Barrow Street (Google Street)

At the T-junction on Barrow Street, or as the locals call it “Google Street”; looking down the road to the right, we see the old and the new emerging Dublin. Google’s 67-meter tall building of steel and shiny glass, (I must admit here the magpie in me loves the shiny steel and glass construction), with its three pronged ‘hyperlink’ bridge, towering over the small pebble dash cottages

Google Bridge

The dwarfing of the inner-city communities’ homes by the prevailing industry is not a new sight, the old industries such as Boland’s Mills, the gas company cylinder, and the ESB red and white power towers on the Shelly banks, were once the dominant structures in the Dublin sky line.

Bolands Mill

However, the new industries unlike the old do not provide employment for th local community. Without a local labour clause in the regeneration of Dublin Dockland area this trend looks likely to continue as the government implements the Strategic Development Zone (SDZ)  promoting Dublin as a creative city. The SDZ is being held up as the only way to restart the regeneration of Dublin city after the property crash and the international financial crisis of 2008.

The fast track planning through the SDZ in the interest of economic growth has meant a change from the process of planning taking three years, with the freedom of third-party planning appeals, to being completed in 18 months now without an appeals process. This change along with the deliberate mapping of the zone to exclude the local residential areas of Ringsend, Pearse Street, Sheriff Street, and East wall, will remove all obligations on developers to consider local community needs despite the language of “integration” and “community involvement” that is in the document. In earlier developments, under the older planning provisions, there were some gains which, while few in number, gave hope and aspiration to the local area, a promise of a real investment, a commitment to lifelong education and a promise of a sustainable community and real job opportunities.

To be clear, I don’t believe that the responsibility for sustainable communities should be dependent on the private market yet without proper planning and investment, in schooling, housing, adult education/retraining, the low socio-economic cycle and high unemployment associated with these areas of inner city Dublin will continue and allow pockets of deprivation to be hidden in the statistics, as the middle-class population of Dublin increases.

The Government’s stated urban policy is to create a social mix, to bring families back into the city, yet there is no indication of any real commitment to the investment, in local schools, suitable accommodation, and the development of the necessary public social gathering spaces, such as parks with seated areas not exclusively associated with cafés-needed to achieve this goal.

Chimney park

There is one example of where there was an attempt to create this open public space with the development of the small Chimney Park beside the Bord Gais theatre Yet, there was supposed to be a number of these parks and with the crash these projects were dropped, and we can see an example of this failure in the large area to the north side of the Samuel Beckett Bridge which was supposed to be a public park but now has been left as an un-landscaped flat green space.

The present main social gatherings spots in Dublin docklands area are of consumerism, expensive restaurants, coffee shops and bars, sitting in to have your coffee will cost upwards of €5 making it an expensive commodity for everyone other than a small privileged group.

Bord Gais Theatre

This group are the people able to afford to live in the high rent apartments, to go to the expensive bars and restaurants and to avail of the Bord Gais Theatre and the Three Arena. These are the “creative” class that work in the multinationals of Google, Facebook, and Airbnb and in the legal and financial sectors. These people do bring much needed spending power to the area, but they are a more transient group and can leave if economic factors, for example, corporation tax, dictate that their firms have more favourable conditions elsewhere.

There is a clause in the SDZ to preserve local culture and heritage, but is this goes little further than the adaptation of street-names such as “Blood Stoney Road”, in the case referring to the nineteenth-century engineer responsible for the construction of the South Wall.

Blood Stoney Road

A more progressive approach might have been to have adopted some vernacular placenames for example, the MacMahon Bridge is known locally as the Iron Bridge. This care given to street naming is truly only a minor element of local and certainly there are more vital culture institutions under threat. For example, a Paddle Group  formed to support cancer survivors worries about the risk of eviction from its home in a concrete storage unit in the underdeveloped end of the basin.

If we want a living city, economic growth cannot be the sole focus of urban policy. For our cities to be sustainable they need to have places that parents can and want to bring up children. Our social fabric needs to provide high-quality integrated school, parks and recreational areas and residents should comprise a diversity of incomes, cities for the many not the few.

Mary Broe

Mary is a PhD student in Geography at Maynooth University.

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This event might be of interest to some:

The primary aim of this conference is to highlight and seek solutions to the national housing and homelessness crisis as it relates to availability and affordability of housing as it impacts on South Dublin County. In doing so we hope to provide clarity with regard to the existing housing context, identify barriers to the resolution of the housing crisis, both at a policy and implementation level, and make policy and implementation recommendations that will enable central and local government to deliver its housing targets. The conference will also act to strengthen the capacity of the SDCPPN to contribute to housing strategy at local government level. A number of housing experts will provide the context of the national and local housing policy and implementation issues, and offer solutions to the crisis. We will hold parallel workshops aimed at offering the space for individuals to express their solutions as the SDCPPN develop a position on housing which can be referenced in the relevant arenas within South Dublin County Council.

