Change needed to tackle housing crisis

The Rental Accommodation Scheme is a waste of time, that is according to a number of city councillors who called for major change to properly address the housing crisis which has gripped the city and left many families with young children homeless.

While some councillors called for joint initiatives with the Galway County Council and more progress regarding vacant houses, others took a stronger view calling for the city council to “play hard ball”, to withhold the €600,000 owed for interest on loans connected to the Land Aggregation Scheme, and force the Government to rethink its housing policy.

At the Galway City Council meeting on Monday, Cllr Ollie Crowe (FF ) highlighted the serious housing issues calling on the council to set up a special task force to deal with the homelessness crisis.

“The crisis has gained public attention in recent weeks following a number of families having to stay in hotels due to a lack of suitable accommodation. It is very difficult for councillors, and for the limited housing staff, to deal with these queries on a daily basis. On a human level I find it very difficult that we’re putting children who have not yet reached their first birthdays into difficult accommodation.

“The council spent thousands of euro advertising during the summer looking for landlords willing to go on the Rental Accommodation Scheme at a time when rents are increasing and the council is offering rates significantly lower than landlords could get on the private market. Such a plan was doomed to failure and is indicative of the lack of strategic planning. There is an onus on Galway City Council to be proactive rather than reactive and unfortunately that requirement is not being met at present,” said Cllr Crowe who also called for the drawing up of a better emergency accommodation plan describing the current system where the council has a budget of €4,000 to spend on hotel accommodation “ridiculous” and “beyond belief”.

Agreeing with Cllr Crowe, Cllr Declan McDonnell (Ind ) said the dire situation is exacerbated by the fact that there has been no progress in relation to capital programme spending and that under the Land Aggregation Scheme the council has a bill of €600,000 to pay for interest alone. “RAS is a waste of time,” said Cllr Frank Fahy (FG ), who called for quicker turnaround on vacant boarded up houses adding “there are thousands on the housing list who would gladly take these up”.

Cllr Peter Keane (FF ) reminded the chamber that the council has already passed a motion condemning the manner in which the Department of the Environment and Local Government has refused to accept and take back loans it provided to the council for the purchase of lands in Ballyburke and Keeraun. The motion called on the Government to take back loans of €26 million for the Land Aggregation Scheme. “€600,000 would be an awful lot of money to provide housing,” said Cllr Keane, who then put forward the motion that the council does not repay the loans until there is a “positive shift in housing policy”. Cllr Keane added: “This has been dealt with in a shambolic way. RAS is not the answer. Let’s make a stand on this.”

However the motion was later defeated with just five councillors in favour. One of those was Cllr Anna Marley (SF ) who said the council should not be held liable for the mistakes of national government and should not have to pay one cent in interest repayments to the Housing Finance Agency.

“We must play hard ball with the Department of Environment and make it clear that we should not have to make repayments on loans that were approved and bought on the behest of the then government. We already have the land but what we need is financial investment to build much needed social housing,” said Cllr Marley.

“The biggest problem is that landlords are not accepting rent allowance,” said Cllr Terry O’Flaherty (Ind ), who put forward a motion, which was later passed with 14 councillors in favour, calling on the city council to work with Galway County Council to help those on the housing list who wish to move out to the county.

In response director of services Tom Connell said the council is “using all resources” available to it. The council faces further challenges due to the shortage of adequate housing and staffing shortages caused by the embargo that remains in place. Mr Connell assured councillors that attempts are being made to deal with the problem of vacant local authority houses, and that funding of €600,000 “is being spent” to bring these properties up to standard and have them occupied as soon as possible. He added that the council does have services to provide emergency accommodation provided in conjunction with the HSE and COPE, but “it’s an on-going situation that has to be managed”.

Chief executive Brendan McGrath said that despite these pressures the housing department continues to deal with cases “in a sensitive and caring way”. “The council also has to operate within the constraints of housing policy,” said Mr McGrath, who added that he was confident very significant progress will be made by year end in relation to boarded up houses.

Regarding the Land Aggregation Scheme and the interest owed on loans Mr McGrath said a working group has been set up and it is hoped a solution will be found. Mr McGrath then gave a committment to have a discussion with his counterpart in the county council to explore options in relation to Cllr O’Flaherty’s motion and report back.

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