Wednesday 21 March 2018

'I try and look at the bright side of life' - Councillor forced to sleep in car after home repossessed by bank

Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

A county councillor who ran a string of successful businesses in the Celtic Tiger era has had his home repossessed by the bank.

Joe Harris (58), who sits on Cork County Council, ran a successful mortgage business, an insurance business and an auctioneering business with five offices around Cork, where he employed 30 people and had an annual wage bill of €1m in the early 2000s.

During the Celtic Tiger, he enjoyed a good standard of living. But when he lost everything, he suffered a nervous breakdown and his marriage broke down. Just last week, he lost his home to repossession.

“I had a good standard of living, I had a couple of houses, a couple of cars and a boat, a small boat, and so it was looking good… I was going to France [on holidays] with the kids, with the family.”

“In 2007 I noticed things were getting tighter but it did seem to go very fast. When the confidence went out of the market, people seemed to pull out of deals that you had banked on and that caused a domino effect, there was a kind of a panic situation,” he told RTE’s Today with Sean O’Rourke.

“I was heavily borrowed because I was expanding [the business]. If I was going to make a profit, I felt I had to expand. It was either expand or contract.”

Councillor Joe Harris. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Councillor Joe Harris. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

At the beginning of the recession Joe and his family returned from holidays and he was told by the banks that his accounts had been closed. This rendered him almost immediately without income and without a job.

“The banks refused to close my account basically. They said we’re not funding you anymore... They just shut the account… you can’t pay the wages then.”

“Even though I had limited companies, I had personal guarantees [of about €4m] on most of them. So all the debt fell on me then. They were taken back fairly quickly.”

“Your physical and mental health takes a battering because you don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. Every day is a battle to get up out of bed and face it. Some days you can’t do it, so I was kind of a basket case for about six months in 2008.”

“I liquidated the companies. The liquidators stopped everything when they took over… I effectively had no income then.”

Last week Cllr Harris was forced to vacate his home in Douglas, Cork, and the locks were changed by the appointed receiver.

Now, the Independent councillor is “effectively homeless” and he is staying with his brother as a temporary measure.

“He has his own family. The other night I had to sleep in a car because he had a family member coming in.”

But he said: “It’s a lot better than when it was in 2008 when I had the breakdown. That was the lowest point.”

Cllr Harris said financial ruin has an “enormous effect on the family. It’s ongoing really. It’s like you’ve an earthquake happening but you find this is eight years down the road, and this is the aftershocks.”

Cllr Harris suffered a nervous breakdown in 2008 and his marriage broke down in 2009.

“When you get a nervous breakdown, it’s a strange feeling. You just can’t function. I was hospitalised for about four weeks. But I just couldn’t function for about six months.”

But he said: “The kids were fairly resilient. They just got on with it at best they could.”

Cllr Harris decided to stand for election in 2014 for Cork County Council when he saw how his own story could give people hope.

“It’s survivable… Money is not the be all and end all of everything.” 

“I’ve a good sense of humour. I try and look at the bright side of life. When you go through physical and mental battles, you get battle hardened and you see that life is good.”

Cllr Harris will apply for a council house, but he said the waiting list is years long.

“You could be talking about seven to ten years to get a house or a property, so if they were in my situation I’d probably tell them to get a rental house and apply for the housing assistance programme.”

“I have a mantra… being of service to people does take the edge off it… I think you need a purpose in life.”

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