Photo by Caroline Brady

The Dublin Simon Community last week described the situation of people sleeping rough or in emergency accommodation in the city as a “humanitarian crisis”. The number of homeless children in Dublin reached a new high of 1,275 this month.

The government has recently floated some new measures to tackle these crises. One is the (vaguely specified) possibility of promoting “rent certainty” – encouraging longer-term leases and linking rent rises to the rate of inflation.

Another is granting landlords tax breaks if they take in families in receipt of rent supplement (many landlords do not). A further possible step is to reduce levies on developers rejuvenating vacant sites.

This begs some questions: would it not be cheaper to make it illegal for landlords not to accept rent supplement, and for the owners of vacant sites to be fined until they agree to develop them?

Ada Colau, the housing-activist-turned-mayor of Barcelona, has recently led the council there in fining banks that keep empty houses on their books. The banks penalised are then given a month to rent out the houses or face further fines. Initiatives like this are happening all over Spain.

Not so in Ireland, where the mantra is that all policies must be “market-sensitive”.

Government “sensitivity” to the market is such that Minister for Finance Michael Noonan wants the Central Bank to review its mortgage caps for first-time buyers because builders have told him that the caps (designed to prevent a new housing-price bubble) are overly restrictive.

Meanwhile, the four Dublin local authorities have been shown so-called “modular homes” (what others might call prefabs) that could be built by private companies and installed within a day at a cost of roughly €100,000 to provide at least temporary accommodation. (Among the companies building such dwellings is Roankabin, a subsidiary of SiteServ – the Denis O’Brien company that controversially won contracts to install water meters).

The projected cost for a relatively small prefab seems high, given that the cost of the sites would fall on the local authorities. Dublin city councillor Eilis Ryan has queried whether this constitutes another example of the public sector ensuring a “stream of subsidies, easy contracts and guaranteed profits to the private sector”.

The state’s tendency to look for a market “solution” to all problems, usually involving the transfer of public resources to private individuals, is long-standing and deep-seated. Recent research by Katia Attuyer on the botched development of an area of the North Inner-City – including the Four Courts and Smithfield – during the 1990s and 2000s provides a classic example.

As Dublin City Council (DCC) drew up plans to regenerate this district, low-income residents soon found that they would have little input if they were opposed to speculative property development.

For example, community representatives who urged that developers be levied to help fund community projects found themselves removed from “participatory”, “consultative” committees. DCC officials saw such levies as deterrents to developers and thus as obstacles to “development”. Social housing and community-service needs were mostly ignored and a large-scale private residential-and-retail scheme greenlighted for Smithfield Square.

In the old Markets section of the area, not-for-profit groups wanted to nurture food-processing activities as a means of reducing unemployment, and also proposed the construction of a public sports centre and swimming pool, but, instead, a public-private partnership (PPP) plan was drawn up that envisaged high-end commercial and residential facilities unaffordable to most locals.

The claimed appeal of PPP was that the private developers bore all the costs, but this ignored the fact that they were being given public land for free, as well as availing of tax breaks.

In the event, the plans were shelved when the property market collapsed. DCC officials, Attuyer notes, blamed the failure of their schemes on delays arising from community objections rather than on any flaw in the PPP model of debt-driven speculation and “social cleansing” – the clearing of working-class communities to make way for the middle and upper classes.

As Attuyer puts it, despite “unfinished and vacant private residential complexes and cancelled regeneration projects”, government policy remains firmly “supportive of property interests”. And while that remains the case, Dublin’s crises of housing and homelessness will not be going away any time soon.

Related plug: On 3 October, the Housing Emergency and Rights Conference will be held at Liberty Hall. Scheduled speakers include Father Peter McVerry, Lorcan Sirr of DIT, Anthony Flynn of Inner City Helping Homeless, Rory Hearne of Maynooth University, TD Mick Wallace, Des Derwin of SIPTU and people directly affected by the housing crisis.

Andy Storey is a lecturer in political economy at University College Dublin and a board member of human rights group Action from Ireland (Afri).

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