A recent report conducted by the Social Policy Department at UCD for the Dublin Regional Housing Executive contains some interesting insights into the response to homelessness in the city. Among the groups who took part were Merchants Quay, Crosscare, Focus, and the Capuchin Day Centre. Seemingly, no homeless persons nor any of the smaller voluntary groups who organise food runs were interviewed.
Indeed the latter were criticised by someone from the state funded NGOs as being the cause of “excess provision,” and of making it more difficult for homeless people to establish contact with the existing groups who provide a “wider suite of services.” It was condescendingly conceded that the newer voluntary groups were acting with “the best possible intentions.”
The review recommends that the HSE and the Food Safety authority devise a strategy to monitor the on-street food and soup providers. Presumably, no-one suggested that this criteria ought to have been applied to Simon and some of the others who now are now seemingly territorial about their client target base. Which is not only a bit unseemly but clearly off kilter if the problem is as bad as they continually tell us.
Independent Dublin City Councillor Anthony Flynn made the very apposite point that the groups such as the one with which he works, North Inner City Helping Homeless, are addressing a gap and reaching out to those who are not in contact for whatever reason with the big players. Much of that he suggests, and it is confirmed by others, is that many of those who turn up at the nightly stalls may in fact have somewhere to live but they cannot afford to feed themselves properly, which is a sad reflection on the sort of place we live in.
The irony of the criticism of the newer groups is that Simon, for example, began in exactly the same way in 1969, when it was completely reliant on volunteers and on donations. Dublin Simon now has an annual income of over €20 million and employs over 300 people. None of the 15 or so voluntary groups like A Lending Hand and Feed the Homeless have anything remotely compared to the same resources.
According to statistics issued [ANB1] by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government there were 6,082 homeless people at the end of August of this year, 4,204 of whom were in the Dublin region. These were all housed in some form of emergency or temporary accommodation. Among the overall number were 1,120 homeless families with 2,620 dependents. The numbers of people sleeping rough are obviously harder to quantify. A census taken by the DRHE in late November 2019 found a total of 90.
The numbers accommodated by the NGOs according to their own reports are relatively small. Respond claimed to have supplied and managed accommodation for 110 families in 2018. Simon said that it has accommodated 213 people through 2018 with 1,205 at various stages in emergency accommodation. They also provided 362,155 meals. Focus put a figure of over 500 on those it had assisted in 2018 and the McVerry Trust said that it has supported 275 households to move into long term accommodation so far this year.
The scale of the funding available to the NGOs in the sector is huge. Based on the most recent information from their own reports and from Benefacts, the largest organisations which include Simon, Focus, Threshold, the McVerry Trust, Respond and the Capuchin Day Centre have an annual income of over €200 million. More than €90 million of that comes directly from the state and many of them are also eligible for loans from the Housing Finance Agency (HFA).
This is an enormous amount of money. €200 million each year amounts to a spend of €33,000 per homeless person. The question that obviously needs to be asked, especially on behalf of the hard-pressed taxpayer, is whether this huge spend is reducing the number of homeless people and dealing effectively with the task of providing shelter and homes for those who have none.
What most people may not realise is that additional funding is also provided in the form of loans to housing bodies.
The HFA made net loans of €745 million in 2019 with the main recipients being 25 Approved Housing Bodies(AHBs). Their loan book currently amounts to €4.6 billion. None of the NGOs include this as part of their income even though it constitutes a huge part of their operating resources. It has also helped them to amass huge property assets with net assets of over €232 million among the small number of the major operators. One voluntary AHB, Oaklee Housing lists its €45 million HFA loan under “private finance.”
The line between public and private is as blurred as the definition as to what constitutes “voluntary” when it comes to the big housing and homelessness bodies. The board of Oaklee, which is part of the UK based Choice Housing, illustrates the crossover, which might be described as a combination of public money with private interests.
Members of the Oaklee board include the owner of a planning consultancy, a former senior executive with Bank of Ireland and TSB (which to date has sold almost €3 billion of “non-performing mortgages to vulture funds), a former chief lender from the Bank of Ireland and a former CEO of Wexford County Council. Not exactly the profile one might expect in a board seeking to help solve the housing problem.
The board of the Housing Finance Agency is chaired by Michelle Norris, Professor of Social Policy at UCD, and includes a cross section of former public servants and business executives with the usual smattering of people with a background in private sector finance. The other major NGOs have a similar leadership at board level and from among their more than 2,000 staffers. One member of the board of Respond is a former director of McInerney Construction and Gannon homes as well as being a current trustee of the Construction Federation.
