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Wednesday 7 December 2016

Andrew Lynch: Government facing eviction over this rent certainty row

When the Simon Community made their pre-Budget submission a few weeks ago, they used a video featuring TV3 weatherman Martin King. Standing in front of a map that displayed Ireland's shameful homelessness statistics, he warned: "The forecast is not looking good ... we are predicting that conditions will continue to deteriorate."

If anything, King was being unduly optimistic - because the Government's big idea for keeping a roof over people's heads appears to have gone missing in action.

Although Michael Noonan's Budget last Tuesday doled out a whopping €3bn, it still contained one glaring hole.

A new 'rent certainty' measure to prevent greedy landlords from jacking up their prices failed to put in an appearance, even though it was first promised by Environment Minister Alan Kelly at the Labour Party conference last February.

It is now common knowledge in Government Buildings that Noonan and Kelly have had a major row over the issue - raising fears that nothing will happen between now and the general election just a few months away.

The Minister for Finance's excuse is pretty feeble.

He has claimed that the discussions simply ran out of time and a Budget is not the place to be introducing new rent initiatives, anyway.

This seems a little strange, since his speech addressed just about every other area of Government policy - right down to funding for the Irish Film Board.

At Labour's weekly parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday night, many TDs sounded less than convinced. They are urging Kelly to hang tough on his original proposal that rent hikes should be linked to the rate of inflation.

Some wonder that if the tough-talking deputy leader they call 'AK47' loses yet another policy battle with Fine Gael, what hope is there for the rest of them?

All this matters for one simple reason - the homeless cannot afford to wait. Ireland now has over 5,000 people living in emergency accommodation, an alarming increase of 76pc since the beginning of 2015.

At the same time, rents have rocketed to a level last seen in 2008 - shortly before the property bubble burst with such devastating consequences.

Fine Gael and Labour are like flatmates. They try to get on and respect each other's personal space but, inevitably, there are occasional rows about how things should be run.

This spat makes the Coalition partners look like a real-life version of The Odd Couple - because it goes right to the heart of the ideological split between them.

For Labour, protecting vulnerable tenants by keeping rents down should be a no-brainer. For Fine Gael, anything that tries to artificially control a free market is automatically suspicious. The result for now is gridlock - which obviously favours the bigger party, which wants nothing to happen anyway.

In fairness to the Government, Tuesday's budget did include positive pledges - including another 9,500 social housing units by 2018 and an extra €17m for emergency accommodation. Unfortunately, those new buildings will not magically appear overnight and temporary shelters only address the symptoms, rather than the disease.

This is why homeless charities such as Simon are crying out for rent certainty as the best way to prevent people from being thrown on to the streets.

So how will this play out? Taoiseach Enda Kenny is expected to discuss the problem with Kelly very soon, a clear sign of just how much tension it has caused between Fine Gael and Labour.

Both men have a huge incentive to reach some sort of compromise - before the weather turns seriously cold and we have more people freezing to death in our doorways.

In the Dail last Wednesday, Kenny declared: "Believe me, I have a frustration over the fact that this is not moving." To put it politely, he is not the only one.

Housing citizens should be a basic priority for any decent Government - and if this one ducks its responsibilities again, voters would be well within their rights to hand down an eviction notice.

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