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…)



The Final Act of the Irish Electoral Cycle
We have entered the Final Act of the drama that is the Irish electoral cycle. The plot so far has involved harsh austerity, deepening neoliberalism, and widespread protest. But in the Final Act – at least in the play as scripted by the coalition government – these plot lines are expected to fade away as a new story arc emerges. Most immediately this will involve a raft of budgetary measures designed to return relatively insignificant amounts of cash to the wallets of various parts of the electorate. But, as the Capital Plan announced last week attests, it will also involve the promise of large-scale and geographically dispersed infrastructural investment.

While in one sense the Capital Plan is a mechanism in support of clientalism – allowing TDs the opportunity to bring the proverbial (and at this stage prodigal) bacon back home to their constituencies – it also serves to usher in the re-emergence of another central myth of Irish political and economic life: the myth of counterbalance.

The myth of counterbalance has been around ever since the Irish State decided to dismantle the walls of protectionism and open the country to the global economy. For various reasons Dublin has long dominated the country economically and demographically. The myth of counterbalance proposes to address this dominance by targeted policies designed to grow the economies of the other major cities.

I call this a myth not because such a feat is unattainable, but rather because, in Ireland, it has consistently proven itself to be. The myth of counterbalance emerges intermittently, the well-worn narrative dusted off to address the same intractable problem for a whole new generation.

Myth and reality
The idea of counterbalancing the growth of Dublin harks back to the Buchannan report on economic regions published in 1969. Buchannan proposed the creation of ‘poles of growth’, which would serve to counteract the unsustainable growth of Dublin. Throughout the 1970s Cork and Limerick were identified by central government as sites for targeted investment. However, while the official policy ostensibly favoured the creation of a counterbalance, in reality the recommendations of the Buchannan report were largely ignored, and later abandoned during the recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In the Fanning report of 1984 on the impact of the recession on Cork, the notion of creating a counterbalance was resurrected. Fanning highlighted the need for targeted investment in infrastructure in the cities outside of Dublin, along with investment in indigenous small enterprises, in order to avoid the fallout from another round of global restructuring. In the report, Fanning advised against focussing only on short-termist policies and forgetting the goals of long-term sustainability. But then the Celtic Tiger came along and counterbalance was abandoned in favour of reducing corporation tax to a minimum and putting in place a series of incentives to attract a new round of foreign investment.

In 2002, the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) once again broached the subject of counterbalance. Although politically weakened by clientalism, the NSS nevertheless put in place a framework to develop a number of ‘Gateways and Hubs’ that would act as regional centres of growth. There was a four-year gap, however, been the NSS and the publication of National Development Plan, which would link public spending to the infrastructural investment proposed in the spatial strategy.

In the interim, cities like Cork and Limerick launched ambitious development strategies that aimed to capitalise on the NSS. Cork Docklands Development Strategy, for example, inaugurated an entrepreneurial approach to development that transformed the city’s governance structures by inviting a host of private sector actors to shape urban policy. While the 2000s saw a new wave of development activity, the wider redevelopment of the docklands still depended on substantial state investment that, although promised, was not forthcoming. When the 2008 crash happened, one of the first programmes to be cut was the Gateway Development Fund for infrastructural investment.

Thus, the Celtic Tiger period of growth again failed to deliver on the promise of counterbalance.

The return of counterbalance
In the recently announced Capital Plan Cork is expected to get investment in key road infrastructure, an upgrade of Ringaskiddy Harbour and other projects including investment in a convention centre at the former Beamish and Crawford factory. The phantasmagoria of these plans was reinforced by a set of lavish visualisations shared by Simon Coveney on his facebook page. The Capital Plan is indicative of the re-emergence of counterbalance and, in the context of the eternal returns of Ireland’s boom and bust trajectories, the suggestion that we have exited the crisis and entered a new period of growth.

Dunkettle Roundabout Plans

Establishing shot from Season Two of True Detective… Sorry, visualisation of the upgrading of the Dunkettle Interchange in Cork.

But like previous iterations of the myth of counterbalance, we can see the contradictions emerge when we look a little closer at its practicalities.

Boundary issues
Over the last year, it had been recognised by Central and Local Government that the boundaries of Cork city did not encompass the functional urban area and that something would need to be done about it. A Local Government Review was set up to explore options. The logical solution would be for the boundaries of the City to be extended to more accurately reflect its functional area. This being Ireland, however, the simplest option practically was not necessarily seen as the simplest option politically, and – as was the case with Limerick previously – the solution proposed was not to extend the City boundary but to merge Cork City and County Councils.

Irish Examiner Cork MErger

Irish Examiner’s coverage of the proposed merger of Cork City and County Councils.

