Funding social housing for low-income households after Ireland's economic crisis

  • 8 March 2019
  • Professor Michelle Norris
  • Academic, Economic, Political, Social


Research by Professor Michelle Norris at UCD has enabled the Irish government to provide more social housing forlow-income households. Social housing is vital to supply affordable housing and to tackle homelessness, but limits on public spending make it challenging to provide.

Professor Norris' research has influenced social-housing policy in Ireland, and her findings have helped to shape strategies for putting these policies into practice. The research has been mentioned in policy statements and parliamentary debates, and Professor Norris has been invited to speak to policymakers, politicians and the media. She has also been appointed to the boards of relevant government agencies and policy advisors.

Research description

Professor Norris has had a longstanding interest in social housing, but Ireland’s economic bust in 2007-08 inspired her to research its funding in-depth. After the bust, government funding for social house building and purchase was reduced by 88%. “This made me wonder how previous governments funded extensive social housing output despite regular recessions,” she says. Researching this issue prompted further questions and research (with Michael Byrne) about increasing the affordability of social housing for government. Some of the factors they looked at include:

1. Why social housing output was higher in the past (2009-date)

Professor Norris found that social housing was affordable when it was funded by loans that were repaid using tenants' rents (linked to debt service costs) and property taxes. Linking rents to tenants' incomes, selling dwellings at sub-market value and abolishing property taxes from the 1960s destabilised this funding model. From 1987, social housing was funded entirely by government grants and so it was exposed to changing public finances.

2. How other European countries fund social housing (2015-16)

Professor Norris found that Austrian and Danish social housing is more affordable because it is mainly funded by commercial loans, which spreads-out costs and reduces exposure to exchequer finances.

3. How social housing influences the housing market? (2015-17)

Social housing’s role as a housing market stabilisation measure in Austria inspired Professor Norris to examine Irish social housing's market impact. Due to funding, it is pro-cyclical – it boosted our housing boom and deepened the bust.

4. How Irish social housing funding can be reformed (2016-date)

Prof Norris is currently looking at how the reforms identified in previous research are being put into practice.

Research impact

Professor Norris' research has had several impacts on social housing policy and on arrangements for the funding and delivery of social housing in Ireland since the economic bust of 2007-08.

Impact on national policy on social housing supply

Between 2011 and 2016 Prof Norris was a Taoiseach’s appointee to the National Economic and Social Council (NESC), which advises the Irish government on economic and social policy. During this time, she contributed to four NESC reports on housing policy by working with NESC staff to scope their focus and by advising them on content. The impact of her research is evident in the emphasis these reports place on the undersupply of social housing in Ireland, the negative socioeconomic consequences, and the contribution of social housing financing arrangements to the lack of affordable housing.

These reports went on to influence the 2016 housing ministry policy statement – Rebuilding Ireland – which was researched and partially drafted by NESC staff. The influence of Professor Norris' research is evident in the high targets for additional social housing output set in Rebuilding Ireland and its support for reform of social housing funding arrangements.

Impact on arrangements for social housing funding

In 2011, Professor Norris was appointed by the housing minister as the Chair of the Board of the Housing Finance Agency (HFA) and reappointed for a second term in 2016. This government agency borrows on international markets to finance social housing and mortgages for low-income borrowers. It currently manages €4.4 billion in outstanding loans.

Professor Norris was inspired to apply for this position by her research on the factors which had undermined the financial sustainability of Irish social housing, and how this sector is financed more effectively in other European countries. Her research indicates that relying on central government grants had made Irish social housing vulnerable to cutbacks in harsh economic times, and that replacing grants with loans would spread out the costs of providing social housing and make it more affordable for government.

She successfully implemented this strategy through her work with the Housing Finance Agency: between 2011 and 2016 the Agency increased its social housing lending from €7.6 to €261.2 million. Her research on social housing finance abroad shows that diversifying the sources of finance can help to make the social housing sector more financially stable. She has worked to implement this strategy by diversifying the sources of HFA finance to include loans from European Union lenders and she is currently working on improving access to private finance for social housing in Ireland.

Strategies for implementing these policies

Professor Norris is currently researching strategies for implementing the reforms she has proposed to social housing policy and funding arrangements with local authorities and non-profit sector social housing providers. “My interaction with officials and councillors in South Dublin County Council has inspired proposals for the reform of social housing funding in this local authority,” she explains. “An Irish Research Council grant has enabled me research non-profit social housing providers’ experience of the transition from grant to loan finance, which inspired me to reform HFA loan assessment procedures in 2016.”


  • Research theme 1 funded by Community Foundation for Ireland (an NGO which funds social projects and research).
  • Research themes 2 and 3 funded by the Housing Agency (agency of the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government).
  • Research theme 4 funded by the Irish Research Council and the Community Foundation for Ireland

Academic publications

Research theme 1

Research theme 2

Research theme 3

Participation in policymaker and practitioner conferences

  • Norris, M (2016) “Affordable and Sustainable Social Housing Finance” paper presented to the Housing Agency Annual Conference Dublin Castle, Dublin, 24-May.
  • Norris, M (2016), “Paying for a Social Housing Building Programme" - Paper presented to the Annual Local Authority Housing Practitioners Conference, Newbridge Co Kildare, 18 July.
  • Norris, M and Byrne, M (2016), "Social Housing and Housing Market Stability: Ireland and Austria Compared" paper presented to the Dublin Economics Workshop, Trinity College Dublin, 10 June.
  • Norris, M (2015)"Financing and Delivering Social Housing: challenges, causes and solutions". - paper presented to a European Commission Conference, 9 November.
  • Norris, M (2015) “Meeting the Challenge of Financing and Delivering Social Housing” paper presented to the Simon Communities of Ireland Conference: Changing the Forecast responding to the homeless and housing crisis Dublin, 28- September.
  • Norris, M (2015) “Financing and Delivering Social Housing” paper presented to the Department of the Environment and Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland Joint Housing Conference Dublin, 09, February.
  • Norris, M; (2011) “Funding Social Housing in an Era of Austerity” paper presented to the Focus Ireland and Threshold Joint Conference - the Government's Housing Policy Statement: Implications for tackling homelessness, 11 September.

Participation in media discussions

  • Published two half-page opinion pieces on social housing in the Irish Times (click here for the first and here for the second)
  • Appeared on radio (Morning Ireland and Marion Finucane Shows on RTÉ and George Hook show on Newstalk and French and Finnish Radio).
  • Appeared on TV (including RTE Primetime and the Week in Politics shows and TV3).