Housing a humanitarian crisis in Ireland

The state must build houses not make concessions to private landlords or speculators


Speaking recently in the Dail, Independent TD Mick Wallace highlighted how a large amount of Ireland’s national wealth was transferred via Nama machinations, from working people and into the hands of a native elite or foreign corporations. A few days prior to the Wexford TD’s Dail statement, RTE’s David McWilliams had examined the growing disparity of income between people in this country. Like Mick Wallace, the RTE documentary also underlined the growing appropriation of taxpayer-funded wealth by the super-rich. Where Mick Wallace and David McWilliams differed, however, was in their assessment of what lay at the heart of the issue. The TD posed the question of impropriety while the television presenter raised the more nebulous concept of inequality rather than the class bound nature of society.

Others will comment on the two interpretations. In the meantime, though, let’s look at a closely connected by-product of this situation. In order to reconcile a section of the middle-class to this obscene accumulation by the few, Ireland's ruling class has created a housing crisis. Moreover, this predicament is affecting people north and south. At its most acute, individuals are forced to sleep on the streets of our cities, a situation described by the Dublin Simon Community as a humanitarian crisis. Others are living in emergency accommodation; measured by the charity[1] as over 2,300 adults and in excess of 1,200 children in the Dublin region alone. Less severe but distressful nevertheless, is the fact 130,000 households are on the housing waiting list[2]. Add to this the difficult to quantify number who are ‘couch-surfing’ with friends and relatives and we begin to glimpse the scale of the problem in the Republic.

Should anybody think that this problem is confined to the South, they might consider a report released in July of this year by the North's Department of Social Development[3]. According to the document, 5,040 households presented as homeless to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive during the first quarter of 2015, a 16% increase from the previous quarter. Overall the average annual homeless figure in the 6-Counties stands at almost 20,000 household units seeking accommodation.

In the face of this very obvious crisis, the authorities in both jurisdictions are offering what can be described as solutions that range from the thoroughly inadequate to the almost criminal. The Fine Gael/Labour Party coalition feign concern while tinkering with the type of ineffective measures that have deservedly drawn sharp rebuke from those campaigning for the homeless. Peter McVerry, for example, claimed last May that by 2017, the coalition government’s plans would barely accommodate 2% of the demand for homes. The situation in the Six-Counties is, to say the least, just as dire. Britain’s Tory government is making a bad situation worse as it forces through a vicious Welfare Reform Act while simultaneously inhibiting the building of social housing and emphasising the role of the private rented sector.

It hardly requires great insight to recognise that there is a straightforward answer to the problem. Put simply, it is to reverse the privatisation policy of the past decades and immediately launch a large state managed and controlled domestic housing programme. Such projects were implemented across this island in the past and there is no practical reason why this cannot be done again.

The economic rationale for pro-active government intervention in this field is beyond question. The state can acquire building-land cheaper than any developer; it can achieve economies of scale greater than any other builder and can ensure quality standards higher than the privateers.  Moreover, the state can deliver this product at a lower price than all others since it does not require profit beyond cost nor does it incur additional charges resulting from speculative driven bubbles. Faced with the plight of so many homeless, state controlled, public housing is a no-brainer.

Ignore too, spurious claim that we can't afford such a programme. Think of how many houses as well as jobs that would be provided if the Dublin government were to invest the €8 billion in construction that it now pays annually in interest on the bank bailout debt. Similarly, how much of the £350 billion created by the British state in quantitative easing (in order to save its private banking sector) would be needed to address the homeless in Northern Ireland? Put bluntly, the money is available in both jurisdictions. It is simply the unwillingness of the governing parties and the ruling class to invest in homes for working class people that prevents this happening.

Why something so straightforward is not being done is also a no-brainer, although for entirely different reasons. In a wider context it is due to the ruling class maintaining a dogmatic and self-serving adherence to a free-market, neo-liberal ideology. More specifically, though, it is because a privileged section of society is being rewarded financially for its support for the unjustifiable action of the super rich.

In the absence of the state building and maintaining quality public housing, the electorally significant, buy-to-let petty bourgeoisie has lucrative opportunities to enrich itself at the expense of the less well off and the taxpaying working-class. According to the Republic’s Department of Social Protection’s figures, at the end of December 2014 there were over 49,000 landlords providing tenancies to 71,53 rent supplement recipients; and bear in mind this figure doesn’t include those private landlords supplying local government tenants. Not to be outdone by its neighbours to the south, the northern Housing Executive was able to report that; ‘The private rented sector is now the 
second largest housing tenure, after owner- occupied, in Northern Ireland. It accounts for between 17-20% of the total housing stock, which equates to 125,000 properties
– in comparison the social rented sector with 110,200 properties makes up 15% of the total housing stock’[4].

An interesting aside to this is the, not irrelevant, fact that over 25% of TDs and 20% of Stormont MLAs acknowledge receiving income from renting out property. This statistic might well be kept in mind when reflecting on the Dublin government’s boast last November to supply 110,000 homes over the next six years. When making the announcement, the Labour Party’s Alan Kelly also said that within that overall number, the state will support 75,000 households through what he called ‘an enhanced private rental sector[5]’.

The paragraphs above illustrate one element of crony capitalism in Ireland. The state guarantees the rental income of many landlords by paying for much of it from state coffers while simultaneously creating the condition for the enrichment of others. Undoubtedly there are shady deals aplenty connected with this process but we needn't even have to delve that far down. A hefty section of middle class Ireland is the legal beneficiary of a state secured contribution from working class taxpayers. In return, they condone the even greater and totally outrageous expropriation of wealth exposed on RTE by David McWilliams, in the Dail by Mick Wallace and in fairness, from way back by Socialist Voice.

The McWilliams documentary raised philosophical issues around inequality while Mick Wallace, very reasonably, asked questions about potential criminality in relation to Nama dealings. In their own way, both have done well by shedding light on what others would prefer to keep hidden. It would be better still if we were to have a public investigation, an all-Ireland one at that, investigating; all aspects of homelessness, its causes and how to end it once and for all. Should this lead to discomfort for the landlording class, to the Irish state reneging on the bailout debt or to embarrassment for some northern politicians, then all we should do is repeat the old Roman slogan, ‘Let justice be done though the heavens fall’.


Tommy McKearney …  1 October 2015

This article first appeared in  Socialist Voice  October 2015 (http://www.communistpartyofireland.ie/sv/04-housing.html)

[1] Annual Review 2014 ...Dublin Simon Community

[2] Although the figures were cynically compiled by Fianna Fail, the brown envelope party (http://www.thejournal.ie/social-housing-waiting-list-2316604-Sep2015/), the assessment appears robustly calculated.

[3] DSDNI. Northern Ireland Housing Bulletin January-March 2015 (https://www.dsdni.gov.uk/publications/northern-ireland-housing-bulletin-january-march-2015)

[4] Northern Ireland Housing Market Review and Perspectives 2011-2014. Published by Northern Ireland Housing Executive,

[5] 110,000 homes promised in plan to tackle housing crisis … http://www.rte.ie/news/2014/1126/662601-social-housing/

This© Tommy McKearney 2012                                                                                      email:    tommymkearney@me.com