On 3 October 2015 over a hundred people came together in Liberty Hall to address the current housing and homelessness crisis. Included were activists, academics, community organisers, trade union representatives, and various individuals who have been personally affected by the housing crisis. There were those who had been made homeless through economic evictions, or were experiencing problems with their private landlord. There were those who have been on the social housing waiting list for years, with no end in sight. And there were many others who, for one reason or another, were being affected by the lack of affordability, supply, and security of tenure that is characteristic of housing in Ireland, and Dublin in particular.

While a number of talks by academics and others placed the current housing crisis within the context of Ireland’s increasing moves towards a commodified system of housing, the real purpose of the day was to create a participatory dialogue about the problems and more importantly solutions to the problem of housing.

In attendance on the day were students from the MA in Geography at Maynooth University. In this series of posts, they report back on the conference presentations, discussions, and proposed solutions.

#1 Samantha Smallhorne Dunne gives an overview of the themes and talks of the day.
#2 Sasha Brown reflects on the democratic structure of the conference and on making decisions collectively.
#3 Kellie Payne looks at practical housing solutions to address homelessness suggested by the group.
#4 Patrick Geaney looks at the prospect of changing the remit of NAMA to address the housing problem.
#5 Caoilfhionn D’Arcy looks at renting solutions and funding social housing.

A follow-up event, The People’s Housing Forum, will be held this Saturday 28 November in Liberty Hall. Anyone interested in the issue of housing, please come along and join the discussion.

peopleshousing forum

Situated in Liberty Hall, the Housing Crisis Conference brought together people of all academic, social and political backgrounds to discuss the ongoing crisis occurring in our own backyard. It was essential that at such a conference it was not just academics and public representatives that had the opportunity to voice their opinion, but that ordinary people would also be heard. Families in emergency accommodation, high rents and insufficient government support are issues that were addressed with suggestions of government intervention and an increase in provision of public housing among the solutions discussed. This report will discuss the Renting & Funding Social Housing workshop outlining the issues and solutions deliberated throughout the session. The workshop was facilitated by Dr. Cian O’ Callaghan, Maynooth University, with guest speakers Dr. Lorcan Sirr, Lecturer in housing DIT, Des Derwin, SIPTU Dublin and Simon Brook, Clúid.

“Where have the houses gone?”
Focus Ireland states that in 2014 the number of additional families entering emergency housing in Dublin was 40 a month, doubling from the previous year. January 2015 saw a further increase, with a total of 400 families in Emergency Accommodation. This figure then increased by 76% to 700 families in August. Des Derwin revealed that 1,257 children are included in these 700 families, leaving them with a very unstable life. Drawing on the discussion, Derwin, posed the question of how we have gone from ghost estates, to families sleeping in parks. “Where have the houses gone?” he asked the room. According to a report  published by UCD and DIT, 170,000 houses were left vacant in 2010 following an excess of building during the Celtic Tiger. Five years on, can we really believe that some of these houses are not still available? The discussion reflected on how leaving the provision of housing to the market led to oversupply during the boom but to a deep crisis of inaccessibility and unaffordability during the recession, particularly as mortgages have dried up, rents continue to increase and the numbers of people left homeless continues to rise. Shelter, or housing, should be seen as a basic human right and this was highlighted on numerous occasions throughout the workshop. (more…)

The purpose of the housing conference in Liberty Hall on Saturday 3rd October was to come together to work Towards a Real Housing Strategy. It was a structured forum for activists, academics and the wider public to engage with each other and bring together their own knowledges of the current housing question so that we can better understand it and discuss what should be done in order to address it.

Activists from Housing Action Now, the North Dublin Bay Housing Crisis Committee, Inner City Helping Homeless, the Peter McVerry Trust, Right2Change, Mandate, Unite and a number of others, spoke and contributed to the discussion. The experiences and understandings of these groups and individuals added the required grounding to a crisis that can sometimes feel abstracted from the human cost of experiencing housing distress. As well as the ‘traditional’ activists, a number of academics from NUI Maynooth provided a framework allowing us to understand the current housing crisis within broader social, economic and political contexts. With these strands of understanding converging, there is the hope that a strategy for tackling the housing crisis can emerge.

