Irish housing: homes for people not for profit 

housing estate at sunset
sibeal devilly

30th August 2021

 

What is one accessory from childhood or your preteen-era that you would still wear today? This is a question that often has people reminiscing over plastic beaded bracelets, Heelys, and tattoo chokers. For myself, the answer is easy: a red badge inscribed with six little words: “Bollocks to Austerity. Tax the Rich.”  

 

Thanks to the Irish voters’ remarkable ability to have faith in political parties who have succumbed to drinking the neoliberal Kool-Aid of low governmental intervention in markets, eleven years later the badge is as relevant, the situation worse, the fight harder, and the representation remarkably similar. Today as in 2010 we see a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach backed by the Greens in power, although in 2021 the blame is no longer conveniently escaped by Fine Gael. 

 

The badge sits today, as anti-establishment as ever, on my desk in my over-priced Dublin rental. Were it not a grim sign that things don’t seem to change for the better economically in this country, the placement might just seem poetic. Sadly, it serves more as a reminder of a fight that never quite seems to be over. 

 

So, how did we get here? From the declaration of independence to the establishment of the Irish state, we vowed this country would serve her people better than the exploitation of colonialism. We would eradicate tenements, remove a foreign source of power, and be a country returned to her people. Yet today, we see public housing riddled with rats, a build-to-rent heavy rental market that has been proclaimed a “government sponsored cartel,an average single first time buyer age of 42, and an asylum system described as “devastating” by its residents. 

 

This is all before we even look to rising levels of homelessness, a crisis with levels dubbed “not high” by our then (and current) Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar in 2017. Is this symbolic of the governing parties of Ireland? That old tactic of insisting that an issue is not yet at crisis level while burying heads in the sand until such point as a crisis occurs? 

  

And of course, while talking about housing it would be remiss not to mention Direct Provision (DP): a horrifying and inhumane situation arising in the modern era in the same state which writes off mother and baby homes as a shameful thing of the past – a state which does its utmost to avoid the necessary conversations around them both. These serve as two features of Irish accommodation that you would be hard-pressed to justify, and so the government simply doesn’t even try; it just seems to hope people will forget about DP. It isn’t supposed to be a home anyway, more of a (never-ending) stop-gap, so why would the conditions need to be any good? Can’t we let the market fix that too? Furthermore, the state of accommodation and halting sites for members of the Travelling community in Ireland makes a mockery of modern anti-racist sentiments in the country. 

 

Part V of The Planning and Development Bill (1999) called for developers to have to include a proportion (up to 20 per cent) of properties or land in a development sold to the state (the local authority) as social housing, in developments of nine houses or more. These developments are known as mixed tenure estates,” whereby private property owners and social or affordable housing residents live in the same development.  

 

A revision to the Act in 2002 (by a Progressive Democrat/Fianna Fáil government) allowed for a financial payment of the equivalent value of the land to be paid to the local authority, much to the delight of building associations and developers around the country who had opposed Part V since its inception. This revision meant that while the housing supply was increasing, social housing was not being contributed to the stock, allowing for an increase in private ownership in the market. While it was found that Part V had a relatively limited contribution to social housing output, the revision meant that, in many cases, no developmental contribution was made at all.  In 2015 this proportion was further reduced from 20 per cent to 10 per cent. 

 

Additionally, with a renewed property bubble spiking housing prices, often local authorities could not afford to purchase land or properties from developers, resulting in no addition being made to social or affordable housing stock whatsoever. 

 

Part V is symbolic of the shambolic planning that is a legacy of the Irish state. The long-term consequences of the revision (which is once again up for amendment in 2021) meant that public and affordable housing stock was not boosted. Lack of intervention by the government ensured housing prices were not capped, and so the unaffordable inflation of both house prices and rent continued. 

 

The right of a private landlord to make money is protected in our Constitution – but the right to housing is not.”

While the state could not afford 20 per cent or 10 per cent of developments, the ESRI this year estimates that by the end of 2021, the state will have spent €1.4 billion on the payment of the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) to private landlords, subsidising a lack of state infrastructure with social welfare which perpetuates inflation of rents, which the government also refuses to cap.  

 

The right of a private landlord to make money is protected in our Constitution – but the right to housing is not. So, while rents have been allowed to increase by 4 per cent per annum, a figure which is not matched by salary increases or indeed by increases to minimum wage, the taxpayer is not just footing the bill for their own unaffordable rent, they’re footing the bill for HAP too: even the government can’t afford the rental market in this state. 

 

And really, none of this should be surprising. The Irish property market is not advertised as forever homes, but as investments, whether at a small-scale to individuals with money to invest in the build to rent market, or to vulture and cuckoo funds looking for the investment of their neoliberal dreams. 

 

The state’s solution to the problem of the Irish housing market seems not to be much different in the Irish modern state than it was during the era of British landlords: emigration of our (domestic) young. Admittedly today, the solution of emigration is paired with an assumption that inheritance will balance the disadvantage of our generation, not exactly the method of redistribution of wealth the leads to a successful welfare state – I come back to the solution of my favourite accessory: tax the rich. 

 

The legacy seems to remain of a land that does not provide viable opportunity or quality of tenure to its people, and so watches them set sail for countries happy to welcome the hard-working Irish with open arms. Trendy as world travel may be, our government doesn’t seem to recognise that it is no coincidence that those who stay are of either considerable means or those for whom leaving is not an option. For those in the middle, when faced with the prospect of rental inflation which exceeds salary, and with home ownership being a prospect only when paired with inheritance tax, if you’re lucky enough to have something to be taxed on, leaving is logical.  

 

A post-colonial society, successive Irish governments have behaved like anxious school children, scared  that the headteacher (the market) will chastise their adult choices. To save themselves the anxiety of taking the reins on the Irish economy, politicians have distracted themselves by blowing bubbles and crying to supranational supervisors when inevitably the bubbles of fantasy burst. For all the criticisms of Irish people throwing the baby out with the bath water during political scandals (with Phil Hogan still licking his wounds over this tendency), in election after election, we never seem to learn that no matter how shiny a bubble may seem when it’s growing, it really does always burst. 

 

 

 

Featured photo by Tom Thain

This article was supported by: STAND Opinion Editor Olivia + Programme Assistant Alex

 

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