Ireland is in the midst of a housing crisis.
Across the Republic of Ireland, rents are at an all-time high, homelessness is skyrocketing, and the supply of housing is falling far short of demand. The crisis has been particularly acute in Dublin. According to the Daft.ie Q2 2018 Rental Price Report, rents in Dublin are 34 percent higher than during their peak during the Celtic Tiger.
As of August, the average rent in Dublin’s city center was €1,985 a month. Meanwhile, the Irish Government’s Central Statistics Office (CSO) reports that average weekly earnings across Ireland in 2018 are at €744.08. This means that a worker taking in average weekly earnings and paying average rent in Dublin’s city center would be spending around an incredible 67% of their earnings on rent. There are important caveats to this data - average earnings tend to be higher in Dublin than the national average, and renters may be able to find cheaper accommodations by moving out of the city center into the Dublin suburbs. The CSO’s data is also not as up-to-date as the data provided by Daft.ie. But it’s still clear that high rents are crushing the average Dublin worker, particularly young workers without property of their own.
“A shrinking rental market and inflated prices means accommodation is nothing but a dream for many young people,” wrote Conor McCrave recently for The Irish Independent. “I know this because I’ve spent the best part of the past two months trawling through advertisements online in an attempt to rent a room in our capital, with no success. I’m just one of the thousands out there, all in the same boat.”
Rents are expected to continue increasing. A report in early 2018 estimated that average rents in Dublin may increase to €2,500 a month before the market stabilizes.
The number of available rental properties in Dublin seems to be hopeless insufficient for the demand. Daft.ie claims that at the beginning of August, there were only 1,400 properties available for rent in Dublin. Yet as of July, there were over 4,000 homeless adults in the city. This is only the official count provided by the Department of Housing, Planning & Local Government. There are doubtless many more people living in precarious positions. As the activist group Take Back The City Dublin points out, “There are uncountable numbers of hidden homeless - people staying on sofas, in cars, packed in with family members - alongside thousands trapped in substandard accommodation and paying exorbitant rent.”
Government plans to increase the housing supply have been criticized for failing to account for the current needs of most of the population. The State’s newly created Land Development Agency plans to facilitate the creation of over 150,000 homes on State land over the next 20 years. But critics claim that most of these homes will not be affordable, and too many will ultimately be sold at high market prices. “This model sees public land being sold to private developers and between 50% and 70% of the houses delivered on the site then sold at market prices,” said Sinn Féin housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin. Within the current plan, 30% of the constructed homes are meant to be classified as affordable housing. Yet the government has said these “affordable” homes could cost €320,000 in Dublin - a figure critics claim to put the homes out of the reach of most people. Some critics have framed the plan as an attempt to enrich private developers with public land. “The Land Development Agency is going to parcel up public lands and gift them over to private developers who will make massive profits from them,” said Solidarity–People Before Profit (PBP) TD Mick Barry.
In this context, the existence of vacant homes- homes that are unused, but which are not placed on the market for renters- generates understandable frustration. Depending on what numbers you use, and your definition of “vacant,” there are anywhere between 1,000 and 30,000 vacant homes in Dublin. The lower number is probably more correct when defining properties which could be immediately used for housing, although accurate statistics are hard to come by. There may be legitimate difficulties preventing some of these 1,000 homes from being occupied, but others are simply being used as investment properties, and activists believe that homes should not kept empty for private profit when there is such an incredible need for housing. So they decided to take matters into their own hands.
Recently, activists have begun occupying empty homes across the country, demanding that the vacant properties be put to use to address the housing crisis. Over the course of the summer, activists from Take Back The City Dublin, Generation LockedOut, and other groups occupied several homes in Dublin, growing in numbers and public attention over the course of the occupations. At the beginning of August, activists occupied a home at 35 Summerhill Parade, decrying the practices of its owner, whom they named a “slum landlord.” The High Court of Ireland granted an injunction authorizing the removal of the activists before they could be evicted, they simply moved the occupation to another home; on the evening of August 17, the activists occupied a home at 34 North Frederick Street. Activists say this home has been vacant for three years, and they have accused the property owners - who seem to be in possession of an extensive portfolio of property - of being “property hoarders” who are hoarding desperately needed property for personal profit. Activists believe this type of behavior is a direct cause of Ireland’s housing crisis. “We want to continue to highlight the causes of this crisis,” wrote Take Back The City Dublin, “one of which is land hoarding & speculation by private owners.”