09:30am – Registration and Refreshments

10:00am – Chair Anna Lee – Welcome note

10:05am – Aiden Lloyd – setting the context

10:30am – Simon Brooke – National Housing Policy

11:00am – South Dublin County Council – Strategy to deliver social housing in South Dublin, including challenges and constraints

11:30am – Orla Hegarty – Solutions to Affordability

12:00pm – The workshops

    • Social housing
    • Traveller accommodation
    • Disability and Housing Needs
    • Homelessness
13:00pm – Lunch
13:45pm – Feedback from workshops by Siobhan Lynam

14:30pm – Rory Hearne – Housing Approaches and Rebuilding Ireland

15:00pm – Panel discussion with Simon Brooke, Orla Hegarty, Rory Hearne with Q&A

15:30pm – Final comments and closing

In the last couple of days I’ve been asked to comment on two issues around property data, both relating to vacancy (though we could easily have a similar discussion with regards to housing completions, homelessness, etc).  The first relates to housing vacancy and a report by Fingal County Council that contends that the vacancy levels in the local authority have been ‘grossly overstated’. The second about commercial vacancy and present rates. In both cases it’s difficult to provide strong answers because systematic data collection with respect to both is problematic and the state does not provide official data on either, except on housing vacancy every five years through the census which is a sub-optimal timeframe to be working from.

With respect to housing vacancy. I can’t find the report or press release from Fingal CC, but a story in the Irish Times reports that they believe vacancy levels are well below those reported in the census. It’s difficult to assess fully whether that’s the case without seeing the full methodology or data. What is reported in the IT is:

“The council initially conducted a desktop exercise on the 3,000 supposedly vacant properties. When commercial properties, as well as those in construction or in the planning process, were eliminated the figure fell to 361 properties. ”  They then visited 74 of the 361 homes to check on occupancy, though it’s not stated how those 74 were sampled.

Of those 74 visited, they discovered that only 13 were actually vacant. In other words, rather than having a vacancy rate of 5% (as reported in the 2016 census – 4,944 vacant units + 289 holiday homes), they have a rate of about 1% – far below what might be an expected base vacancy level of 6% (there are always some units vacant due to selling, gaps between renting, working temporarily elsewhere, people in healthcare, etc.). I have no doubt in the 18 months since the census in April 2016 properties that were vacant will have been occupied, however it seems unlikely that vacancy is so far below base vacancy, which is what the IT piece seems to be suggesting.

In terms of method it is unlikely that the CSO shared the individual addresses of vacant properties as identified in the census with Fingal. But if they were working from census data then it does not include commercial properties, nor properties under-construction, or in the planning process, or derelict. So removing those properties from census counts would make no sense – they were never counted by the CSO. Indeed, in a rebuttal story in the Irish Times, the CSO stand over their data and method – which is to send enumerators to every property in the country, to visit upwards of ten times if they fail to get an answer, and to talk to neighbours to try and ascertain the use status. I’m assuming that Fingal got their data instead from Geodirectory who source the information on occupancy from postal workers delivering or not mail. How accurate those data are I’m not sure and presumably the company would stand over their fidelity.

Regardless of the method, there is clearly a large discrepancy between what Fingal CC are finding on the ground in their small sample and what the census enumerators found 18 months ago, and presumably what An Post workers are finding. That discrepancy suggests we need a much more systematic and timely way of generating data on housing vacancy.  The government have set up a crowdsourcing means to generate vacancy information – vacanthomes.ie – where members of the public can log homes that they think are vacant, which can then be checked by local authority staff. There are well known problems with crowdsourcing such information, including coverage, representativeness and keeping the data up-to-date, and these data certainly could not be used as official statistics. Much more realistic would be a quarterly vacancy survey (much like the quarterly household survey) – probably carried out by the CSO who have no vested interest in local housing/planning data.

In terms of commercial vacancy, the state produces no statistics on the rates of vacancy for offices, retail units or industrial sites. It is a massive hole in our knowledge of the property sector. The only data that are produced are those by Geodirectory (which are limited in detail) or the property sector itself (hardly an unvested party, and the data are a product and can disappear from websites or go behind paywalls, and lack spatial granularity – usually just Dublin/rest of country or regions). In relation to commercial properties there is also a need to understand their characteristics, such as type, spec, condition, location, etc. as well as the size of space vacant, not just how many units. For example, imagine that there are ten units on a high street.  Nine of them are 1000 sqm in size and one is 5000 sqm.  If the larger unit is vacant then the vacancy rate per unit is 10 percent. However, the vacancy rate by floor area is 35 percent.  In other words, one cannot simply look at the absolute number of vacant units, rather we also need to consider the type and size of the units that are vacant. Trying to prepare local and county development plans with a fuzzy knowledge of existing development is a sub-optimal way of conducting planning and can lead to oversupply and property crashes (as per the last 20 years). Like housing, we therefore need good, reliable, timely data to understand the commercial property sector and we need the state to produce them.

In my view, there needs to be a branch-and-root review of property data in Ireland. This needs to start with asking the question: what data do we need to generate to best understand planning, housing, commercial property, infrastructure need, etc? Then to discover where the gaps are and to review the veracity and fidelity and fit-for-purpose of existing data generation and to fix as necessary. This includes assessing whether the data are being generated by the most appropriate generator. We then need to put in place the processes to produce those data.

