Thursday 19 September 2019

Gene Kerrigan: 'Housing is too vital to leave to 'the market'

A surprising number of TDs are landlords - but that's not the main reason for the housing crisis, writes Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Early in 2016, a reporter from the Irish Examiner took on the tedious but necessary job of combing through the politicians' Register of Members' Interests. In May of that year, the paper published the fact that 30 of the 158 TDs in the Dail were landlords.

That's 19pc of TDs.

Last week, RTE's Today with Sean O'Rourke broadcast an up-to-date analysis of the register. There are now 35 TDs renting out property.

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That's 22pc of TDs.

Does it matter? Not as much as some might think - but very much more than others suspect.

It's clear from social media that some people assume that almost every TD is on the make. So they assume that these 35 TD landlords must be manipulating things in some nefarious way to increase their wealth.

Perhaps they are. (I certainly worry about "him" - if you know who I mean - not to mention "yer man".)

But I don't see the evidence that "they're all at it". (And, no, don't @ me with the claim that these people are too clever to leave traces.)

I suspect those 35 TDs are like the rest of us. Some inherited property, some invested their life savings in property.

And, yes, no doubt some may be bug-eyed with avarice, grimly sleepless as they toss and turn and worry about ways they might increase their wealth, whatever the consequences for others.

It's not personal corruption that should bother us about the 35 TD landlords so much as political leanings.

Almost 40pc of Fianna Fail TDs are landlords. And 20pc of Fine Gael TDs (there's one Labour landlord and seven Independents).

And the decisions of the twin parties that dominate the Dail created the hideous housing crisis that's doing such damage to our people.

In the housing crises of the 1930s and the decades that followed, governments went hell-for-leather at the problem, building huge housing estates.

They were conservative politicians, but not obsessed with ideology,

The early years of social and affordable housing were dominated by Herbie Simms, a London man, son of a train driver, who came to Dublin in 1925 and became the city architect.

Appalled by the slums, consumed by the task of housing people properly, Herbie Simms drove the building of quality local authority housing at fair, affordable rents. Exhausted by overwork, he took his own life in 1948.

Some of the housing he designed is still revered for its quality. The great housing estates that emerged from that period housed the factory workers and the office workers, the sales people and the train drivers. They housed the hairdressers and the nurses, the painters and the electricians, the carpenters and the plumbers. They housed the builders of the roads, the builders of the factories and the offices.

And the builders of the houses.

Without its great housing estates, Dublin would be a shadow of what it became.

As late as 1975, non-market sources (local authorities etc) built a third of our housing.

Thirty years later, in 2005, political decisions had driven that figure down to 7pc.

Ten years after that, they'd driven it down to 4pc.

Today, housing depends almost entirely on the needs of those who have the wealth to invest in the private market. The political class takes no direct responsibility for housing the people.

I suspect the substantial presence of landlords among the 158 TDs might be a factor in this - but not as much as the overall ideology of FF/FG.

What happened after 1975 to destroy social and affordable housing?

The Thatcher-Reagan revolution affected political thinking across the globe. It became almost a religious cult. Reduce the role of government, free "the power of the market".

When the Progressive Democrats emerged here in 1985, they were cashing in briefly on a political fashion that FF and FG had already begun to adopt.

The Herbie Simms generation of politicians and public servants, who believed in their duty to house the people, had passed on. In their stead, by the 1960s, the chancers dominated, with chancer-in-chief Charlie Haughey never far from a brown envelope.

Let's say that FF worked hand-in-pocket with the developers, and leave it at that. (Though, we might add, FG looked on admiringly, wondering how they'd get a piece of that action. Spoiler alert: they got it.)

With the connivance of the politicians, the builders were free to do crap work. Cheap, quick and easy, with unfinished estates, built where the money-men happened to own land, isolated and without facilities. All over the place, we have shanty schools, "temporary" prefabs, decade after decade.

A few such estates became slums, with all the problems to which slums are heir.

Two consequences: vast wealth for the already wealthy; and the emergence of social problems that were passed down through the generations.

These troubled estates became an excuse for today's politicians to dodge responsibility in the face of the housing crisis.

They say they won't build housing estates because they don't want to "make the mistakes of the past".

For the Simms generation, the great estates were not a mistake, they were an investment that paid off handsomely.

For the Varadkar generation, all such housing estates are mistakes. Weirdly, they claim there must be a "mixture" of classes in all housing, as though the working classes need the proximity of a better class of person if they're not to run wild.

It's this alleged better class of person who was behind the great social crimes of crappy estates, the banking crimes and the political corruption that brought this country low.

The ideological obsession with market forces has been disastrous.

Dublin rents average €2,023 a month, Cork €1,366, Limerick €1,225.

We spend 40pc of income on renting, the UK spends 28pc, Belgium spends 22pc.

About 86pc of landlords own only one or two properties, and there's evidence of common decency, fair rents and a reluctance to take advantage.

There are also thug landlords who cram two dozen people into a house - one landlord earned €69,000 a year in rent from a three-bedroom house.

Illegal evictions are common, illegal rent increases too.

Corporate landlords and investors can't believe their luck.

There are now 10,172 homeless, of which 3,675 are children. A quarter of those queuing at a soup kitchen are working. They can't afford both rent and food.

Just as we now lament the building, in the 1960s, of estates without facilities, so in the future we will lament the effects on children of having to live in B&Bs.

What's the democratic solution?

Kick out FG, with the 10 landlord TDs? And allow in FF, with the 17 landlord TDs?

Or recognise that they're a twin party, and our job is tougher than voting one out and the other in.

Extra-parliamentary protests might help, and simply refusing to give either of the landlord parties so much as a preference.

One way or the other, the brutal, mindless obsession with market forces is laying waste to a generation of people who are in emergency accommodation, walking the streets all day with bored kids, paying far too much for inferior shelter, living with friends or parents, sleeping in tents, sleeping in their cars, people stretched beyond all that is tolerable.

Social damage is inevitable; a political explosion is possible.

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