This the first of three pieces looking at the current housing crisis as an organised plan by the Irish elite. It will cover, firstly how the housing system developed in Ireland; secondly, what the plan is of the elite and golden circle and, thirdly, why the current plan will not work and what can be done about this
These three pieces have been written by two members of the Irish Housing Network, Aisling Hedderman and Seamus Farrell. It represents their thoughts and not the views of the network as a whole.
A History of Irish Housing
The history of housing is Ireland has been one of the rich, who build, buy and speculate, and the poor, who are disciplined, marginalised and punished. It has been, and this is often overlooked, a history of conflict.
Pre-independent Ireland had a system of grand land owners in rural Ireland and wealthy owners in the cities and towns, and, under them, a mass of renters and landless labourers. In the 1880s tenants across Ireland demanded land and homes, and in response the English absentee landlords fought tooth and nail to protect their property interests. After the land wars, land was divided up across Ireland, still a largely farming economy. A choice few gained large plots of lands which were rented back to the poor; many others got plots of land so small that a family could not survive off them alone, they either starved or emigrated.
In the cities the poor were squeezed into tenements. In 1913 these were the worst, most overcrowded and dangerous tenements in Europe. Tenements collapsing, overcrowding, and high rents were combined with low or no wages, making poverty both widespread and insufferable. The greatest resistance to these conditions came from trade unions, and the high point of this battle was the eventually-defeated 1913 lockout, which led to the emergence of both Cumman naBan and the Irish Citizens Army.
After a radical first Dáil, a war of independence and a civil war, housing returned to the same system as before but with a twist. Private property was cemented into the constitution and explicitly seen as both an economic and social value. The aim was not to make everyone an owner, but instead to replace the English landlord with the Irish landlord. Kevin O’Higgins, vice-president of Cumman na nGaedhal and member of the first Irish Free State government, who did much to implement private property as the buttress of the Irish economy, accurately and proudly termed the developments as ‘the most conservative revolutionaries to ever put through a successful revolution.’ For the renters, meanwhile, tenements continued to collapse while poor farmers children were forced to move abroad to seek better circumstances. During this stage the church was aligned with the state and its functions were strengthened to keep the Irish people in check; this being achieved through the schools, the health system and the institutions for the mad and the bad, the work houses, the industrial schools, and, most famously, the Magdalene laundries. Charity defined who was deserving and undeserving, ran by the church.
This housing system was most strongly challenged twice after independence. In the 1930s the poor kicked back against the new consensus of landlords and the rich. Republicans for the most part led the radical actions, and the more moderate political powerhouse, Fianna Fáil, appealed to the landless, the small farmer and the working class in the city. Slum clearances, social housing and the redistribution of land began. Real gains were made but there was no long-term challenge to the landlords, developers or investors. As a result in the 1960s and 1970s a new generation were again facing tenements, slums, overcrowding and high rents. Communities organised by setting up tenants unions, occupying courts, squatting social housing and protesting against the government of the time. Once again communities forced the building of social houses. Strikes and actions continued in the 1980s.
The Modern System
After the turmoil of the 1980s, the 1990s saw the birth of the Celtic Tiger. In both the 1930s and 1960s/1970s the state had been forced to break from its support for the rich briefly to redistribute enough money to build social housing and keep society under control. In the 1990s they had a new plan to build the rich and keep the poor down. It would involve supporting the rich through a privatisation drive and a redesign of the major cities.
For this to happen two things had to occur.
First the provision of mortgages had to expand and they had to become a normal part of life. This was to cement the illusion of ownership and to allow the profit of private provision to be front and centre. Mortgages were possible because banks were able to lend more money. Banks profited, developers profited, politicians profited and there were more homes for more people and more private development.
Second, communities that had fought for decent housing had to be dismantled. Central to this was regeneration, where private developers were hired to redesign social housing estates. Regeneration meant limited social housing, the sale of public land and the increase in the private rental sector. Regeneration swallowed the time and energy of the communities. Divide and conquer was the order of the day. Some families, after 20 years, got new homes, but many didn’t and were driven out to the edge of the city, all the while private developments sprung up around these pockets of communities and a ‘good social mix’ was policy.
2008: Economic Collapse
In 2008 the ownership driven model took a major hit. The Irish Banking system collapsed along with part of the world banking system. Banks collapsed in the US. In Europe banks stopped lending to each other and, suddenly, there were billions missing from the Irish banking system. The Irish government decided to take on this debt, passing it from a web of private banks, developers and investors onto the shoulders of the Irish people. Paired with this massive debt was austerity, the shedding of a weak social safety net, and along with it the basic needs provided by the state, which had previously been used to cover up the gap between rich, the middle and poor. The cuts were devastating: education cuts, community cuts, health cuts, mental health cuts, lone parents allowance cuts, welfare and pay cuts and, finally, housing cuts.
