What’s the difference between a recovery and an idiocracy?
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column about the fact that nothing has changed in Ireland politically. I know it’s easy to be pessimistic. It’s the cheapest card in a columnist’s pack, which is why I generally try to avoid it. But I can’t help it, because I’ve been thinking about where we’re at, right now, 2014, more and more. The issue now is not only the opportunity to change things for the better actually gone, but that the government is relentless in erasing the past, walking around like the lads from Men In Black waving their memory wand neuralyzers in our faces.
Today, I witnessed a large protest against pylons and wind turbines march down O’Connell Street. Now, pylons are ugly as hell, and I’d question plonking a giant line of them across the country and the environmental impact that would have. Wind turbines on the other hand, are a source of renewable energy. They might be unsightly, and the NIMBYs out there will scream and shout about them, but what’s the alternative, lads? Climate change is the single greatest threat to the planet. We’re screwed. There is no putting the genie back in the bottle. It’s game over. Any attempt to claw back the damage we’ve done by burningly gleefully through fossil fuels should be embraced even if it’s too late. But don’t worry we’ve already pulled the plug on wind power.
Noel Dempsey has just been appointed the chairman of the Temple Bar Company. Noel Dempsey. The TBC (good acronym for it, in fairness), is a private but non-profit company with input to the endless “regeneration” of Temple Bar. Dempsey, a 61-year-old Meath Fianna Fail-er, was in government with his finger on the pulse of the e-voting machine fiasco and Shell getting a chunk of the Corrib gas field. When it comes to choosing a Top Ten list of people who might have some vision for the city’s cultural quarter, let’s just say Dempsey wouldn’t be “up there” for me.
The Housing Market and Planning
I occasionally throw an eye on what houses are going for in Dublin. One interesting property struck me the other day, which could act as a parable for the property market right now in the capital. A two-bedroom cottage in Stoneybatter that sold for just under €110k last summer went sale agreed after the asking price was set at €250k recently. There you have it folks, it’s those memory wands again. Now it’s not like our property bubble burst generations ago, thus excusing the repetition of past behaviour. In terms of the wider context of history, our monumental property screw ups didn’t happen “just yesterday”, they happened five minutes ago. Of course there is a supply problem in Dublin. But one of the reasons for that issue of supply is the countless people who are in negative equity. There’s little movement in the market because people are stuck. Stuck in places they don’t want to live in. Stuck with houses and apartments they don’t want. If there was a ‘housing amnesty’ tomorrow, and everyone was allowed hand back their gaffs, get a decent fraction of their money back and just forget it all happened, then you might have some “supply”.
And instead of actually planning a city, instead of actually taking out a goddamn map and looking at what we want our city to look like, how we want the fabric of a city to be woven with accommodation, amenities, cultural activity, creative centres, good design, nice architecture, places for children to play, places for students to live affordably during term time, green spaces, public spaces, decent retirement accommodation, apartments families can actually live in, regenerating properties that have been derelict since before the boom, instead of all that, we have a Taoiseach saying sure if you built 30,000 houses in Dublin they’d fly out in a week. We have political leadership that says all we need are family homes, and those family homes are three-bed semi-ds. Cop on. Since when should all city residential properties be “family homes”? And since when is a “family home” just that one thing, the 1950s vision of three-bed semi-d that is completely outdated? Where’s all the political rhetoric about quality, high density living with decent amenities, which is how a city should be planned? And honestly, what does Enda Kenny know about day to day urban living? What does he know about what it is to live in this capital as a citizen and not just as Mayo politician with a Dublin gaff for work? What does he know about commuting? Maybe he has super smart people filling him in on this, but I just can’t get over the 30,000 houses remark.
A property bubble is not just being created, it’s already there. The rental market is off the wall. A mate of mine was talking the other day about how their friend’s rent was put up ONE HUNDRED PER CENT by the landlord. It is virtually impossible to find a good value gaff to rent in the city. At the start of last Autumn, countless students were effectively homeless – sleeping on couches belonging friends and relatives – because the market was so crowded, the snaking queues of viewings filled with people with two month’s rent in their pockets desperate for somewhere to live. The most vulnerable people in our housing “market”, those actually homeless or borderline homeless, have been tossed out of the private rental market and into bursting emergency accommodation or simply on to the streets. No students. No rent allowance. No options.