With good quality data that people trust we might avoid different agencies producing wildly varying estimates of some element of housing or commercial property, such as vacancy rates, and we would greatly aid our planning and economic development. However, if we carry on as we are, we’re going to continue to fly half-blind and only have a partial or flawed understanding of present conditions and we are going to replicate mistakes of the past.

Rob Kitchin

Letter to Minister for Housing, Eoghan Murphy.

Dear Minister Eoghan Murphy,

We, the undersigned academics and policy experts, recognise, along with other housing experts, homelessness charities, and most politicians, that Ireland is experiencing a housing crisis on a scale never seen before.[1] Homelessness figures continue to rise, while rents have increased by over 40% nationally since 2011, and housing conditions worsen for more and more of the population. The response from government thus far has been wholly inadequate. The evidence strongly shows that treating housing as a commodity has exacerbated homelessness, prevented the building of sufficient numbers of affordable houses, and stoked inflation in house prices and rents. The current housing crisis demands extraordinary emergency measures. To this end, in solidarity with the Inner City Helping Homeless and Irish Housing Network, we support the six demands below.

Current government solutions through ‘Rebuilding Ireland’ overly rely on the private sector to deliver affordable housing, despite our past record of failing to deliver housing through the private sector. During the Celtic Tiger years, tax incentives for developers increased housing supply to excessive proportions. According to the 2011 Census, there were 289,451 vacant units nationally;[2] in terms of oversupply, there were at least 110,000 units.[3] This approach, rather than making housing more affordable, has resulted in housing price increases of between 300% and 400% in different parts of the country.[4] As the government did not provide sustainable long-term policies to deliver a stable social housing supply, as was the was the case for countries such as Denmark and Austria, [5] when Public Private Partnerships (PPPs), created to deliver social housing, collapsed during the crash no alternatives were set in place.[6] Meanwhile, the private rental sector remained underdeveloped and poorly regulated. The result is that Ireland has now some of the worst tenant rights of any country in Europe.[7] The series of housing crises in Ireland[8] have only been significantly exacerbated by the government response to the crisis.[9]

Cumulatively, as a society, Ireland is steadily moving from treating housing as a basic need and right to treating housing as a commodity. However, international evidence clearly shows that government policies that treat housing as a commodity have led to growing wealth inequality, housing insecurity and human rights abuses.[10] In 2017, a report by the UN Special Rapporteur for Housing to the Human Rights Council concluded that “rather than treating housing as a commodity valued primarily as an asset for the accumulation of wealth [governments must] reclaim housing as a social good, and thus ensure the human right to a place to live in security and dignity”.[11] We, the undersigned, urge the government to: to acknowledge the current housing crisis, change its housing policies and treat housing as a societal good, and to provide affordable housing to all to benefit Irish society as a whole.

Sincerely yours,

Irish Academics and Policy Experts Supporting Housing Justice

 

Dr Véronique Altglas, Lecturer in Sociology, School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work, Queen’s University Belfast

Dr. Patrick Bresnihan, Department of Geography, Trinity College Dublin

Dr Michael Byrne, School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice, University College Dublin

Dr Patrick Collins, School of Geography and Archaeology, NUI Galway

Prof Linda Connolly, Director, Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute

Dr Laurence Cox, Sr Lecturer in Sociology, Maynooth University

Dr Nessa Cronin, Centre for Irish Studies and Associate Director, Moore Institute, NUI Galway

Ciarán Cuffe, Programme Chair, Masters Programme in Urban Regeneration & Development, School of Transport Engineering, Environment & Planning, Dublin Institute of Technology

Professor Anna Davies, Department of Geography, Trinity College Dublin

Dr  Sharae Deckard, Lecturer in World Literature, School of English, Drama and Film,  at University College Dublin

Dr Jessica Doyle, Transitional Justice Institute, Ulster University

Samantha Dunne, MA, South Dublin County Public Partnership Network Coordinator

Dr Claire Edwards, University College Cork

Dr Frances Fahy, Head of Geography, Sr Lecturer, School of Geography and Archaeology, NUI Galway

Dr Eugene Farrell, Lecturer, Physical Geography and Director, MSc Programme ‘Coastal and Marine Environments’, NUI Galway; Member, Ryan Institute for Environmental, Marine and Energy Research, and President, Irish Geomorphology Group

Dr Eoin Flaherty, Asst Prof, School of Sociology, University College Dublin

Dr Ronan Foley, Sr Lecturer, Department of Geography, Maynooth University

Dr Alistair Fraser, Department of Geography, Maynooth University

Dr Paula Gilligan, Dept of Humanities, Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Dún Laoghaire

Dr Leonie Hannan, Queen’s University, Belfast

Dr Rory Hearne, Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute

Dr Nuala Johnson MRIA, Queen’s University Belfast

Prof Gerry Kearns, Department of Geography, Maynooth University

Prof Rob Kitchin, Maynooth University

Dr M. Satish Kumar, FRGS, RCS, FHEA, Director of Internationalisation, School of Natural and Built Environment, Queen’s University Belfast