A significant part of the conference was to break into workshops so a dialogue about some of the ‘bigger’ issues could flourish. I broke into the workshop about NAMA. The session started with presentations from Mick Byrne (UCD) and Sinéad Kelly (Geography, Maynooth University) on the existing role of NAMA. Following their presentations, the audience became a workshop group with the discussion focused on how we might better understand NAMA and its potential role in reducing housing inequality in Dublin. Many of the questions posed and ideas considered were inherently about how to alter the use of NAMA for social gain and issues which arise from any desire to do so. (more…)

Since the economic crisis, starting in 2008, there has been a massive increase in the need for social housing across the nation. Figures from 2008-2013 indicate that there are now 100,000 households on social housing waiting lists. It is in response to this and additional problems surrounding housing, that the public conference “Towards a Real Housing Strategy” was held, on Saturday 3rd of October in Liberty Hall in Dublin’s City Centre. It was organised by Housing Action Now with support from charities such as Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH), and academic and research institutes, including the Geography Department and NIRSA from Maynooth University. The conferences main objective was to create a real strategy to combat what can and should be addressed as “The Irish Housing Crisis” through raising awareness about alternative policies.

The conference brought together a varied mix of people with different interests and backgrounds from academics, activists and people who have been personally affected by the housing crisis; united in a desire for change and for action to be taken to tackle the crisis. The morning presentations given by housing experts, agencies and academics helped set the context from which the Housing crisis emerged, identify the primary problem as the lack of government intervention in providing social housing and regulating the rental sector and their failure to acknowledge a housing crisis.

Away from a statistical and objective perspective a testimony from Danielle, a mother of three left homeless since August exposes the real human suffering brought about by this crisis. Danielle described how she was forced to split up her family and allow her children to stay with relatives after she could not avail of temporary accommodation. In addition she felt that she was often not met with compassion. These figures and personal experiences highlight the deepening economic and social inequalities embedded in Irish society. (more…)

The conference “Towards a Real Housing Strategy–Solutions to Ending the Housing Crisis” held in SIPTU Liberty Hall on Saturday, 3 October 2015 opened with a declaration of a housing emergency in Ireland. This declaration came from the likes of Dr. Rory Hearne, a housing expert and previously a Lecturer at Maynooth University, Fr. Peter McVerry of the Peter McVerry Trust, and public representatives from Dublin City Council and Galway City.

Dr. Rory Hearne notes that the most recent government reports released show the severity of the situation: over 100,000 households on the social housing waiting list; 80,000 households on short-term rent support, half of whom aren’t on the social housing lists; 30,000 households on the long-term RAS rent supplement; 50,000 households have received a repossession notice on their mortgage in 2014 and another 100,000 households are in mortgage arrears; and a further uncountable number of households are in poor quality public and private accommodations, possibly tens of thousands. These numbers start to tell the many stories of a deep structure of housing distress in Ireland.

The conference was called by Housing Action Now to create a dialogue, conversation, and ultimately to create strategies and goals for a real housing solution. This agenda created space for conversation in smaller groups for this conference open to the public. The entire afternoon at the conference was devoted to small group conversations to create a list of short and mid-term goals, of strategies for achieving those goals, and to report back to everyone to create a larger call for action.

The outpouring of powerful personal stories shook me, and the tremendously powerful statements by academics and activists well-versed in the issues and possibilities instilled me with a hope, that a right to housing can be brought about by careful planning, good organizing, and deep passion for the issues and for the rights of all people of a place to live, a place to flourish, and a place to call home. (more…)

If increasing numbers of rough sleepers aren’t an indication of a housing crisis, then surely the 5000 families in emergency accommodation, the 100,000 households on the social housing list, and the thousands in mortgage distress are. The truth is that Ireland is in the midst of an unprecedented housing crisis.

