Some people who pay for everything and qualify for
nothing and other people who . . . er . . . um . . .

Leo Varadkar

I see seven towers, but I only see one way out[i]

Undoubtedly, when it comes to building public housing, there have been historical mistakes from which we have yet to learn. Ballymun flats almost always serve as a tragic example.  

In the sixties, yet another housing crisis and four deaths caused by collapsing tenements forced the Government to act. They built the Ballymun flats and moved upwards of 17,000 people, mostly families with, between them, about 6,000 children under six, to live there without any shops or social services and without a local bus.

For reference purposes, that’s more than the current population of Cobh (12,800) or Killarney (14,504), about the same as Clonmel (17,140), and not that many fewer than Sligo (19,199).

The bus service arrived late as did the shopping centre with its one supermarket and two pubs—the only social spaces in the development. The promised health centre, swimming pool, library, meeting rooms, community halls, and gym didn’t happen.

Can anyone spot a problem?

I’m fairly sure that Clonmel, for instance, has more than one supermarket and two pubs, but more importantly, it has a social and economic infrastructure that Ballymun never had. If Dublin Corporation wanted to build a town-sized development in one fell swoop, they were responsible for providing at least a skeletal infrastructure through the services it promised the residents of Ballymun. The tragedy is that they knew that at the planning stage, and when it came to making promises, but ‘forgot’ it when it was time to deliver and when the tenants were all in place.

In a predictable number of years, those 6,000 small children, became teenagers with nowhere to go and nothing to do but ‘hang out’ and get told they were keeping babies awake with their noise, or getting in the way by sitting on the steps, or just ‘making the place look untidy’. When they went home, they brought with them their resentment at being repeatedly moved on, where it met the growing dissatisfaction of their parents about the lack of facilities and social services. I know, I was a teenager in Ballymun in the early years. I remember the resentment and antagonism that started to eat away at the fabric of our nascent social relations. Resentment and antagonism, it turns out, will spread virally in the vacuum created by the absence of social support systems.

Complaints about social issues, or about the lack of amenities, were treated to the same deaf ear from Dublin Corporation, the landlords, as were complaints about the emerging cracks in the physical fabric of the buildings. Those who could, moved elsewhere; in time, new tenants became reluctant to move in. Over the years, being allocated a flat in Ballymun came to be seen, rightly or wrongly, as a punishment or judgement for being a ‘problem tenant’.

As an aside, I want to point out that the problem with ‘problem tenants’ is rarely the tenant but the lack of supports—medical, educational, financial, social, and so on—for vulnerable people. That lack aggravates and worsens vulnerability and it was written into Ballmun’s history from the start when the promised services failed to appear. And because vulnerable tenants are often politically disempowered, ‘the authorities did not feel pressure to maintain the blocks to a decent standard’ (Fintan O’Toole).

When the predictable consequences of the years of neglect and bad management became visible for all to see, government, local and national, pulled away in horror. And then they changed the narrative. The problem with Ballymun wasn’t the neglect, the lack of amenities or support systems, the high level of unemployment, or the disdain with which tenants were treated by the ‘people who pay for everything and qualify for nothing’ living nearby.

Apparently, the problem was Varadkar’s ‘other people’ en masse—the ones who . . . er . . . um . . . can’t be named, the unspeakable people who live in places like Ballymun flats.

The Irish solution to that particular Irish problem is to hide small numbers of public housing units inside much bigger developments of privately purchased housing, where they’ll hardly be noticed. Importantly, however, the developers who were to deliver that ‘integrated’ housing are allowed to weasel out of their obligations to build public housing units by promising a public swimming pool, for instance, that never comes.

And if they do honour their contract and deliver a few units of public housing, it turns out that ‘the people who pay for everything’ aren’t best pleased that the unspeakable people have invaded their neighbourhood. In the Marianella complex in Rathgar, for instance, public tenants are not allowed to use the property’s meeting rooms, roof terrace, or gym (even if they offer to pay). They aren’t allowed to have pets, even though ‘private’ residents can and do. And they aren’t allowed to attend residents’ meetings.

Councillor Mannix Flynn described this as ‘social exclusion operating under the guise of social inclusion’. Exactly.

