October 2015        

Housing: a humanitarian crisis

Tommy McKearney

Speaking recently in the Dáil, the independent TD Mick Wallace revealed how a large amount of Ireland’s national wealth was transferred, by way of NAMA machinations, from working people into the hands of a native elite or foreign corporations.
     A few days before Wallace’s Dáil statement, David McWilliams of RTE had examined the growing disparity of income between people in this country. Like Mick Wallace, the RTE documentary also underlined the growing appropriation of taxpayer-funded wealth by the super-rich. Where Wallace and McWilliams differed, however, was in their assessment of what lay at the heart of the issue. Wallace posed the question of impropriety, while McWilliams raised the more nebulous concept of inequality, rather than the class-bound nature of society.
     Others will comment on the two interpretations. In the meantime, though, let’s look at a closely connected by-product of this situation. In order to reconcile a section of the middle class to this obscene accumulation by the few, Ireland’s ruling class has created a housing crisis. Moreover, this predicament is affecting people north and south.
     At its most acute, individuals are forced to sleep on the streets of our cities, a situation described by the Dublin Simon Community as a humanitarian crisis. Others are living in emergency accommodation, measured by the charity at more than 2,300 adults and 1,200 children in the Dublin region alone.1 Less severe but distressful nevertheless is the fact that 130,000 households are on the housing waiting list.2 Add to this the difficult-to-quantify number who are “couch-surfing” with friends and relatives and we begin to glimpse the scale of the problem in the Republic.
     Should anybody think that this problem is confined to the South, they might consider a report published in July by the North’s Department of Social Development.3 According to the document, 5,040 households presented themselves as homeless to the Housing Executive during the first quarter of 2015, an increase of 16 per cent over the previous quarter. Altogether, the average annual homeless figure in the Six Counties stands at almost 20,000 households seeking accommodation.
     In the face of this very obvious crisis, the authorities in both jurisdictions are offering solutions that can be described as ranging from the thoroughly inadequate to the almost criminal. The coalition of Fine Gael and the Labour Party feigns concern while tinkering with the type of ineffective measures that have deservedly drawn sharp rebuke from those campaigning for the homeless. Peter McVerry, for example, claimed last May that by 2017 the government’s plans would barely accommodate 2 per cent of the demand for homes.
     The situation in the Six Counties is, to say the least, just as dire. Britain’s Tory government is making a bad situation worse as it forces through a vicious Welfare Reform Bill while simultaneously inhibiting the building of social housing and emphasising the role of the private rented sector.
     It hardly requires great insight to recognise that there is a straightforward answer to the problem. Put simply, it is to reverse the privatisation policy of the past decades and immediately launch a large state-managed and state-controlled domestic housing programme. Such projects were implemented throughout the country in the past, and there is no practical reason why this cannot be done again.
     The economic rationale for active government intervention in this field is beyond question. The state can acquire building land more cheaply than any developer; it can achieve economies of scale greater than any other builder; and it can ensure quality standards higher than the privateers. Moreover, the state can produce this result at a lower price than all others, as it does not require profit beyond cost, nor does it incur additional charges resulting from speculation-driven bubbles. Faced with the plight of so many homeless people, state-controlled public housing is a no-brainer.     
     Ignore, too, spurious claims that we can’t afford such a programme. Think of how many houses as well as jobs would be provided if the Dublin government were to invest the €8 billion in construction that it now pays annually in interest on the bank bail-out debt. Similarly, how much of the £350 billion created by the British state in quantitative easing (in order to save its private banking industry) would be needed to address the homeless in Northern Ireland?
     Put bluntly, the money is available in both jurisdictions. It is simply the unwillingness of the governing parties and the ruling class to invest in homes for working-class people that prevents this happening.
     Why something so straightforward is not being done is also a no-brainer, although for entirely different reasons. In a wider context it is due to the ruling class maintaining a dogmatic and self-serving adherence to a free-market, neo-liberal ideology. More specifically, though, it is because a privileged section of society is being rewarded financially for its support for the unjustifiable action of the super-rich.
     In the absence of the state building and maintaining quality public housing, the electorally significant buy-to-let petty bourgeoisie has lucrative opportunities to enrich itself at the expense of the less well off and the taxpaying working class.
     According to figures from the Republic’s Department of Social Protection, at the end of December 2014 there were more than 49,000 landlords providing tenancies to 71,530 recipients of rent supplement; and bear in mind that this figure doesn’t include those private landlords supplying local government tenants.
     Not to be outdone by its neighbours to the south, in the North the Housing Executive was able to report that “the private rented sector is now the second largest housing tenure, after owner-occupied, in Northern Ireland. It accounts for between 17 and 20 per cent of the total housing stock, which equates to 125,000 properties—in comparison the social rented sector with 110,200 properties makes up 15 per cent of the total housing stock.”4
     An interesting aside to this is the not irrelevant fact that more than a quarter of TDs and a fifth of MLAs acknowledge receiving income from renting out property. This statistic might well be kept in mind when reflecting on the Dublin government’s boast last November that it would supply 110,000 homes over the next six years. When making the announcement, Alan Kelly of the Labour Party also said that within that total number the state will support 75,000 households through what he called “an enhanced private rental sector.”5
     The paragraphs above illustrate one element of crony capitalism in Ireland. The state guarantees the rental income of many landlords by paying for much of it from state coffers, while simultaneously creating the condition for the enrichment of others. Undoubtedly there are shady deals aplenty connected with this process, but we needn’t even have to delve that far down. A hefty section of middle-class Ireland is the legal beneficiary of a state-secured contribution from working-class taxpayers. In return, they condone the even greater and outrageous expropriation of wealth exposed on RTE by David McWilliams, in the Dáil by Mick Wallace, and, it has to be said, for many years by Socialist Voice.
     The McWilliams documentary raised philosophical issues about inequality, while Mick Wallace, very reasonably, asked questions about potential criminality in relation to NAMA’s dealings. In their own way, both have done well by shedding light on what others would prefer to keep hidden. It would be better still if we were to have a public investigation—an all-Ireland one at that—investigating all aspects of homelessness, its causes, and how to end it once and for all. Should this lead to discomfort for the landlording class, to the Irish state reneging on the bail-out debt, or to embarrassment for some Northern politicians, all we should do is repeat the old Roman slogan, “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.”

     1. Dublin Simon Community, Annual Review, 2014.
     2. Although the figures were cynically compiled by Fianna Fáil, the brown-envelope party (www.thejournal.ie), the assessment appears to be robustly calculated.
     3. Department for Social Development, Northern Ireland, Housing Bulletin, January–March 2015 (www.dsdni.gov.uk).
     4. Northern Ireland Housing Executive, Northern Ireland Housing Market: Review and Perspectives, 2011–2014.
     5. RTE News, “110,000 homes promised in plan to tackle housing crisis” (www.rte.ie/news).

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