Dr David Landy, Department of Sociology, Trinity College Dublin

Dr Joe Larragy, Lecturer in Social Policy, Maynooth University

Dr Philip Lawton, Lecturer in Human Geography, Maynooth University

Dr Steve Loyal, School of Sociology, University College Dublin

Dr Kevin Lynch, Lecturer in Geography, National University of Ireland Galway

Dr Mark Maguire, Department of Anthropology, Maynooth University

Dr Lidia Manzo, Department of Geography, Maynooth University

Dr Chandana Mathur, Maynooth University

Dr Mary McAuliffe,Gender Studies, School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice

Prof Aoife McLysaght, Trinity College Dublin

Dr Alan Mee, Lecturer in Urban Design, School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy, University College Dublin

Dr Julien Mercille, Assoc Prof, University College Dublin

Assoc Prof Niamh Moore-Cherry, School of Geography, University College Dublin

Dr John Morrissey, Associate Director, Moore Institute for Humanities, NUI Galway

Dr Anne Mulhall,  University College Dublin

Prof Enda Murphy, University College Dublin

Dr Michelle Norris, University College Dublin

Prof John O’Brennan, Maynooth University

Dr Cormac O’Brien, Asst Prof, School of English, Drama and Film, University College Dublin

Dr Cian O’Callaghan, Asst Prof of Urban Geography, School of Natural Sciences,Trinity College Dublin

Dr Féilim Ó hAdhmaill, School of Applied Social Studies, University College Cork

Dr Eoin O’Mahoney, Geographer

Dr Jacqui O’Riordan, School of Applied Social Studies, University College Cork

Dr Michael Punch, School of Sociology, University College Dublin

Dr. Declan Redmond, School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy, University College Dublin

Dr John Reynolds, Department of Law, Maynooth University

Prof Jan Rigby, Department of Geography, Maynooth University

Dr Silvia Ross, University College Cork

Dr Rory Rowan, Department of Geography, University of Zurich

Meabh Savage, PhD candidate in Equality Studies, University College Dublin

Dr Helen Shaw, Maynooth University

Dr Henry Silke, School of Culture and Communication, University of Limerick

Dr Karen Smith, Lecturer in Equality Studies, University College Dublin

Prof Ulf Strohmayer, School of Geography and Archaeology, NUI Galway

Prof Karen Till, Department of Geography, Maynooth University

Dr Sander van Lanen, Lecturer in Geography, National University of Ireland Galway

If you are an academic and would like to join this petition, please contact Prof Karen Till at karenetill@gmail.com

*****

Demands of the Inner City Helping Homeless and the Irish Housing Network below:
1. Emergency Accommodation Independent Review: An independent human rights and care review of all emergency housing, from private to charity and state run, must be conducted immediately.
2. Emergency Accommodation as a Centre of Care: Ensure that all Emergency Accommodation facilities have 24-hr access, with a fully funded response team, including wrap around supports, that focuses on: mental health, security and privacy for all residents. In addition, full and enforceable complaint procedures must be available and implemented.
3. No to Family Hubs. Warehousing families is not a solution. Instead we demand the creation of safe and affordable homes, not hubs, for those experiencing homelessness and/or housing crises.
4. No Evictions and Security of Tenure: We demand the end of economic evictions, as well as request security of tenure and housing rights, including affordable rents, for all currently in the private rental market.
5. Build and Buy Social Housing: To provide longer-term stable communities and cities, social housing must be provided. To this end, 183,000 empty houses should be transformed to social housing, and portfolios purchased from NAMA. In addition, new social housing must be planned and built at a reasonable rate.
6. Mortgages Write Down. For those in mortgage distress in their single family homes, negative equity should be cancelled.

*****

 

[1] Healy, T., & Goldrick-Kelly, P. (2017). Ireland’s Housing Emergency-Time for a Game Changer. Nevin Economic Research Institute Working Paper, (41).

[2] Of the 289,451 vacant units, 168,427 were vacant houses, 61,629 vacant apartments and 59,395 vacant holiday homes. 2011 Census data available at: http://www.cso.ie/en/census/.

[3] Although the oversupply had reduced to 77,00 units by 2016, these units are mostly not located in places where housing is needed.

[4] Kitchin, R., Gleeson, J., Keaveney, K., & O’Callaghan, C. (2010). A haunted landscape: housing and ghost estates in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland. National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis (NIRSA) Working Paper59.

[5] Norris, M., & Byrne, M. (2017). Housing Market Volatility, Stability and Social Rented Housing: comparing Austria and Ireland during the global financial crisis (UCD Geary working papers No. 201705).

[6] Hearne, R. (2011). Public Private Partnerships in Ireland: Failed Experiment or the Way Forward for the State. Manchester University Press.

[7] Sirr, L. (2014). Renting in Ireland: The Social, Voluntary and Private Sectors;. Mcgill-Queens University Press.

[8] Kitchin, R., Hearne, R., & O’Callaghan, C. (2015). Housing in Ireland: From crisis to crisis. http://eprints.maynoothuniversity.ie/6313/1/RK-Housing-Ireland-77WP.pdf.

[9] Hearne, R. (2017) A home or a wealth generator? Inequality, financialization and the Irish housing crisis. TASC. https://www.tasc.ie/download/pdf/a_home_or_a_wealth_generator_inequality_financialisation_and_the_irish_housing_crisis.pdf.

