Huge Rents, Empty Homes, No Solutions – Why We’re Taking Back Our City

Sami El-Sayed reports on the energetic mass protests and occupations which are demanding an end to the Housing Crisis across Ireland.

On 11 September, masked Gardaí of the Public Order Unit accompanied masked and armed private security to evict housing activists from the North Frederick Street occupation in the Dublin city centre. Four activists were hospitalised, and five were arrested. Injuries ranged from concussions to lacerations inflicted by a private security operator wielding a hacksaw. The private security brought in by the property owners – the McGreal family, who possess a substantial property portfolio – violated several laws in the process. Regardless, the Gardaí actively aided and abetted their activities and attacked activists at the scene.

The public response was immediate and strong – across social media people expressed their outrage at the violent response by landlords working hand in glove with the state. Crowds gathered outside Store Street Garda Station demanding the release of arrested activists. The day after, a hastily organised protest shut down O’Connell Street. Ten days later on 22 September, thousands went on to march and engaged in a mass sit down protest, blocking O’Connell Bridge, demanding Varadkar’s Government resolved the housing crisis.

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Activists engaging in a sit down protest in solidarity with arrested occupiers

Organising under the name of Take Back The City (TBTC), activists engaging in militant tactics of occupation have reinvigorated the struggle around housing in the South to levels not seen since the Apollo House occupation in 2016. As with the occupation, the TBTC activists have enjoyed widespread public support and sympathy, and the eviction of activists from the North Frederick Street can only be described as a major public relations blunder by the Gardaí, happening within the first week of Drew Harris’ appointment as Garda Commissioner. Aware of that fact, the Irish state has not taken any action as of yet against the ongoing TBTC occupation at Belvedere Place, though it is likely only a matter of time.

These occupations occur in a context of an escalating housing crisis impacting the entire country, but which features a particularly sharp expression in Dublin City and the commuter belt that feeds it. Housing prices and rents are spiralling out of control and the number of homeless people is continuously going up, hitting roughly 10,000 (nearly 4,000 of which are children). Facing a government utterly hostile to real solutions to challenge the housing crisis – with Taoiseach Varadkar calling Solidarity’s Damastown public housing proposals “play acting” – and government attempts to artificially deflate the recorded homeless figures through re-categorisation measures, people – and particularly young people – are getting increasingly frustrated at the situation. In response to ongoing public pressure, the government continues to propose plans for housing builds which are formally enacted but then never followed through on, with the latest farce being the Repair and Leasing Scheme launched in 2017 delivering only 15 of its planned 3,500 houses. Faith in the government to resolve the crisis has evaporated, and any solutions offered by them, such as the “new” Land Development Agency which plans to offer “affordable” homes at the price of €320,000, appear ludicrous.

 

In the recent past it has proven difficult to mobilise people on the issue of housing, for numerous reasons – unlike the defensive struggle against water charges, for example, where the instinct of working class people was to engage in non-payment of bills, it is quite difficult to see a way forward on the issue of housing. Ultimately, what’s required is a radical shift in policy away from market economics and commodification of housing generally, and a need for the state to engage in mass public housing builds. There are a few key blocks in the way of achieving that – the sitting right wing, ideologically neo-liberal Fine Gael government, the absence of a left government in waiting that could take power in an imminent election, and the fiscal and market competition rules forced on us by the European Union, which would necessarily need to be broken in order to facilitate the capital expenditure and public planning required to resolve the crisis. Overcoming these barriers is going to require ongoing and powerful mass mobilisations of working class people in order to force the Irish state to act.

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Street art in support of housing protests – Dublin

On 3 October, a national housing demonstration was held. A coming together of the trade unions, activist groups, student unions, and left wing political forces, with over 10,000 in attendance. The mobilisations on the back of the Apollo House occupation in 2016, and the response to the eviction of Take Back The City activists in September, point to the nucleus of a future mass movement, and a simmering mass discontent in Irish society on the issue of housing. The 3 October protest mobilised roughly 10-15,000 people on a Wednesday afternoon, when most people would be in work. It was loud, militant, angry, youthful, and the legacies of the marriage equality, water charges and repeal movements were clearly on display with a militant sit down protest closing down Merrion Street Upper for several hours. The Raise the Roof demonstration is part of the opening salvo of a new potential mass social movement on this island, and what’s needed now to maximise the potential and take advantage of the momentum generated by that demonstration is for housing groups, left parties, the trade unions and student movement to call for new mobilisations, as soon as later this month (and on a weekend) to keep up the pressure.

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