In housing the strain of debt cut across the entire system. Firstly as wages went down, as unemployment rose, and as banks looked to hold their assets together, mortgages went from being a sign of a healthy economy and social progress to a burden. Buy-to-Let, 100% mortgages, tracker mortgages, fix-rate mortgage and affordable housing mortgages and 50/50 mortgages all suffered at various times and in various ways as the stock market and banking system staggered from turmoil to turmoil. House prices used to show asset value had gone up in smoke.
Regeneration collapsed, and the problematic public-private partnership which had divided communities, broken community organising, and provided precious few homes while building a professional elite to administer communities, was fatally damaged. Weakened by decades where community self-organisation was discouraged, punished and, often, made illegal, the community fightback was disorganised and sporadic, if it existed at all. The social housing budget destroyed, cut by 80% and building all but stopped. Communities who were little-helped by the Celtic Tiger were now to see public housing viciously attacked, the few crumbs from the top table were no longer up for grabs.
The private-rental sector, much ignored and neglected in Irish society, started to play an important role. As house prices went down, so did rents; large numbers emigrated, smaller numbers moved towards renting. There was no change in conditions for tenants, and wide scale abuse was covered over temporarily by the lower prices, and a new renting class unfamiliar with rental procedures or housing regulations.
After the initial banking crisis and the first wave of austerity, the response from the rich and their bidders in government was twofold. The first move was to stabilise the housing system and the second was to use the crisis to privatise. This meant clearing debt and raising prices back up. The National Asset Management Agency was established (NAMA). This was for the big boys, the golden circle, the ones who had bought a lot of apartments, land, offices and buildings and needed their loans paid off. If the Irish developer and investor weren’t doing enough the door would be open for international vulture funds.
For the rest of the mortgage-holders, there were temporary measures to stop evictions. These were quietly lifted in 2014 and, since, bank repossessions of family homes, headed by unidentified private security in balaclavas with covered license plates, have become frequent.
For those big developers and investors and stable home owners, a new idea was coming to the fore: the private rental market could be a parking ground for everyone else. The former mortgage-holders and potential mortgage-holders, young professionals who hadn’t emigrated, or who might return to a new low-wage economy, students and all the communities hoping for social housing, could all be cemented as renters.
For the rich, efforts to stabilise and privatise housing has had strong results, and for everyone else it has been a disaster.
For owners, NAMA has brought the rich back into the housing game. It covered the majority of their losses, but the sale of assets has been a circle, from the Irish elite and back to the Irish elite, a circle that occasionally opens itself up to the international elite.
Nothing has been given back to the rest of society. This has meant that as wealth concentrates, the rich are sitting on their investments till the price goes up. Meanwhile, supply has dried up.
For renters, rental prices have surged dramatically, with no security of tenure, or decent conditions to accompany the price hikes. Many of the landlords have taken advantage of the situation to raise rents and not cover repairs while others have been caught in a cycle of rising living costs with high mortgage payments, making rent increases a part of their way out.
For the homeless, some families who fought a generation ago for social housing were forced into private rented accommodation after 2010. Due to the impact of community cuts, education cuts, lone parent cuts, health cuts, drug and support service cuts and welfare cuts there is a new, third layer of homelessness that is growing massively and is often hidden. Traditionally, homelessness was the space for the all of those outside of society, and spaces for the homeless were controlled by the church: the foster home, the industrial school, the mental hospital and the Magdalene laundries. For travellers who fought for freedom of movement, it involved keeping them in halting sites; for single mothers caught on the margins it involved keeping them locked away, out of society’s eye.
In modern Ireland, the Church has been irreparably damaged by its abuse of children and its subsequent cover up for abusers. The church still plays an important role in homeless provision but is no longer dominant. Charities, the state, businesses, and the last remains of the church, have made an unholy alliance and teamed up to create a new homeless industry. As austerity took hold a mix of charity and private business could be supported by the state to provide everything from hostel beds, day services, care services, residential living, community drug projects, and emergency accommodation that is more reminiscent of detention centres than it is of accommodation. The fallout from the mortgage crisis, austerity and rising rents in 2014 would be both a challenge and an opportunity for this still-growing homeless industry.