Drs Michael Byrne and Michelle Norris held a workshop entitled 'Austrian social housing finance: providing affordable housing and stabilising the housing market' on the 23rd September funded by the Irish Research Council and in conjunction with Cluid Housing that brought together Austrian experts in social housing finance and Irish stakeholders.
Austria has one of the highest levels of social housing in Europe and has achieved an extraordinarily stable supple of social housing. Remarkably, this is achieved at relatively little cost to the exchequer as most social housing is privately financed and remains 'off balance sheet'. These aspects are especially important for the Irish case were a relatively high debt to GDP ratio and EU restrictions have restricted investment in social housing in recent years.
"The government's housing plan makes clear that a significant increase in the provision of social housing is necessary and urgent. Finding sustainable ways to finance that is a key challenge. But we don't need to reinvent the wheel, countries such as Austria have been doing this for years and have a lot to teach us", said Dr. Michelle Norris of UCD's School of Social Policy.
"The key here is that this model is self-financing. Irish social housing has up until recently been paid for through capital grants from the exchequer. That means that every time we enter a period of fiscal restraint social housing gets hit hard and supply falls off a cliff. We need a more sustainably financed model and learning from the Austrian experience can help us here", according to Dr. Michael Byrne of UCD's School of Social Policy.
These issues are all the more important at a time when the government is actively exploring reforms to the financing of social housing in Ireland, and in particular considering the potential for a greater role for private finance in the provision of social housing.
The key features of the Austrian housing model are as follows:
• Public loans are provided by government to housing associations to cover part of the cost
• The above public loans are used to leverage private lending at low interest rates (approximately 3%)
• It is a cost rent model whereby rents are set at a level which covers the cost of any given development over a 25-30 year period.
Speakers included Bernard Riessland (Director of Finance with one of Austria's largest housing associations), Astrid Krastchmann (Erste Bank, Austria's largest savings bank) and Wolfgang Amann (expert on social housing finance) and attendees included staff from the Department of the Environment, Irish approved housing bodies, the Housing Agency, the Housing Finance Agency, the Central Bank and researchers.