May 2017        

Housing in the 21st century

Jimmy Doran

The Central Statistics Office recently published a report on housing from the information obtained in the 2016 census. It shows that overcrowding and rackrenting are now the norm in Ireland—and it’s getting worse.
     Over the five-year period 2011–16 the number of available properties increased by only 0.4 per cent, despite a growth in population of ten times that. Home ownership is down nationally to 67 per cent, and to 59 per cent in Dublin—a rate not seen since 1971, and it’s continuing to fall.
      Renting has overtaken ownership in our towns and cities as the main form of property tenure. Apartments are the predominant type of home in Dublin, for the first time ever.
      Overcrowding is up for the first time in fifty years: one in ten of our people now live in overcrowded conditions, and this too is getting worse.
      Average rent nationally is €200 a week—up from €171; that’s an increase of nearly 17 per cent. In Dublin the increase has been 30 per cent in the last five years and it’s still rising, despite very little, if any, increase in wages for the last ten years.
      As citizens migrate to cities and towns in search of work, some towns have almost half their dwellings vacant.
     What these statistics reveal is a national housing disaster. The minister responsible, Simon Coveney, responds by saying that the problem will take time to sort out. Well, it took them fifty years to engineer this crisis through failed right-wing housing policy, a policy that does not work for our citizens but most certainly works for the politicians’ friends in big business, who control the property market and who, under the guise of “austerity” to “save the economy,” decided that citizens should no longer own their own home, that this is to be the privilege of the chosen few, who will then rent them back to the citizens at a massive profit while causing misery to the tenants.
      Bit by bit the Government abandoned its responsibility of housing our citizens in its entirety to the private sector. When the 26-County state was formed in the 1920s it inherited a colonial housing catastrophe. Dublin had some of the worst slums in Europe, as the citizens had been left to the mercy of unregulated landlords and financiers to provide them with shelter.
     In the 1930s, as a direct result of the collapse of several tenement buildings, resulting in a number of deaths, the Government was forced to live up to its responsibilities and begin a massive building programme of public housing for our citizens. Everywhere, from Cork to Donegal, new publicly owned houses were built at a rate that matched the building of private houses, 1:1, right up to the mid-1960s, when the policy began to change. Council tenants were now encouraged to buy their home from the state. This was the start of the shift in policy that has culminated in the crisis we now find ourselves in.
      The day of owning your own home is very quickly becoming a thing of the past for ordinary working people. More and more people are now forced to rent a home, thanks to falling wages and precarious work. This in turn leads to higher rents as demand rises. The profiteers are always waiting in the wings for an opportunity to make more money.
     And the day of small indigenous landlords owning a few properties is disappearing fast as international capital sees a lucrative business opportunity. We have transnational property companies buying up, or building, large numbers of properties for the rental market in our cities. Ireland is not unique, as this is becoming the norm all round the developed world as another stage in the development of capitalism.
     Not satisfied with the profit from a one-off sale of a house to individuals, the ruling class want to retain ownership of the property and create a continuous income stream in their never-ending search for more profits and new markets.
      When you are on minimum-wage and minimum-hour contracts you don’t have much of a choice, so “the best little country in the world to do business in” has come full circle as citizens are left to the mercy of landlords and financiers to obtain shelter.
     Once again we’ve ended up with the most vulnerable living in overcrowded tenements. History has a habit of repeating itself. The answer now, as it was in the 1930s, is a massive public house-building programme. These should be built by the state, right through from the planning stage to completion. Surveys show that publicly built houses cost between 30 and 40 per cent less than those built by the private sector.
      The building and property speculators have done enough damage to this country already, and there is too much of a history of bribery, corruption and planning irregularities for them to be trusted again. Priory Hall is what happens when you have an unregulated private sector.
     With private capital removed from the equation, shortages will cease to exist and certainty will return to housing. With all our citizens living in decent homes this will benefit the whole of society as quality of life improves. Instead of tenants being encouraged to buy their home from the state, home-owners should be encouraged to sell their property to the state as they retire. Then, when their time comes, all these houses would go into public ownership, thus helping citizens financially in their retirement and providing quality housing for future generations.
      When decisions are left in the hands of the propertied elite the results are never in the interest of the many: it’s always in the interest of their class.

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