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.
The Role of NAMA
Based on his own research, Mick Byrne highlighted some core issues with NAMA within the wider housing debate. The core point is that NAMA has considerable resources in the form of property, land and finance that could be used to create and fund a large-scale affordable-housing programme. However, it was argued that in its current version, NAMA is operating as a Department of Finance ‘pet development agency’. This interpretation sees NAMA’s role in Ireland’s economic crisis as an agency tasked with selling property and land assets to international development companies, hedge funds and equity firms in order to 1) regenerate Ireland’s (specifically Dublin’s) property market, and 2) to service Ireland’s national debt. This is taking the form of quickly and cheaply selling on its assets at price discounts of up to 70% the original value.
In order to make this as easy as possible, NAMA not only ‘sells’ assets at drastically reduced prices but it also operates as a lender of finance to ‘purchasers’ and, in some cases, it also offers development finance for unfinished development projects. In essence, NAMA is selling assets on the cheap to international equity firms and hedge funds, providing the finance for them to do so and making it cheaper again to develop the land/properties. The purpose of this is to allow for mainly large-scale commercial development, as opposed to any sort of major housing project. For example, we were informed that of the 22 hectares of NAMA docklands space, 75% is earmarked for commercial use. Of those who do intend to create living spaces, it appears that their interest lies in creating ‘luxury’ apartments, not accessible housing.
NAMA’s remit is interpreted through the NAMA legislation and is under the direct influence of the Minister for Finance (currently Michael Noonan TD, Fine Gael). However, the legislation allows for this remit to be changed by the Minister, as it states that there is a need to consider the public good. This raises the potential for NAMA to become a genuine tool in tackling the housing crisis as it has property, land and the ability to create capital and finance. Without the political will, however, this is not possible.
Problems, solutions and challenges: discussing NAMA
The post-presentations discussion of the workshop focused on NAMA, its potential role and also possible challenges permeating these issues. Three key points emerged from the workshop discussion: 1) NAMA is not publically accountable due to the ownership of its shares, 2) a number of developments which were taken over by NAMA had previous obligations to provide social housing – these were never met, and 3) the discourse around NAMA must be altered, not necessarily changed completely but certainly altered to reflect a social and public need.
First of all, NAMA is 51% privately owned. The purpose of this is to keep its assets and debt ‘off the books’ in order not to upset the national balance sheet. As was said at the conference, it is still, in essence, national debt but this ‘trick’ is commonly used across Europe to ‘maintain fiscal stability’ within the EU. The much more pressing issue with this is that NAMA does not have to adhere to Freedom of Information(FOI) requests in the way that ‘actual’ State bodies do, and this throws up the issue of accountability. If we cannot fully scrutinise NAMA in its multitude of dealings and relationships with equity firms, hedge funds and Local Authorities, it becomes next to impossible to assemble a greater understanding of its general operation and the wider implications of these dealings and relationships. In order to address this issue, those of us at the workshop agreed that there should be a full audit of NAMA. This would mean that NAMA and the Department of Finance should make public the scale of NAMA’s portfolio – as well as the details associated with the portfolio (i.e. locations, cost, current valuation, etc.) – and the records of the deals it has concluded and is still involved with. This is in order to ascertain what assets NAMA has under its control, what it’s doing with those assets, how it’s disposing/divesting of those assets and to whom. Of course the reality is that because it was public money that acquired all of NAMA’s assets, the questions are just as much what assets do we have, what are we doing with them, how and with whom. A full audit of NAMA is the first step in attempting to answer these questions.
The second key point which was raised alluded to pre-crisis “cheques” which were never “cashed”. This is in reference to previous development schemes adopted by former governments, namely Part V which required that all private residential developments allocate 20% of their stock to social or affordable housing. This was a national policy, while in the docklands there was separate scheme which operated with a similar purpose. However, for various reasons, the vast majority of these social/affordable housing obligations were never fulfilled. It is now the case that some of these developments were acquired by NAMA and are either are still controlled by it or have been sold on. It was unanimously agreed upon during the discussion that these unmet obligations should be “cashed in” and affordable housing made available through this mechanism.
The third, and possibly most formative point, is that the discourse around NAMA must be altered to reflect its potential as a tool for public and housing good. In its current discursive form, it was pointed out that NAMA acts as a symbol for the bailing out of the financial sector and as a mechanism for financial stability. However, by highlighting four key aspects of NAMA, a new discourse of NAMA can be created. These include; 1) the ambiguity inherent in the NAMA legislation, 2) the role the Minister for Finance can play in shaping NAMA’s remit, 3) the immense potential of NAMA for providing housing organisations and agencies with the necessary tools to alter this crisis and 4) the need to create a political will to enact these suggestions. This new discourse would be one which doesn’t ignore what NAMA is doing now with hedge funds and equity firms, but uses that reality to kickstart a public discourse around what NAMA can and should be – a vital resource.
It was suggested that an important material approach to help with kickstarting this alteration in NAMA discourse is to create and distribute pamphlets and other reading material which highlight the key issues that were raised at the conference (some of which have been alluded to above). An active occupation campaign of NAMA building sites was also suggested. . The purpose of this would be to challenge the perceptions of these places as private and bring them back into the public sphere. Taken together, these potential actions could act to create debate around what NAMA is and ought to be while also bringing NAMA itself into the spotlight with regards to the current Housing Question.
Patrick Geaney is a student in the MA in Geography at Maynooth University