Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 March 2021
Our homes and housing systems have been the frontline defence in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Across the world governments told people to ‘stay home’. But the COVID-19 pandemic ‘has laid bare the pre-existing and vast structural inequalities in housing systems all over the world’ (Farha, 2020). 1.8 billion people worldwide live with homelessness and grossly inadequate housing. Overcrowding and substandard housing makes prevention, self-isolation, and recovery more difficult. The importance of housing as a social determinant of health has never been more visible.
In Ireland, thousands live in unsuitable accommodation, institutionalised in homeless emergency accommodation, direct provision, or as ‘hidden homeless’. The faultlines of policy that accepted homelessness as ‘normal’ has been starkly revealed.
The COVID-19 recession will push more householders into housing and financial distress with many unable to pay their rent or mortgage. If they had been living in public affordable homes, there would be fewer arrears and less stress as they would at least have the support and protection of an affordable home.
COVID-19 shows the failings of the dominant neoliberal policy paradigm which treats housing as an investment asset rather than its vital role as a home that can ensure the health and dignity of those living in it. These policies commodified housing by handing it over to the private market.
But signs of hope are evident in countries such as Ireland that discarded the neoliberal policy book and enacted unprecedented measures in response to COVID-19, such as freezing rents and banning evictions. It was previously insisted upon that these protections were unworkable or unconstitutional. Empty Airbnb properties have been used to house the homeless. These actions show that there is no actual reason that homelessness and the wider housing crisis cannot be solved.
Unfortunately, the global and Irish housing crises will worsen unless this radical shift in housing policy becomes a permanent change in direction. There is a tsunami of financial distress and evictions ahead if the pandemic housing measures are not extended for at least three years, and support for tenants and homeowners including rent and mortgage write-downs are provided.
In response to the last economic shock, the burden of adjustment was paid for by ordinary people through austerity cuts to public investment such as social house building.