In political struggles for publicly funded housing in Ireland since the 2010 crisis, the word ghetto has re-appeared. When proposals for social and public housing are put forward by activists, unions and others, one of the ways they are opposed, whether it be via mainstream media, or elsewhere is by the deployment of the word ‘ghetto’. Opponents of a massed public housing investment programme raise the spectre of the ghetto if we were to invest in a housing programme that meant more than a handful of public housing units in the same place. In this blog post I want to trace the birth and development of this use of the word ghetto in a public housing context in Ireland, not in a theoretical but an empirical way. This provides some evidence for a paper I am returning to again having put it to one side in late 2018.

The use of the word ghetto has been a feature of the story of local authority housing in Ireland since the 1980s. To understand the ways in which ghetto has become identified with public housing, we need to trace its origins. There is not a simple and defined correspondence with the use of the words ghetto and housing in Ireland. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, the word ghetto appears closely aligned with public housing in the newspapers of the time. To show how this alignment occurs, I have analysed the content of a range of articles, features and editorials for the period 1960 to 2015 where the words ghetto, housing and Ireland appear together.

While initial usages in Irish newspapers were concerned with the sectarian housing policies in Northern Ireland, later usages of the words show significant concern among policy makers and others for the potential and the reality of social housing to become like a ghetto. It is evident that ghetto emerges as a euphemism for housing segregation based on class. It is also more than a euphemism, as I will show. A wide variety of individuals, from politicians to government officials to members of the public, cite examples of concentrations of public and social housing in Irish towns and cities as something to be avoided in any new programme. Usage of the terms ghetto and housing together from about 1992/3 in particular onwards implies that mistakes have been made in the past in concentrating public housing because it leads to undesirable, yet unspecified, social problems. My content analysis shows how the development of public housing and planning problems are represented from this time as attempts to avoid ghettoization. Content analysis is a way in which to draw out significant themes from a corpus of text across time periods and can be used to show how specific ideas are represented together (Limb and Dwyer, 2001).

The Irish Newspaper Archive found the phrase ‘ghetto’ near ‘housing’ in 316 results in the period 1920 to 2018.  An Irish Times Archive search for the words ‘ghetto’ and ‘housing’, confined to Ireland, for the period 1960 to 2018 was also done. This second search yielded 243 results. In both databases a shift in usage over time is apparent. The word ‘ghetto’ alongside housing only appears with any frequency from the 1960s when it was used to describe the housing of nationalists and Catholics in the sectarian state of Northern Ireland. Discounting this particular usage and its usage to describe historical events in other parts of the world, a number of themes emerge from this brief overview of their usage together. The first theme identified in my analysis is that housing planning by local authorities, by its very house building activity, has created ghettoes. A selection of these usages shows a close association with public housing in particular. It is important too that such usage is found across a wide range of actors from across political parties. As early as 1972, aspiring Labour Party candidate (later minister) Ruairi Quinn wrote about Ballyfermot as a “poor community, a working-class ghetto with a high factor of crowding” (Mar 1 1972) having earlier described it as “a gross distortion of normal community in our society”. In 1976, a new private housing development in the Kildare town of Celbridge was offering a “mixed community within the development” in which the developer “anticipates the end of the ‘ghetto mentality’ that has disfigured many other Irish housing developments” (April 9 1976). When the 19th century housing at Mountpleasant in the south Dublin suburb of Rathmines was demolished in 1979, locals blamed the Corporation’s own policy for turning it into a ghetto through neglect (Mar 5 1979). In 1985, in the Donegal News, Fianna Fáil Councillor Bernard McGlinchey was recorded as warning that the town of Letterkenny could have social problems like the Dublin suburb of Ballymun unless “there is a rapid rethink on housing policies”. He sought the Council’s plans for the Ballyboe area of the town to be re-examined for fear that “The Council [would] site more houses in the area when the next allocation comes” and that it was “frightening that we are creating a ghetto in that area”. A total of 59 Council houses were planned alongside some private houses in a nearby site.