[10] Aalbers, M. B. (2016). The financialization of housing: A political economy approach. Routledge; Fields, D., & Uffer, S. (2016). The financialisation of rental housing: A comparative analysis of New York City and Berlin. Urban Studies53 (7), 1486-1502; Marcuse, P., & Madden, D. (2016). In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis. Verso Books.

[11] Farha, L. (2017) Report of the Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context. January 2017; available at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Housing/Pages/HousingIndex.aspx

 

 

homes-not-hostels

Over the last month, strong attention in Irish public debate has concerned the dramatically deteriorating housing conditions of an increasing number of people in the country, especially in the main cities. Launched by a variegated network of activists and groups, the Home Sweet Home campaign has been centred around the occupation of a vacant building owned by NAMA in the city centre of Dublin to give a shelter to homeless people who experience on a daily basis the serious lacks of the Irish welfare system in relation to housing. Solidarity towards the campaign has rapidly spread in the city (with more than a thousand of people volunteering in the project) and all around the country. I here do not want to account for the actions and strategies occurred up to last week when the building was evacuated following a court’s injunction; my aim is to stress the political importance of the Home Sweet Home campaign since it brought back direct action in Irish political arena.

The main political aim of Home Sweet Home is to give a grassroots-led response to the “housing crisis”, an idea full of political ambivalence. In fact the “housing crisis” has been recently invoked and used by the Irish government to support new supply-centred measures, thus guaranteeing conspicuous profits for developers. However such specious rhetoric collides with the material constraints of thousands of households who struggle to pay the rent or are in arrears with their mortgage; quoting David Madden and Peter Marcuse, we see how “the state of their housing is critical indeed” (2016: 11). So the direct action promoted by the Home Sweet Home campaign represents a response by those whose lives are severely conditioned by the “housing crisis”.

hsh

Direct action in housing through squatting vacant buildings is a long-standing political practice in Europe which has been traditionally associated by social and political scientists to several positive consequences for transformative politics, such as the experience of direct-democratic decision-making, and the prefiguration of another mode of organizing society through the challenge of private property rights and the power of making profit (exchange value) over material needs (use value). More recently the squatting of vacant buildings has re-appeared in southern Europe (where is has a strong social and political tradition), notably in Italy and Spain.

Spain represents a particularly relevant case for the Irish audience since the events leading to the “housing crisis” there echo what happened in Ireland with the boom and the burst of the bubble. Following a massive wave of evictions and foreclosures (made easy by a very punitive mortgage law) all around Spain, “mortgaged lives” (to quote the powerful concept introduced in a text edited by the current mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, a former spokesman of the PAH) soon started to organize to give a response to such a dramatic trend: the Plataforma de los Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) was created in Barcelona in 2009 and rapidly spread all around the Spanish country (currently counting more than 200 nodes).

For sure one of the main strategies leading to the success of the PAH has been its ability to cope with difference both in terms of people involved and repertoire of action, combining practices borrowed from anticapitalist/radical autonomy (e.g squatting of vacant buildings owned by financial institutions) with reformist practices (e.g. negotiating with banks, appealing the Spanish mortgage law in courts). Urban scholar Sophie Gonick has defined this encounter between different visions/perspectives realized by the PAH as agonistic engagement. Here the point is not to review all the different strategies and successes of the PAH, but emphasize how such agonistic engagement (deeply embedded in direct action in the form of blocking evictions or occupying buildings) has determined a double shift:

– in public discourse/popular narratives around the housing crisis, challenging those discourses/narratives blaming evicted/foreclosed people as irresponsible;

– in the material living conditions of thousands of people who got their eviction blocked or obtained new social housing agreements thanks to the direct action of the PAH.

pah

PAH activists occupying a bank

While I do not believe in the possibility of simply imitating/replicating what done by the PAH because it is the result of contextual factors and practices, I think it is important to keep it as a source of inspiration and reference for a campaign such as Home Sweet Home and for all those activists who struggle everyday for a more inclusive and equal system in which basic needs/rights (like housing) are acknowledged and defended.

Direct action like the re-appropriation of a vacant building destined to real estate speculation and private profit is important because it sheds lights on the political possibilities that we have here right now: while formal institutions are completely trapped in market/profit-centred measures/rationalities and some critical voices continue to call for a massive public intervention in the housing sector through new social housing construction, Home Sweet Home has unveiled another political possibility centred around re-appropriation, people’s engagement and the opposition to the power of non-transparent institutions serving private profit instead of promoting public wealth.

Of course the path initiated by Home Sweet Home is still new and will have to face a massive resistance from the part of conservative institutions (and the legal system developed to serve the interests of those in power and preserve the status quo). However direct action is able to create among those involved a passionate awareness and hope in the possibility of change, shaping new political subjects who do not see themselves anymore as passive receipts of the decisions made over their lives but are ready to create new worlds centred around solidarity, inclusion, respect, redistribution and mutual care.

Cesare Di Feliciantonio

Cesare Di Feliciantonio is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Geography Trinity College Dublin. His work lies at the intersection of social/urban geography, political economy, housing studies and urban studies with a focus on neoliberal subjectification and its contestations.

