The housing emergency affects us all –it’s time to unite for the right to a home

Dr Rory Hearne

“Ireland is experiencing the worst housing and homelessness emergency in its history”.

This stark statement opens the invite to attend the Right to Change public conference this coming November 4th, and it is true. Latest figures show there are now 3,048 children (and their 1,442 families) homeless in Ireland. That is a 282% increase on the number of children homeless in August 2014 (when there were 385 families and 796 children homeless). 

The housing emergency affects a wide layer of the population

But the housing emergency affects a much, much larger section of the population. This is a central point - there is a need for a greater realisation that the housing emergency directly affects a much larger proportion of the population than is being talked about. But also it indirectly affects everyone through its negative effects on the economy and on growing social inequality. Therefore, solutions to address the emergency will benefit all of us, and we should try unite in common action around those solutions in order to put pressure on the political system to implement them. 

In terms of the wide section of the population now affected just take this statistic- one-third of people in Ireland ‘worry about and/or struggle to be able to pay their rent or mortgage every month’ (Focus Ireland 2016).

From the on-going mortgage arrears crisis (25,000 cases of home re-possession are before the courts) to the unaffordable rents (rents have increased over 65% since 2010 and are now above the 2008 peak) and lack of security in the private rental sector (you can be evicted easily from the private rental sector and most families are being made homeless by private landlords looking to sell their property).

House prices are also rising significantly. The Central Bank defines affordable housing as 3½ times your gross income. Two thirds of households have a gross income less than €60,000 which means an affordable house for that household would be €210,000. The average price of a home in Dublin is €350,000. In 1991, Ireland’s home ownership rate was 81%. It has collapsed to 67%. The so-called ‘dream’ of homeownership has become an impossibility for many people (particularly those in twenty’s and thirty’s and on middle and lower incomes). Instead they are stuck in the insecure and unaffordable private rental sector. Our most vulnerable suffer the most exclusion and harshest impacts of the housing emergency, including women and children - particularly lone parent families, victims of domestic violence, Travellers, migrants and people living in direct provision.

So how did we get here? What policies caused it? And are there solutions?  This article challenges a number of misleading ‘myths’ about the housing emergency that are being pushed in the mainstream discussion of the ‘crisis’. It also provides some real solutions, and some thoughts on how we can change this to ensure everyone has a secure and affordable home. 

The housing emergency is not an accident but a result of policy – putting the banks and investors first

Firstly, it is important to highlight that the housing crisis is not an ‘accident’ that emerged out of nowhere – but is a direct result and an intended outcome of a number of government policies. Some of the main policies that caused the crisis include, the response to the 2008 crash and the strategy for economic ‘recovery’, austerity, and longer term ‘neoliberal’ policies that moved away from the state building social and affordable housing. Macro level economic policy in Ireland from the crash of 2008 to the present have prioritised ‘fixing’ the banks by selling off (at huge discount) so-called toxic (ie in arrears) loans, land, and assets to international investors and equity funds (e.g. from IBRC and NAMA). Re-inflating the property market i.e. increasing rents and house prices were a key way to attract these foreign speculative investors, so the government encouraged rising rents and prices. And as rents and prices increased post 2012 the government willingly encouraged further investment (that would inevitably lead to further price and rent increases) by giving tax breaks for Real Estate Investment Trusts in 2013 and by refusing to curb rent increases and supporting the building of offices and commercial buildings rather than much needed affordable and social housing. So we should be clear – the rising rents and house prices that are causing the emergency of affordability in housing are a direct and desired outcome of government policy.

So the government has helped global wealthy investors and equity funds to make massive returns from the increased housing burden those affected by rising rents, repossessions, mortgage arrears and homelessness. In order to revive this sector of the economy, government policy thus prioritised

the interests and requirements of Irish and international property investors and equity funds over the housing needs of large sections of the Irish population – especially those of the most vulnerable.

Inadequate investment by government and privatising social housing

The state is claiming that it is building and investing sufficiently in social housing. But this is completely misleading. The level of investment is completely insufficient and reliant on a private market which is failing. 

