Monday 20 May 2019

Housing today, sure it's in a class of its own

There's no housing shortage among the rich, but a 94pc funding cut destabilised the market elsewhere, writes Gene Kerrigan

It's been difficult recently for those who like to use offensive language. There was a time when you could get away with "bitch", "queer" or "retard". And if some "humourless" feminist pulled you up on it, you could claim you're being "ironic". You're merely "reclaiming" the language.

Today, such words are no more welcome in polite company than other old favourites, such as "fatso" and "four-eyes".

Perhaps you're one of those people who thinks that objecting to bullying, shaming or insulting others is "political correctness gone mad"? In which case, you'll be pleased to know you can still insult at least one demographic without fear of social isolation.

I refer, of course, to what used to be called "the working class".

We don't, of course, use that term any more. Clearly, class divides us as much today as ever, but it's bad manners to mention it.

In health, there are two systems. The private tier provides inflated incomes to a small cabal of doctors. And provides quicker service for those who can afford the prices. The public health service was run down deliberately, and is now near collapse - needing ever-greater quantities of money to patch it up.

Private education is subsidised by those who can never avail of it. A rigid system ensures a leg-up to third level for even the dimmest from certain social territory.

(Sometimes literally: one of the pricier private schools advertised its services as being available only to those living "south of the Liffey".)

The wealthier use up more of everything. Even the law. Most working class people will never see the inside of a court. Most of the civil system is provided at public expense in order to mediate squabbles between the people of property and wealth. They use that legal facility as casually as the rest of us use buses.

There's even a class division in water. The Irish Times published figures for water consumption: in Dublin 6, for instance, (includes Rathgar) they use 488 litres a day; while in Dublin 20 (Chapelizod) it's a mere 290. Similarly, Ballsbridge (459 litres) and Howth (444 litres) use a lot more water than the great housing estates of Dublin 12 (314 litres).

Well, to be fair, they have more cars and boats, and bigger windows and conservatories to wash.

What's all this got to do with housing?

Politicians and academics tell us the housing crisis arises from a shortage of supply. There's no housing shortage whatever among the wealthy.

Our society is structured in classes. At the top there are layers - some skilled, some not - who extract huge amounts of money. Often this bears no relation to their economic or social function. There are scams and schemes expressly created by government to this end.

One essential, without which society wouldn't work, is a vast pool of labour - some skilled, some not - needed to build things and fix things, to serve customers and to do the heavy lifting.

It's desirable that this pool be available at the cheapest possible price, on the most flexible terms. From Ibec to various media providing soft interviews for business, the need to keep labour costs low is a constant drumbeat.

Today, with the decline of trade unions, this is easily done through fraud. Bosses claim employees are private contractors and thereby dispense with hard-won labour rights. This involves defrauding the State.

It's also done through "the gig economy", a truly hip form of exploitation, whereby you operate on strict orders yet are not an employee.

During this year's worst storm, when we were being warned to stay indoors at peril of our lives - a warning that did indeed save lives - one food delivery outfit texted its "non"-employees to offer an extra euro per delivery to those willing to risk their lives. They put a price on life - one damn euro.

As in health and law and education, so it is in housing.

In the 19th Century, brainier bosses and municipalities realised a vast pool of labour would require housing. Clearly, the workers couldn't afford to build houses - but without them the economic system would seize up. From this came public housing.

It housed the workforce, and it stabilised the housing market.

In the 1930s, the rundown slums were killing people and public housing needed a huge boost. Public housing was used to establish the great housing estates that built modern Dublin.

People paid rent, had stability, worked like hell.

From the 1990s onward, the confident wealthy began to operate strict market principles. Public housing was renamed "social housing", to give it more of a feel of charity.

Public housing was sold off. The idea was that the government would create a property-owning class. It was all the rage. Telecom was sold off to create a "share-owning class". People bought shares with their life savings, some borrowed money to do so.

When the dust settled, the usual suspects made fortunes, while the "new class of share owners" counted their losses and cried openly on TV.

The same geniuses who organised that cut thousands of beds from the public health system. Today they're genuinely puzzled as to why there are immense hospital waiting lists.

The same geniuses who organised that were the ones who very deliberately stopped the building of houses that people could afford. Today they're genuinely puzzled as to why the "incentives" they give builders are not working.

Wealthy people are sitting on planning permission for 25,000 houses in Dublin, waiting for prices and conditions to be improved before they'll build.

In the period 2008-2013, there was a 94pc cut in funding for new council housing. It's arguable that this not only created the housing crisis, it removed the stabiliser that could have avoided the next collapse.

At one end of the market, speculators grab huge profits, at the other end, housing is beyond the reach of too many.

Simultaneously, the wealthy are seeking to suppress workers' income as much as possible; and demanding workers "get on the housing ladder"; and eliminating public housing. It's an effort to have the advantages of a class structure, without the obligations.

There's an immensely overpaid layer. Among them, the time-servers, placeholders and rent takers.

All expect to shop in Brown Thomas next Christmas.

They meanwhile casually denigrate those who are supposed to conjure up the cash for overpriced houses.

The children of the rich - who, one presumes got their values at home, and from those pricey schools - began sneering at the "scangers" and "scobies".

Ouch. That's not how you denigrate people these days. You'll upset the liberals.

Instead, the current Government and its camp followers have found their own language of denigration.

It's routine to hear a minister, or the Taoiseach, publicly refer to "those who don't want to pay for anything". And to their own supporters as "those who pay for everything".

Other codes such as "squeezed middle", are dispensed with when certain politicians privately discuss "spongers".

"People who take risks" refers not to those workers who climb scaffolding on building sites in the winter; or to farmers ploughing bumpy land, hoping the tractor won't tip over. "People who take risks" refers to those who launch a "start-up".

Even those who do so with off-the-books money that was slipped into their back pocket by the oul' lad (not a word to the Revenue, son).

Sunday Independent

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