There has been much discussion, and not a little disagreement, about the Housing Bill 2016 (Housing Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2016) currently going through the Seanad.  In essence, it is the Government’s attempt to ‘fast track’ the delivery of new housing units.  And while there has been some debate about a small number of legislative changes that will, potentially, give tenants more rights, the bill offers an example of more of the same, rather than fundamental departure, in terms of the housing policy pursued by successive governments.

In this post, I want to do two things. Firstly, I want to look briefly at some core points of the bill with a view to identifying where they depart or continue existing policy.  Secondly, I want to place the state’s approach to focusing on stimulating supply through incentivizing the development sector in a historical context.

dscf1655

 

The Housing Bill 2016

The Housing Bill 2016 is generally a continuation of the kinds of housing policies successive governments have been pursuing for years now. Its basic premise is to remove (more) barriers to development in order to increase supply quickly. Most fundamentally, it assumes that supply is the single most important element of the housing problem and that remedying the issue of supply will have a ‘trickle down’ effect to subsequently alleviate the other crises of housing affordability, homelessness, and tenure insecurity.

As I want to argue below, this assumption is highly problematic, as borne out from historical evidence in the Irish context.  But before I get to this, I want to briefly focus on three key points from the bill that have gained media and activist attention.

Firstly, the bill includes a clause to curb wholesale evictions when a property is sold to a large investor. It builds on the so-called ‘Tyrllestown amendment’ by including a provision that landlords with 20 properties or more cannot evict tenants when selling to an investor.  This protects against a particularly high-profile form of eviction, but one which is perhaps very limited in the overall scheme of things.  Some estimates suggest that this will affect only 0.56% of landlords*.  Moreover, a new get-out clause was also included in the bill, which allows a landlord to pursue a vacant sale (i.e. evict existing tenants) if they can prove that the value of the sale is decreased by 20% as a result of occupancy.  Given the current market conditions it may not be difficult for landlords to ‘prove’ this.

Secondly, the bill makes provisions to amend Part 4 Tenancy by removing the six-month window at the beginning and end of a four-year lease agreement in which a landlord can terminate a tenancy.  This improves the rights of tenants but offers limited protections in a context where a number of other gaping loopholes exist that allow landlords to terminate tenancies. Moreover, in a context where rents have increased by 40 per cent since 2011 this will do little to combat the tsunami of economic evictions taking place.

Thirdly, the bill proposes to give increased powers to An Bord Pleanála by introducing new ‘fast-track planning permissions’ for ‘strategic housing development’.  This removes planning powers, in particular instances, from the local authorities.  The bill proposes that:

“Applications for permission for strategic housing developments shall be made direct to the Board (An Bórd Pleanála) and not to the local planning authorities.”

The rationale here is to reduce the time it takes developers to secure planning permission, and thus reduce the overall time it takes for new housing supply to come on stream.

In the Irish planning system, An Bord Pleanála operates as an adjudicator of last resort on planning decisions made by local authorities: “Anyone applying for planning permission and anyone who made written submissions or observations to the planning authority on a planning application, can appeal a subsequent planning decision to An Bord Pleanála”.

As such, the ‘fast track’ approach, while ensuring a quicker process for developers, potentially removes one more avenue for community opposition to new development. Given the less than exemplary recent history of sustainable development in Ireland, the removal of recourse to objection is potentially worrying.

It has been documented in academic work by Linda Fox-Rogers and Enda Murphy and Gavin Daly that during the boom local authority planning departments were put under pressure to deliver favourable planning outcomes.  One mechanism used was the incorporation of ‘pre-planning’ talks, whereby a developer submitting an application could avail of extensive meetings (even negotiations) with the planning authority to ensure that a planning application could fit the criteria to be granted permission.  Will An Bord Pleanála, which is an independent body, now also be expected to engage in pre-planning discussions with developers given the political pressure to quickly increase supply?  If the answer is yes, it could seriously undermine the independence of the authority.  If the answer is no, the new measures might well fail to deliver the fast-track supply of housing the bill promises.

Underpinning the bill as a whole is the assumption that the supply of housing is the biggest challenge to overcome.  This dogma, although increasingly challenged by various housing experts, is stubbornly trotted out in the media by politicians and vested interests.  This simple formula for solving periodic housing crises, namely increase supply through removing barriers to development and incentivizing the construction and investment sector, has had a long history in Ireland, with highly variable outcomes.

 

Build it and they will come

This approach has deep roots in the history of Irish Housing Policy. Indeed, the first Fine Gael government sought to deal with a crisis of tenement housing by offering grants to incentivise higher income families to take out mortgages to buy their own home, thus freeing up units in tenements for low income families.  When Fianna Fail came to power in 1932, they instead embarked on a programme of building social housing, in the process offering incentives for the construction sector during a period of relative economic stagnation.  These two moves set in place the conditions that have remained stable in Irish housing policy since – a focus on homeownership as the optimum model of housing tenure and a close relationship between the successive Governments and the construction sector.  These close relationships have provided fluctuating outcomes for Irish housing.

To take two broad, and broadly different, examples.

