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.
Small Participative Discussion: Support the Occupiers! Homes are not for profit!
The small group that I was a part of quickly got down to business. It was clear to all of us that there is a housing emergency in Ireland. The individuals in the group had diverse experiences and affiliations, showing us all the different approaches towards an end to homelessness and a guarantee of stable housing. Each of the eleven of us came from a different place, and here the true strength of the conference shined:
One of us had been part of housing protests and occupations in Dublin in the 1960s.
One of us is a committed member of the Irish Housing Network.
One of us participates in the physical occupation of unoccupied buildings to provide immediate unquestioned support for people in need of a roof, often a requirement for people going through the bureaucracy of Dublin City Council.
Two of us are part of an anti water charges group in Kildare.
One of us is a Maynooth University professor who has provided resources and expertise when needed.
One of us is an active citizen not affiliating with a specific group.
Two of us are students at Maynooth willing to be active participants in a housing struggle, including myself, a Geography MA student from upstate New York.
Two of us are currently homeless.
One of us is homeless and living with HIV.
This small group of eleven people, with such a wealth of different experiences and knowledge, was a great place to share passions and compassions. And that very few of us had met each other before attests to just how new this formation of housing activism is, and just how important it is, coming together in such a style to support, communicate, relate, and to learn.
Coming together we shared our stories and our views. Some things became clear to us:
Our long term goal must be social housing, we decided. Social housing, social housing. It can’t be said enough. And this social housing must be public, not for economic gain of the already-rich. Michael Taft of Unite proposed a plan for a 20-year project towards a not-for-profit housing landscape, but there is no body that can accomplish this except for Central Government. Towards this aim, we called for a declaration of a Housing Emergency to be made by the members and affiliated groups of the conference, and a call for the Taoiseach to declare a National Emergency in housing, uniting all the departments: a long-term housing solution requires cooperation across all ministries, not just the Department of the Environment.
We recognized that in the absence of government action other groups must take over the role of providing people in our communities for the need for somewhere to sleep on cold nights and for the need to feel safe while we are at our most vulnerable. Towards this aim, we called for the financial and political support of those doing the actual, on the ground work of housing the homeless that the state rejects. Groups such as the North Dublin Bay Housing Crisis Community and others are occupying derelict buildings and former homeless hostels and providing a roof for shelter, and are doing the emotional work of supporting and creating community for people abandoned by government institutions. However, these groups need support from a larger community. A community support fund for legal support and other needs would be a great resource for these groups. These groups have also asked for help in many other forms, such as a categorization of derelict buildings left behind by Nama.
These two goals were the center of our conversation, but there were many other ways that groups and individuals can contribute that we discussed. The small group allowed us to think about our attention, to hear needs from different groups, to share skills and strengths and lessons learned.
This Issue Isn’t Going Away
Our small group was energized by the stories and conversations that we shared toward a similar aim. I walked away feeling a sense of purpose and direction. Although I have newly arrived in Ireland, I come from a part of the world deeply damaged by a for-profit view of housing. In New York State, I have seen the full effects of a neoliberal state, denying basic rights in favor of a ‘markets approach’ (that leaves rights a privilege only of those with money). On October 3, I saw people from a wide range of political approaches and personal experiences meeting, sharing ideas, coming together and participating in a simple and radically democratic method of decision-making: small group conversations. It can be difficult, sometimes exhausting, sometimes impossible to keep up this kind of energy towards a cause so large, but constant support of each other, radical self care and care for others should itself be part of our housing goals.
Sasha Brown is a student on the MA in Geography at Maynooth University