It shall be the first duty of the Government of the
Republic to make provision for the physical,
mental and spiritual well-being of the children,
to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold
from lack of food, clothing, or shelter.

Democratic Programme of the First Dáil

Falling short

Surely it’s clear that we’ve fallen well short of that first duty of the first Dáil when almost nine thousand people are homeless in Ireland, about 3,000 of them children. Those official counts of homeless families in emergency accommodation don’t, however, include rough sleepers or the so-called hidden homeless—those people who are living in their parents’ box room, or ‘sofa surfing’ with friends. Nor does it include women and children staying in domestic violence refuges or an unspecified number of homeless families who have been placed in ‘own door’, i.e. self-contained but temporary accommodation.

Nor does it include those people in private rental property receiving HAP (Housing Assistance Payments) who account for a large part of the statistical reduction in official homeless numbers. They will have been deleted from the waiting list for housing because their permanent housing needs are ‘deemed to have been met’. Crucially, however, they don’t have security of tenure.

At best, the landlord is bound only to continue the lease for six years. The tenant can then be asked to leave for no cause. But not all landlords feel bound by the rules; they can and do end a tenant’s lease for any number of illegitimate reasons. There are penalties for this kind of behaviour, but nobody polices the eviction notices—that’s the tenant’s responsibility. And because there’s no redress for the now potentially homeless tenants, there’s no incentive to pursue a case and most abuses go unreported.

This isn’t a trivial matter. If a tenant receiving HAP is made homeless once more, by legal or any other means, having lost their place on the waiting list by accepting HAP, they’ll go to the back of a housing queue that can be more than a decade long.

The conditions of landlords receiving HAP have to include secure, open-ended, rent-controlled tenancies or security of tenure for public tenants will become a thing of the past.

If HAP is going to fulfil Government responsibility for providing public housing, the conditions of its payment have to include secure, open-ended, rent-controlled tenancies. Otherwise, poor and vulnerable people will once again find themselves at the mercy of the obscene greed of the market, and security of tenure for public tenants will become a thing of the past. Those potential outcomes appear not to bother the FF/FG/Greens enough to cause them to put human rights before property rights and insist on open-ended leases. Instead, we’re legislating to create the next generation of homeless families.

Shameful

But why is our Government insisting that they will provide public housing by paying HAP to landlords? Mortgages last for 25 years, but HAP is for life. And why are local councils renting or purchasing properties from the private sector when that policy is inarguably the most expensive way of providing public housing? Take, for instance, this deal offered to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council:

German investor Realis bought 90 apartments in listed builder Glenveagh Properties’ Herbert Hill development in Dundrum last November for €55 million. . . . Realis intends leasing the properties to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council for social housing at prices up to €3,000 a month for the units. (irishtimes.com/business)

Had the Council bought those 90 apartments, the ‘up to’ €2.7 million in rent they will now pay each year would have covered the purchase price in less than 20 years—leaving the Council with full ownership of a valuable asset.

Had the Council built 90 apartments, the build cost would have saved up to half the purchase price as well as the €2.7 million a year that they wouldn’t be paying in rent to an investment fund.

The only possible conclusion is that current housing policy is designed to make sure that landlords, developers, and investment funds will get rich on our tax money. Because let’s be clear, this isn’t a matter of councils struggling to make the best of difficult times, this is a policy-driven crisis. Bedrock neo-liberal ideology doesn’t want government in the business of building public housing because it interferes with the laws of supply-and-demand in a free marketplace. The logic is that, without interference, a free market will provide housing for everyone at every level. And, to paraphrase Trump, ‘one day the homeless will just disappear, like a miracle.’

But experience has exploded that myth. We freed the market while we had the Celtic Tiger by the tail. Construction surged and developers got rich. We built more houses than at any other time in living memory. Only 6% of them were destined for public housing and we were left with a homelessness crisis that shames our Republic. Again.

Children are born and/or grow up with their entire family living in a single room in a B&B on meals from the chipper because they have no access to cooking facilities. We read stories about babies who are delayed learning to crawl or walk because of a lack of floor space. From the start of their lives, these children are economically, nutritionally, socially, and educationally disadvantaged. They are being raised by adults whose spirits are constantly in the process of being broken.

And this is happening in the sixth richest country in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).1

Well, I’m ashamed. What about you?  

Cognitive dissonance and alternative truths

So, what do you do if you’re Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, or both in this case, and your absolutely certain knowledge of how the world works is contradicted by the hard evidence in front of you—that freeing the market delivered (at least) two separate but closely related national disasters, the financial crash and record-breaking levels of homelessness?

That’s what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. It happens when the world out there doesn’t match the picture in our heads. Often our first instinct isn’t to adjust what we thought we knew by adding in the new information, but rather to try and adjust the world out there to fit our preconceptions—and, with just a slight squint, a more convenient ‘alternative truth’ might emerge. For instance, that homelessness isn’t caused by multi-factorial neglect, lack of planning, lack of action, and lack of caring on the part of Irish governments local and national; it’s all about supply, which is in the process of being corrected by the market. Like a miracle.

Before we learned to depend on neo-liberal miracles, during times when the country was economically an awful lot worse off than we are today, we built the suburbs of Ballyfermot (where I was born), Cabra, Crumlin, Drimnagh, Finglas, and so on down the alphabet. Fintan O’Toole points out that in the decade between 1933 and 1943 (covering parts of both the Great Depression and the Emergency) the majority of new builds were public housing units and by 1995 public housing still comprised 25% of all houses built.

But in the years of the boom, from 1995 to 2007, just 6% of newly built homes were local authority houses. After that, the Government, both local and national, got out of the house-building business in any meaningful way. The private sector was going to take care of all that.

But they didn’t.

Things didn’t improve during the recession that followed the boom or the recovery that followed the recession. In 2018, with 70,000 households on a waiting list for housing, local authorities built 2,022 housing units (their target had been 4,409) and Approved Housing Bodies built 1,388. At that stunning rate of progress, we could clear the current waiting lists in about twenty years. Then we can start on the even longer waiting list that will have built up while we were fixing the first one. And Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council will still be paying multi-million euro in rent every year to an investment fund.


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