If the market is based on supply and demand then why do we have a housing crisis, extortionate rents and so many empty homes we’ve lost count? Paul Reynolds and Lorna Muddiman examine the crisis and the solutions.
Cars speed past in twos and threes as we turn our backs on the Naas road and stroll up the narrow laneway. Colin McCabe is worried about what’s happening to this little oasis while all around is levelled and tarmacked.
St. Brigid’s Cottages represent another form of ghost estate, one that suffers a creeping death as the vampires of developers, investors and of course NAMA unite to detenant a community for their own purposes.
Colin points out the first cottage. ‘This was bought by SIAC (one of Ireland’s oldest and largest construction companies), they outbid our neighbour who wanted to keep it for the family.’ The cottage and it’s semi-detached partner are obviously unoccupied. Facing them another two, in worse condition. The roof crests covered in heavy plastic, windows and doors blocked up, paint peeled and wild plants growing freely. Colin tells me they were bought by a developer who wanted the site as part of a planned Hotel complex (hotels being the great tax-wheeze of the Celtic Tiger). He went bust and the whole lot is administered by NAMA now.
We walk to the top of the lane and examine more cottages. Again SIAC has bought these, which coincidentally are adjacent to a huge SIAC site and their headquarters of operations. Again, these have been left unoccupied and the roof has fallen in on one. The others are rotting, with their windowpanes painted white and their gardens returned to the wild.
Over tea we discuss what has happened. A vibrant little cul de sac of Victorian bungalows has been deliberately detenanted and now half the homes lie empty while a property company waits for the remaining neighbours to pass away. The local youths have discovered the unmonitored country walkway to Clodalkin village at the top of the empty row is an ideal spot for drinking and have made it a no-go area at night.
But the council insists these houses are not ‘derelict’. Except for one brief period when one house (which has been burned out) was classed as derelict before it was delisted again, the SDCC engineers see fit to pass these as habitable.
The same is the case in Dublin city . The DCC’s Derelict Site Register contains just 32 properties. Bear in mind Galway has 17 listed derelict sites and Galway City Council is actively pursuing 100 property owners to improve their sites on pain of fine or imprisonment.
Dubliners familiar with derelict buildings may be surprised to find that those houses along Ballybough or near the Iveagh Markets, the buildings with trees growing from the windows along Thomas St. or the red brick shells on Usher St., the landmark derelict sites along Camden St. and the hundreds of other sites between the canals on almost every main street you pick – they don’t appear on on DCC’s Derelict Register.
Returning these houses to habitable conditions and forcing their owners to make them available for rent is not as far-fetched as it may seem at first. In Andalucia just such a proposal is being considered. In the midst of an economic and housing crisis the Andalucian local government may adopt a bill to force an estimated one million properties into the rental market. The Bill also proposes an embargo on evictions and fines of €9000 per household not rented. The majority of households are corporate/bank-owned.
While much of this comes from the Spanish housing campaigners there must also be recognition of the role that squatting has played in highlighting the deficiencies now apparent in Spain’s housing crisis.
Squatting is not new here. We can look back to the squatting movements and direct action campaigns of the Dublin Housing Action Committee. In the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s the DHAC were at the forefront of a country-wide protest movement demanding affordable housing at a time when many properties lay vacant. Similar protests sprang up in Limerick, Cork and most notably in Derry. The Derry committee organized the Civil Rights march of 5th Oct. ’68 which marked the start of ‘the Troubles’.
Following changes to the law, in the form of the Forcible Entry Act and multiple arrests the DHAC campaign ended. In recent times the practice of ‘Adverse Possession’ (squatting for 12 years) was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights and the Supreme Court as a means of gaining ownership rights. It is not unheard of and with the state of so many hundreds of ‘ghost estates’ in Ireland it is unlikely we won’t hear of many more successful cases in the years ahead.
How unjust is the housing situation that the Supreme Court is encouraging squatting?
