October 2013        

Ireland’s housing crisis worsens

Amidst the macro-economics so beloved of official economists, the plight of those without adequate housing, or altogether without housing, sometimes gets forgotten. Yet in recent years this crisis has slowly worsened.
     The Peter McVerry Trust recently echoed the analysis of the CPI and many radicals on the publication of its recent annual report, in which McVerry says: “After 30 years of working to eliminate homelessness, I believe the problem is now worse than ever, perhaps even out of control.”
     And Focus Ireland pointed to the alarming growth of the numbers on the housing list. The most recent National Housing Needs Assessment, published in September 2011, found almost 100,000 households in need of social housing. This has grown from a total of 56,000 households on social housing waiting lists in the previous assessment, in 2008.
     • Focus Ireland estimates that 5,000 people are homeless at any one time in Ireland.
     • At the last count (2008) it was found that 2,144 households were using services for the homeless.
     • The last count of those sleeping rough conducted by the Homeless Agency found that seventy people were sleeping rough on the night of the count.
     • By the spring of 2011 there were 50,000 mortgages in arrears for more than ninety days.
     • Almost 630,000 people experience relative poverty in Ireland (SJI, Socio-Economic Review, 2011, from EU-SILC 2009).
     • About 210,000 children live in households that are experiencing poverty.
     • 1 in 5 children are “at risk” of poverty.
     • 85 per cent of households on the waiting lists for social housing have an income below €20,000 a year.
     • There are at present 6,000 children in care (Irish Times, April 2011).
     From the 1960s there has been no real development of public housing. Local authorities have almost stopped building houses. In fact the construction of social housing has been declining since 1995. In that year local authorities provided 3,200 new houses, but this was offset by the sale of 2,100 existing houses. By 1998 the combined local authorities were building 2,771 houses, while 2,006 were sold.
     The selling of council houses mirrored what was happening under Thatcher in Britain. There the Tories created a private market at the expense of council housing—a market for their cronies to manipulate.
     In Ireland, many council tenants, faced with no foreseeable opportunity to purchase from the private sector, saw the opportunity to own their own homes. The desperation of the homeless mingled with folk memory to create a demand that bolstered the interests of the middle class.
     Meanwhile demand has risen significantly in recent years, with waiting lists growing from 42,946 to 56,294 between 2005 and 2008. The drive to the private rental sector got a further push when central funding for the acquisition and renovation of social housing was reduced from €1,700 billion in 2007 to €807 million in 2011.
     Rather than tackle the land speculators, the Government offered huge tax incentives to landlords to provide rental flats and houses; and we now have a new landlord class making massive profits off the young people now needing accommodation. The Kenny Report (1962) proposed radical measures to prevent speculation. It was never implemented.
     The new landlord class included not only the cronies of those in power but also many politicians. These include Frank Fahey and the former Taoiseach Brian Cowen. Fahey was king of the rentiers, owning or jointly owning nineteen properties in 2010. These included apartments in Belgium, France, Portugal, Dubai, and the United States. In that year it was estimated that 34 of the 60 members of Seanad Éireann had rental or development properties around the globe.
     Having bought these houses, the speculators have guaranteed a rental market through the elimination of state competition and state-guaranteed rental incomes—a rentier dole.
     Ireland’s 140,000 social houses are provided by local authorities and non-profit housing associations, such as Respond. Now, subsidies on rents are being reduced, and local authorities and housing associations are being pressured to operate under market conditions.
     The EU issued a directive requiring that local authorities not directly involve themselves in providing housing. But, stung by criticism, the Government ordered local authorities to ensure that a fifth of all building land be given to councils for the provision of public housing. But builders and developers lobbied against this and in many cases were allowed to buy themselves out of the developments and ensure that the poor were kept at estate’s length from the more affluent. This reinforced the traditional snobbery and class division and consequent alienation.
     Housing remains in crisis. There are not enough houses or apartments available in the private sector, and the poor are priced out of the rental market. Their only hope is to exist on housing grants, allowances, subsidies, and supplementary welfare. The owners, developers and speculators continue to prosper as they lurch Scrooge-like from plan to plan—always prospering, never failing.
     The housing list may be growing, yet most sizeable towns have more than their local ghost estate. My own county has an area where the foundations and pipe-work were covered with clay, waiting for the next bubble to lift the developer’s boat. Yet in a nearby estate young families double up with their in-laws. A resident showed me her house and told me they had to eat off a coffee table in a cramped sitting-room, while there was no room upstairs for a wardrobe. Their estate was locally named Tom’s Shoebox, in honour of the developer—a local gombeenman with his hand in every pocket.
     Responses to the crisis would involve taking estates like these in hand, using the ghost estates for family housing and the shoe-boxes for single people.
     It’s all to be fought for!
■ A starting point is “The housing crisis: A discussion document” (April 2000), produced by the CPI, available at www.communistpartyofireland.ie.

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