As reported in the Irish Examiner, Consultant Alf Smiddy and Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly argued that the merger would create “what would be by far the largest unit of government within the State”, which they contended would offer Cork the clout to successfully lobby for devolution of powers. The report stressed that the merger would allow Cork “to act as an effective counter-weight at the national level to the current economic predominance of Dublin and the eastern part of the country”. Alan Kelly argued that it would “put Cork in a position that it can compete on a regional basis with the conurbation that is around Dublin”.

Not everyone agreed. Two members of the Local Government Review, Prof Dermot Keogh and Dr Theresa Reidy (both academics at UCC), broke with the consensus and produced a minority report that stated their disagreement “with substantial parts of the draft report, the main finding, and most of the conclusions”. In a piece written for the Irish Examiner, Keogh and Reidy argued that after decades of delayed decisions on a boundary extension, the “amalgamation has been chosen as an easy political option” and that it wouldn’t solve the problems posed by Dublin’s dominance. Cork City Manager Ann Doherty later called the merger review “fundamentally flawed” and City Councillors sought to challenge the legality of Alan Kelly’s plans to proceed with it.

Myth interrupted
Cork’s boundary issues highlight the problems underpinning of the myth of counterbalance in Ireland. While ostensibly it has long been a central component of Ireland’s policy landscape, in reality it has never been pursued in any serious sense. The Irish state has been adept at spinning webs of visions, stories of ‘what will be’ woven with colourful images, maps and descriptions. But when it comes to frontloading investment into the necessary infrastructure, successive governments have balked.

Indeed, it would appear that Ireland’s period of neoliberalisation and entrepreneurialism has exacerbated the prospect of counterbalance. The suggestion that a merger of the local authorities would, by a sleight of hand, suddenly make Cork more attractive to international investment is indicative of a jaundiced approach that seeks to leverage an illusion of transformation to entice external forces to solve Ireland’s problems of uneven development.

What then is the purpose of the myth of counterbalance? It is an ideal that, while not in any realistic sense committed to, is perhaps periodically aspired to by successive governments. But more often, and particularly in the Last Act of the election cycle, it is a vehicle to carry the illusion of vision and the prospect of hope. The myth of counterbalance presents the notion that there is a ‘plan’. It tantalisingly dangles in front of the voting public the prospect that, within the crisis-ridden theatre of Irish politics, a socially and spatially equitable Ireland can be achieved. It is just beyond our reach, it seems to say, just beyond our grasp. Without fundamental change, it forever will be.

Cian O’Callaghan

We have heard a lot about the crisis in Dublin’s rental sector in recent months. On the surface, a lack of properties for sale or to let on the market has contributed to rising rents and the crisis of homelessness. But underneath this, a less visible, though no less worrying, change has been taking place – the rise of the transnational landlord.

Traditionally Irish landlords have been small-time amateurs. 65% of landlords have only one property with most others having just two or three. Many landlords work full time in addition to renting properties and up to one third are described as ‘accidental landlords’ – such as people renting out their own principal residence due to mortgage arrears. But recently a new breed of landlord has entered the scene, referred to as ‘professional’ or ‘institutional’ landlords. The most prominent is Ireland’s largest landlord, I.RES, a Real Estate Investment Trust focusing on long term investment in the rental sector. Other examples include global real estate companies such as Hines, Kennedy Wilson and Oxley Holdings, all of which are pursuing ‘build to rent’ strategies across Dublin.

Like much of what’s going on in the Irish property market, this development is driven by three interacting sets of dynamics.

Firstly, Irish property is being sold en masse at bargain basement prices . The sellers are financial institutions seeking to deleverage rapidly. These include foreign lenders such as Lloyds who sold their mortgage book to private equity firm Lone Star Capital. But the main players have been the Irish bad banks – Anglo and especially NAMA. Indeed 800 of the 1,200 apartments owned by I.RES were bought in one go from NAMA under Project Orange. The largest asset class held by NAMA is development land, and much of this has been sold to global property companies seeking to become long term investors in rental accommodation. For example, NAMA was one of the main owners of 400 acres of suburban land in Cherrywood sold to Texas based Hines. Hines plans to develop up to 3,600 apartments on the site.

