Sami El-Sayed talks to TLR about the acute housing crisis currently blighting the South, and the government’s lack of a clear strategy to resolve it.
In March 2014, Fr Peter McVerry declared that a “tsunami of homelessness” was imminent, a prophecy which under the Fine Gael-Labour coalition and the now Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil de facto coalition, has come true. Viciously neoliberal policies pursued by both governments have only resulted in an exacerbation of the housing crisis, as the state futilely attempts to stimulate the market by means of subsidies and tax cuts in order to create a profit maximising enviornment for property developers. The same developers, mind, who made super profits during the Celtic Tiger and who’s bad debts were bought up by the state with the onset of the economic crisis and subsequent banking bailout.
The result was a massive landbank now in state ownership which was squirreled off to the National Asset Management Agency. A nominally independent body, NAMA was billed as the largest property management company on the planet. Rather than use the vast resources immediately at its disposal for the public good, it was given a mandate of using its newly acquired assets to accrue as much money for the exchequer as possible in order to help pay off the crippling national debt.
The severity of the current housing crisis ultimately stems not only from this course of action by the Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition government of 2009, but also from subsequent directives from Finance Minister Michael Noonan, of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition. In 2014 NAMA, at the direction of Noonan, moved into the realm of property development. The new vision for NAMA was to ditch the 2020 deadline for its disposal of bad debts and to instead shed 80% of its portfolio by 2016, fully paying off state debts related to its establishment, with additional aim of accruing a total 20% in profits.
Yes, our ‘beloved’ government directed its ad hoc property developer to operate in pursuit of even greater profits, in the midst of an imminent housing crisis – and so it has. Generating billions through firesales – including the sale of the infamous Northern Irish “Project Eagle” portfolio, worth €5.1 billion, to American vulture fund Cerberus, staggeringly below the market value at €1.5 billion – and moves into landlordism, it certainly cannot be said that NAMA has failed to profit from our collective immiseration. What dodgy dealings NAMA has engaged in since its foundations we may never know, given it began systemically erasing records in 2015.
The Tsunami Arrives
So here we are. In 2017, 3 years and 8 months after Peter McVerry delivered his warning, we are in the depths of the Southern state’s deepest homelessness crisis on record. With a rapid climb in house prices and rents far surpassing Celtic Tiger peak levels, it is ordinary people left to foot the bill of decades of disastrous, profit-driven housing policy.
According to a report by Focus Ireland, as of September 2017, the record stands at an astounding 8,374 homeless people, 3,124 of which are children. This is an increase of 25% from September 2016, with 89 families becoming homeless this September alone, marking a 37% increase on September last year. The number of homeless families in general has increased by 423% since July 2014. Does this look like a well functioning housing model to anybody?
For all the bailed out property developers who have been given a lifeline to continue making profits on the market, it definitely has been. Certainly for all the vulture funds buying up huge portfolios, sitting on the land and waiting for prices to rise due to a manufactured shortage. Certainly for the landlords, big and small, who put the boot into their near-powerless tenants and gouge them for every cent they have. For the vast majority of the population our housing system is desperately broken, but the system isn’t built for us – and the homeless? Collateral damage.
Not In Front Of The Neighbours!
Such a situation is not morally or economically sustainable. Chronic homelessness and housing shortages are actually bad for the economy; as people’s access to employment becomes increasingly more constrained by property and rent costs, and purchasing power plummets due to a higher and higher share of their income going towards mortgage or rent payments. To get a proper understanding of the sheer scale of the crisis and exactly how badly the government is handling it, take the number of people on the waiting list versus how many social housing units have been built. As of November 2017, there are a total of 120,598 households on the waiting list. Since January 2016, 1093 social housing units have been built – that is, 0.9% of the number of people on the waiting list. The callous indifference shown from successive governments to all of these people is genuinely difficult to comprehend.
However, the €5 million spin doctors brought in by Leo Varadkar have a different interpretation of events. Over the past week in particular there has been an obvious, coordinated attempt by the political establishment in collusion with senior civil servants, to minimise the seriousness of the housing crisis and normalise homelessness. Top government advisor for housing, Conor Skehan, had the gall to claim in October that the housing crisis was “completely normal”, and followed that up in November by claiming that homelessness is a “normal thing”, and that “the poor will always be with us”. Perhaps if Skehan wants to reference biblical verse he should take a look at James 2:15-17?
