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Home Truths: Is our housing crisis helping to spread Covid-19?


Contagion city: The residents of one Dublin slum house photographed in the early 1900s. Today’s slum landlords have packed them in at up to 16 per bedroom

Contagion city: The residents of one Dublin slum house photographed in the early 1900s. Today’s slum landlords have packed them in at up to 16 per bedroom

Contagion city: The residents of one Dublin slum house photographed in the early 1900s. Today’s slum landlords have packed them in at up to 16 per bedroom

Big employers like Guinness, Jameson and other long-forgotten outfits like the Dublin Tram Company and the Great Southern and Western Railway were known for building quality housing for their workers in times when the State provided naught but the poorhouse.

And almost all of that old company-built housing is still with us today, and regarded for its quality.

While Guinness families still talk about the generosity of their employers in providing not only housing but also public baths; the motive behind corporate building wasn't sweet Christian charity. It was all about investment - in preserving commerce from worker unrest and from contagion.

You didn't go on strike if the boss could chuck you out of your house. And the company baths didn't have diving boards, but they did give you a bar of soap to wash yourself from head to toe. Not just your hands. Meantime, good housing kept valued workers healthy.

Hardened strike-breakers like William Martin Murphy (Dublin Trams) and William Goulding (GSWR) weren't about soft soaping their workforce. Goulding made a point of taking his houses back when workers retired. Social housing was an investment, pure and simple. Protection for production.

Big corporate concerns of old can be better understood today in the thick of the Covid-19 rampage. With most businesses closed for weeks, the economic cost from stalled production will be gargantuan.

When Guinness completed Dublin's Iveagh Trust flats off Kevin Street in 1903, times were similar. It was a year in which a smallpox epidemic broke out in the north inner city, while TB, always a dark presence in the slums, killed 14,000. Regular outbreaks of scarlet fever and measles also killed in numbers. So if you had a big commercial operation reliant on big manpower, you provided housing. In a stewpot of contagion like Dublin 1903, it was a commercially stupid decision not to.

Otherwise, one third of Dublin families lived in a single room. One-room families averaging seven children each were packed into buildings (see photo). TB, which was conveyed via coughing and sneezing, easily travelled, along with anything else going. The TB fatality rate was 90pc.

Unless you had a two-room railwayman's cottage, a two-bed Guinness flat or a Jameson two-up, two-down, there was simply nowhere to self-isolate. By 1903 big business owners had themselves moved out of their city squares to new rural proximate suburbs, to protect their families from contagion.

In Dublin in 1903, TB was known as 'the poverty disease'. Overcrowding made it so and the home you lived in played a huge part in determining whether you would be among the quarter of all Irish people who ultimately would die from contagion.

So is Covid-19 a new 'poor housing' disease? Before the coronavirus outbreak, Google stated that it intended acquiring or developing its own worker housing in Dublin. Although not related to Covid-19, that plan is again about protecting business from a housing crisis. Google-provided housing is about attracting and keeping workers in a city where rents have been rising by up to 10pc a year and are unaffordable to average salaries. Google's missive is the first sign that big Irish-based employers who can afford it, now believe they need to invest in bricks to shield production.

In January the Dublin Chamber of Commerce cited the scarcity and cost of housing as the single biggest problem for businesses because it drives wage inflation and prices workers out of the capital. It reckons rates of home construction need to be doubled.

But under recent governments, Dublin (and other cities) has been recreating the slum conditions of old on the back of the State's flat refusal to build social housing and to usher in effective policies to promote the building of social and affordable housing in required numbers.

Resulting high rents mean low-income workers sharing up to four to a bedroom. Recent media investigations showed houses with rows of bunk-beds packed into kitchens and in one notable case, 16 sharing a bedroom. Dublin in particular is now filled with contagion hotspots.

Unlike the old ruling class that invested in social housing as they themselves fled disease, our Government has been seemingly paralysed through most of a decade in solving the housing crisis. Except that is, in legislating for blocks of smaller build-to-let apartments to benefit big private equity, to promote the cramming of people into 'shared living' where 30 share a kitchen, and the shoving of whole families into 'hubs' and single hotel rooms - the poor houses of Contagion City 2020. Flat out housing charities will wryly note that the cabinet has instantly found billions down the back of the sofa to support businesses and workers in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, albeit vital cash. To preserve the economy, we are told. And it has to be done.

Hospital staff deprived of public health resources for over a decade by a penny-pinching on a scale that would warm William Martin Murphy's heart will also have a sardonic smile for the Health Minister and his ex-Health-Minister Taoiseach, today urging a bualadh bos for hospital care workers with the succour of a pair of mansion matrons doling out soup at the Famine. Heroes without capes for sure, but pinned to their collars for a decade and the shirt of capacity picked off their backs by Marner and Scrooge.

So we have to ask members of this Government: just how many cases of Covid-19 have communally spread as a direct result of the overcrowding and inability to self-isolate that is directly linked to years of 'let them eat cake' housing policies? Perhaps Covid-19 has finally brought the implications home to you? But just in case, let's speak Thatcherite to ensure you fully comprehend what even the hardest -bitten Victorian business barons realised: social housing is not feckless charity, it is an investment.

True always, but especially in times when bad housing can kill. Like now.

Indo Property