One of the core ideas of the government’s social-housing strategy, as set out in the government’s housing plan, Rebuilding Ireland, is that we must “avoid repeating the mistakes of the past”.
We must not build large social-housing estates as in earlier decades, but should focus instead on “a mix of smaller scale and infill developments”, it says.
At the heart of this approach is a gospel that any concentration of social housing should be avoided. Instead, these new developments should also feature owner-occupied housing.
This approach is often called “tenure mixing”, and has become a go-to panacea for the alleged ills of social housing, not just in Ireland but across many advanced economies.
Indeed, the idea that large social neighbourhoods are doomed to dystopia – characterised by unemployment, crime and drugs – is so widespread and so widely supported that it is rarely challenged in media, political, or policy debates.
There are, however, two major problems with it. First of all, it’s wrong. And second of all, it is a dangerous narrative for a city like Dublin, which desperately needs ambitious, large-scale social-housing construction.
Blame Deindustrialisation, Not Social Housing
The idea that the social-housing neighbourhoods of the past were failures is in large part based on the fact that a number of such neighbourhoods in Dublin, and in other cities, experienced chronic social problems, in particular from the mid-to-late 1980s and into the early 1990s.
They were saddled with high unemployment, poverty, and mental-health issues. But they were marked, above all, by the heroin epidemic that swept through many communities during the period. Nobody can argue with this.
However, to suggest that social housing caused these issues is to confuse correlation with causation. In reality, poverty, deteriorating mental health, and vulnerability to heroin were much more closely related to deindustrialisation than they were to social housing.
Nearly every city in the industrialised world experienced these issues during the great wave of deindustrialisation, and consequent unemployment, of the 1970s and 1980s.
Here in this city, sociology lecturer Michael Punch at University College Dublin has documented the relationship between deindustrialisation in the 1970s and 1980s, and the social problems experienced in inner-city neighbourhoods.
In short, communities affected by these massive economic changes would have experienced serious social problems irrespective of what form of housing they were living in.
Social Housing Can Be Mixed-Income
The idea of “mixed tenure” is also based on another problematic assumption: that only poor and socially excluded people live in social housing.
This risks ignoring the many social-housing residents who are in full-time employment. But, more importantly, it fails to ask the crucial question: why is it that social housing tends to have higher concentrations of poor households?
The answer here is our allocations policy. Countries like Ireland allocate social housing on the basis of “housing need”. Given the small proportion of social housing in the first place – under 10 percent of Irish households live in social housing – this means the most needy are concentrated in social housing.
Moreover, Ireland has for many decades sold off social housing to better-off tenants, giving them a leg up into home ownership, while narrowing the spread of those in social housing further, leaving the poorest households.
In other countries, for example Denmark, allocations policy is not based on need, but on a combination of time on waiting lists and the necessity to build sustainable communities. Likewise in Austria, where households of almost any income level can, and do, live in social housing.
In other words, if you have a higher proportion of social housing and a more sustainable allocations policy, it is perfectly possible to create mixed-income neighbourhoods of social housing.
The converse is also true: mixed-tenure neighbourhoods do not necessarily mean mixed-income neighbourhoods.
In places like Ballymun, where tenure mixing was part of the regeneration strategy, most of the private housing was snapped up by landlords who rent out to tenants in receipt of rent supplement or the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP).
The income profile has remained the same despite the reduction in the proportion of social housing in the neighbourhood. This is linked to another rather obvious fact that is rarely mentioned: it is the housing market, not social housing, that leads to clusters of poor and rich households in separate neighbourhoods.
Those cities with more marketised housing systems, such as in the English-speaking world, tend to have much higher levels of class segregation than their counterparts in continental Europe, which tend to have high levels of social housing.
Some of the contradictions and problems with tenure mixing are particularly evident when we consider that it is one of the main policy responses to the stigmatisation of social-housing residents and neighbourhoods.
The irony is that tenure mixing appears to be predicated on the idea that when lots of social-housing households live together, their bad behaviour gets worse, and that conversely when they come into contact with middle-class home owners they will, by osmosis, take on the latter’s alleged virtues.
This assumption is itself stigmatising. It fails to recognise that stigmatisation is not caused by social-housing residents, but by the attitudes of those who don’t live in social housing. There is also evidence that social-housing residents who live in mixed-tenure developments experience increased internal stigma from their new homeowning neighbours.
More worryingly, there is research that suggests, in some cities at least, that tenure mixing is not so much about dealing with issues such as unemployment, drugs, or stigma, but more about dispersing those who are affected by these problems, and therefore making them less visible.
Such a strategy goes hand in hand with gentrification: if the “solution” to the problems faced by social housing is to reduce the amount of it and expand the number of higher-income owner-occupiers in a neighbourhood, it is simply state-sponsored gentrification.
This is particularly important in the context of the planned redevelopment of several large social housing estates in Dublin, including O’Devaney Gardens in Dublin 7, which under current plans would see greatly increased proportions of private housing.
How Large Is Large?
But perhaps one of the most frustrating features of this debate is the extremely loose references to large social-housing estates in the Rebuilding Ireland strategy and more generally.
When international researchers look at the issues that can arise with high concentrations of poverty, it is often referring to neighbourhoods often of many thousands of residents.
But in Dublin, politicians and policymakers often seem to consider developments as small as a couple of hundred units to be a large concentration.
A housing policy that cannot fathom 200 social-housing units side by side without social catastrophe, in the context of an acute housing shortage, is in serious trouble.
And this brings us to the final danger of enshrining tenure mixing as a vision for housing development, and social housing in particular. We have an acute housing shortage. The market alone will not be able to provide adequate supply of affordable housing.
We need decisive and ambitious state intervention. We need to think big. We need to think long term. We need new large neighbourhoods to sustain Dublin’s rapid growth. Social housing, on a large scale, needs to be part of this.
Our ability to imagine, envision, and create such neighbourhoods is currently being hampered by ill-informed assumptions about social housing.
Instead of assuming social housing neighbourhoods can’t work, let’s tear up the script and start a discussion about how we would like such neighbourhoods to work and what needs to happen to make that vision possible.