Shockingly – or perhaps not so shockingly – Skehan was far from alone in his pursuit of normalisation. In fact, Skehan’s November comments were a defence of a statement previously made by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. I’m going to quote the exchange between Varadkar and the journalist from TheJournal.ie who questioned his statements:
“We are actually a country by international standards compared with our peers that has a low level of homelessness.”
“What stats are those? Per capita?” asked TheJournal.ie.
“They’re the stats and we can provide them for you and that of course is a good thing. It’s a good thing that in Ireland we’ve a low level of homelessness compared to our peer countries.”
The stats which the Taoiseach’s office later provided were from a 2016 OECD report which made use of statistics from December 2015, at which time there were less than half the number of homeless people in Ireland than there is now, 43.4% to be precise. It would be easy to just stare in disbelief at this Trumpesque behaviour coming from Varadkar, but to do so would be to dismiss the deeply ingrained political culture in the establishment parties in Ireland. Perhaps previous Taoisigh would’ve approached the situation with more tact and skill than an arrogant upstart, but Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have long since mastered the art of stretching or bending the truth – or confidently lying – in a way in which the likes of Donald Trump would envy.
As if the ludicrous nature of the situation wasn’t so literally unbelievable, Skehan and Varadkar’s comments are actually not the most baldly faced insulting and offensive ones to be handed down to the homeless population in the past week. Eileen Gleeson, the director of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, asserted that volunteer groups should not feed homeless people, as it would only feed into the years of “bad behaviour” which has allegedly made them homeless in the first place, arguing that homeless people were “quite happy to continue with their chaotic lifestlye” if enabled to do so. For reference, the DRHE is the authority in the Dublin area for combating homelessness, and its director is spewing stereotypical anti-homeless, anti-poor rhetoric – rhetoric without any research to support the claims put forward. But in a sense, Gleeson is right – is it not the bad behaviour of landlords, bankers, property developers, profiteering bosses and successive neoliberal governments that have resulted in homelessness?
Don’t worry though, Junior Minister for Housing Damien English has his priorities straight, we must after all have some concern for Ireland’s “international reputation”. God forbid we have some honesty in our politics.
Every November, local councils have to set their budgets. Refusing to do so would essentially generate a political crisis and put the ball in the court of the Minister of Enviornment, who in this situation has the power to deselect every sitting councillor(Essentially, dissolve it) and take direct action over the area of the local authority.
Last Monday, 13 November, the left on the Dublin City Council dared to invoke such a crisis. Solidarity Councillor Michael O’Brien, Councillor Éilis Ryan of the Workers’ Party, and other left councillors put forward a motion to delay passing the budget in order to put pressure on the government to allocate more funding for housing. A survey of land owned by the council showed that there was enough to build 12,000 new social housing units – the councillors took this figure and based on studies done by the Society of Chartered Surveyors, assessed that each unit would take around €150,000 to build. Put forward by the left on the Dublin City Council was to demand a total of €1.8 billion in capital investment to allow the building of these houses. In contrast with the agreed upon plan by the right wing, who intended to set a target for 500 housing units in the next year(A target which the council never meets), it’s clear who intended to actually put a dent in the crisis.
The council divided into two camps; Those on the left – Solidarity, the Workers’ Party, People Before Profit, the Social Democrats and left independents, against the parties on the right, content to tinker around the edges and perpetuate the housing crisis. Sinn Féin entered the latter camp, accusing Solidarity’s O’Brien of engaging in a publicity campaign and subsequently voted it down. When push came to shove, Sinn Féin was given an opportunity to take a progressive line on the housing issue and instead lined up alongside Fine Gael, Labour, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party. Where Sinn Féin complained at the futility of such a motion, the Green Party argued that the council must operate within its means – both strains of green united in a moment of cynical defeatism.
When I spoke with O’Brien, he noted that the council seemed content to “act more like accountants, not public representatives”. The logic on which this motion was based was an optimistic position that, when faced with a significant political crisis, that a movement lead by housing activist groups and trade unions could put enough pressure on the government to force concessions. The flashpoint of support around the Apollo House occupation last year gives more than enough indication that such a popular movement would have been possible.
The most telling aspect of the budget which the council ultimately passed, was the additional €8 million allocated towards homeless services. The council may not have been willing to build more housing units, but they were certainly betting on an increase in the use of homelessness services. And we’re supposed to believe these people want to resolve the housing crisis?