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.
Workshop on Renting & Funding Social Housing
“Where are all the houses gone!” exclaims Des Derwin of SIPTU Dublin, opening up the mid day workshop relating to renting and social housing. This workshop also acted in identifying the main problems experienced by those affected by the housing crisis. According to the 2011 Census there was 289,000 vacant units in the country, yet so far no new strategy has been implemented which could utilize even a percentage of these for social housing provision. The lack of government intervention and concern was seen as the primary problem of the crisis.
In addition the lack of tenant education regarding rights, the exploitation by landlords in cases of “economic evictions” (relating to the illegal eviction of tenants to allow for new tenants who will pay higher rent) and the lack of grassroots and personal voices of those directly affected by the crisis were also identified as some of the main problems. To paraphrase one contributor, the homeless are the experts, but they lack a platform to address the issues that affect them and thus end up vulnerable in society.
Creating “a Real Housing Strategy”; Participative Discussion
Breaking into smaller groups, the final workshop discussed short and medium term policies and actions which would form the core of an alternative housing strategy drawing from problems raised in the previous workshops. These actions are outlined below:
- Security of tenure
Numerous examples were shared of how home owners and particularly people in private rental accommodation feel powerless and are often victim to manipulation of payments due to ambiguity in their renting agreements. The group called for a national policy to be implemented to provide more security when renting and the right to an adequate system whereby renters can obtain a detailed breakdown of their payments. This could be achieved through adequate education about tenants’ rights, pamphlets with bullet points on basic rights surrounding renting and also additional sources where information about these rights can be seen could be distributed to local community centres or local retail outlets making people more aware of their entitlements. In addition the call for stricter regulations and registration of landlords to the Private Residential Tenancies Board (PRTB) would allow for more transparency and encourage better standards of accommodation for renters. An Alternative action put forward was to support a movement of occupation by tenants faced with eviction. This could be very effective for renters as it could force landlords to bring tenants to court and may expose their lack of transparency.
- Increased government provision of social housing
This could be achieved by the government recognising and admitting that there is a housing “crisis”. In doing so they would be obliged to prioritise funds and designate resources to alleviate the crisis. This could be achieved through mass mobilisation, for example by signing the Uplift petition. There were also calls for NAMA to cease discounting at high percentages (up to 70%) on properties sold for international investment funds. Instead the profits made from these sales or even some of the property in the NAMA portfolio could be used as housing or used to build additional social housing.
- Rent certainty / higher rent subsidies
While it is often claimed in the media that rent controls are unconstitutional, Lorcan Sirr reminded the conference that this was untrue: only rent freezes are unconstitutional while there are many other forms of rent control that could be used. Therefore the group discussed the idea of implementing new legislation to regulate rent prices in the Irish market and allow for rent certainty. Rising rents are leading to economic evictions resulting in many households becoming homeless, rent certainty could allow for predictable rent increases so households are aware of increases and fluxions in rent prices. Simultaneously higher rent allowance needs to be distributed to coincide with rising rent prices. In addition the group discussed the need to address the stigmatisation of renters and a call to change the prevailing ideology surrounding home ownership in Ireland. Since the conference Alan Kelly’s rent certainty measures have been introduced. However, many housing campaigners believe that these are insufficient.
In addition, the group discussed various ways of addressing the housing crisis through artistic practices. It was discussed how it is important to gain a grass roots understand and perspective of the housing crisis; through testimonies of people who are homeless not just to gain insight but to show the real human side of the crisis. This could include people who are sleeping rough and also the “invisible homeless” who are caught in a state of limbo and housed in temporary or modular accommodation. For ethical reasons it was agreed it would be better to use actors to convey these stories, so as not to exploit any vulnerable people. On the back of this, these videos may also aid in destigmatising homelessness and highlighting the need for more government intervention to address the housing crisis before it escalates further.
In the future
Although these are just proposals, the conference gave much food for though and did put forward some very attainable goals. Ending on a note of elevation and positivity going forward the conference was very successful in engaging different people from Irish society to come together in a bid to address a very serious issue facing the majority of the population. This and subsequent events will hopefully aid in the process towards a better housing strategy in the future.
Kellie Payne in a student in the Ma in Geography at Maynooth University