I  Like Public Housing and So Should You

I Like Public Housing and So Should You

This is the first in a new series of member-led writing for the CATU blog. In this, Enda McHugh (@MchughEnda) covers some of the history of public housing in Ireland, and why it should be supported as an alternative to the private market.

Pick up a newspaper published in Ireland from any time in the last decade and you’ll see talk of housing: house prices, investment opportunities, the fallout of the housing crash, families struggling with mortgage arrears, and crippling debt. You’ll see reports of homelessness, shelters unable to cope, NGO’s appealing for funds, families sleeping in Garda Stations, and children growing up in hostels and hotel rooms. There’s no escaping the corruption, greed and commodification overseen by a succession of deeply incompetent housing ministers handling the housing crisis with butter fingers: Simon Coveney, Eoghan Murphy, and now Darragh O’Brien. Flick through the pages of any major newspaper and you’ll see report after report on the vast sums wasted on HAP (Housing Assistance Payment), buying social housing from private developers, subsidising those wealthy enough to get on the property ladder, as well as gifting land to private interests in exchange for unaffordable ‘affordable’ housing. 

The issue underlying all of this is undoubtedly the drive to turn housing into a commodity, and to extract as much money as possible from it, as well as the destabilising influence of profit motive where once there were public services. All the same, it’s hard to ignore the significant role the state has played in making things worse. Does this mean the state is incapable of making things better? Is the call for universal public housing doomed to failure? Is it time to simply give in and accept that not being homeless or living in squalor is simply a right reserved for people better than you at being born to rich parents?

To answer that question we have to look to Ireland’s less than perfect record with regards to social and public housing. A century of right-wing governments, Catholic anti-communism, and entrenched poverty meant there were always constraints on providing for the material needs of the people. Initial efforts focused on continuing the work of the Land Commission and the job of dismantling large landlord estates left over from centuries of British rule. At this stage the emphasis was on grants and loans for buying back land and building private houses, rather than the provision of genuine public housing. 

It wasn’t until the late 1920s and early 1930s that real progress began with developments in Marino, Drumcondra, Cabra and more. The Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act of 1931 ushered in an era of compulsory purchase orders and large scale construction of public housing projects (e.g. Oliver Bond Street flats and St. Audoen’s House). Later in the decade, large estates of social housing were constructed in Kimmage, Crumlin, and Drimnagh. These developments provided quality housing, secure tenure, and fair rents for Dublin’s working poor, with similar initiatives undertaken on a smaller scale across the country.

The Catholic Church at the time enthusiastically promoted the idea that each family had the right to own property- a house, a home, as a bulwark against Godless communism. This position initially informed government policy, but thankfully a growing pragmatism had begun to emerge by the 1930s. Increasingly, policy setters and local authorities realised that the poorest of the urban poor had no recourse to even the paltry capital needed to avail of grants to build or buy their way into home ownership. Consequently the only practical option was for local authorities to bear the costs and build public housing en masse and then rent it out at an affordable rate. As such, the approach to public housing in the early days of the Irish state was driven by circumstances (a dire situation in the tenement slums) and no other viable alternative. From a strategic and ideological perspective, no one in power was wedded to the concept of an inalienable right to housing and sustainable public housing development in the long term. The result of all this was two-fold. On one hand, houses and flats were built. Families were able to move out of dangerously overcrowded tenements. Jobs were created. Working people were afforded a certain level of dignity and comfort. The state demonstrated its ability to meet the needs of its people, and in so-doing fulfilled, at least to some extent, its democratic mandate, defending its raison d’etre.  On the other hand, the idea that homeowners made better citizens than renters was never extinguished. Throughout the middle of the 20th century (1930s through to the 1960s) County Councils and central government failed to implement an appropriate system for charging differential rents (whereby those with the means paid more and the most needy were subsidised). Such a system was of course dogged from the outset by the fact that only the working class rented, while the rich and upper middle class continued to own their own homes. The state couldn’t stomach continuing to lose money subsidising public housing. However, they couldn’t bring themselves to squeeze more tax revenue from the monied minority, nor could they face the electoral fallout that would come from hiking up working class rents en masse. 

The solution was to return to the policy platform of the 1920s and provide grants and schemes for tenants to buy out the council and become owner occupiers. This was arguably the beginning of the end for viable public housing in Ireland. By 1991, the County Council accounted for only 17% of housing provision in the country, with two thirds of households being owner-occupied nationally. 

Despite tangible successes in improving living conditions for the working poor and lower middle class, the Irish state in the mid 20th century had failed to build a sustainable public housing system wherein assets would remain in public hands, and rents taken in would cover upkeep and new developments. The reason for this was political. The powers that be were of the opinion that housing should pay for itself. They weren’t interested in subsidising homes for the working class through general taxation. The establishment and the ruling class (the politicians, the educated professionals, the owners of capital, and the Church) were enthralled with the idea of private property. They refused to countenance the idea of public housing for the well-to-do (those capable of paying the differential rents necessary to make the whole system financially viable) in 20th century Ireland’s economically divided society.

