Housing Associations in Ireland: Present and Future

on Wednesday, 30 July 2003. Posted in Issue 32 The 'Dependency Culture': A Good or a Bad Thing?, 1998


Housing is once again top of the political agenda. No political party in a country with 80% home ownership can afford to ignore the difficulties currently experienced by those wishing to buy a house. However, the current situation is indicative of greater changes within the housing sector.

Traditionally one either owned one\'s house or one rented from the local authority or from a private landlord. Now many households part-buy part-rent under shared ownership schemes and there has been a large increase in rented accommodation. While many new options have become available, the current high prices of housing, both for rent and purchase, has resulted in more people being unable to fund their own accommodation.


Media interest tends to focus on the problems experienced in the home ownership sector. However, great changes have been occurring in recent years in the social housing sector. The large scale local authority building programmes which were the norm well into the mid 1980\'s have now given way to smaller more considered developments with an emphasis on the types of management issues that may arise. (In fact the norm for private developments is now large estates, and such developers would do well to look at some of the errors which have been made in the social housing sector). Local authorities are investing more resources into community development to try to foster the creation of viable communities. The other major change has been the development of housing association activity.

Housing Associations

Housing associations are now much more significant as providers of housing.

The housing association movement has a very varied membership. Some housing associations are well known. The Simon Community, for example, is not often thought about as a housing organisation but this is essentially what it is.

Other Housing associations have many housing schemes throughout the country. Respond Housing Association, based in Waterford, manages over 1500 houses throughout the country. Some housing associations are small and have no more than three or four properties in a rural location. These schemes provide housing for local elderly members of the community.

All housing associations have been set up by individuals or groups who were concerned about housing shortages, especially insofar as they affected particular groups, such as the poor or disabled. Because the state has recognized the value of housing associations, the government are now allowed to fund them out of public money, which the housing associations supplement through fund-raising. Housing associations acquire their development sites from a number of sources. Some receive donations from charitable trusts or religious orders. Some fund-raise and purchase land or property. However by far the most usual route is land which is provided by the local authority who are reimbursed by central government for land which they provide for social housing. The funds to carry out the development are provided by central government and administered through the local authority. To become eligible for funding the housing association must be an approved body. The development of schemes is monitored by the local housing authority.

Housing Completions

(numbers of dwellings)


Local Authority


Housing Association


















2,632 (est.)

35,454 (est.)


Source :  DoE Annual Statistics Bulletin

Advantages of Housing Associations

Why have the government decided to foster the development of housing associations?

Housing associations have several factors in their favour as providers of social housing:

· Scale: by having a small stock and developing relatively small schemes, housing associations can be highly responsive to their resident communities.

· Cost: associations are extremely cost conscious. Their operations tend to be lean and focused, and provide extremely good value for money. The fact that they contract out most of their services means that they usually achieve maximum market value .

· Specialialisation: housing associations are dedicated to housing and provide a tailored housing service. This is particularly true of general needs associations, and associations that provide housing only and contract in any service that residents need. Housing associations can also supply the housing needs of special or marginal groups which large state organisations find almost impossible to meet.

· Flexibility: housing associations are organised for maximum flexibility and can work in an innovative way.

· Diversity: there are as many styles of management as there are housing providers. By using many different associations, the local authorities make maximum use of this diversity.

· Tenure: different associations give a diversity of tenure to social housing provision, helping to break up the large tracts of public housing.

· Novelty: housing associations are relatively recent phenomena, and as such they carry little historical baggage

· Orientation: associations which deal with general needs have a different orientation to other social housing providers. This has led to a lessening of the kinds of problems often associated with social housing.

Types of Housing Associations

Housing Associations can build for general housing need or for special housing need or for a mixture of both. General housing need is for those who appear on the local authority housing lists and have no extra need. Special housing need refers to housing for the homeless or for people with reduced mobility such as wheelchair users. Special needs applicants often require adaptations to be made to the physical structure of the dwelling. They may need special resources, for instance counselling in the case of those escaping domestic violence. Focus Housing, in addition to providing housing for homeless applicants, also provides ancillary services such as flat finding or home making skills. The larger housing associations carry full time staff and tend to develop across the country.

