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The Housing Games Part 3: Our Response

Words by Aisling Hedderman and Seamus Farrell (own opinions)

2008 was a crisis created by the rich. It was a crisis that saw the rich protected. In housing the outcome has been mortgage distress, high rents, and rising homelessness.

The great vision to tackle all of this, public housing aka a new expanded private rental market is a sham. If a private rental market becomes king, their will an endless supply of profit for investors and landlords but for the rest of us we will see an unstable, community destroying, class dividing, unaffordable system.

In this piece we outline, briefly, an alternative housing system that puts need before greed, steps that would get us there and some ideas on how we can take up this fight. This is starting point for change. We are beginning a furious battle for our housing needs, against an elite who benefit from permanent unstable, unaffordable housing for us and communities too weak and divided to fight back.

Social Housing for all

We badly need an alternative that deals with the immediate conditions, instability, brutality and inhumanity of the existing system and creates a long term alternative which provides for all based on need.

Private home ownership while providing stability for some but has allowed the rich, the golden circle of developers, investors, landlords and political elite to cement their power in Irish society.

The Proposed Private Rental/Public Housing Model, cements an unstable, unaffordable community and class dividing system, which will damage us in the long term.

Social Housing has had its ups and downs. Considered progress from the days of tenements and slums, a place of fair rent and community solidarity, the drug epidemic, unemployment and lack of community resources in the 1980s damaged its image. Despite this the basic idea of social housing is sound, fair rent paid based on income and housing managed by the councils not the private market. We need to not only bring back social housing we need to expand it to include all incomes. This would mean diversity of tenants and enough income to help maintain the housing system for everyone to benefit.

First Steps: Supporting Homeless, Renters and Mortgage Holders

We need short term steps that can be taken now to move us towards housing for all based on need. These steps need to be based on the principles of safe, secure and fair tenancy, housing taken out of the private market, breaking down class divisions and building community.

Homelessness: Anyone in the homeless system should have safe and suitable accommodation for their needs as a right. They should have fixed term contracts with full tenancy rights and the right to representative in any disputes. Homeless services should be taken back from businesses and charity organisations and ran directly by the state. Homeless services should be in the community in which the person has their support network and resources should be built around these needs.

Renters: Security of tenure and rent control. Right to representation in any disputes, based on collective bargaining (a tenants union). To take rental properties out of the market immediate and rebalance power for tenants, indebt landlords should have the option to write off their debt if rental property becomes social housing. This would mean a large reduction in rent for the tenant and a secure contract with the council. Landlords who mistreat tenants, break rent control, or fail to provide safe and suitable accommodation should be fined with the option of repossession of the property with tenants then transferring to social housing.

Mortgage Holders: In the short Term Mortgages debt could be offered to be written off with owners agree that their home becomes social housing. The mortgage holder would then pay rent based on their income, housing secure for their family and the property would be out of the market. Opening up the option of social housing to existing mortgage holders and perspective mortgage holders would mean the option is there for a far lower monthly payment without the risk of economic eviction. For many home ownership is the route they want to take and they will still have that option, but for those who’s main reason for a mortgage is cost and economic security, social housing will be cheaper more secure option.

Long Term: Social Housing for all in Communities for all

Measures to provide for the homeless, renters and mortgage holders and move them towards secure stable and fair rent and housing outside the market would help to rebalance the housing system and provide for thousands currently trapped. Social Housing and strong Communities built around them are the long term solutions that go on top of this. A large scale state building program is needed. Such social housing needs to be built and developed based on need. This means building and transferring homes into social housing where there are existing amenities and community services, traditionally better off areas, and providing community supports while building is done. The types of social houses need to be diverse based on diverse needs and interests. Finally a bad landlord cannot be replaced by a bad council or charity manager. Communities need to have a democratic say in both the running of their estates and in the services provided, through direct democracy.

Fighting for this change?

The powerful forces are moving against housing based on need. Investors, businesses, developers and landlords are lining up supported by the state, charities and NGOs, and a range of academics and policy advisors pushing for a deepening and strengthening of the private market in housing.

We will have to fight this and there are number of important points to keep in mind while we do.

1) Those affected lead

Those affected are many and have common cause to fight back.

