October 3rd saw ten thousand march through the streets of Dublin, protesting the housing policies that have created a crisis. In his latest piece for Rebel, Dr Stewart Smyth looks at how problematic policies have left more homeless and with less opportunity to find housing.
Late 2018 will be remembered as a time when the last illusions that the government cared about the housing crisis were metaphorically and physically torn asunder. Not only have we seen a major upturn in grassroots activism since the national day of action on 22nd September and the balaclava eviction in North Frederick Street, but then 10,000 people marched through in Dublin city centre on 3rd October causing even RTÉ commentators to draw comparisons with the huge water charges movement of 2016. And to top it off, the government has been shown to be telling lies and manipulating the housing-related numbers.
Back in 2016, outgoing Labour Party Minister, Alan Kenny, was rightly criticised for claiming that over 13,000 social housing “solutions” were delivered in 2014, but when you dig into the numbers just 1,450 were new build local authority homes.
The current Housing Minister, Eoghan Murphy is up to similar tricks. Instead of trying to build more public housing for homeless people, local authority managers have been finding ways to reduce the reported numbers on waiting lists, no doubt something Minister Murphy gladly welcomes.
Murphy claims nearly 26,000 social housing “solutions” were provided in 2017 but only 1,014 of these were delivered through local authority new builds, and in the first three months of 2018 there were less than 200 across the whole country.
The government argues that it does not matter if the homes are provided by local authority new builds or leasing payments (such as HAPS) to private landlords, after all the housing crisis isn’t about ideology. This of course is more obfuscation by the Fine Gael government and their supporters.
In basic cash terms, the money going to private landlords is a subsidy from public taxes direct to the pockets of the landlords. In addition, this subsidy along with a lack of supply of council housing leads to upward pressure on rents. In others words, the government policy is making the housing crisis worse, twice over.
Last week we saw one response to the housing crisis with the Sinn Fein sponsored motion of no confidence in Minister Murphy. Sinn Fein had been threatening to table this motion for months. Its timing now seems little more than a parliamentary manoeuvre; on one side to try to put pressure on Fianna Fail and on the other to avoid being outflanked on the left by the movement on the streets and the left parties. This tactic did nothing to build the housing movement.
There is, however, a further problem with the SF approach, in that it reduces the arguments about the housing crisis to the deficiencies of one person – the Housing Minister. This is a fundamental mistake and shows a lack of clear analysis about the nature of the problem with housing policy, as we will see later.
All of that considered, the motion was a useful endeavour in that it showed up Fianna Fáil for being unable to support a no confidence vote in the minister, despite recent lip service in response to pressure on the streets. Even after abstaining on the vote, members of the party attended the October 3rd demonstration in an attempt to win favour with protesters, but as many, many social media responses can attest; not many favoured their presence on the day.
St Michael’s Estate
The motion of no confidence did also bring to the surface a tension within the government on what their priorities should be. Catherine Byrne, Fine Gael TD for Dublin South Central, was reported at being outraged about a plan to redevelop the St Michael’s Estate site, with a mixed tenure of 470 homes – 140 social rents and 330 “low cost rent”.
Byrne’s anger was that the new estate, which was formerly council housing, was to have no homes for outright sale. Clearly, Byrne wants to “gentrify” working class areas of her constituency with the hope of bolstering her own position at future elections.
The St Michael’s estate is a classic example of how decades of housing policy has failed working people. Even before the housing crash in 2008, back in 1998 the then council housing tenants agreed to a regeneration plan. Over the next ten years, Dublin City Council went through various consultations and plans to deliver the regeneration using the private sector. Then on 19 May 2008 they announced that the latest Public Private Partnership (PPP) plan involving construction firm McNamara had collapsed. John Bissett, a community worker on the St Michael’s Estate, summed up the experience:
“This was the third time in five years that a plan had collapsed; it wasn’t supposed to happen again. Just like the Titanic, PPP was supposed to be unsinkable.”
After another decade of inactivity and failed housing policies, St Michael’s estate is again being fought over not just by the politicians but also by developers associated with St Patrick’s Athletic FC, who want to build a stadium and retail units, as well as some housing.
As things stand, Eoghan Murphy has rejected these plans in favour of his new low cost rental model. While this is a welcome development, it does not represent a shift away from the neoliberal model of housing provision. The original St Michael’s Estate consisted of 346 council homes. The new plan sees that fall to just 140 council homes, the remainder being described as low cost rental model, which the Department of Housing has confirmed will be 25 per cent below current market rents.
So this “new” model is not in fact low cost but slightly lower than current (unaffordable) market rents. It is based on a housing policy in Britain called Affordable Rents, where the rent levels are set at 80 per cent of market levels. The affordable rents policy was developed by the free-market fundamentalist think tank, Policy Exchange, as a way of enabling housing associations borrow more money from the private sector. In the process, up-front government grants for new builds have been slashed by two-thirds.
Put simply, low cost rental sounds like a positive development but it is no substitute for council housing.
Nature of housing policy
This brings us to the crux of the issue – the nature of housing policy. It is useful to remember housing researcher Peter Marcuse’s formulation that housing crises are “not a result of the system breaking down but of the system working as it is intended”. Coupled to this, as Engels argued in his pamphlet The Housing Question, housing as a commodity is an expression of the priorities of capitalism.
We see this when the industry spokespeople for developers and landlords talk fine words about the crisis but end-up saying that any provision of homes must be economically viable; or, when politicians and pundits, who see the market as the only possible mechanism to allocate resources, argue that the housing crisis is complex and multi-faceted with no single solution. A hundred and fifty years ago Engels called-out this obfuscation as “all sorts of social quackery”.
The advocates of market-based housing provision are using the same tactics today, as they did in Victorian times.
Commodities or homes
With these mistruths, quackery and obfuscation, it can be difficult to assess or generate ideas for housing policies that will address the real needs of those in the hostels, temporary accommodation and on the waiting lists.
One method to evaluate individual housing policies is to ask the question: will this policy lead to more houses being treated as commodities (i.e. bought, sold, rented at market or similar levels); or will the policy lead to more houses being de-commodified (i.e. for satisfying the basic human need, the provision of shelter)? We can turn this question with one end pointing towards “More Commodified” and the other pointing towards “More De-Commodified”, as below.
So if we take the earlier example of the current regeneration plan for St Michaels Estate, we start with 346 council homes being replaced by only 140 council homes and 330 homes at market-based rent levels. This is clearly moving housing provision towards the commodification.
Another example is the proposed Land Development Agency, which is to use publicly-owned land to build homes over the next 20 years. However, the agency is to build 60 per cent for market sale, 30 per cent at affordable levels and only 10 per cent at council rent levels. Therefore, 90 per cent of the new homes will be commodified, yet again making the housing crisis worse.
In contrast, socialists recognise that the market cannot supply decent, affordable housing for people on low and middle incomes. Instead we need policies that seek to provide homes for people to live in, not to speculate on; in other words, to move housing policy towards the de-commodified end of the continuum. That is why we call for the money disappearing into the pockets of private landlords through the HAPS scheme to be used to build local authority homes, where the rents are returned to the public purse.
Other de-commodifying policies include building public housing on public land, and setting rent levels in relation to the tenants’ income not market values.
Until these, and similar policies, are implemented, we will continue to experience a housing crisis. This means we will have to continue to organise and protest and agitate after the 3rd October march – because another housing policy is possible, but we should never expect the establishment parties to develop it of their own volition.