Small local associations are by far the most common form of social housing. These are made up entirely of voluntary committee members who respond directly to a local need. The work they do has often helped to keep elderly people within the community in which they have lived all their lives, near their family and other supports. Many similar schemes are operated in urban areas by the Society of St Vincent de Paul.

Only since the early 1990\'s have housing associations become involved in general needs housing. At that time the Government decided that it wished to diversify the numbers of providers of such housing which had previously, with a few exceptions, been the preserve of the local authorities. Housing associations supplement local authority provision, and the local authorities have a role in monitoring them.

Community Development

In addition to providing accommodation housing associations have also prioritised the promotion of strong and vibrant community structures. The task of providing housing is two-fold: firstly to build good quality housing which is economic to maintain; secondly and equally important, to ensure that they create the conditions in which communities will thrive. Housing associations do not create communities but they can create circumstances where community structures are more likely to flourish. Many community development initiatives have been developed by housing associations.

Key distinctive features of housing associations are the degree of tenant involvement, which runs from a basic level of tenant participation to full tenant co-operatives, and tenant empowerment. Residents are made aware of their responsibility with regard to the future of the scheme. The creation of a community in which they wish to live and bring up their children is in their hands. There is no landlord to rescue them if, through apathy or lack of care, anti-social elements come to dominate. The role of the association in this regard is to skill residents groups and empower them to run things, rather than taking over.

Central to housing association thinking is the principle that those who live in an area are best placed to manage it because they know the area and have a vested interest in defending those elements which foster its flourishing. No matter how benign landlords are, they will never have this level of concern for the success of their scheme. There is, incidentially, legislation dictating that a housing association must ballot its residents within five years of first letting with regard to them taking over the management of their estate.

Current Issues

Current issues facing the voluntary housing association movement include:

· Cost: The high cost of building is making the building of housing expensive. Housing Associations build to a unit cost limit. It has become almost impossible to stay within this limit.

· Planning: planning is becoming increasingly controversial. Housing associations are like any other private body and must apply for permission in the same way. Delays and objections are increasing costs.

· Social problems: Housing associations are being asked to address ever-increasing needs. Some of the households on local authority waiting lists have many needs. Housing Associations need to continue to improve their community development skills and adopt new strategies.

· Suspicion: The very novelty of associations results in their being viewed with suspicion. Established interests are obviously wary of existing structures being subverted. Housing Associations have to work to convince the general public of the merit of their methods.

· Ideology: There are some who see echoes of Thatcherite England in the growth of housing associations. However the ideology-laden agenda of the Conservatives to destroy the metropolitan authorities in the UK is not present in Irish Government policy. There does seem to be a strong desire to achieve a diversity of social housing providers and to experience a range of management systems.

· Purchase: At present housing association lettings are not available to be tenant purchased. This is proving to be a disincentive for people to remain in the dwellings if their circumstances improve. It is not in the interests of housing associations that there be a constant turnover of residents, since this can destabilise communities.

The future

Housing Associations will continue to grow. Local authorities will continue to use them as a way of fulfilling their housing obligations. Increasingly they will also be utilised to help in the regeneration of run-down areas. Smaller communities around the country will also continue to use them to provide for their local needs. For instance in Co.Limerick they are used extensively for this purpose. They also have a role in providing housing for communities which are in danger of becoming overrun with holiday homes and where local families, because of high prices paid for second homes, cannot obtain a stake in the community.

Housing Associations will continue to be the main source of accommodation for the homeless and other special needs groups. This role will expand and will continue to adapt to new homeless groups such as asylum seekers. The full potential of the voluntary housing movement has yet to be realised. It will survive and flourish as long as it retains its strong commitment to community.