The roots of Ireland’s housing crisis are entirely solvable, if only need were put before profit, argues PBP Cllr Tina MacVeigh. Now that the COVID-19 crisis is forcing the Irish government to take drastic measures, we must ensure there is no going back.
We are living through a time of an unprecedented and extreme crisis which is wreaking havoc on our communities and healthcare system. The COVID 19 virus knows no class, no gender, no borders, but the resulting crisis has shone a sharp and bright light on the inequities that underpin our social and economic system, not only in healthcare but also in housing.
According to figures from the Department of Housing there were 10,271 people living in emergency accommodation in Ireland in January.
The figure includes 6,697 adults and 3,574 children, and is a rise of 540 people compared with the previous month. This represents a 302% increase since January 2015, and does not include ‘the hidden homeless’—those who have had to move back in with their parents or couch surfing—which homeless campaigner Fr. Peter McVerry claims could push homeless figures well in excess of 15,000.
In 34 Direct Provision centres across Ireland, more than 6,000 refugees and asylum seekers live in often dire and overcrowded conditions which have been the subject of much criticism.
For the Traveller community, overcrowded accommodation or substandard sanitation on halting sites, and the over representation of the community in homeless figures, means that the health crisis compounds the housing problems they face.
Self-isolation in close quarters
Whether emergency hostels, hotels, family hubs, Direct Provision Centres or over crowded halting sites, the ability to self isolate away from others is virtually impossible. For many people in these communities, mental and physical health has already been compromised by their housing situation. When the closure of schools was announced, families faced a situation whereby children spend their entire days in single rooms.
Rather than moving to alleviate this problem, we hear reports from Direct Provision centres that people are not allowed to bring their meals from their rooms, forced instead to eat in communal dining areas three times a day, where the required two meters for social distancing is virtually impossible to observe despite one’s best efforts. HSE guidelines on social distancing are useless to an asylum seeker sharing a tiny bedroom with a stranger or as many as seven other strangers and having to use communal bathrooms.
Evictions from the private rental market are the single biggest contributor to Ireland’s homelessness crisis. Massive rents coupled with a framework of legislation and regulation that provides landlords with any number of loopholes has meant that the dual consistent trends of spiralling rents and homelessness continues virtually unabated. The cessation of any meaningful construction of public housing results in huge numbers of individuals and families that qualify for local authority housing, including those coming out of the Direct Provision system, relying on the private rental market.
Through the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) a huge transfer of wealth is paid every month from the public purse to the pockets of a wealthy, property owning elite. The situation in some of the bigger cities, Dublin in particular, has been compounded by a short term rental market, aimed at Airbnb tourists or people seeking temporary transient accommodation.
An interesting aspect of the crisis has been the collapse of this short term rental market, Airbnb in particular. Literally overnight, some 1,500 short term rental properties appeared on Daft.ie for rent in Dublin alone. Most were, of course, offering a three-month rental, revealing the expectation that once the Coronavirus crisis ends, things can return to business as usual.
As the saying goes, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. The temporary Government has been forced to introduce emergency measures in both health and housing that, certainly under previous Fine Gael or Fianna Fail governments, would have been unthinkable. For example, in the run up to the February 8th general election, calls for a rent freeze were dismissed by both parties as unconstitutional. Now, given the emergency situation, the caretaker government has found it impossible to deny the urgent call for a rent freeze or a ban on evictions. Both of which have been implemented.
A Fianna Fail councillor has even called for Airbnb’s to be offered up for social housing – a measure they would have scorned before this crisis.
Extraordinary (half-hearted) measures
It is worth noting however, in true Fine Gael form, that changes made to housing legislation have been implemented from the perspective of the homeowner and the landlord. So, for example, there is a moratorium for property owners (including landlords) who cannot pay their mortgages. Making this announcement, Finance Minister Paschal Donohue was at pains to send a strong message to landlords – it would be unwise for landlords to avail of this moratorium if they were not passing the benefit on to their tenants.
His caretaker government could have called an amnesty on rents which would have ensured tenants saw the benefit, but he did not.
Other new measures included a ban on increasing rents, but rents are already too high and for the hundreds of thousands of workers who have lost their jobs, a ban on rent increases is of little use to them. A supplementary HAP has been introduced but again, the bureaucracy alone will delay the rate at which these payments can be made. In the meantime, it is security for landlords and stress for tenants.
Five hundred and sixty additional beds have been secured for people living in homeless accommodation who need to self-isolate. However, these are temporary and short term contracts, mostly from tourist accommodation providers.
In Direct Provision, the Department of Justice has announced the provision of additional bed spaces in centres to facilitate social distancing, as well as a pilot scheme to provide off site accommodation for those who need to self-isolate.
It will not alleviate the problem entirely, but clearly Fine Gael have been pushed by public pressure to deal with issues that have been at the forefront of the social justice movement in Ireland for years.
Crisis and campaigning
A full amnesty on rents may seem a step too far for their conservative sensibilities for now, but we need to keep pushing these demands. And we must make wider societal demands, too.
The steps already taken by the government simply prove that they could have gotten rid of Direct Provision all along. They prove that they could have solved the housing crisis long ago. We need to push so that we never allow them to revert to type.
The vast amounts of private rental accommodation that have suddenly appeared on the rental market should be requisitioned for public accommodation.
The decision not to has simply been a matter of ideology and a policy welded to the belief that the private market will provide for all. That fallacy is being laid bare by this crisis and they have been forced to act in the public interest and invest heavily in the public provision of health and housing services, policies and protections and no doubt, as the crisis deepens further, we can win other measures.
Just as it is becoming crystal clear that a private or two-tier health system can not deal with the Coronavirus crisis, a private housing system in which private profit supersedes need can not solve the housing crisis. The cracks in capitalism have been exposed and the need for real system change has never been more pertinent.
Cracks in the system – our alternative
It is a most difficult crisis that has brought about these changes – keeping them in place will be down what we do in our communities and workplaces once we begin to emerge from the restrictions that have been imposed by the emergency. We need to organise in our masses and mobilise a huge housing movement to ensure that gains won translate to the demands of the housing movement for rent controls, security of tenure, public home building, an end to reliance on private landlords, an end to the Direct Provision system.
Not only has it been proven that it is public investment and provision of services that have the greatest potential to deal with a crisis in any aspect of social and economic life, we have had a glimpse of what life could be like under a different system.
We have already seen huge community mobilisation providing support and care. Examples of workers around the globe taking control of workplaces are starting to emerge. We have exposed the naked greed of a ruling elite who are determined still to put wealth before health by doubling the price of ventilators, landlords seeking to evict tenants who have lost their jobs.
We cannot return to life under the old system. We need to build now, not only to prevent a rollback of measures won during this crisis, but to make a break from a system that depends on smashing those measures.
When we emerge it must be on a path towards a better society, where the needs of people are put at the centre of how we organise the resources available to us. Where everyone lives in dignity, guaranteed access to safe, secure, affordable and adequate accommodation that does not threaten their very existence.