The coronavirus pandemic has impacted harder on some people than others, exacerbating existing inequalities within our society. Its impact on minorities and those already disadvantaged has been particularly devastating.
The Irish Inter–Church Committee launched a series of resources last Autumn to equip churches to engage knowledgeably and with a Christian and biblically–informed perspective on this issue (see irishchurches.org/homeless). One of the resources provided questions that voters could ask canvassing election candidates to ascertain their position and policies on housing insecurity and homelessness.
However, since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic the public attention to housing insecurity and homelessness has waned and currently they are rarely in the news. The governments in each jurisdiction acted quickly and introduced measures to protect those who were at risk of losing their home so that they didn’t do so in the middle of a pandemic.
In the Republic of Ireland, three main interventions were made: a ban on evictions, a rent freeze and a pause on existing notices to quit. Additionally local authorities sourced extra beds for rough sleepers with the aim of reducing the need for people to share rooms. In Northern Ireland, provision was made for people to avail of mortgage payment pauses and B&B accommodation was used to house rough sleepers amongst other initiatives.
These measures had been advocated by homelessness services for many years and the evidence would indicate that they have been effective with a steady reduction in the number of people recorded as homeless since they were introduced. However the Dublin measures expired on 1st August (with the exception of people who are in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment or wage subsidy), and the expiration of the furlough scheme in Northern Ireland on October 31st will undoubtedly lead to redundancies with consequent challenges for those affected to meet their rent or mortgage payments. So the question is what will happen now?
Homelessness service providers are concerned that there will be a return to the crisis we had before, and perhaps even worse as there have been no structural changes to the housing systems. Now that the temporary supports introduced during the pandemic have expired people will be under renewed financial pressure from rent, or increased mortgage arrears. With Brexit imminent the economic context now is clearly much more challenging with greatly increased unemployment and many with diminished incomes.
This potential for renewed crisis forces us to consider what the meaning of home is. Is a house an asset, a financial investment, or a space that enables us to foster family life, community and human flourishing? If so then surely as a society we need to focus on ensuring that everyone is able to have a home where they can put down roots, without constant anxiety that they might lose it through forces outside their control.
The Irish Programme for Government includes several proposals to tackle the housing shortage including introducing cost rental schemes. The new Housing Minister, Darragh O’Brien has promised a housing plan in the next two months. Housing advocacy groups are pressing for measures to address shortage of supply (rather than inflationary measures to assist homebuyers) and funding available to local authorities to buy or build social housing has been increased. It’s cheaper for local authorities to build social housing themselves than buy it from developers.
In Northern Ireland there is less dependency on the private sector for provision of social housing needs, meaning less risk of a large increase in homelessness at the end of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (known as the furlough scheme) and the Self–Employment Income Support Scheme, but mortgage holders and those who rent privately will nevertheless be affected. Many are living from pay packet to pay packet unable to build up any financial cushion for unexpected needs.
A challenge for Christian homeowners is to consider questions like what would it mean if my house didn’t increase in value? If house prices rise faster than wages then fewer and fewer people will ever be able to afford one and that is what we are seeing. If we object to development of social housing then the state will not be able to provide for the housing needs of its citizens. Is the price of my comfort and wealth that others will not have a secure place to make a home?
IICC’s six week study resource is called “In Six Months a Lot can Change” recognising that we can all be affected by housing insecurity in that one or two unfortunate events like job loss or relationship breakdown can quickly lead to struggling with rent or mortgage payments. How can we respond to this with empathy, compassion and hope?