So, if we’re not going to build the so-called ‘ghettos of the future’, full of the unspeakable people, and if the people who allegedly ‘pay for everything’ don’t want to live next door to the unspeakable people, and if the Government continues to refuse to accept responsibility for anything because the market is going to solve the problem, and if the developers can weasel out of their obligations to house some unspeakable people—where do the unspeakable people go? They go onto endless housing lists, into the ravenous maw of the private rental market and, for the most vulnerable, into homelessness.

That’s an awfully long way from an Ireland in which ‘the first duty of the Government [is to] make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children’ and the adults they will become.

Poverty is trickling up

One more distressing consequence of the failure of trickle-down economics can be seen in the growing number of people who earn too much to be eligible for public housing and too little to qualify for a mortgage. Poverty is trickling up.

So-called ‘affordable’ housing, because its price is determined by market forces, is increasingly out of the reach of those who are entitled to apply for it. Those caught in the poverty trap of the private rental market, even if they were to qualify for a mortgage, would have little chance of saving for a deposit while paying the usurious rents extorted by market-driven logic.

The Government also has a duty to this cohort who have been abandoned as surely as their cousins on the public housing lists have been abandoned. They too have been surrendered to the untender mercies of the vultures who are taking over the rental market and testing the limits when it comes to market prices. They haven’t found one yet.

Ethics free

Self-evidently, the problem was and is that the Government stopped building houses in sufficient numbers and surrendered its duty to make provision for the well-being of citizens to the mercy of the ethics-free zone of the free market. The solution, equally self-evident, is for Government, both local and national, to start building houses and apartments in sufficient numbers to clear the lists of people waiting for homes to become available and/or affordable to them.

If the State were to build genuinely integrated housing, with no differentiation between privately and publicly owned units or with the people who live in them, and if the distribution of both were random within the development, a different financial model becomes available. The difference between the build cost and the market price obtained from the sale of a percentage of units on the open market—the profit sucked up by multi-millionaire developers—would subsidise, if not cover, the cost of building the public and affordable units. Those low cost/no cost units, whether as rentals to public tenants or as genuinely affordable sales will become income-producing. That income would pay the cost of, say, a permanent maintenance crew to guarantee the upkeep of the development.

Don’t expect the current Government—circling as
they are around policy decisions like a bird with
two right wings—to start building anytime soon.

But that sort of ‘big government’ is anathema to Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and their free-marketeering friends. Don’t expect the current Government—circling as they are around policy decisions like a bird with two right wings—to start building anytime soon. They’re still waiting for the market to perform an increasingly disincentivised miracle. Apparently, almost 9,000 people literally homeless and somewhere around 70,000 households living on the public housing list (sometimes for a decade or more) doesn’t provide sufficient evidence that the market isn’t performing the way they keep promising us it will.

They continue to deal with this national disaster as an intellectual puzzle to be solved—a political jigsaw with some of the pieces missing—and not as a life-changing, life-limiting, heart-breaking disaster for those people who er . . . um . . . find themselves squeezed out of their homes and into homelessness and held there by neoliberal faith in the miracle of trickle-down against all evidence to the contrary.

Shame on all of us; we voted for them . . . sort of.

[i] Running to Stand Still, by U2: Sweet the sin / Bitter the taste in my mouth / I see seven towers / But I only see one way out.

Equal access to a home
The only possible conclusion is that the current housing policy is designed to make sure that landlords, developers, and investment funds will get rich on our tax money. And then the laws of supply-and-demand in a free marketplace will house everyone at every level. To paraphrase Trump, ‘one day the homeless will just disappear, like a miracle.’

Angry Commoners
The pandemic has drawn a sharp divide between those who could lose their houses or their jobs or their lives because of the pandemic, and those who are calculating how to foreclose on mortgages that will become ‘distressed’, who will use job losses to depress wages, or who talk out loud about the premium represented by the death rate among older citizens making houses available and reducing the cost of pensions.

A very Irish coup
Albert Einstein said that we can’t solve problems with the same thinking we used to create them. Swinging endlessly between two parties from a socially conservative, right centrist, and redundant tradition of party politics in Ireland got us as far as the mess we’re in. But take Einstein’s word for it, it’s not going to get us out of it.

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