Tuesday 19 November 2019

Cowen and developers are not actually the devil

We need to be less ideologically rigid in finding solutions to the housing crisis, says Brendan O'Connor, and accept that people have baggage

Questions and answers: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy Photo: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie
Questions and answers: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy Photo: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

When you accuse someone of being ideologically incapable of solving a problem, you can often simply mean that the other person has a different ideology to you. So when Peter McVerry says the Government is ideologically incapable of tackling homelessness, what he actually probably means is that he disagrees with the Government's world view.

But you have to give McVerry credit for mentioning ideology. Because the whole debate on what to do about homelessness is riddled with ideology, but nobody really mentions it. By and large, the debate, as it is conducted right now, is very black and white. There are good guys, and bad guys. The good guys are the ones who work with the victims of homelessness. And they are largely, understandably coming from a left-wing perspective. Anything they say is pretty much taken at face value right now. Which is understandable, really. They are good people, who have been working selflessly at the coalface of a very difficult situation for many years.

The bad guys, in this situation, is everyone else. There are successive governments who apparently didn't care. There are builders who apparently ruined the country. There are the rest of us, who don't care enough. And there is Fianna Fail, chief bad guys, who are to blame for everything.

And all this is understandable too.

Barry Cowen is chief bad guy at the moment. Cowen is like a Fianna Fail cultural meme. The fact that he shares a name, and sometimes a demeanour, with his brother doesn't help. When Mike Allen of Focus Ireland was on Newstalk with Cowen last Friday morning he accidentally called him Brian Cowen and then seemed to be briefly almost amused at this until he remembered where he was and copped himself on. When Barry Cowen suggested last week that we might consider VAT cuts on lower-priced houses, the full force of official Ireland came down on him in the guise of Fintan O'Toole. Some follow-up letters to the Irish Times mopped up the situation with glib and witty remarks about bringing back the Galway tent. Another meme that reminds us all how Fianna Fail ruined our lives and we are better people than them.

This too is all understandable. It is understandable too that people are suspicious of Eoghan Murphy. Too slick, marbles in his mouth, and what did Fine Gael do for the homeless over the last five years?

The core of the ideological clash over homelessness is that successive "right-wing" governments looked to the private sector and the market to solve the housing crisis, but the market, which is a bad guy, obviously failed to do so, due to "greed". The only answer now is 90,000 social housing units. Even Eoghan Murphy has accepted that social housing is the only answer to the problem.

The simplification of the homelessness debate in this country was perhaps summed up in the whole saga over Shane "Jack" Watson, the homeless man who died on Suffolk Street recently. Watson was presented first as a kind of secular saint, a good man, who worked hard at Apollo House to feed everyone, a kind of gentle giant. We were told he fell through the cracks. It was vaguely suggested that bad things had happened to him in Australia, things that didn't need to be talked about. When it emerged that Watson was a violent reoffender - whose litany of crimes included the indecent assault of a girl - and deported from Australia for being a danger to the public, he was promptly pulled from the discussion and denuded of his status as a symbol of why we should all feel bad, because he did not fit the simple black and white narrative. Vigils were cancelled. The many good people who had known him and helped him and who cared about homelessness were left confused. The most sane and realistic comment about it all came from the chef Temple Garner who worked closely with Apollo House: "People aren't on the streets for no reason," he said. "People find themselves destitute for various reasons. You are not in there to judge people - you are there to help them." It was an acknowledgement that these things are not black and white. People have baggage.

The Irish Times tried to broaden out the conversation last Friday and point to the multiplicity of factors that have led to the housing crisis: "Too few homes built after the crash; a scarcity of bank lending and the soaring cost of whatever finance (mostly from private funds) is available; a population growing more quickly than anticipated; net immigration; the decline in household sizes; insufficient homes in Dublin for the number of new jobs; the Government passing responsibility for public housing to the private sector; a shortage of rental properties; and soaring property prices and rents."

It was audacious to offer not one simple good guy/bad guy reason for the housing crisis. But 10 reasons. It is audacious to bring up the fact that evil, greedy developers, who are paying up to double digit percentages on financing for building new homes, might be doing the best they can. It was audacious to suggest that there are other demographic factors, things that are nobody's fault, that might be contributing to the problem. It was audacious to suggest that economic success, in terms of new jobs, might be contributing to the problem of homelessness.

Just as it is audacious of Barry Cowen to dare say that we might look at cutting VAT on cheaper housing. Just as it is audacious of him to suggest that some form of a slimmed-down Nama might bring expertise and access to finance this problem.

Mike Allen, of Focus Ireland, summed up what most of the good people on the left would think about Nama: if Nama is going to be the answer again it must be a pretty dangerous question. And he's right. None of us have much love for Nama. And most of us would feel that the rush by Noonan to wind down Nama, because it represented the baggage of the past, ended up costing this country dearly. But equally, most of the people who know how to build houses in this country come with baggage. Which is why you will rarely hear a property developer being asked what he thinks the answer to the homelessness crisis is. Too much baggage.

We have had a very valuable discussion in recent times about the impact of homelessness on people and it has been helpful in stiffening everyone's resolve about trying to solve this problem.

But for the next part of the conversation, as to how we fix this, we need perhaps to recognise that the ones whose expertise is helping people in crisis are not the only ones who know about building houses. And we need, perhaps, to recognise too that some of the people who might have something to contribute to the debate will have baggage. And seeing it as saints versus sinners can sometimes make you ideologically incapable of seeing the best solution.

Sunday Independent

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