Firstly, attempts by the state to solve period social housing crisis have in the past focused on strategies to increase supply and/or renovate existing stock.  Moreover, this has often been achieved through incentivizing the private sector.  For example, the plans to create Ballymun emerged in the context of a crisis of tenant housing in Dublin city centre.  Built using new rapid-build materials, Ballymun was intended to as modernist utopia delivering a large supply of working class housing.  However, while the development proved a relative success in the early years, the state’s failure to deliver local jobs coupled with the withdrawal of Dublin Corporation investment and general upkeep of the flats led to spiralling social problems in the area.  The supply of housing alone was not enough to make the community sustainable.

However, when the regeneration of Ballymun was slated in the 1990s, the focus was once again overwhelmingly on the ‘bricks and mortar’ approach to supply.  Although the plans included provisions for community and economic regeneration, these promises remained largely undelivered by the state.  Moreover, the regeneration was to be financed by the construction of new private housing units on site, which was expected to also lift the economic profile of the area.   Thus, what the community got was new public and private housing units, but less in terms of long-term investment in the community or the local economy.  The regeneration during the 1990s failed to deliver on long-term community development because of a focus on a supply of housing units rather than taking a more holistic view of housing.

Despite these problems, the Ballymun model of regeneration became the template for regeneration schemes in places like Cork, Limerick, and Dublin.  Using a Public Private Partnership (PPP) approach, regeneration of social housing was expected to deliver new social housing, enhance community development, and deliver private sector housing supply.  Moreover, it was expected to do this by incentivizing the private development sector.  Many of these PPP schemes collapsed with the property crash, leaving communities high and dry.

Secondly, from the 1986 Urban Renewal Act on, the state introduced a series of tax incentive schemes to increase the supply of property development in urban and rural areas.  This was a major factor in kick-starting the Celtic Tiger property bubble, which saw an astronomical increase in the supply of housing.  Between 1991 and 2006, 762,541 housing units were built in Ireland.  However, this supply did not lead to more affordable housing. In fact, house prices increased by between 300 and 400 per cent in different parts of the country.

The tax incentive schemes were extended far beyond the point at which they were necessary.  These policies to increase supply were a key factor in the creation of the 2,846 unfinished housing estates identified in 2010, including 78,195 complete and occupied units, 19,830 under construction, 23,250 complete and vacant, and planning permission in place for a further 58,025.

Moreover, the unregulated development that resulted from reducing the barriers for developers actually undermined the creation of sustainable communities built around strong transport links and services.  One of the reasons planned developments like Adamstown and Clongriffin failed to deliver on their promises, for example, was that unregulated development in neighbouring local authorities undermined plans for the timely delivery of schools, transport links, and other amenities in tandem with the phased delivery of housing.

Following the crash, there was little legislative change introduced to the planning system. And while the development sector has been significantly affected by the financial and housing crash, this has been the impact of external factors rather than designed through government policy.

The current housing and homelessness crisis is a direct outcome of the series of systemic problems created throughout the boom and the policy responses to the crash that ignored issues like mortgage debt, the decline in social housing provision, and the changing character of the rental sector, and continued to support existing and new development interests.

 

More than supply

The Housing Bill aims to solve a series of complex problems in the housing system through a short-term intervention to increase supply.  While this might be what vested interests in the sector need to get building in the short term, it will only exacerbate conditions for most of us with regard to our access to secure and affordable housing.

It foolish to assume that focusing on the needs of the same vested interests will remedy these problems.  Firstly, because they have never solved these problems in the past and indeed created many of them. Secondly, because the housing market has changed since the crash.

For financial actors, the rental market has become more profitable in recent years as a form of investment.  For international funds, in particular consistent rising rents is essential for them to return growing profits on their investments.  As such, a greater supply of rental stock will not mean more affordability – there will still be pressure to push up rents.  In combination with the incentives for first time buyers, measures supporting developers, landlords, and investors will only serve to further inflate the housing market.

In the meantime, the clear and modest demands to increase the supply of social housing, or improve tenants’ rights are being side-lined.  For example, the Secure Rents campaign asks for three things:  to regulate increases in rent by linking rents to the Consumer Price Index; to revoke the right of landlords to evict tenants for the purpose of sale; and to move from current 4 year leases to indefinite lease terms. These provisions are not radical by any means, but rather start to address some of the imbalances between the rights of tenants and those of landlords.  Indeed, tenant rights are particularly poor in Ireland in comparison to the rest of Europe. These provisions would not unnecessarily penalise developers, landlords, or investors. But they would slow down some of the crisis conditions.

More starkly, within the context of a housing crisis of unprecedented proportions, the Irish Housing Network have made a call for a complete ban on evictions.  It is worth remembering here that the number of homeless people in Dublin has risen by 35 per cent in a year.

In sum, the Housing Bill is unlikely to change the current system to any great extent – in terms of tenants, the new amendments will not make much of a dent, while in terms of development interests, the changes are just the latest iteration in a long-standing state support for this sector.  But in the context of the current housing crisis, this response is inadequate at best and has the potential to worsen the problem.

The assumption of supply being the most significant factor is highly problematic, as we can see from historical evidence.  The evidence suggests that relying on the logic of supply (without considering issues of affordability and security of tenure) will create increasingly dysfunctional housing systems.  It is time that we finally took stock and addressed the bigger housing problems that repeat themselves.

