The Government’s refusal to extend the eviction ban beyond the end of March means thousands of people could face eviction in the coming months. Stewart Smyth argues that they are fighting for their class – so we need to fight for ours.
This government is incompetent. I know this is not an unusual or controversial thing to say these days. But when you see the spectacle of a government Minister “forgetting” to oppose the People Before Profit bill on extending the eviction ban, and pleading with the Ceann Comhairle to overlook his “rookie error”, it really is stark.
Of course this government is much more dangerous, because not only are they incompetent, they are also highly ideologically driven and represent the class interests of their supporters. In practical terms, that means supporting private sector provision of new housing.
So at the start of March the government proposed letting the eviction ban lapse at the end of the month. While such a ban is a necessary response to the continually growing homeless numbers, there is ample evidence that getting rid of the ban will only increase the numbers of homeless people (including families).
The government appears to be happy with this scenario, as RTE News reported the Housing Minister, Darragh O’Brien, “… conceded that the decision might lead to more people becoming homeless in the short term”, and “2,700 notices to quit were paused when the evictions ban was introduced”.
So how does the government try to spin their decision? First, we’ve had the claim that the ban is creating a new form of homeless people – those who are homeowners, returning from abroad and unable to access the property they have rented out to tenants. The evidence to support this claim could generously be called anecdotal, with only a couple of examples highlighted by the Taoiseach and in the media.
This in comparison to the 2,700 tenants who have already had an eviction notice, never mind the others to come. However, this does not stop the Taoiseach from making a moral equivalence between the two groups. And what a further indictment of the failure of government policy that they accept some people have to be made homeless.
Of course, the Taoiseach has form on this topic. Back in 2017, he tried to normalise the growing homelessness crisis in Ireland by saying it was low by international standards.
Second, we get the old chestnut that the eviction ban is potentially unconstitutional. It is true that the constitution enshrines the right to private property; however, that right is not absolute. Article 43 on private property contains an important qualification, where the state may delimit the exercising of private property rights to reconcile with the pursuit of the common good.
In other words, when we have a housing emergency of the scale we currently have which is clearly to the detriment of the common good, we can have an eviction ban. Advice from the Attorney General – also a landlord – is vaguely referenced, but the simple fact remains that there has been no legal challenge during this eviction ban or previous ones.
Third, the government claims the ban has been ineffective as the numbers of homeless people is still rising. This is a basic categorical error, where the government is deliberately mixing up causation and correlation. Just because two events are happening at the same time does not mean they are causing each other.
Here, the views of those who are directly involved with delivering homelessness services are very clear; the homeless numbers would be higher if the ban was not in place. For example, the CEO of Threshold, John-Mark McCafferty, said recently,
“I think it’s a very superficial analysis to say the numbers for the ban didn’t work. I think it’s important to look at the counterfactual and to see that, you know, without that ban over the last number of months, things would have been even worse”
Fourth, the government claims that the eviction ban is driving landlords out of the market. They quote numbers from the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB) that estimates 43,000 homes have left the PRS market over the past 5 years. Of course here again we get the conflation of correlation with causation. After all, this eviction ban has only been in place since October 2022.
Last year the Irish Property Owners Association (IPOA), the Institute of Professional Auctioneers and Valuers (IPAV) and Sherry Fitzgerald all released reports seeking to explain why landlords are leaving the market. The arguments were around the tax treatment of small-scale landlords, rent pressure zones and the constant changing of regulations. Their proposed solutions were a loosening of regulations and further tax breaks for landlords – no surprise there.
However, UCD housing researcher Michael Byrne, shows how this research is based upon inadequate datasets and that the exodus of landlords had started much earlier, closer to a decade ago. Byrne argues the reasons for landlords leaving the market is much more complex than one single issue but the root cause lies with inappropriate and inadequate government policy.
Houses Don’t Disappear
There is a further issue that needs to be addressed in all this talk of landlords exiting the private rented sector – they can’t take their properties with them. The houses and apartments still exist and, as Byrne points out, if the government were being smart, every property that a landlord sells should move from the private rental sector and increase the number of owner-occupiers. This is a long-term policy target that the main government parties have again been failing to achieve.
Socialists have a different view of what should happen to the homes that become available when a landlord seeks to sell-up – more on that below.
So what is the government’s solution to the rising level of homelessness? Not only do they intend to lift the eviction ban – despite all the counter-arguments we have seen above – but they also intend to give further tax breaks to small-scale landlords (reportedly up to €14,000 each, costing the public €800 million). As we’ve seen, the call for tax breaks has nothing to do with the eviction ban and has been a long-term lobbying point of industry bodies such as the IPOA and IPAV. But remember, this government is acting in the class interests of their supporters.
You don’t have to take my word for it, this is the conclusion that Fr Peter McVerry came to on the eve of the cabinet meeting that decided to lift the ban. On an RTÉ current affairs programme he said,
“It’s clear to me … that this government are on the side of the owners of capital. It’s on the side of the big international investment funds, who love to see rents going up; on the side of the banks, who love to see house prices going up. And on the side of the owners of property.”
In fact, you don’t even need to take Fr McVerry’s word for it, the Irish Independent reported that a confidential Cabinet Memo stated the eviction ban needed to be lifted to halt the flight of institutional investors (often called Cuckoo funds).
Most housing commentators understand the eviction ban is about buying time – time to reform the private rented sector. So what are the reforms that are needed? While the government obsesses about only increasing supply, a Left government would start from a different position, one of increasing the rights of tenants.
First, a change in the law is needed to stop no fault evictions. This could be achieved by withdrawing the current grounds for evictions such as selling the property or needing it for a family member. While the current government has brought in tenancies of indefinite length this does not lead to greater security for tenants, in the main because if the property is to be sold the tenants can be evicted.
So what is needed is a law that sitting tenants have the right to remain in the property even if the owner wishes to sell it. This is again common in many European countries. A further step towards de-commodifying the housing market is currently being introduced in Portugal, where the state has first refusal on the purchase of properties being sold with sitting tenants.
Beyond these initial steps to stem the flow of evictions and strengthen tenants’ security, we need a fundamentally different approach to housing. We do need to increase the supply of housing, but it matters what type of housing it is. More apartment blocks or new estate bought up whole by institutional investors to be released on to the private rented sector just won’t work.
What is needed is the delivery of a new generation of council housing built to the latest environmental standards and with secure lifetime tenancies. This may sound like it, but it’s not a pipe-dream. Across the water council tenants are living in an award-winning housing development in Norwich, with dramatically reduced energy bills. Such quality, affordable housing is achievable if the political will is there.
From the Grassroots Up
Securing these solutions will not come through just calling out government incompetence (or pretending to be a rebel and then not voting against government policy). What is needed is raising the pressure on the government to such an extent that they have to act. This will only come from campaigning on the streets, on the estates and in the workplaces.
We will need to support tenants at risk of eviction by campaigning for local councils to buy-up and rent out the homes, as the tenants and supporters of Tathony House have done. The policy is in place for local authorities in Ireland to do this – it needs to be funded better from central government.
We have a wealth of history in Ireland where housing campaigners have stopped evictions, organised rent strikes and fought (successfully) against privatisation of public housing. In recent years, CATU in particular has proved itself as a community organisation that can mobilise a member-driven response to stop evictions, keep tenants in situ and force landlords to negotiate rather than putting people on the street. With many more of these fights on the horizon we will need to draw on these experiences to prevent further evictions and cohere the energy of lots of localised battles into a generalised fight against the government. Another housing system is possible – let’s organise and fight for it.