Meanwhile, we built a load of crap developments. And whatever about buying them or renting them, everyone else has to look at them. Our landscapes are blighted with ugly, terrible design and architecture. Shoddy, brutal, cheap, hulking messes of glass and steel already with their woeful cladding discolouring, blot every roadside, the outskirts of every town, every invented suburb, every place where once upon a time there were green field sites that perhaps were “under utilised”, but at least a field isn’t an offensive thing to look out.
And now people want to buy again. Despite the property mistakes made five minutes ago, those who kept their heads down and didn’t fork over money during the first property boom are out looking for properties, and day in day out, the asking prices are creeping up, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty grand. I’d say estate agents are in a tizzy. They probably don’t even know what to price most properties at in the city. Can we not see that this is THE EXACT SAME THING that happened previously? It’s a micro version of it, but it’s the exact same.
Creative endeavours that did actually come to the surface – like Mabos and The Factory in Grand Canal Dock – are now being rolled back. Remember that rhetoric that more interesting things actually happen in times of economic free-fall because you don’t give people things to make them creative you take things away from them? Well, I actually believe in that. I believe that freeing people up from profit-driven activities, freeing buildings up from commercial endeavours, allowing people a ‘nothing to lose’ attitude actually enhances creativity. But very, very little has been put in place to actually facilitate creative spaces, even if those spaces are blatantly doing something good, are so obviously and unselfishly serving their community, even if they are blindingly positive and full of good vibes, they are being stymied at every juncture. If they weren’t, Granby Park would still be there, The Factory wouldn’t be facing eviction, Mabos wouldn’t be facing closure, The Chocolate Factory would be full, the Urban Farm would be buzzing, and so on. There are plenty of creative people in our local authorities, but they’re not the ones making these decisions. We disempower creativity and reward conservatism. It’s monotonous and uninspiring. Would you set up something like Mabos having seen the strife people regenerating vacant spaces go through?
In the depths of the recession, it was hard to see any light. Like most people in their 20s at that time, I lost my job. I watched my friends lose their jobs, and a large portion of my nights out centred around people’s “going away” drinks. Loads of my friends, family members, acquaintances and extended social group emigrated to Australia, London, Asia and Canada. I saw the consequences of foolish property investments that people I knew made, as the value of the houses and apartments they bought plummeted and there was a dawning realisation that they were going to be financially ruined – possibly for the rest of their lives. When I reflect on that now, it was actually a really psychologically traumatic time, even if I got off lightly, making a decision to become self-employed (well, there was no other option), and thankfully I hadn’t bought a property.
The oppressive, dismal atmosphere at that time was stifling. On every radio station, television station, newspaper, there was nothing but bad news. The landscapes of towns and the city centre turned into giant frowns with the blackened teeth of closed shutters. Thank god that’s over. Thank god there’s a feeling of positivity in the air. Thank god there are new restaurants and cafes and bars to choose from and new independent shops and a bit of a buzz about the place. Myself and my mates have made a habit of joking “the boom is back!” but it’s a gag that’s probably wrapped in fear.
Because with all the overarching good vibes, if you scratch the surface, perhaps it’s actually worse now than it was then. Are we really going to go through this again? Are we really going to learn nothing? Fool me once, and all that. I’m glad that things aren’t as depressing as they were from 2009 onwards. I’m glad that there’s pep in our step and jobs are being created. But I have this niggling feeling that a lot of it is cosmetic and superficial because all of these problems are percolating just under the surface as they always were. And that’s so frustrating. And there’s nothing more claustrophobic than frustration. Of course there are people trying to do interesting things. And it’s great to see independent businesses crop up thanks to more versatile rents and leases (although watch how many of those close as landlords start to see the dollar signs again). And of course there is social change happening as well.
The thing is, people WANT things to be better. People are willing things to be better. And of course we are! Who would want things to be worse? We’ve gone through so much darkness that everyone is just begging for not just a chink of light but a flood of it. But you can’t blindly just want things to be better and talk yourself into things being better without developing a critique around what’s actually happening. Blind optimism is as foolish as blind pessimism.
And yes, it’s easy to be pessimistic. The language of outrage is far more colourful than that of hope. But we need some realism up in here. I also think it’s important to call this kind of stuff – these feelings – as they unfold before us. Because I can’t get rid of this nagging feeling that the idiots have inherited our so-called recovery, and we’re about to make the same mistakes all over again. How the hell can we stop it?
I’m open to loads of people countering these points, and showing all the solutions that are being worked on right now, all the good things being enabled, etc. Just leave a comment.