Saturday 19 January 2019

Gene Kerrigan: Freeze them out of it, said the honest man

The Apollo House action threatened the political consensus that tolerates mass homelessness

Housing Minister Simon Coveney. Photo: Tom Burke
Housing Minister Simon Coveney. Photo: Tom Burke
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

It's all connected. They're reported separately, in different parts of the media - news pages, political analysis, business pages, court reports, property pages - but it's all connected.

Little pieces of a bigger picture, which often don't make sense on their own.

The Nama scandal.

Apollo House.

Vulture funds.

Simon Coveney telling us he's on top of the housing problem - in pretty much the same words Alan Kelly used when he told us the same thing.

Article 43 of the Constitution.

Rent controls and the lack thereof.

And then, of course, there's United Nations Resolution A/68/L.57/Rev.1.

And William Whittle. Let's not forget William Whittle.

It's all connected.

Deal with them one by one and you end up spinning in circles, like Simon Coveney. Put them together, see the bigger picture, and we might get somewhere.

There was a period in Irish life when you went to a wedding or a party and always ended up sitting next to some smug eejit who couldn't wait to tell you how well he was doing in the property market.

You buy a place, he'd say, and you slap on a lick of paint. You flip it and buy two more, plus a couple of flats in Eastern Europe.

You were a fool if you didn't, what with it being so cheap to borrow.

We all know how that ended, and who got stuck with the bill.

And, while the politicians were loading us with charges and levies and asset-stripping the hospitals and the schools, somehow our problem changed. One minute all the talk was of ghost estates. There were thousands of empty houses built where no one wanted to live, where there were no jobs, no transport, no schools, sometimes on flood plains.

The wise men of the free market stroked their chins and wrote think pieces and went on the airwaves and explained that the problem was one of oversupply.

The political parties picked our pockets, pushed State responsibilities on to carers, shoved kids into shanty classrooms and declared their education system the best in the world.

Then they confiscated as many medical cards as they could get away with and experimented with seeing how many nurses they could do without.

And, while we were distracted, the problem changed. Suddenly we didn't have too many empty houses, we had too few.

And the wise men of the free market stroked their chins and wrote think pieces and went on the airwaves and explained that the problem was one of undersupply.

What happened?

Well, the housing market is somewhere most of us go to buy or rent a place to live. For a small but rich and influential set, the housing market had become a casino in which they could get even richer.

The smug eejits we met at weddings and parties were small fry. They, along with much bigger fry - retail bankers and investment bankers and builders - had become professional gamblers.

They borrowed and loaned to gamble. The higher they could push prices, the more money the gamblers made.

For politicians, who see the property market as an indicator of prosperity, higher prices and a busy market became the goal. They weren't into building anything, they preferred to incentivise gambling.

Most of us don't care how much our houses cost. Houses in my neighbourhood went for €500,000 in the boom, and fell to less than half that, and they're going up again. It doesn't matter. Whatever the price, if I sell I'll have to pay around the same to find somewhere to live.

But, on top of the normal buying and selling, we have a flint-eyed set of greed merchants for whom a house is the equivalent of a poker chip at a card table. And what they bet on is the rate and speed at which property prices move.

The higher and faster prices go, the more money the greed merchants make - and the same applies to the estate agents, the land hoarders and the lawyers and the accountants who service them.

On top of this again we now had Nama, set up to get the banks and the builders out of trouble. To suit the politicians, who wanted money fast, Nama began selling huge packages of property, so big that only international vulture capitalists could afford to bid. A hundred properties might attract half-a-million each, if sold individually; a vulture could buy them all in one go, for half that. Less money for Nama, but faster.

Eventually, evidence appeared of millions falling off the back of the Nama lorry, so to speak. No one wanted to know, except Mick Wallace and his type.

"God, would ya look at the hair on him."

But, hey, he says millions are being ripped off...

"And that shirt, a pink shirt, get up the yard!"

Really, though, the millions...

"You'd think he'd show more respect to the Dail, wouldn't you?"

Eventually the Nama stink got so bad even the Dail couldn't ignore it.

And we're asking ourselves how did it get to this?

People with jobs who can't afford to buy or rent. People who could afford rent but their landlords keep pushing rent up and they become homeless.

Others don't know the apartment block they live in has been bought by vultures until they receive the eviction notice - and they and all their neighbours are being turfed out.

People sleep in doorways; businesses create "aggressive architecture" - spikes and bars and water sprays - to move them on. Parents frantic, in "emergency" accommodation, they and their kids cooking and eating and sleeping and playing and doing homework and arguing and crying and all the stuff of family life, in a single hotel room, month after month, desperately watching the kids for signs of depression.

Others in shelters, on a bed or a cot or a mat on the floor, no permanence, out the door next morning, hour after hour, day after day, shuffling hopelessly through a contemptuous city.

And politicians who see all this as normal, a product of the free market.

Vultures? In 2014, at the UN General Assembly, Bolivia proposed measures to curb them, through resolution A/68/L.57/Rev.1.

And our FG/Labour government voted for the vultures.

The current FG/FF crowd remains complacent - the homeless to them are objects of charity; with the bonus of earning brownie points with St Peter for every sagging mattress provided.

Oh, we can't have rent control, we mustn't interfere with the market. And there are constitutional barriers to this or that. Municipal housing, as a social policy, rather than a charity, is unacceptable. When anyone mentions Nama they stick their fingers in their ears and scream.

When Home Sweet Home occupied Apollo House it wasn't charity that the artists and activists, small businesses and thousands of volunteers brought: it was solidarity. It said this is simply not acceptable.

No ideology, no reverence for property rights, justify this as a policy - and it is clearly a policy. Deprivation of shelter, carried on for months and years, is not mischance, it is policy.

William Whittle, a former FG local government candidate, did not insult them with false good-fellowship.

He said of Apollo House: "Cut all services off, freeze them out of it."

William Whittle is an honest man. He said what he thought. He didn't hide behind the old oh-our-hands-are-tied bulls**t.

The thousands of homeless are collateral damage, debris cast aside in building the monument to gambling that FG/FF have created.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss