Housing crisis

The housing crisis scars a generation of children

A generation of children is scarred and traumatized by the housing crisis. They and their families live in a state of unease and fear.

On Monday’s Liveline, a father recounted the devastating impact on his partner and children, eight-year-old and 11-month-old twins, when they had to leave their rental home because the landlord was selling. They couldn’t find anywhere else to rent and the council told them to go to a Garda station.

A guard station is where a family that has become homeless has been asked to go. This is unacceptable. And their story is being repeated across the country. Individuals and families are notified by the owners who are selling.

As Daft.ie’s latest rent report last week showed, there is nowhere else to rent. The number of properties for rent nationwide is at an all-time high and those that are available are, in the majority of cases, beyond the financial reach of most families.

The number of tenants forced to leave their homes is staggering. Last year, 3,038 tenant households received notice to vacate, mostly because the landlord was selling. This is the highest number of tenant evictions to take place in a single year in this country since the founding of the state. Renters live in fear and insecurity, terrified of losing their home if their landlord sells, and faced with the impossible task of finding another place to rent.

The stereotypical vision of tenants is that of young singles and couples. What proportion of Irish children live in the private rental sector? Very few, you think, but in fact a quarter of children grow up in the precarious private rental sector. That is 281,000 children living in a housing situation with their precarious family, where they could be forced to uproot themselves and leave their homes.

A third of all couples with children live in the private rental sector. Half of single-parent families are tenants. For a child, stability and security are fundamental for them to develop and grow and to enjoy and thrive in their childhood. Yet a quarter of all children in this country do not have a safe home.

They live in households where their parents live in a state of chronic housing stress – constantly worried about how they will be able to pay the rent or will they even have a house in a few months or next year. Will they have to snatch their children from their friends, move to a foreign school, a foreign community?

It is really upsetting for young children and teenagers. The capacity of parents who suffer from high levels of housing stress is reduced. Children also feel and experience stress. Chronic stress has major impacts on the mental and physical health of adults and especially children, whose brains are developing.

These are critical times for children in their development. Trauma and chronic stress in childhood is a negative childhood experience that can leave lifelong negative impacts. Some children will internalize their parents’ stress. Parents report that their children are too upset to go to school, worried about having a home to come back to.

Others report developmental regression in children – bedwetting, more frequent crying, becoming shy, anxious. This loss of a home can be even more difficult for children with physical or intellectual disabilities, and the impact of the loss of networks and support services for them and their families.

The CSO’s latest Survey of Income and Living Conditions (SILC) showed how high housing costs – the massive cost of rent, in particular – are pushing households with children into poverty. Which means pushing them into chronic stress.

While the overall at-risk-of-poverty rate fell from 13% in 2020 to 11% in 2021, poverty rates for households with children after paying housing costs did not decline, and for single-parent families with children, poverty actually increased in 2021. Half of single-parent families are in poverty after paying their housing costs.

For households with two adults and children, the poverty rate falls from 9.1% to 17% after payment of housing costs. An additional 100,000 children are in poverty after housing costs, which means a quarter of all children in the country are in poverty after their families have paid the rent or the mortgage.

In May last year, official figures showed 928 families and their 2,148 children were homeless. But in March this year, just 10 months later, there were 2,811 homeless children. This represents a 30% increase in the number of homeless children in just 10 months.

The government is voicing ‘concern’, but where is the emergency action like a new eviction moratorium? Where is the shock, the outrage, the shame?

Have we become so numb from this trauma? Is it normalized? They are children – it is not their fault or the fault of their families – it is a housing policy which ideologically opposed the construction of social and affordable housing and which left all those who could not afford exorbitant property prices at the mercy of the private rental sector.

We don’t even have a precise measure of the number of people affected. The main homeless figures from the Department of Health show the number of people engaged in homeless services, but they do not include those who stay with friends, sleep on sofas or seek other forms Support.

The reality is that the number of adults and children affected is greater than the already shocking numbers we are given. This leads to a waste of human potential. Childhood is stolen from these children and their potential is reduced due to poor mental and physical health caused by housing stress.

What must these children, and especially the more socially conscious teenagers, think of the adult world that cannot provide them and their families with a secure and stable home? What must they think of this country, of the government? What anger, frustration and resentment is building up in them?

Where is the hope for a secure housing future for those who are rent-trapped or overcrowded in their homes with multi-generational housing situations? Where is the affordable housing they can buy? Or the social housing they can move into? What awaits us?

The housing crisis marks a generation of children. Hundreds of thousands of children are growing up in this country without knowing what it is like to live in a safe and stable home.

It is time for the government to provide a real emergency response to housing. Restoring the two-year eviction ban, freezing rents, buying properties from landlords who are selling to keep tenants in their homes, and creating a state construction company to undertake the accelerated construction of affordable housing to buy and the rent and renovation of vacant and derelict properties.

  • Rory Hearne is Assistant Professor of Social Policy in the Department of Applied Social Studies at Maynooth University.