The social housing aspect of the government’s housing plan, Rebuilding Ireland makes it clear that the government’s primary strategy for providing additional social housing is through the private rental sector, the HAP, with over 65% of social housing (87,000 units of the total 134,000) to come from the private rental sector over the 2016-2021 period. In the short term HAP is expected to provide 32,000 households with ‘social housing’ in 2017 and 2018. In contrast just 15% (21,300) of the 134,000 ‘new’ social housing outlined in Rebuilding Ireland are new builds by Local Authorities and Housing Associations.

But even these headline social housing figures disguise the reality of an extremely low level of planned new build social housing and the over-dependence on the private market to provide social housing. Not only are such targets insufficient but they are also unlikely to be met because of the over reliance on the private market. In 2017, on the basis of Q1 construction figures of new 235 build social housing units it suggests the state will build around 1000 units in 2017 which is just a third of the Rebuilding Ireland target. 

The resulting low level of social housing coming through in the coming years is deeply worrying and indicates a lack of institutional and political will that ensures positive targets and commitments become a reality and not just empty promises and rhetoric.

For example, in the four Dublin Local authorities there are just 1000 units on site and a further 1900 at various stages of procurement/planning. Over the coming 3 years that’s under 3000 new build units which won’t even house all those who will become homeless and those current in emergency accommodation. With waiting lists of 40,000 in the Greater Dublin Area it will be 40 years before the state houses those on the housing lists in greater Dublin area.

Local authorities and state bodies have large amounts of land but current proposals to only build 30% social housing on it and essentially privatise it over to developers is illogical and the evidence of PPPs shows it doesn’t work. A new State Lands Management Group, has identified a tranche of public land including 700 local authority and Housing Agency owned sites (totalling some 1,700 hectares), and 30 sites (200 hectares) owned by state or semi-state bodies in the Greater Dublin Area and other major urban centres that could build up to 50,000 homes. But rather than the state building on them these sites are being offered as ‘opportunities’ to ‘the market’ i.e private developers. This privatisation is a failed PPP approach which effectively hands over the development of housing on public land to private finance, enabling them to dictate the pace of development, level of affordable housing provision etc. It also entails a large transfer of public wealth to private investors and is a highly risky strategy that could see this valuable public land lie idle into future.

Family hubs are not a positive development – they are our present day institutions 

As homelessness has increased the government has moved to address the emergency by moving families from hotels and B & Bs into a new form of emergency accommodation called Family Hubs. But these are not a major improvement on hotels. They are not a home but another form of an institution with parents and children severely restricted. They could continue our historical gendered forms of social violence inflicted on poor mothers and their children who were made invisible, incarcerated and excluded from society. Hubs could become a new form of institutionalisation of vulnerable women and children, and poor families (the homeless families are predominantly lone parent mothers, working class, migrant and ethnic minority women). Families should not be left in hubs for longer than three months and should be provided suitable social housing within that time frame. Hidden away, the homeless in ‘Family Hubs’ are more likely to be forgotten and ignored. This suits the political system which can say it has dealt with the ‘problem’ of homeless families.

From housing as home to neoliberal commodity – the deep roots of the emergency

The other root causes of this emergency lie in the longer term housing policy of successive Fianna Fail and Fine Gael led governments that have moved away from state-lead construction of social and affordable housing by local authorities and instead subsidised private market provision through numerous policies. Austerity dealt social housing a fatal blow – as the state went from building over 7000 local authority housing units in 1975 to just 65 in 2015. Effectively they turned housing into a speculative commodity – an asset to be invested and profited from – and it is no longer treated primarily as a home. 

