The housing and homelessness crisis is a source of huge concern for us all. Stories of young families living in hotels or sleeping overnight in cars is not something we ever thought we would see is the Ireland of 2016, as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising.

It’s not like we didn’t see this coming – apologies for the double negatives there. Everyone knew that when the Government of the day stopped building new homes for low income families, the demand for rented accommodation was likely to grow; coupled with our economic recovery in some cities, and the steadily increasing population, it was a crisis waiting to happen.

And like in any crisis, the blame game has begun in earnest, but much of it is unfair and misleading.

Don’t Blame the Empty Nesters
When the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) published its analysis called “Housing and Ireland’s Older Population”, it was a timely analysis of this demographic in Irish society. But there were misleading headlines of its contents from the start, despite the ESRI’s clear communications. It seemed as if some media were just interested in finding a fall guy and here they were – the empty nesters i.e. older people whose grown up children had left home leaving them living in spacious family homes they no longer needed.

It was as if the empty nesters were the cause of the crisis! Nothing could be further from the truth.

The report’s central finding was that less than one fifth of those aged 50 – 59 were living alone, while 63 percent of the over 80s lived on their own. It also found that most elderly were not living in huge unsuitable family homes.

But the coverage of this report revealed something worrying: the trend towards pitting one generation against the next. Instead of accurately reporting the report’s conclusions, some media portrayed it as empty nesters being the cause of the housing shortage. Not all, though. The Sunday Times had a perceptive opinion piece by former Irish Times editor Conor Brady which was insightful.

Don’t Blame the Constitution
The outgoing Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly TD, has taken a lot of flak for the considerable delays in building modular homes to ease the homelessness emergency in Dublin. Having hailed the modular homes initiative as a quick solution for hotel-living families, he was heavily criticised during the recent election campaign for the delays and failure to have them ready when promised.

So when he did get to hold a (post-election) media launch with the newly-built homes in Ballymun, he used the opportunity to lash out at external factors which were outside his control; he blamed the rights of property owners in our constitution for the delays in building new homes, and easing the crisis by pressuring landlords to make more properties available.

But he – and others – shouldn’t blame the Constitution either. It’s easy to blame the Constitution – especially when you know nobody’s going to propose a referendum any time soon. It also removes the responsibility for the crisis from the Government Ministers and Departments who should have been doing more and getting better results.

Planning Ahead Would Have Helped
We don’t do planning well in this country, do we? We tend not to think of the long term when we build our houses before our roads and shops, or even our hospitals and schools. But to be fair to the planners and decision-makers, the financial crash that began in 2008 scuppered so much for so many. We have short memories and it’s easy to forget that the crash in 2008 brought down so many developers, small and big builders, businesses and investors in its wake.

And we should remember that the biggest house builder – the Government – was forced to stop all capital spending including housing, in order to deal with the immediate crisis in the Government finances.

People Want to Stay in Their Communities
While this might seem like an obvious point it’s worth repeating: when the older generation has reared their families within their community, they want to stay in that community; they are more likely to downsize to a more cost-efficient easier-to-manage smaller home if it is in the same area, close to their friends and social circles.

But do they have that choice? In most cases, no.

In Ireland, our housing estates are mainly large or medium-sized family homes; it’s rare to see a mix of smaller two-bedroom homes, apartments, and larger family homes within one estate or development.
This mix would enable the generations to live in close proximity to each other; the families with small children alongside the grannies and granddads – something that benefits both generations.

Older people who worry about security and the costs of heating large homes would be ready to move out if they knew they could stay in the area. They should not be pressured into moving out to an area where they have no social circles or family; this creates social isolation and is of no benefit to them or their communities.

Pensioners on Fixed Incomes Would Welcome Smaller Homes
Since the financial crash, pensioners have struggled with a steady range of extra home-associated costs: the property tax, the water charges, the increase in bin charges. It’s logical therefore for them to want to move to a smaller home, and it’s in all our interests to enable them to do that – without leaving their own communities.

Many of those whose spouses have died, leaving them living alone with these extra costs, have had to take in students to supplement their fixed incomes; while this might suit some of them, many have no choice but to do this to meet their increased costs of living.

It would make a lot more sense for this older generation to be able to downsize to a nice apartment or smaller home within their own areas, and enable families to move into the bigger homes.

Everyone – especially estate agents – can see that when a developer is able to build a set of nice apartments in a settled area, these apartments are quickly snapped up by locals wanting to downsize. We are stymied in south Dublin by the shortage of sites to develop these bespoke apartment developments.

So, finally (for now!), let’s think constructively. Housing associations are a help with social housing, the modular homes should be encouraged, and let’s try not to pit generation against generation.

Des Lalor Auctioneers is an auctioneer and estate agent covering south Dublin and north Wicklow. Des Lalor Auctioneers is based at 101 Trees Road Upper, Mount Merrion, Co. Dublin.
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