Some interesting comparisons between the blighted neighbourhoods of US cities and the future of the so called ‘Ghost Estate’ have taken root in public debate over the last year, most recently in the Sunday Business Post where David McWilliams raised the issue again in his article ‘Ghettoisation of the nation’ (23/11/2009 Link). Here he bleakly promoted a common idea now in circulation that the Ghost Estates are ghettos- in -waiting, magnets for anti-social behaviour, and ripe for abandonment from homeowners who may no longer pay their mortgage due to rising unemployment.

There’s no doubt that empty and partly occupied residential estates have become a potent symbol of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. No doubt either that vacant homes touch some part of the psyche and can act as a loci for anxiety or ‘trauma’. But are the pronouncements about their demise to quickly made? And is their imagined future as a Ghetto overstated? In his recent piece, McWilliams’s subtly evades what urbanists understood about ghetto formation.

First of all, drawing attention to the consequences of mortgage foreclosure in the US as a lesson for what to come in Ireland is misleading. Certainly the rise of foreclosures in the USA is linked to rises in unemployment, particularly amongst poor non-white communities, but their sudden increase occurred in the near absence of a social safety net for their occupants, and because of highly inflexible banking system which is unable to negotiate to those in arrears to live in situ and restructure their payment – two forces which are not at work in Ireland. The statistics bear this out. Whilst the falls in the values of property and the rise in unemployment in Ireland have mirrored the situation in some states in the USA, house repossessions here – despite recent increases – remain fortunately a tiny percentage of the Irish housing scene. Moreover, even in the event that foreclosures rose here very significantly, because of the way in which Irish public services are funded (mainly on central rather than local taxation), financially speaking, mortgage foreclosure are delinked from the budgets of Local Authorities, social services, education or the police. This means that the prospect of these estates being abandoned by the state and left to go to ruin is unlikely. It follows surely that new ghetto formation or urban blight will not occur in Ireland on the basis of foreclosure in the way it has happened in the American rustbelt.

Secondly, a quick glance at the experience of urban blight in other countries presents a scenario which offers a poor match to the conditions of the presented by unoccupied estates in Ireland. Urban blight is strongly associated with areas with high levels of long term unemployment, high percentage of people dependent on welfare, high turnovers of population, concentrations of crime, drug abuse, vandalism, environmental contamination, insufficient social infrastructure, structural deficiencies of buildings and functional deficiencies of neighbourhood.  Many have been temped to jump to conclusions that the Ghost Estate is somehow at the beginning of the process.  But what needs to be appreciated is that urban blight will only kick in once these characteristics reach an intensity and scale which is endemic and long- term, and only when both the market and the state have withdrawn for a considerable length of time.  The extensive urban blight in cities like Baltimore, St Louis or Detroit were not created overnight but by long term economic restructuring and by an even more long term planning regime in post-war US that boosted the development of suburbia with low tax, flexible credit arrangements, a pull factor that drew largely white populations out of the urban core to live in edge-city neighbourhoods. The same process, underwritten by institutional racism trapped largely poor and black Americans into social housing in the old city cores, areas that could not generate tax-income and as a consequence fell into a spiral of decline.

To suggest the Ghost Estate problem in Ireland will amount to a problem of Ghettoization on par with the desperate situation in the US misjudged speculation. It’s some leap to compare Irish Ghost estates on the outskirts of villages like Roscarberry, Co. Cork or Edgeworthstown, Co Longford with Baltimore. Rather here we have a different housing ecology, with a different political and economic context.  To put it another way, the solutions to address the Ghost Estates in Ireland are less than a thousandth of what it will take to address the social problems of our own deprived urban areas.  The ‘overhang’ in unoccupied units is large, but a mixture of demand from new household formations, and market price correction will soak it up eventually.  The actual percentage of the vacant units that will eventually fall into dereliction will not constitute a national crisis.

These empty housing estates then are better understood as part of the peculiar geography of the NAMAscape, whose topography still needs careful mapping and interpretation. So? No Ghosts. Just Estates. A problem? Sure, but one not best addressed by McWilliams’s bleak dystopian vision of the city (I’m thinking about what consequences such ways of thinking had for the destruction of Georgian Dublin in 1970s), but by creative, imaginative and innovative housing policy which is still, despite the crisis in government finances, not outside our grasp.

Denis Linehan