Cllr Pat Dunne (Crumlin/Walkinstown) broke the figures down at a meeting looking at this housing crisis in a pan-European format (European Action Coalition for the right to housing and the city). There are 27,000 social housing units in Dublin. There are 98,000 people on the housing list in Ireland. In Dublin alone there are 14,500 on DCC’s housing list with a further 8,000 in rented accommodation looking for a place on the list. In answer to this overwhelming demand DCC planned to build just 226 new units between 2011-14 and no affordable housing as the govt. closed that scheme.”
Not alone are the funds not being freed to build the necessary social housing but the units that are occupied are in dire need of repair. However that crisis is also being ignored. Of the 7,000 social housing units in central Dublin, the oldest housing which suffers from black mould amongst other problems “450 complaints about dampness were made in 2012 of which the Council accepted there was dampness in 7 of those cases. In every other case they said it was ‘condensation’. I’ve been in rooms where the (Council) maintenance have put so many holes in the wall for ‘condensation’ that if you drilled another hole the wall would collapse”, Cllr Dunne explained.
Yet in DCC area there are 27,000 unoccupied private households. If we include Fingal and Dun Laoghaire there are 39,000 vacant homes. Rents are still at Celtic Tiger levels despite house prices having tumbled as much as 80% in some cases.
A return to militant action like that of DHAC may be inevitable. We are now at the beginning of a major housing crisis.
This crisis is coming in waves. Social housing is not being built; while a handful of developers were handed the plans to detenant and rebuild Dublin’s infamous council flats what happened was the tenanting and demolition but no rebuilding or rehousing took place. This is mirrored across Europe. At the same time hundreds of thousands were pushed towards private-ownership and are now saddled with debt and the dreaded ‘negative equity’.
But the pressure is more immediate for two other groups. The burgeoning homeless situation is unlike any that has visited Ireland in living memory. A walk to the Capuchin centre on Bow Street any midday serves as a rude wake-up call as hundreds line the street waiting for meals and care packages. And to add to this situation we are about to embark on a policy where the banks and lenders, which helped cause and continue to serve this crisis, are being encouraged to begin evictions.
What are the solutions?
A pilot scheme in Liverpool, in severely deprived areas like Toxteth and Granby has seen the Council sell houses for £1. Many of these houses have been abandoned for up to 30 years and were purchased by the council in the past with notions of regeneration. Similar to our own experience the Public-Private-Partnership fiasco was employed time and again throughout the decades with the same devastating results. This time community groups, so-called Urban Community Land Trusts, have influenced the decision making. Houses are being sold to families for £1, they must undertake to improve the homes themselves and then live there for a minimum of 5 years. There is also a government ‘Empty Homes Fund’ of £100m which those involved hope to tap in order to access low-interest loans of £30k per property for refurbishment. This ‘Homesteading’ isn’t entirely anathema to those who believe in Public Housing. But it does let the councils off the hook when it comes to providing a structured social housing plan, infrastructure and maintenance and while it encourages re-investment in community it is outside the budgets of most people if the government fund doesn’t come through.
Speaking at a discussion on rent problems in Dublin, economist Michael Taft (Unite Trade Union) explains his hypothesis. “We always hear that we’ve got to get the private sector involved in the public housing sector through ‘innovative means’…now ‘innovative means’ always means cash subsidy, it’s hardly innovative. I think we should turn that on its head. I think we should try to find a way to get the public sector involved in the private rented sector.”
He proposes a public enterprise company could be set up to invest in social housing and, in one move, alleviate more than one problem. Employment, housing, lower rents, reinvigorate communities and move people from a situation of over-priced inadequate housing and zero disposable income to one where they can play a part in society again. Taft notes that every time the state, even the most right-wing Cumann na nGaedheal government, faced up to problems in a sector where there was no investment, a need for competition, a need for supply and a need for standards they went to one model, Public Enterprise. It’s time to do that again.
James Heartfield, the British journalist, at the same discussion replied ‘If you have empty homes and you have people who can’t afford to rent, you have the solution in your hands. Move the people into the empty homes. Make public housing a reality and let the Government catch up. Squat the houses, it’s obvious.”
For some more photos from Dublin’s apparent derelict sites see here