20121220120052_Dublin Docklands SDZ Boundary

Map of the boundary of the Dublin Docklands SDZ

Secondly, there has been plenty of money washing around the global financial system and seeking to find its way into Irish property. As a PWC report earlier this year put it, European debt markets are ‘awash with capital’. The global financial environment continues to be characterized by some of the core dynamics that drove the financial boom of the 2000s: very low interest rates and low yields in traditional asset classes such as government and corporate bonds. Add to this significant quantitative easing in the US, UK and now the EU. There is a lot of money out there looking for somewhere to go, and heavily discounted real estate looks like a good bet. Hence, much of the money buying up Irish real estate is flowing in from the global financial system. Hines, itself a Texas based company, is backed financially by New York private equity firm King Street Capital. I.RES has funded its property shopping spree through its Canadian backer, the Canadian Apartment Properties Real Estate Investment Trust.

Thirdly, and finally, the transformation of the Irish housing system has turned the rental sector into a viable investment for international players. The sector continues to expand rapidly, increasing by over 100% in the Dublin region since 2002, as do rents. Most importantly, however, the collapse of the mortgage market means yesterday’s ‘first time buyers’ are today’s ‘top end renters’. The new class of landlord is chasing the high rents paid by a new class of renter, e.g. two income professional couples who are renting long term.

The business strategies of all the new institutional landlords thus work around these three axes: using global sources of capital to buy discounted Irish assets and rent them to relatively well-off renters. Let’s look in a little more detail at just what they’re up to.

I.RES (Irish Residential Real Estate Investment Trust) has spent around €400 million in the last year or two acquiring 1,200 apartments in Dublin. They hope to expand their portfolio to around 3,000 apartments. The company claims it “is focused on consolidating the fragmented Irish rental market by targeting high quality property assets … To deliver superior customer service, enhance tenant retention, and deliver quality homes.” They have been widely reported to be seeking rent increases of up to 20% across their portfolio this year. They are also considering expanding into affordable housing, social housing and student residence, all of which are potential new asset classes for global property investment in Ireland. You can read more about their plans in their investment brochure.

Oxley Holdings are also pursuing high end renters, but are even more focused on the top of the market. The Singapore based developer describes itself as “a lifestyle property developer that caters to the upwardly mobile homebuyer and entrepreneur” and is building 200 apartments at 72 – 80 North Wall Quay in Dublin’s Docklands, bought from NAMA last year.

Hines, which opened its Irish office last year, articulated its motivation for entering the Irish property market as follows:

“The firm made the decision to set up in Dublin to acquire single assets, portfolios, or debt; to enter into joint venture arrangements where appropriate; and to look at opportunities emerging from the de-leveraging in Ireland.”

In two years they have acquired over €1 billion in commercial, retail and residential property. As mentioned they look set to become a huge landlord under the Cherrywood development and are also building apartments in the Docklands, where they are completing the Spencer Dock development in conjunction once again with King Street Capital. Hines also sees themselves as a targeting the high end of the market and providing the high quality rental property. Their developments will also include special facilities and property management.

Finally, LA based Kennedy Wilson has aggressively entered Ireland chasing distressed assets but also developing major projects. While they have only a small residential portfolio (mainly investing in offices) they have snapped up around five apartment blocks in Dublin and are building the Clancy Quay complex near Island Bridge. KW have also entered a joint venture with NAMA to develop the Capital Docks project on Sir John Roggerson’s Quay in the Docklands. They submitted planning application in April 2014 for a major development on the 5 acre site. One of the buildings will be a nineteen story tower while overall the development will provide 300,000 sq. ft. of office space and 204 apartments (check out the commercial brochure for more details ). Interestingly, Deutchse Bank issued the first Commercial Mortgage Backed Security backed by Irish rental properties in 2015. The MBS was backed by loans linked to KW’s apartment investments.

capital dock

Plans for Capital Dock

But what does this all mean for tenants and for housing more generally? While it’s too early to say, international research certainly gives cause for concern. The pioneering work of Desiree Fields has documented the impact of private equity firms on residential rental properties in New York and elsewhere. Issues include high rents, high rates of tenant turnover and other aggressive business strategies which hit tenants hard. In the Irish case, given that institutional landlords are focused on relatively well-off tenants, we might be tempted to think that their impact will be negligible. Given the chronic lack of affordable rental accommodation, however, we should certainly be concerned about the opportunity cost associated with this new form of investment. Every apartment block or development site snapped up by global companies with significant financial fire power is a lost opportunity for affordable housing. From the point of view of the city as a whole, it would have been better to see heavily discounted apartment blocks and cheap development land being bought by local authorities and housing associations. Instead, affordable housing is being crowded out by a few large players whose only interest is in ‘top end’ tenants. Thus, while the possibility of professionalization raised by institutional investors has been welcomed in some quarters, the early indications are that they will do little for the majority of tenants.

Mick Byrne

Mick Byrne is an IRC postdoctoral researcher in NIRSA NUI Maynooth. He is also an activist involved in various housing issues, including the Dublin Tenants Association.

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