Those affected are everyone who is homeless, those living on the street, in B&Bs, hotels and hostels, in detention centres, (in direct provision as refugees) prisoners, people coming out of institutional care, those coming out of rehab, travellers kept on halting sites and women forced out of abusive relationships into domestic refuges.

Those affected are those in social housing who have stability now but whose families, children and grandchildren face overcrowding, homelessness, sofa surfing and an unstable rental market. They can demand their families are looked after and their communities are strengthened after the devastation of the last 30 years.

Those affected are everyone in rented accommodation, be they social renters or private renters; sick of a system which sees them pay so much of what they earn in rent, for an unstable and uncertain living.

Those affected are those who got a loan from a bank to get their family home and who are now living month to month, spending all their money paying a bank that always wants more. This includes those in arrears, and those on the edge of arrears, struggling with their bills.

2) Those most at the fringe will lead from those affected

Those affected who are most at the fringe of the system, the homeless and the lower renters who traditionally fought for social housing we argue are best placed to lead the fight back.

Firstly these groups have the least too loss. The risk of homeless and eviction has already forced a fight or flight response in many. Some escape, understandably, but many have already stood up and fought back, from stopping their own eviction to occupation of the council to ongoing battles with their landlords or the state over conditions.

Secondly, we cannot win a long term change to the system as a whole one by one. We need collective action for wider change. When pushed to the edge of society many increasingly come together to support each other despite the obstacles. If you have little you are more likely to rely on family, friends and your community for support and you support your family, friends and community. The working class and those suffering at the margins are largely not organised into ‘formal’ groups but they still holds informal community power and take collective action when needed. This the base to fight from.

Thirdly the collective memory of the fights of the 1970s and 1980s of social housing when it was new and when communities looked after each other is collective memory of what we need for our children and our children’s children. It is the inspiration for change. Working class families have this memory and tradition which our generation needs. This is inspiration for those struggling in homelessness, social housing and low income renters but also inspiring to those above who might feel they are more comfortable but still facing high rents and unstable housing, who fight consider themselves respectable but who need to fight like everyone else.

3) Room for supporter in the struggle

While those affected need to lead the fight back and those most at the fringe are those taking up the fight already there is room for allies. There are powerful forces who profit from housing, who profit from an insecure and unstable housing system and who build their lives and power on being a class above. They have considerable resources and the full force of the state behind them. Therefore supporters will be important. There are four groups of supporters in particular who can support those affected and combine with them in the struggle for change.

Firstly those who are not affected, who are secure in housing or employment but believe in decent housing for all. These people are important allies, both to support the struggle by those affected and to use their security to take risks that those affected may not be able to.

Secondly there are the left wing political forces. Left wing, socialist and in Ireland left Republican political forces set out their aim as a just and equal society which includes housing. These groups need to support those affected and their communities. They can also connect struggles, from racism and gender inequality which play out in housing to the wider push by the elite to privatise and enrich themselves across all areas.

Thirdly there are Trade Unions. Working conditions and housing are inseparable. A pay increase means nothing if rents go up, more job security means nothing if your rent goes up and homelessness blocks the ability to work full stop. If the aim of trade unions is decent pay and conditions they have to include housing in this, if the aim is further, the dismantling of capitalism itself and its replacement with the labour control then social housing is inseparable from that aim. Trade Unions also have the rich tradition of struggle, organising and disruptive tactics that their members need and the wider housing movement needs.

Finally other ‘progressive’ organisations. There are a whole range of think tanks, universities, charities and NGOs which play a problematic role in defending and protecting the private housing system. These structures need to break from their role and provide a space to both critique the inhumanity of the system but also provide space and resources for the voices of those affected.

Conclusion

The History of Housing is Ireland is of brutality, inequality, power for the rich and marginalisation of the poor. It is a system built on ownership that now aims to be centred on renting. It is a system that will continue to and will deepen chaos, instability and suffering for the majority.

We needs an alternative, the system needs to be replaced as a whole not tinkered with at the edges. We need a social housing system open to everyone, taking housing out of the market, providing security and fair rent and starting the challenge to class division itself. We will not be handed this, we need to fight for change. Those affected and those most at the fringe of the system can and will lead this fight back and will call broad sways of society to come out and support, the most common sense but radical of demand, a secure, stable home for all.

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