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Housing crisis: ‘We lived on €20 a week. We saved absolutely everything. There was no avocado toast’

The counterargument that it has always been extremely difficult to afford a house ignores reality, says economics professor

Supplied by Jack White and OK'd by Avril O’ Kennedy

Shauna McNulty bought her first home when she was just 24, something of a rarity in Ireland now given that the typical age of a homebuyer has risen to 39, according to the Central Statistics Office.

Being diagnosed with a blood-related autoimmune disease called antiphospholipid syndrome at the age of 22 meant a heightened possibility of infertility and recurrent miscarriages as she became older.

She was renting at the time of her diagnosis and decided to start a family and settle down far more quickly than her peers due to fears she would not get the chance to do so later down the line.

“We certainly weren’t financially prepared. We had to go home to do that. We had no help from family or anything; we just had to save the cash,” she says.


The 29-year-old recruitment specialist now has two children, aged three and six, with her husband Chris, a senior software developer. They live in a duplex apartment in Dublin 18.

The couple “binge-saved” 90 per cent of their salaries for 18 months to get to this point, which meant minimum socialising while also juggling living under someone else’s roof once again.

“We lived on about €20 a week. We saved absolutely everything, and split all the bills that we could with them. There was no avocado toast; there was no coffee,” she says, laughing.

The binge-saving mentality meant questioning every single expense as they were “desperate” to get their freedom back.

“It’s disheartening when you’ve already lived alone, you’ve gotten married, you’ve had the baby and you’re in this financial situation where it’s impossible to save a deposit and pay rent,” she says. “You become a teenager again.”

McNulty’s experience is mirrored in a survey from the National Youth Council of Ireland this week, examining the challenges facing 18- to 29-year-olds. Housing and the cost of living were cited among the most pressing concerns for the under-30s in Ireland.

Most of McNulty’s friends are now beginning the search and entering “bidding wars” before subsequently being priced out of the market, she says.

“I don’t think there’s any homeowners among us that haven’t emigrated,” she adds.

Despite being grateful to have what they have, McNulty hopes to purchase a more traditional house with a garden for her young children, something that currently seems unattainable.

Although she and her husband could now sell their duplex apartment for a lot more than they bought it for, and having recently spotted a house within their price range, current interest rates mean they would be paying 1½ times their current repayments, which would not be feasible, she says.

She says some standard three-bed houses nearby start at €700,000. “When you hear that figure, you’re sort of thinking McMansion, like you’re going to get this beautiful massive dream house but you’re not, you’re getting a standard house in an estate.”

McNulty began a savings fund three years ago to help her children buy their own homes as she is “fearful” for their futures.

She describes the sentiment that it has always been extremely difficult to afford a house as “a farce”.

“It’s not true. We’re earning substantially more than when we first started out. We’re not over-spenders, our mortgage is nothing compared to some people’s rent and we can’t buy a traditional home,” she says. This is despite the fact that the couple have a combined salary of more than €136,000.

‘A lot harder for younger generations’

Her point is backed up by Barra Roantree, an assistant professor in economics at Trinity College Dublin.

“You can just see in terms of the outcomes, that’s not the case, it has become a lot harder for younger generations,” he says.

“Fundamentally, we didn’t build enough houses for more than a decade and we still aren’t building enough today.”

Roantree says the low rates of home ownership among young adults show no sign of changing unless housing supply is ramped up significantly to at least 60,000 a year. Current average targets are 33,000.

Given the challenges that young people seem to be having I don’t think it’s hard to say that they aren’t prioritised

—  Barra Roantree

Some 126,892 people aged 25-39 owned a home in 2022, down from 233,424 in 2011, while 175,317 people in the same age group still lived with their parents in 2022, according to the CSO.

Roantree says policies do not take young adults into account as much as they should adding that an “unjustifiable weight” is placed on the rights of those who already own houses.

“We bestow huge amounts of tax privileges among those who already have their own house. We have a very low local property tax and instead try to fund new services by making it more expensive to build new housing,” he says.

“Given the challenges that young people seem to be having I don’t think it’s hard to say that they aren’t prioritised.”

A big question for policymakers, he says, is how much weight should be attached to planning objections that can delay and halt construction.

“Quite often, they’re winning and getting stuff overturned on the basis of the impact that a new development might have on them,” he says.

“How much weight do you really want to attach to that when the cost of a housing shortage is being borne disproportionately and almost exclusively by younger generations?”

‘Left behind’

This week’s survey of 750 people aged 18-30, carried out by Ipsos on behalf of the National Youth Council of Ireland, found a third of respondents rarely or never feel optimistic about their future.

Paul Gordon, director of policy and advocacy at the council, says young adults feel “left behind”.

“There hasn’t been the ambition or the adequate co-ordination across government on issues affecting young people, and it is a significant proportion of our population that do clearly feel ignored,” he says.

Gordon says it is clear that the housing crisis is taking a toll on the mental wellbeing of young adults and stunting their independence while also having an impact on family.

“I don’t think most parents expected their children to be living with them in their late 20s and early 30s. That can really hamper their life ambitions too and it can also have a significant impact on young people’s own relationships with their partners,” he says.

Although the traditional life milestones such as marriage, children and home ownership are still aspirations of young adults, they are being pushed down the line indefinitely.

“It is possibly the first generation that feels worse off than their parents and that is kind of a fundamental pillar of the social contract,” he says.

Following the council’s findings published this week, The Irish Times asked readers under 30 if they are optimistic about their future.

“It’s very difficult to be positive about a young person’s ability to build a quality life in Ireland when the very basics available to older generations are so out of reach,” says one reader from Co Cork.

“I have no optimism or hope living under this system,” says Fionn O’Reilly from Co Dublin. “All of my colleagues and friends are thinking of moving abroad or have moved abroad.”

“I often find myself angry and frustrated almost to the point of tears that the Ireland my parents grew up in was one that someone could buy a house, get married, and start a family, all before 30 years of age and on a single income, and that Ireland just simply doesn’t exist any more,” says another reader from Co Cork.

Another reader from Co Dublin says: “My mental health has drastically declined as the reality sinks in that I will not able to afford a place of my own any time soon.”

A reader named Jack from Co Dublin says: “I’m now having to cut back on groceries, money has become so tight. I’m 29 and if I were to buy by myself without moving back home for a few years, I’d probably be pushing 40 and would need to relocate to the outskirts of Dublin and beyond.

“I’m on €50,000 and in a supposedly good career. If I can’t see a future here, then who can?”