Ahead of Dublin’s housing mobilisation this Saturday, People Before Profit Cllr Tina MacVeigh and Stewart Smyth give a report of the second annual Raise the Roof conference which notably lacked emphasis on people power and protest.
A number of weeks ago, nearly 200 people attended a housing conference entitled “Securing the Right to Housing” at the Communication Workers’ Union conference centre in Dublin. Organised by Raise the Roof, the umbrella group which includes the National Homelessness and Housing Coalition (NHHC), the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), the National Women’s Council of Ireland and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).
All of these constituent groups were central to the huge lunchtime protest last October, when the Dáil adopted an opposition motion on how to address the housing crisis, while the large housing mobilisations in April and December were led by the NHHC. These mobilisations forced the housing issue up the agenda and put massive pressure on the government.
However, at the conference there was little evidence of the vitality and activity we saw throughout last year in the various housing protests including the occupations in Dublin, like North Frederick Street, and the subsequent protests by Take Back the City, such as blocking O’Connell Street.
The audience was mostly composed of trade union officials and senior politicians from Sinn Féin and the Labour Party.
Following an opening address by ICTU General Secretary, Patricia King, the first session addressed the question “Is Government Policy Working?” with architect Mel Reynolds setting out how government policy continues to fail. Reynolds highlighted the senselessness of continuing to support the private landlord sector through HAPS and other payments.
Reynolds highlighted that according to the government’s own figures, over a thirty-year period in Fingal County Council, it is €270,000 cheaper to house a tenant in local authority housing than through the various rent assistance schemes, involving the private rented sector.
The policy to subsidise private landlords instead of build new public housing is rapidly getting out of control, such that by 2022 the government estimates that €1.7 billion per annum will be spent on various rent assistance schemes. That’s the equivalent of a new Children’s Hospital scandal every year, going straight from the public purse into the pockets of private landlords.
Reynolds also exposed the myth that a shortage of land is a barrier. Nationally, the state owns enough land to build 114,000 homes, and as he stated, “We don’t need to buy any more land, we just need to build on what we have”.
Also in this session Orla Hegarty (UCD) stated we do not need high rise and greater density housing as the solution, something which the free-market fundamentalists including the Housing Minister have been proposing. There is already enough zoned land to accommodate another 300,000 people, under existing planning regulations and without having to resort to high rise building.
Delivering Public Housing
The session on the need for public housing was more of mixed bag. John O’Connor, CEO of the Housing Agency, managed to speak for 20 minutes without saying anything of any substance – with one exception that the Dutch public housing model is able to deliver high quality housing at rent levels of €600-700 per month. However, he had no idea about how this might be replicated in Ireland.
Brendan Kenny, Deputy CEO of Dublin City Council, epitomised the attitude of the establishment towards the housing crisis. He repeated the oft stated excuse that it is too complicated to build new public housing. In his view, public procurement rules and health and safety laws mean that local authorities cannot build like they used to do in the past, when areas of Dublin like Crumlin and Phibsborough were built.
Kenny went so far as to blame local residents in various areas for saying that they did not want public housing built beside existing communities. Of course, he presented no evidence to support this statement or any others he made.
In a truly bizarre twist, in a session meant to focus on public housing, Kenny said there was one positive in the Dublin housing market – the vulture funds are building good quality housing and giving security of tenure – but it will cost you €2,500 in rent per month!
With men of the ilk of O’Connor and Kenny in charge of key bodies in our housing system, it is no wonder there is a housing crisis at all.
Mixed tenure obfuscation
The session on mixed tenure developments had a clear and incisive presentation by Tony Fahey (UCD). He illustrated that the long held orthodoxy in official policy circles – that new developments must be of mixed tenure – has no conclusive evidence to support it.
Mixed tenure is a vehicle for prejudice against poor and low income people, pure and simple. It based on the view that estates with large concentrations of working class people are a problem. Instead, mixed tenure supporters say each new development should have only a small amount of social housing.
In practice this has led to stigmatisation of those in social housing, being placed on the periphery of estates furthest from facilities. Or the phenomenon of the “poor door” where there is one luxurious entrance to a development for those who bought on the open market and a second, more functional one, usually to the rear, for those renting socially.
Fahey pointed out that mixed tenure in practice has also allowed developers to reduce the amount of social housing in any development on the grounds of commercially viability. In addition, many local authorities also take payment from the developers in lieu of the new social housing units.
The main point of Fahey’s presentation was that with all the misinformation used to justify the mixed tenure model, we have forgotten the past successes of the old model. Besides much of Dublin and other cities having been built by local authorities, Fahey gave Tallaght West as an example of what is possible. An area that was initially beset with problems, now has a high demand for housing with a population that has nearly doubled in 25 years.
As Fahey stated, Tallaght West is “an ordinary, settled working class/lower middle class city district: socially sustainable urban development in action”.
We need more than talking shops
The remaining sessions on the human cost of the housing crisis and securing the right to housing continued in a similar mixed vein. Notably, there was little emphasis on mobilising people and protest as the key to forcing the government to change their policies.
There can be no doubt that the protests led by Raise the Roof and the NHHC last year were a great achievement. These protests forced the housing crisis up the political agenda and isolated the government. In fact, Raise the Roof and the NHHC were so successful last year because they were able to reach out to grassroots groups and campaigns, bringing them together to campaign with a national focus. The mobilisations of large numbers of people has to be central to the strategy of these groups and the housing movement more generally. Talking shops alone will not force the government to listen, will not force them to act – especially when the talking is being done by those who place obstacles in the way of public housing and whoop it up for vulture funds.
Future successful protests on the streets that will continue the pressure on the government. They will highlight, too, to trade union leaders and left-leaning politicians that it is campaigning among and by ordinary people that changes the world.
There is a mobilisation this Saturday (9th March) at 2pm, called by The National Homelessness and Housing Coalition. More information including assembly points – see here. Please attend if you can. Let’s keep up the pressure to win housing for all!