On 3rd October Liberty Hall provided a venue for the first housing conference where the housing crisis was the only item on the agenda. Individuals across various fields and backgrounds came together with a common aim: ‘a real housing strategy’. These individuals ranged from housing experts, academics in disciplines such as Geography and Sociology, activists and members of the public whom have had direct experience of community representation.

The Crisis
Rory Hearne, Senior Policy Analyst with TASC, introduced the event by providing the latest housing and homelessness statistics. While these statistics described the housing crisis, one number in particular resonated; ‘half a million households are in serious housing difficulty and at risk of homelessness’. Hearne then revealed how Ireland has been branded as a hotspot for investment in residential property markets for international investment funds, which will lead to a more intensified commodification of housing. Without regulation rents will continue to rise, making renting unaffordable for lower and middle income earners, which could force thousands more into homelessness. With the rising pressure from banks issuing court proceedings on households in mortgage distress Hearne pointed out that ‘if only people were treated better than banks there would be debt write-offs for mortgage holders too’. This statement serves to highlight the tendencies of this and past governments to protect bond holders, banks and developers over the majority of the people of Ireland. Hearne believes that Minister Alan Kelly’s national housing strategy is inadequate and advocates for a new housing policy. This could be realised by building a housing movement. (more…)

As the general election looms into view, the political and economic discourse is increasingly framed by a post crash narrative of economic recovery and political stability. Budget 2015 was dubbed an ‘election’ giveaway because the government engaged in a modest redistribution of some of the fruits of the emerging economic recovery. Ministers Noonan and Howlin both engaged in a fit of hubris to trumpet the recovery. They argued that the budget was beginning the process of repaying people for their sacrifices endured during six years of austere budgets. While listening to the budget speeches one was reminded of the opening soliloquy in Shakespeare’s Richard III:

‘Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried’ (Richard III, Act 1 Scene 1)

While the ‘winter’ may indeed be behind us, stark reminders of its dark legacy have a rather inconvenient way of making themselves visible. And so it was that amidst the debate and discussions that preceded and followed the budget, problems with fire safety in a residential building emerged. This time it was in Longboat Quay, an apartment complex in Dublin’s Docklands – once more a grim reminder of the unresolved inadequacy of the regulatory system in the construction industry during the boom.

Longboat Quay on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay Dublin

Longboat Quay on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay Dublin

The 600 residents occupying 299 apartments located in Longboat Quay face a repair bill of €18,000 each, the overall repairs are estimated at €4.75 million. This development was built in 2006 by Bernard McNamara, who like so many of his developer colleagues massively over extended their portfolios. When the crash inevitably arrived he sought refuge in the UKs bankruptcy process. Consequently when it comes to fronting up for the repair work in Longboat Quay, McNamara will not be put upon, despite the fact that the apartment complex was built to a shoddy standard. A number of critical features were lacking: walls were not built with proper fire stops, important smoke vents were not installed resulting in a highly dangerous disregard for fire safety. These regulatory failures could have resulted in a tragedy of multiple fatalities given the numbers of people residing there.

Priory Hall undergoing refurbishment

Priory Hall undergoing refurbishment

The issues in Longboat Quay have emerged just as another icon of regulatory failure, Priory Hall, is nearing the completion of the first phase of its refurbishment and is apparently being readied for market (although from a recent visit to the site it would seem that the development is far from finished). Priory Hall in North East Dublin is in many ways a monument to the years of property driven excess in Ireland. Built in 2007 by developer Tim Mc Feeley, it contains 189 apartment units and was home to 249 residents. However, on November 17 2011, the residents were evacuated when concerns emerged about fire safety of the building.