They have undermined and stigmatised social housing – those who live in it and need it. This has been part of the wider attack on the poor and the welfare state that began with Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

Essentially, social and state provided (or ‘non-market’) housing is just that- ‘state’, rather than market or private ‘for-profit’ housing. So the more social and state housing you have in your economy, the less ‘room’ there is for those who profit from the private market in housing e.g. financial investors, estate agents, property developers (what I call the ‘private construction/finance industrial complex’ after Noam Chomskys’ Military Industrial Complex. So where there is a high supply of social and affordable rental housing (e.g. Austria and Denmark, Ireland pre-1990s)– rents and house prices are lower. So it should be very clear that a lower level of social and affordable housing provision by the government is in the interests of the ‘private construction/finance industrial complex’ because it means they get higher prices and rents and lots more people are forced to buy their ‘commodity’ of private market housing. 

We have to realise that the private market will not provide affordable housing – it is against its modus operandi. It is anathema to the market to provide affordable housing because affordable housing means less profit for the construction industry. 

So neoliberal policies have been turning the basic human need of housing (and other basic aspects of our lives – from water, to health care, childcare, education) into a commodity –that can be monetised and financialised, bought and sold, speculated on and borrowed off. All this has been creating a huge area of investment for private profit and wealth.  

But the neoliberal attack on social housing goes even deeper into the cultural fabric of our society. It is about dismantling the very ideas and values of human rights, society, solidarity and the ‘common’ or collective. It is about replacing those values with individualism and consumerism. To create atomised individuals who don’t see themselves as part of a society – aspiring and campaigning for improvements in the human rights of all citizens – but instead as individual consumers in a Darwinian ‘fight for survival’ in a war of all against all. And thus people are divided by this idea that there are those who are ‘scrounging’ off us. There are those who are ‘free-riders’. And thus for low income households and the vulnerable, the responsibility to address their poverty and housing issues is no longer a responsibility of the state and politicians but their own fault. 

Of course the cleverest move of all has been made in this by corporate finance and the wealthy. The state is still providing huge financial support – but it is just no longer to the poor and those on low and middle incomes but instead – the state is providing huge financial support through tax breaks, land sales, subsidies (such as private rental HAP to landlords) and opening up new markets for profit (such as housing, health, water) to the private corporate sector. 

If we take the example of social housing in Ireland. In the past the state built social housing, various private sector contractors were involved in building the housing, and they made a return from that. But that was the end of it. The state had its asset and maintained the housing or sold it to the tenants as a form of affordable housing provision. But today social housing has become a massive business for private landlords. Through various subsidies to landlords for housing low income households we are paying private landlords in excess of half a billion per year. If the approach in Rebuilding Ireland continues there could be in excess of 120,000 households in receipt of various state subsidies in the private rental sector by 2021, requiring state spending of approximately €1bn p.a., and most of which will be going to private landlords, including REITs and global investment funds. But from a cost perspective, direct build social housing presents a far greater return than the private rental HAP approach for state investment. 0ver a 30 year time frame HAP will be €23.8bn more expensive than local authority provision. This 23.8bn could have funded the building of 132,495 permanent social housing units (at a cost of 180,000 per unit) over this period. Instead it goes to private landlords- the already wealthy increasing their wealthy further from the state i.e. you and me.

This was the aim of neoliberal policy – to create as the French sociologist and philosopher described ‘a utopia of unlimited exploitation’. And here we are – in the dystopia of a deeply unequal society where the (global and Irish) wealthy ‘rentier class’ and vultures increase their wealth exponentially from the poor, young and low and middle income workers, firstly in the labour market through lower wages and precarious work, secondly, in the sphere of ‘social reproduction’, through higher rents and mortgages, and thirdly from the state in the form of lower taxes and higher subsidies. I hope it is clear now that the real ‘scroungers’ and ‘free-riders’ are not the poor and those on welfare – but the private corporates and wealthy.

The need for a right to housing – a people-centred housing plan

At the core of the emergency is the absence of the right to housing for Irish citizens. Right2Change Policy correctly identified this in its Principles for a Progressive Irish Government, when it stated: “We believe that Housing is a basic human right, that this right should be enshrined in Bunreacht na hÉireann and that the obligation on the State to adequately house people should thereby be enforceable by the Courts. ..Having a home is a social and economic right. Without it, a person has no security of person or identity”. It is time that this policy is put into practice. The 2015 Constitutional Convention also recommended that the right to housing should be enumerated in the constitution. A human rights approach to housing would lead to practical policy changes, for example the requirement of the state to provide access to adequate and secure housing for all citizens, and it would provide an over arching philosophical and value frame to guide housing policy to ensure that the right to housing is prioritised over other interests – such as property investors’ profits.