In 1986, with a new surrender grant scheme in place, Ray Burke TD, then a Fianna Fail spokesman, warned that the £5,000 given to local authority tenants to purchase a private house out of their own area was “creating a ‘ghetto’ in a Dublin housing estate”. He claimed that this policy resulted in higher unemployment and poverty in the district of West Tallaght. Other opposition deputies pointed out that only tenants in employment could avail of the grant and so those left behind were “becoming more concentrated with the unemployed, and an undesirable demographic imbalance was taking place.” This concern was echoed in a later report on house building activity during an upper house debate on small business (April 18 1986). The implication here is that the Council was creating concentrated areas of poverty by following national policy. Before 1990, the ghetto is used in an anticipatory manner, something to be avoided but only sometimes discernible as a problem.

The second theme identified is that public policy needs to avoid the ghettoes created in the past. By the mid-1990s, ghetto was being used in a near-historical framework as is clear from a 1996 Irish Times series entitled The Roots of Crime. The journalist frames the problem of crime as one of definition: “we are no longer defined by our green fields, but by urban ghetto areas which [police] call ‘hostile territory’” (Jan 22 1996). Later that year, a conference for local authorities heard how some of these authorities “use housing estates to hide rural poverty, creating ghettos on the edge of towns”. These council-established areas “had been, to some extent, ghettoised by virtue of their location outside the central areas of small towns” said consultant Trutz Haase. While this refers to much smaller urban areas than Dublin, the identification of an unspecified ghettoisation caused by public housing itself is evident. More especially, ghettos are identified by their own nature and characteristics rather than via their relationship to other policy measures of class formation.

In 1999, the Tuam Herald recorded that the Irish Auctioneers and Valuers Institute (IAVI) had expressed concern that the Government’s new Planning Bill would hinder the development of affordable housing because it encouraged building by local authorities to shorten their housing waiting lists instead of making private housing more affordable. Their statement, broadly in support of the bill, felt that “ghettos may be created within future housing developments with ‘affordable housing’ being segregated by a high wall from the main site and accessed independently…”. “Quality residential enclaves” in these areas would undergo price increases because they will not have the social housing element of the mooted bill nearby. The concern of the IAVI was for (private) first-time buyers and the lack of flexibility in densities envisaged under the bill. By 2000, a new Fingal Council plan to expand the older suburb of Blanchardstown was written about by the Irish Times’s environment correspondent as “littered as it is with ghettoised low-density estates, both public and private” (Nov 23 2000).  Other accounts from the 1990s show how the phrase ‘mixed tenure’ came to dominate discussion of large new housing developments at the edge of Dublin.

In the period 2002 to 2006, about 300,000 new houses were built in Ireland. Like the word ‘ghetto’, the term ‘mixed tenure’ is a code word used to describe mostly private housing with some element of social and/or affordable within a scheme. Both terms obscure the class relations that are materialised within urban space. Fears of “ghettos in the making” are allayed by building developments with a majority of private housing with some element of affordable and social housing. This bracketing of public within large private developments came to dominate home building in Ireland (through policy instruments of an increasingly centralised state) until the debt-laden crises that began in 2008. There is evidence then to suggest that the word ghetto is used in newspaper reports of housing policy in two ways: firstly that local authorities, through policy instruments not always of their own making, created ghettos in public estates. These areas are unspecified but identified invariably with public housing. Secondly, and as the 21st century begins, that new housing developments (all tenures) need to avoid the mistakes of the past where public housing ghettoes were built. In a feature on the new suburb called Ongar on Dublin’s north-west fringe, concern was expressed that higher densities would bring about ghettos (December 2 2006). Later-expressed fears about ghettos are not exclusively related to public housing but to newer suburban forms and populations that are seen not to be integrating with other communities. Where public housing is aligned with the fear of a ghetto aids the expansion of private housing over a longer time frame. The Planning and Development Act 2000 in particular instituted a defined proportion of each new housing development to be designated as public housing. This housing tenure’s marginalisation as time goes on solidifies the place of public housing as a small part of housing provision more generally. Furthermore large concentrations of public housing become strongly associated with ghetto-creation in a way that was not evident before the 1980s.

Eoin O’Mahony (@EducGIS)

How can social science researchers most effectively make a contribution to public policy formation?  The recent debates surrounding how best to address the fiscal crisis facing Ireland cast a spotlight on two challenges that confront researchers who attempt to intervene in the wider public discussion.  First, there is a set of problems surrounding the ways in which evidence – particularly quantitative evidence – is mobilized by researchers and taken up by the media and others who shape public opinion.  Second, there is a more philosophical question about whether or not it is possible, or desirable, for social scientists to adopt a value-neutral position. (more…)