This evacuation sparked a controversial saga that spanned the next two years, a period that saw the re-housing of the residents, the developer going bust, and the tragedy of one resident committing suicide due to the pressures of the situation. McFeeley, like McNamara, fled to the UK to declare bankruptcy. He was initially successful but it was later rescinded as court proceedings were taken against him in Ireland. He was subsequently declared bankrupt by the High Court in Ireland. Finally due to the sustained and determined campaign by the residents of Priory Hall for justice a deal was reached whereby the owner occupiers had their mortgages written off and owners of buy-to-let properties were given a moratorium on their mortgage payments. The overall cost of refurbishment is estimated at €27 million, borne by Dublin City Council – although the owner occupier apartments will be sold to recoup some of the cost to the council. This is a tale symptomatic of the crash, whereby the state is required to step in for the failures of the private market.

The hopes and aspirations of most of the former Priory Hall residents now lie elsewhere. The Priory Hall development is slowly being re-launched. Interestingly the name ‘Priory Hall’ is notably absent from advertising hoarding surrounding the redevelopment works and now the name, and its sordid story, seems consigned to history.

Priory Hall residents protest outside Dáil Éireann

Longboat Quay, Priory Hall and other developments such as Riverwalk in Ratoath, County Meath that have come to light thus far, pose the question: are these simply isolated or coincidental examples? The geographic spread and the different developers involved would suggest that coincidence is an unlikely explanation. The other common factor they share is that they were all built in 2006-2007, the final furlongs of what had been a marathon of building frenzy in Irish property development.

The reality is that these developments illustrate a more generalised problem with the certification of building regulations that was particularly exposed in the building frenzy of the Celtic Tiger. It also reveals both the failure of the state’s enforcement powers but particularly the unwillingness of the state to monitor and control private development in any meaningful way.

The foundations of these regulatory failures were laid in 1990 when the building control regulations were relaxed by the then Fianna Fail Minister for the Environment, Padraig Flynn. This represented an attempt to remove obstacles that would be seen as a disincentive to the construction industry. It also reflected broader changes aimed at enticing and encouraging private finance into urban development, such as the introduction of the Urban Renewal Act in 1986 and the Finance Act in 1987, which used tax incentives and financial inducements to encourage the private sector. In a further illustration of this new founded entrepreneurial ethos by policy makers this period also heralded the establishment of the IFSC and its new low corporate tax structure.

The easing of building regulations represented a system of light-touch regulation aimed at speeding up and facilitating construction projects. However, it was a move that has proven to be a disaster for many people in the ensuing property frenzy. Annual housing construction output increased rapidly in the boom, reaching a phenomenal 93,419 housing units in 2006. Local authorities are responsible for the monitoring and enforcement of the building regulations. They simply did not have the staff to effectively monitor this scale of construction nor were they provided with the financial resources to recruit more personnel. Hence there was little independent oversight of building standards, meaning in effect a system of self certification existed whereby an employee of the developer could sign the certificate of compliance. The consequences of this model is plain to see in Priory Hall and Longboat Quay.

There has been no national audit of the quality of the residential construction undertaken during the Celtic Tiger, so given the short cuts and shoddy practices that have emerged thus far, it is not unreasonable to suggest that many more properties could be at risk. In 2014 the regulatory situation was tightened under the Code of Practice for Inspecting and Certifying Buildings and Works. The technical documentation that accompanies developments on commencement and completion must now identify a person in the design team as an ‘assigned certifier’. This individual must be an architect, an engineer or a surveyor who is named and can be held responsible if issues arise at some future point. Clearly this is welcome but it is not without its problems. Firstly, there is no obligation for the assigned certifier to be independent of the developer or the project and secondly, concerns have been raised that the indemnity falls on the shoulders of the ‘assigned certifier’ who in reality is signing off on a project on behalf of the builder – meaning that they can be the ‘fall guy’ between the builder and the consumer.

These changes don’t mean that a new Priory Hall couldn’t re-occur. In many respects they are attempts to deal with a situation if and when a problem arises. There needs to be more emphasis on prevention under the guidance of some form of Building Control Agency which would maintain independent oversight. Responsibility is critical but someone being held responsible after a person or people have died is, while worthy, scant consolation to people potentially left behind, as is all too graphically illustrated in the recent tragedy in Carrickmines.

Michael Murphy

Michael Murphy is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at Maynooth University.


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