An alternative ‘right to housing’ plan would include the state moving away from the failed private market and speculative investment approach to housing and implement an emergency housing plan based on four key aspects 1. The government must declare the housing emergency a national emergency and put the right to housing as the guiding policy objective and hold a referendum to enshrine the right to housing in the constitution to guarantee all our citizens a secure affordable home 2. Private tenants need to be given real long term security of tenure (change the PRTA Act to remove the ease with which landlords can evict and provide indefinite leases) 3. The state must build social and affordable homes (for rental and ownership) on a mass scale and not leave it to the profit-seeking and failed private housing market; Increase state funding for housing to €2bn per annum to provide a state lead housing programme building of 30,000 social and affordable homes per annum (combining local authority construction of 10,000 houses and various housing co-ops, a new housing agency, and associations building 20,000 affordable rental and purchase homes –that can only be sold back to the state or cooperative housing agency and not on the open market). 

Given an estimated new housing need of between 25,000 to 35,000 units per annum, and given the outstanding unmet need of an additional 30-50,000 homes, and given the social housing waiting lists of approximately 90,000 households, there is a need for this 30,000 ‘non-market’ affordable and social homes.  

NAMA still has significant land and housing (it controls a quarter of all residential development land in the Greater Dublin area) and it plans to build 20,000 homes, and has around 6,000 additional residential units. NAMA has paid off 95% of its senior debt (€28bn of €30bn) originally issued, while it has €2.2 billion in cash reserves (NAMA 2016). NAMA should be wound up and either transformed into an affordable homes agency transfer its land to local authorities and a new Irish Affordable Homes Company to enable affordable housing provision.

This new plan should be launched as a Roosevelt-like ‘New Deal’ to address the housing crisis in Ireland. Well-funded and re-invigorated local authorities and a new Irish Affordable Homes Company could apply the same energy and creativity to delivering affordable housing as was applied with the ESB delivering electricity across Ireland. 

Within this we should redirect the use of state owned land in for emergency social and affordable state-lead house building rather than marketing and privatising it to developers in various Public Private Partner ships and ‘Lands Initiatives’. 

A emergency and an opportunity for a change in direction?

Naoimi Klein writes in ‘Disaster Capitalism’ about the way in which a crisis, such as an economic crisis, or natural disaster, opens up opportunities for new ideas that were before considered impossibilities, unnecessary or un workable. Thus, within a crisis is the opportunity to reshape society and economy in a radically different way. She highlights that in recent decades it has been the corporate elite that have profited from such crisis by convincing the state for outsourced contracts. And so too in Ireland we have seen it with the economic and property crash and bailout – the crisis was seized as an opportunity by vultures and property investors to buy up distressed loans, land and property and reap huge profits from rising land, house prices and rents –as the crisis continues their profits increase. These financial investors also see the private rental sector as the key area for investment growth- thus they have pushed for the continued support of this ‘profitable’ sector (and the consequent undermining of affordable housing provision). The Irish governments over the crisis took the opportunity to push through an even deeper process of undermining, marketising and privatisation of social housing – exemplified most strongly in the savage decimation of the local authority housing budgets in austerity, and then implemented in Rebuilding Ireland with its almost complete reliance on the private market for providing social housing and various schemes orientated at the private sector to make building ‘profitable’ for them.

