop will have to be at risk of homelessness, and sources say this will be evidenced by a notice to quit – but is that across the board? What, if any, income limits, or property value limits, will apply to the backstop option? Are local authorities and approved housing bodies adequately prepared to purchase more units at a greater volume? Will landlords be obliged to engage with the backstop if they don’t want to?

Senior sources are adamant there will be no changing course on the decision to end the ban. Doing so, they assess, would monster their credibility, forcing them to ditch a policy that they’ve clearly articulated ownership over.

But the pressure may tell elsewhere. Mary Fitzpatrick, the Fianna Fáil Senator, says time-limited tax incentives should have been brought in during the ban. “Doing one without the other was a mistake. In an emergency, we must use every available resource to prevent homelessness and increase supply.” There are signs that her view is shared within the Government.

At last week’s Cabinet meeting, Minister for Finance Michael McGrath and Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe were forced to hold the line against criticisms from colleagues who felt more should have been done for renters and landlords. The Government’s decision was to develop a package of measures for introduction in the budget, but now some in Government feel that needs to be reassessed.

Some sources believe the finance Bill working its way through the Oireacthas currently, which is to give effect to the cost-of-living measures agreed in February, can be amended to introduce tax breaks sooner. One source said they “would prefer to move sooner rather than later and the current Bill could be used for that”.

A wide range of tax breaks are on the table – including a capital gains tax break for those landlords selling to the State. This, it is felt, could act as a brake on evictions and turbo-charge the “backstop” option, reducing the pressure by reducing a landlord’s incentive to evict, and adding to the social housing stock in the medium term.

A small working group has been set up between the Departments of Housing, Finance and Public Expenditure. The intention is to have proposals ready for the Government to consider in April, with some of the view that measures could be agreed then, and introduced soon thereafter – perhaps across the summer, with July mentioned as a probable date.

It is not a done deal – indeed, senior sources cautioned that the likelihood is still that the measures will come in the budget, not earlier. But others feel the politics of the situation will dictate a change.

“The pressure is going to come on Michael and Paschal to respond more fundamentally to the wider issue,” one Minister said on Monday. “I’m not sure waiting for the budget is a sustainable position.”