The occupations have brought extreme attention to these specific properties, but the activists have demands that go far beyond any single home. Take Back The City Dublin has demanded that “all vacant land and properties should be put under public ownership,” and they want this land and property to be “turned into public housing and community facilities.” They have also demanded an end to economic evictions and a rent cap at 20% of a tenant’s income.
On August 28, after 11 days of occupation - which generated a significant amount of public attention - the High Court again granted an injunction against the activists. This time, they ignored the injunction, and the occupation continued for another two weeks. Finally, on September 11, the state showed up in force to remove them.
On the evening of the 11th, over a dozen men masked in balaclavas entered the occupied home. These men were later identified as private security contractors hired by the property owner to remove the activists - they refused to identify themselves at the time. The contractors were supported by masked gardaí, who blocked all entrance to the building and prevented protesters outside the building from interfering with the eviction.
According to an activist who was injured during the eviction, the private security forces broke into the home without identifying themselves or declaring their intentions. Critics have pointed out that the security forces’ lack of visible identification was likely illegal, as all security employees are legally required to wear identification while on duty. The activists were then removed - often roughly - from the home Outside, activists clashed with the Gardaí who were protecting the private security forces. Ultimately, at least five activists were arrested, and activists reported that four individuals went to the hospital with injuries.
The actions of the gardaí and the private security forces have received widespread condemnation.
On the day of the eviction, Sinn Féin justice spokesperson Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire said that "The accounts I have heard and what I have seen on social media are very concerning. It certainly gives an impression of a heavy-handed, overreaction to a peaceful Housing occupation,” and claimed that if the reports she had heard of the eviction were true, then “this constitutes an absolutely disproportionate response.”
The Green Party justice spokesperson Roderic O’Gorman, referring to the actions of the gardaí, similarly said that “I don’t think it meets the criteria of transparency and openness that we would expect from policing.”
Even Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who defended the actions of the gardaí, was critical of the private security forces: “I think, like a lot of people, I didn’t like to see a private security firm in balaclavas, I don’t think that’s the kind of image that anybody wants to see on their TV screens.”
The heavy-handed removal the activists did not lead to the end of protests; quite the opposite. Just this weekend, on September 22, Take Back The City Dublin led a national day of action. Rallies were held across the country, and in Dublin, a massive group of protesters - estimated at around 1,000 people - shut down O'Connell Bridge for an hour. “I just think it's appealing, so many evictions and so many unprotected people," one attendee told RTÉ News.
The ongoing housing protests come in the wake of the success of the Repeal movement, led largely by young people - particularly young women. Housing activists have made explicit appeals for the same energy and mass public participation seen in the Repeal movement to be brought into the housing movement. Young people are particularly affected by the housing crisis - the younger generation in Ireland has been referred to as “generation rent” due to high rents and the general inability of young people to gain their own property - and activists have expressed hope that the younger generation will become heavily involved in the housing movement.
The occupation and eviction of the activists have raised important fundamental questions about the relationship between the state and private property. Privately owned property is being used - or in this case, disused - in a way that harms society at large. Do wealthy individuals have the right to maintain exclusive control over a resource when that resource is desperately needed by the public? Should the state intervene, and if so, how? Activists are explicitly demanding that the state seize vacant property and put it use it for the public good. So far, the state has ignored these demands and has sided decisively on the side of property owners. But parties to the left of the current Fine Gael government - particularly Sinn Fein, the Green Party, and Solidarity-People before Profit - have been extremely critical of the government's actions on housing. Some leftist politicians have made bold statements in line with the activists’ demands. “We need a complete change in policy, we need to build public homes, social and generally affordable, on public lands,” said Solidarity-PBP TD Mick Barry. As public protests grow, one can easily imagine a leftward electoral shift with housing as one of the central issues.
But elections aren’t for another three years; in the meantime, it’s clear that activists won’t let up the pressure A massive rally outside the Dail is planned for October 3. Over 80 organizations are expected to participate, from explicitly housing-focused groups to trade unions, student groups, women’s organizations, and leftist political parties. The rally is set to take place at the same time allied political groups will introduce a motion to the Dail, which will include provisions such as limits on evictions, lowering of rents, increased spending on public housing, and inserting a right to housing into the constitution. Whatever else they may achieve, activists have succeeded in placing housing squarely in the political mainstream; and there it will remain for a long time to come.
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