But the crisis has not been solved. It is still getting worse and is likely to continue to do so in the coming months and years as the private sector will not provide affordable housing, the state is building an inadequate level of social housing and the state will not intervene to control rents and remove the ability to evict by putting tenant’s right to housing before landlords and investors profits. But it is not inevitable that the interests of the ‘property industry complex’ of finance, investor and real estate landlord will determine the outcome of the crisis – and continue the transformation of our housing system towards greater commodification, unaffordability and social exclusion . The space is open, at least temporarily, for alternative ‘narratives’ and ideas based around the state building affordable and social housing, putting a right to housing first before investor and property interests, to challenge the dominant neoliberal housing paradigm. 

It is obvious that citizen action is needed to get behind and articulate an alternative housing plan as the current political and state institutions have shown themselves to be unprepared to enact people-centred housing policies and instead are focused on suiting property industry and vulture investors. However, those most affected by the crisis face huge daily challenges just to survive that make it difficult for them to raise their voice. They face the stigma of being ‘homeless’. This is just one of the many challenges that face campaigns in relation to housing. Another one is how to connect these housing issues with the large bulk of the population, increasing numbers of whom are affected by the crisis but do not see a common link with others affected, such as the homeless. We need to think about ways and ideas that can connect across society. For example if you think about it – most people have a home, however unaffordable or temporary – and perhaps this is a connection campaigners need to focus on – to get people to think about home, what it is, the importance of it, the impact of its loss, and why everyone should have the right to a secure and affordable home. 

There is also a huge sense of disempowerment – that people can’t make a difference. But we have a lot of examples of where people power has changed this – not least the water movement and the marriage equality referendum. There is a lot to be learned from these successful movements. But we also need to think about how housing is different –the stigma against the homeless and social housing, the diversity of groups affected, the need for clear solutions, and the media, institutional, political and wealth and property interests who are set against the right to housing. Along side this is public perceptions and ideas, the dominance of the market and neoliberal ideas so informing and educating about alternatives and how current policy doesn’t work is vital, as is the necessity of working and campaigning together, of developing messages and language that connect with a much wider audience, of thinking about how can mobilise and convince the majority to get involved and push for a right to housing for all in Ireland. There is clearly a window of opportunity now and in the coming months to push for a radical people-centred housing policy built around the right to housing. Can we take it?  

There is a lot of action taking place right now on housing –just look at the range of groups and campaigns - from local actions of Housing Action Now, the Irish Housing Network, Apollo House, the Inner City Helping Homeless #MyNameIs, NGOs like Simon, Focus and McVerry, the National Housing and Homeless Coalition, the Right2Housing Coop-Bill, the Dublin Tenants Association, along with various left political parties, trade unions and community groups. It’s clear enough then isn’t it? We need a unifying campaign around the right to housing and policies that can solve the crisis that can reach out and involve the much much larger numbers of people that are required if we are to create a housing movement that has the power to bring about transformative change.

We are destroying the lives and dignity of thousands of our most vulnerable citizens and children in particular by leaving them in housing insecurity and homelessness. For these this is a Republic of exclusion, a Republic of misery and denigration. This is not a nation worthy of being called a Republic while its citizens are left homeless and without dignity.  And in this way the housing emergency also affects us all – we are all ashamed of our nation. 

The Right2Change conference on November 4th provides an important opportunity to discuss how we can build together a citizens movement that can create a republic of equality with the right to housing for all.
The Right2Change Trade Unions (Communications Workers' Union, Mandate Trade Union, OPATSI and Unite the Union) are calling a conference of trade unionists, political activists and community activists to establish whether a coordinated fight-back through cooperation can be established.

We believe another Ireland is possible and we are encouraging everyone else who shares a vision for a fairer, more equal Ireland to join us on Saturday, 4th November 2017 to discuss a pathway towards achieving a truly egalitarian Republic.
The full policy principles are available here.

Dr Rory Hearne is a Post-Doctoral Researcher in Maynooth University, has written and researched extensively on housing, privatisation, and inequality and is a social justice advocate, he has written two reports recently on the housing crisis in Ireland;

Investing in the Right to a Home (co-authored with Dr Mary Murphy)

A Home or a Wealth Generator.

Tickets to the Right2Change hosted conference entitled, Another Ireland is Possible are available here.