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.
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.
Claire O’Connor from Inner City Helping the Homeless, followed Hearne’s introduction. O’Connor added a sense of urgency as she spoke of the increasing numbers of rough sleepers and families in emergency accommodation in the Dublin City Council area, where the homelessness crisis is most acute. Worryingly, O’Connor predicts a further deepening of the crisis over the next two months as families lose their emergency accommodation because hotels move to vacate families from their temporary homes before the busy period. Her main contribution towards a strategy was to ‘keep people in their homes’, a simple solution but what seems like an arduous task.
The next speaker was Danielle, a single mother who spoke bravely of her young family’s experience of homelessness, particularly her experience of dealing with local authorities and their inability to solve her housing difficulties. She spoke of what she perceived as a lack of supports provided by DCC for people in her situation and of her distress at being told to ‘self-accommodate’. Danielle’s emotional address reverberated throughout the day.
A National Emergency
Fr. Peter McVerry’s address began by asking an obvious question ‘if the government is doing everything it can to alleviate the problem then why has this situation gotten out of hand?’ Fr. McVerry points to the lack of rent controls and security of tenure as significant causes of the housing crisis, along with the failure of public private partnerships in delivering social housing in the past. He believes that a new housing strategy is desperately needed as ‘the old one is dead in the water’. Fr. McVerry argues that the answer to the housing issue is rapid and significant social housing provision via a collaborative effort between Local Authorities, the Department of Environment and Local Government, the Department of Finance and the Department of Social Protection. Fr. McVerry calls for this campaign to focus on the Taoiseach as he is the only individual who can lead a ministerial housing partnership between these three departments. More importantly, Fr. McVerry believes the crisis should be escalated to a national emergency which would release emergency funds via the European Union.
Social Housing and Rental Market Workshop
A scheduled workshop formed part of the event where guest speakers addressed the social housing and private rental market issues. Des Derwin spoke passionately regarding SIPTUs desire to be an integral part of the housing movement. He suggested that the current housing strategy is inadequate, with just 35,000 promised but with 110,000 on the housing list. Derwin suggests that emphasis should be placed on the acquisition of publically owned lands and the establishment of an approved housing body to oversee public housing provision. Derwin also argues that public spending projects such as the Metro should be suspended in place of social housing projects.
Simon Brooke spoke on behalf of Cluid Housing Association, which has successfully housed 5,300 tenants. He believes a housing system for all must be created to cope with the crisis now and future housing needs. Brooke argues that social housing alone will not meet this need but a strategy of affordable rented accommodation and social housing is required. Brooke also agrees that the first thing which needs to be done is the establishment of a national housing body.
Lorcan Sirr then addressed the workshop in an impassioned manner. Sirr agrees that the crisis has escalated to a national emergency and this should be declared immediately. In relation to strategies towards addressing the crisis, Sirr suggests a grassroots movement, increased homelessness funding, transitional housing units, and housing assistance. He also highlighted the need to tackle the class conflict issue, adding how people do not want social housing on their doorstep. Sirr also made a very valid point regarding policy makers; they were visible by their absence at Liberty Hall.
A question and answers session followed the workshop which gave the public a platform to join in the discussions. What transpired from these questions were problems rather than solutions. One member asked the question regarding lands owned by NAMA, suggesting that these assets should be reclaimed by the Irish people and used for social housing. Another individual questioned the manner in which social housing was to be developed, fearing that the government might repeat old mistakes which might exacerbate social problems within the city. Others agreed that the housing crisis was not caused by the working classes yet they wear the scars. People strongly desire a grassroots movement, which SIPTU representatives are fully behind.
Following the workshops the conference once again turned to expert speakers whom offered solutions toward addressing the housing question. One such person was Michael Taft from Unite the Union. Taft believes a pluralist housing strategy could bring Ireland in-line with other European States. Such strategies would bring affordable income based rents, abolishment of distinctions between social and private dwellings, and produce municipal public housing associations which would effectively manage public housing in Ireland.
Mick Byrne of UDC offered his solution to the housing crisis by addressing the financing issue. He believes that NAMA could work towards financing much needed public housing instead of promoting housing as a commodity to attract international investment funds into the private rental market; practices which serve the wealthy and drive lower socio-economic groups further away from accessing homes. Byrne believes that NAMA has three elements needed to produce housing; land, housing and finance. Here, NAMA could finance social housing developments, release the required lands, and also release housing stock from its property portfolio. He also adds that the NAMA act includes the remit to contribute towards social and economic development. Byrne aptly finishes by saying that we simply cannot afford not to use NAMA.
Sinéad Kelly of Maynooth University also offered her insights into the housing question. Kelly argues that the crisis is not due to a lack of supply but more a question of affordable supply. Sinéad also identified NAMA as possessing the power to address the housing question but this requires great state intervention. Given that the current government still pursues neoliberal policies, Kelly recognises the need for an ideological shift in economic policies. Kelly suggested various financing models which could be used. For instance, NAMA could provide land at discounts; the savings could then go towards social housing. Another funding model would involve savings accounts which could also fund social infrastructure. In terms of housing models, Kelly suggested three tier model; local authority housing, affordable private rented accommodation, and a form of transitional housing to alleviate homelessness. In the short term, and in addressing the housing crisis now, Kelly also suggests escalating the crisis to a national emergency. Sinéad closed her speech by calling for a ‘different ideological approach where housing is protected from the market’.
Dave Gibney of Right2Change agreed also believes that NAMA has the sufficient financial power to support an adequate housing strategy which could drastically change housing in Ireland. However he argues that housing is a human right and human rights are not profitable thus the use of NAMA as a financier for housing would require a radical change in economic ideology within government chambers. Gibney suggested that the Right2Change movement attempted to advise the Minister for Environment Alan Kelly on solutions to the housing crisis. These solutions included rent controls, banning economic evictions and lifting land blocks. None of these solutions were introduced in the housing strategy however.
Social Injustice in Housing
Rory Hearne ended the conference by offering his own position regarding the causes and impacts of the housing crisis as well as some solutions. A full description of Rory’s political position can be found here: http://www.irishleftreview.org/author/rory-hearne/. Hearne believes housing in Ireland has been used by those with wealth to accumulate more wealth. In addition, Hearne drew attention to the question of the response of the government to the Irish Financial Crisis and the establishment of NAMA as a tool for economic recovery by saving the banks, yet there was no such management company established to save those in mortgage distress! He also stresses how finance minister Noonan said that there is nothing unusual about debt write-offs for states but it is highly unusual to permit debt writ-off to mortgage holders. This perfectly epitomises the political position of government officials towards any plight of the citizenry, even those left homeless and dying on our streets.
One issue which was uncovered during the conference was the need to establish an independent housing body with the responsibly towards all aspects of housing in Ireland. Given the reluctance of current and past governments in establishing such a body one might wonder why? Perhaps matters around housing provision are one which governments want to keep in-house? Neoliberalism advocates state non-intervention. However, it rarely is the case in practice. Indeed during Ireland’s property bubble the state intervened in all sorts of ways in the property market, through tax incentives for development, tax structures favouring owner-occupation, and the use of public private partnerships to provide social housing. These types of interventions, which continue in new ways, have in part served to create the current housing crisis.
Just the Beginning
No concrete actions had been decided on the day, given the sheer amount of contributions from the various types of participants. But there existed a sense of accomplishment in having achieved collective discussion towards this common aim, to end the housing crisis in Ireland!
As the conference drew to a close, the words of President Michael D. Higgins came my mind: ‘be the arrow rather than the target of social change’.
Samantha Smallhorne Dunne is a student on the MA in Geography at Maynooth University.