By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Thousands of people marched on Ireland's parliament on Wednesday in the latest angry protest over a housing shortage that has sparked sharp increases in rental costs and homelessness.
Housing has become the number one political issue ahead of a possible election in the coming months and inside the building Prime Minister Leo Varadkar defended his government's record, pointing to nearly 20,000 new homes expected to be built this year.
"There are limiting factors. There's only so much concrete, only so many service sites, only so many construction workers. We're ramping up things as quickly as we can," he said.
While Ireland was left with a surplus of houses after a property crash in 2008, it has come nowhere near providing the number needed to keep up with a rapid economic recovery, with rents in Dublin almost 20 percent above their pre-crisis peak.
While rising, supply is still short of the 35,000 new builds analysts say are needed annually just to keep up with demand.
"Everyone's struggling," said Emily Arnold, a 21-year-old computer science student who travelled from the western town of Sligo to join the protest. She plans to leave Ireland when she graduates due to the high cost of living.
"Sligo's okay, it's getting a bit more expensive. We have to work around the clock to afford it but there's no point coming to Dublin, Galway's impossible too. We're going to Toronto, it's cheaper to live out there for a year. Everyone's emigrating."
Dotted among the large groups of student protesters were workers in their 30s with unstable, short-term tenancies unable to save for a mortgage and older homeowners worried about how their children will put a roof over their heads.
"The way things are at the moment, they haven't got a hope," said Sean Murphy, a retired bricklayer in his 70s who attended the rally with two of his 13 grandchildren and one of his sons, who fears being left homeless when his rent is next increased.
"You had a hope of getting a council house (years ago) but it's far worse now. We've never had the amount of homeless that we have and I think that speaks for itself. My children and grandchildren's' generation are the working poor."
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, one of the organisers, predicted that the protests will get larger and noisier.
(Editing by Alexander Smith)