Focus has board members who were or are involved in real estate, Google and a former director of Glanbia. The chairperson of Threshold is former Labour Party Senator Aideen Hayden who is also on the board of the Housing Finance Agency. Other Threshold board members include people who are employed or were once employed by DIAGEO, Ernst and Young, Tesco and so on.
Without casting any aspersions it surely a curious situation in which the “voluntary sector” is run much like any other business, except perhaps not as efficiently as one which is dependent on what they can sell rather than what they can draw down in tax grants. The sector is also dominated at the top by members of an elite who believe they are performing a social good, and others perhaps who regard it as an extension of what that elite does in its more mundane guise. The link between public money and private property development and construction, not to mention the whole layer of over-priced intermediaries who feed off it all through legal and other services, is quite apparent.
In his book Winners Take all: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas poses the question as to “what gets sidelined when the moneyed take over change.” No one is posing that question in Ireland where there is a strange and cosy alliance between woke corporatism and left “activists” who like to give the public perception that getting a job with an NGO is something on similar lines to Larkin organising the dock workers of Dublin a century ago.
As we have suggested previously, the huge amounts of money that goes to fund the NGOs, while creating a lot of employment, is obviously not cost-effective in addressing the housing or homelessness situation. Much of that lies at the foot of central and local government which seems happy to expend vast sums of public money for an incommensurate return in terms of actually building places for people to live. Their own statistics prove that given the annual shortfalls in targets for new builds.
Some of the ways in which local authorities spend their housing budget perfectly illustrates what happens when Pollyanna social engineering meets the property companies. Cairn homes, which is building on former RTE lands at Donnybrook agreed to sell 61 units to Dublin City Council to meet the obligation for 10% social housing in any new housing development as set out in the Planning and Development Act. Dublin Council agreed to pay €30.18 million for the units, which works out at a cost of around €500,000 per apartment.
That simply makes no sense at a time when Dublin local authorities are building very few houses and could do so for a fraction of the cost of buying the above. A January 2019 report by the Assistant CEO to members of the City Council shows that the city built just 322 units between 2015 and 2019. They also bought or leased a further 687 units during the same period).
Of 815 homes to be delivered by Dublin City Council between the last quarter of 2018 and 2020 just 237 were to be built by the council. All of the remainder are to be completed by the publicly financed Approved Housing Bodies including FOLD, Cluid, Tuath, Focus, Oaklee and Respond. So basically, Dublin City Council gets a whack of taxpayers’ money and then passes it on to others to fulfil the major part of its own functions.
The total cost of this is projected to be €244.5 million, a cost of €300,000 per unit, all from public funds, and not including the added costs of grants which go to paying the staff and administration of the “voluntary bodies” concerned, which accounts for the vast bulk of their expenditure. The city council was also to acquire in 2018 and 2019 another 366 units at a cost of €109.8 million. Again an average per unit cost of €300,000 and that without taking into account presumably other costs for rent subsidies and so on.
To put all of that into perspective, it is worth noting that in 2016 the Society of Chartered Surveyors estimated that the cost of building a semi-detached house in Dublin was €330,000. However, the actual construction would cost €150,000 and the land €57,000. The rest of it goes in VAT, levies and professional fees which local authorities can avoid. Dublin local authorities own land which they can build on so basically we are talking about a per unit cost of under half of what they are paying out to various other bodies.
There is possibly the issue of competence on the part of local authorities, especially in Dublin where a left wing majority up until 2019 including Sinn Féin was so pre-occupied with boycotting Israeli computers, naming bridges, flying flags and painting rainbows on pavements that they were led by the nose into a series of disastrous developments by property developers who will eventually make the north Bronx or St. Denis look like one of those post war English garden cities.
That aside, if the state is going to take a leading role in providing housing, and it ought to and that has nothing to do with ideology, then it surely makes sense for public money to be properly spent rather than dispensed to a whole layer of entities that cost way more than they deliver.
One of the things that this state did get right for a long time was housing. The older local authority schemes were properly built and for many decades properly integrated into the consequent demand for transport, hospitals, schools, green spaces and so on. And it was done with nary an ideological reference to “social housing.”
Ironically, that phase arguably came to an end when the unhealthy relationship between property and politics came to predominate the provision of housing. That relationship has morphed into one bearing the smiley face of corporate rapaciousness in cahoots with those who feign to be its adversaries. Or perhaps they just do not notice.