Fintan O’Toole: The homeless are trapped in a hellish circle

Governing policies mean that homeless families are now too poor for social housing

Modular homes being built for social housing in Ballymun, Dublin, in 2016. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Modular homes being built for social housing in Ballymun, Dublin, in 2016. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

The road to the hell of homelessness is being paved with an apparently decent intention. We have a terrible crisis of homelessness and the only solution is for local authorities to build social housing on a massive scale.

So why are we not doing this? Partly for bad reasons - a governing ideology that insists everything must be provided by market forces. But partly for an apparently good reason.

The good intention is: we must never again build large housing estates occupied only by poorer people. Or, if you translate income into concrete and brick: no big housing development should be made up of social housing alone.

If commercial developers don’t want to build in a particular place, local authorities won’t do so either

In the bureaucratic language of Dublin City Council’s official prime housing objectives: “Ensure future housing development helps to create a good tenure mix locally.”

This sounds fine. It is a reaction to bad experiences, the experiences of Ballymun and Moyross and Gurranabraher, where a monoculture of social housing became synonymous with unemployment, welfare dependency, drug abuse and poverty.

Some social housing developments entered a vicious circle: the poorer people were, the less they mattered and the less they mattered the easier it was to allow their estates degenerate to the point where only those who had no voice and no choice would live there.

New orthodoxy

Hence the new orthodoxy: social housing should be built only in conjunction with private, commercial development. But however well intended it may be, this article of faith has to questioned. For what it means in practice is that social housing has become a hostage to the market.

If commercial developers don’t want to build in a particular place, local authorities won’t do so either.

Just last week, Dublin City Council adopted a new local area plan for Ballymun. It vividly illustrates the problem. The council has 33.4 hectares of undeveloped land in Ballymun. It also has 24 hectares in the adjoining area towards the M50 motorway.

This land is already serviced and it is almost entirely in public ownership. It is on public transport routes that could be rapidly expanded and it is just a few kilometres from Dublin city centre. All of this makes it probably the best single site for new social housing in Ireland.

But the city council is not planning to build social housing on it. The new orthodoxy will not allow it. Most of the existing housing in Ballymun is social – council tenants were rehoused in the area when the infamous tower blocks were demolished. So, for the planners, there is already a “skewed tenure mix”, in other words, too many social housing tenants.

The priority for new development, even on this public land, must therefore be the dilution of this existing population with people living in private rented or owner-occupied housing. (Oddly, the need for a social mix does not bother planners in, say, Ballsbridge: there is no urge to dilute upper-income areas with social housing tenants.)

According to the planners, “the dominance of low-income households and limited disposable income is restrictive for local businesses and makes it difficult to attract new commercial activity into the area”.

So the city council’s plan is to build 2,000 new homes – but only 10 per cent of them will be social housing and this will be provided by the commercial developers as part of the deal to let them sell the rest.

Absurdity

In Dublin, there are 2,266 children, in 1,099 families, living in emergency accommodation, while 647 of Dublin’s homeless families are incarcerated in commercial hotels.

As it happens, one of those hotels, a Travelodge, is in the centre of Ballymun itself. Homeless families living in its rooms can look out on the public land that is available to house them. But they will not be housed on it – they are the wrong kind of people.

Their low incomes would not “attract new commercial activity”. So here is the absurdity: we can’t house the poor because they are too poor to be worth housing.

There is an almost surreal mismatch between experiences and policies

Like hundreds of thousands of other people, I grew up in a huge council estate, almost all of which was social housing, occupied almost exclusively by working-class people – the very thing that horrifies the new planning orthodoxy. Was it wonderful? Perhaps slightly less than idyllic. But it was vastly better than the housing my parents grew up in.

And its equivalent today would be vastly better than the fear of homelessness and the dependence on a dysfunctional market that haunt so many people today.

But the comparative benefit is being lost in the desire for the superlative: we are so focused on what would be best that we can’t act on what is merely much better.

There is an almost surreal mismatch between experiences and policies. People are experiencing a profound crisis, an emergency in which their lives are turned upside down and inside out.

Planners and politicians are imagining ideal worlds in which communities are perfectly mixed like the ingredients in a good cocktail. Lives and childhoods are being blighted by the lack of one of the necessities for a dignified human existence: a home.

We have trapped them in a hellish circle: if you are poor enough to need social housing, you are too poor to have it.

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