This is an emergency. And an emergency requires new thinking.

Cian O’Callaghan

*My thanks to Lorcan Sirr for providing this figure

As the housing crisis is getting increasingly worse it seems that more than ever that we need housing movements proposing progressive solutions. However, the almost complete lack of government action to address the crisis would seem to suggest that progressive solutions are not getting through to policy makers and politicians.  In this post, I offer four reflections for housing movements and those seeking a more just housing system to consider.

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  1. The big picture: demographics, credit and scarcity

Housing is at the centre of three irreversible process: demographics; scarcity and credit. We need to understand how these interact to appreciate the importance of housing politics today. First of all, there are strong demographic trends exercising pressure on the housing systems of medium and large cities. Populations are growing and people are living longer. Household size is steadily falling – people are living in smaller groups. And, finally, economic activity is increasingly concentrated. This means cities like Dublin will see significant in-migration (especially rural to urban) as people seek out employment.

These demographic trends, however, only become a problem in the context of the way the economics of housing works in market driven societies. This is a broad topic, but the most pressing matter for housing politics is the relationship between the availability of credit and the scarcity of land and property. Houses, land and property in desirably located urban areas are inherently scarce. We can’t just produce more of land to meet growing need. As such, given the above demographic trends, more people are competing for a scarce resource.

But credit money is not finite. As argued by Adair Turner in his recent Between Debt and the Devil banks don’t just help money move around the economy, they create money by issuing credit. This means credit can increase with few limits. But if desirably located urban land and real estate is scarce the inevitable result of increased credit is price inflation. This means property and housing becomes something of cash cow but it also introduces instability and volatility into market driven housing systems.

Over coming decades, intense competition for housing and erratic rises and falls of house and rental prices will become the norm in urban housing systems. This will lead to the expulsion and displacement of lower income and working class communities, the accumulation of private debt and volatility in the housing system, the financial system and the economy as a whole.

 

  1. The market and supply: its weakness is our strength

Because of the interaction of the above three processes housing markets are volatile and housing and rent is expensive. Here it is crucial that we appreciate an issue which cannot be underestimated in terms of its importance for housing activists: the market cannot and will not provide affordable housing for low and moderate income households.

In fact, the market has never been able to provide affordable housing. A brief look at Irish history is revealing here. Before significant state intervention in the housing system most working people rented housing in the private rental sector. The vast majority of this was over-priced and had extremely poor quality – the tenement being the most famous example. This changed from the 1930s. In the decades in the middle of the 20th century 50% of all housing output was social housing. Meanwhile, home owners also benefited from huge supports, in the form of tax relief and mortgages provided by the state.

This pattern is repeated across Europe – up until the 1930s every city was dominated by expensive private rental accommodation of dreadful quality. Throughout the 20th century this changed radically and social housing and home ownership became dominant, but only with a huge amount of state intervention.

The reality is that it is not profitable to build housing for people on low and moderate incomes. The only way it can become profitable is if you allow those people to borrow huge sums of money, which inevitably results in uncontrolled house price increases and eventual collapse, as we know only too well.

 

  1. Non-market solutions: playing to our strengths

Only non-market based solutions to the housing crisis can work. There is also an important strategic political point here. The key weakness of market based approaches to housing is not that they are unjust or that someone gets rich off them – it is that they don’t work and can’t work. The main strength of housing movements is that because we are willing to advocate for non-market solutions we can provide solutions in terms of the supply of affordable housing.

I think it is fair to say that we have remained somewhat ‘on the back foot’ in relation to the issue of housing supply. Housing activists for the most part have focused on the problems and injustices with the current housing system and the ‘vulture funds’ etc. that make money from it. We have tended to focus much less on providing solutions in terms of housing supply. Yet this is exactly where our main strength lies and where we should focus our energy.

In doing this, however, we have to be creative and innovative. In particular, we should be willing to look at innovative forms of financing and providing affordable housing. This includes new forms of financing social housing, such as including a greater role for private finance (credit unions, pension funds and banks) and cost rental and self-financing models. It should also include a greater role for not-for-profit housing providers such as housing association, cooperatives or community land trusts.

In exploring these innovations, we should not be afraid of taking a new approach to social housing and we should not be ideologically blinkered: by developing pragmatic solutions we will be able to put non-market approaches to housing at the centre of the debate.

 

  1. More than bricks and mortar

Creativity and innovation are also crucial at other levels. A great strength of housing movements is that we appreciate that a house is more than bricks and mortar, that a home is both a fundamental right and is a key part of our social and community life. How we think about housing and in particular supply of affordable housing can draw strength from this insight.

For example, provision of affordable housing should also be linked to the task of creating sustainable, mixed income communities. Similarly, housing provision should be linked with the extremely important challenge of environmental sustainability. This is another major social challenge that the market has absolutely no hope of responding to. Energy efficiency, sustainable water usage and environmentally friendly transport planning can and should all be part of progressive approaches to providing affordable housing.

Mick Byrne

Mick Byrne is a lecturer and researcher in UCD School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice and a member of the Dublin Tenants Association.