The latter part of the 20th century and opening decades of the 21st century have seen Irish society and government stray even further from the ideals of public housing for all. These days it’s not fervent Catholic anti-communism that’s behind it, but rather the increasing institutionalisation of money-grubbing opportunism. Those in power had plenty of reason to be critical of public housing built and managed by the state and/or local authorities. Besides the failure to implement a workable differential rent policy for mid-century public housing developments, there was also the case of Ballymun. Ballymun was a large-scale development of a new suburb of 5,000 public housing units designed to relieve overcrowding in city-centre communities undertaken in the mid 1960s. Though ambitious the scheme was dogged by poor planning and failures to provide for many essential services in the locality. Ballymun became a dead end; no shops, no services, no jobs, poor transport links to the rest of the city, combined with maintenance issues in the tower blocks and a rent-to-buy scheme (this again) that encouraged established families to actually move out of the area.

Following Ballymun, the phrase ‘public housing’ became more or less a byword for deprivation, social exclusion, inefficiently bureaucratic central planning, and a continuation of past mistakes. Though not all these criticisms were grounded in reality, they became ammunition for those arguing for a new way forward in social housing. From the 1970s onwards there was a shift to a more varied approach with less direct involvement from local authorities. This shift was compounded by funding squeezes during the hard years of the 1980s, and again following the crash of 2008, which meant that capital funding that might otherwise fund house building was instead diverted to foreign debt servicing.

Instead we saw an increasing reliance on private individuals and developers as well as NGO’s of various stripes. In the 1970s we saw the introduction of rent supplements, whereby those on social welfare gained an entitlement to a cash allowance designed to offset the cost of rent. More often than not this money wound up in the pocket of a private landlord. This was built upon in the 21st century with the introduction of the Rental Accommodation Scheme (2004) and the Housing Assistance Payment (introduced 2014) which saw more and more public money being diverted into the pockets of private landlords. Increasingly, local authorities and the department for housing shied away from building houses and instead chose to subsidise private rents for those who could not pay them. This was arguably an acceptable approach in rural districts where rents were affordable and demand for large social housing developments low. However in Dublin and other urban centres this approach exacerbated the runaway inflation of rental rates at the heart of our current housing crisis. At the same time it made landlords rich.

Where demand for social housing could not be met by paying off private landlords to open their doors to the working class, the government looked for work arounds to avoid getting their hands dirty actually building houses again. In the 1980s Approved Housing Bodies (aka housing associations) began to be awarded grants to provide social housing. Superficially at least, AHB social housing looks like local authority public housing though it’s owned and run by private organisations without any democratic mandate. Questions also arise periodically about funding routes, chief executive pay, and tenants’ rights.

Despite the shortcomings of these hands-off approaches, they have persisted for a number of reasons. Besides the austerity that prevents local authorities from directly funding new public housing developments, there’s also the reality that landlords, developers, investors, and chief executives all make money in ways that would be impossible in a fully public system. Most importantly of all,  there’s no political will to do better. For the last hundred years the same narrative has been pushed again and again that social housing (and renting in general) is for the poor. Good Catholic Irishmen own their own houses. Traditional Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael voters own their own houses. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael politicians own their own houses (and many are landlords too) and they’ve always had more to gain from pushing up the price of housing and pushing those who’d vote against them into emmigration. 

The result of all this is that Ireland is in the depths of a housing crisis that has steadily worsened year after year. Rents in Dublin are among the highest in the world. Quality of life for even the comfortably middle class is impacted and the working poor are driven into homelessness in their thousands

There is an alternative of course. We need only look to our European neighbours in places like Finland and Austria where publicly owned, mixed tenure, cost-rental public housing is the norm. 

This reality has never materialised in Ireland because the political establishment will not stand for it. Ownership of property is too valuable both economically and spiritually (tied as it is to the aspirational ideals at the heart of middle Ireland) for the likes of Darragh O’Brien to turn his back on it. We can try reform or a repeat of the mistakes of the past. However, what’s really needed is a complete break from the status quo in terms of housing policy both public and private.

To do this we need to organise and amplify the voices of those calling for change; the hundreds of thousands languishing in the rental trap and left out of the property-asset owning middle class. We need the power and the structures to hold politicians to account, to set our own narratives and goals, to oppose and break the power of the landlords and speculators, and to build an Ireland of equity and justice. What we need is to build an Ireland where tenants’ rights are held more sacred than property rights. What we need is a Union.