Public culture is ultimately to blame for lack of houses

Self-interest and protecting our own area means those most in need are left suffering

Politicians are quite aware that the necessary massive building programme for social and affordable housing is going to meet stiff local opposition in certain areas, which, quite simply, vote for them. Photograph: Alan Betson

Politicians are quite aware that the necessary massive building programme for social and affordable housing is going to meet stiff local opposition in certain areas, which, quite simply, vote for them. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

There is no homelessness crisis. The word “crisis” implies an unusually difficult situation, and in its origins, a turning point, the critical moment. This is not a crisis, this is a permanent, structural condition, one which has been carefully planned – or rather, carefully and deliberately left unplanned, for a complex mixture of economic, political and cultural reasons. The room is so full of elephants it can be hard to identify them.

I am writing this from the standpoint, rarely heard from, of someone who has actually been homeless in Ireland. More than 15 years ago, I returned from living abroad, and due to what seemed to me at the time a bizarre set of circumstances, I became, to my astonishment, homeless. After the disbelief had worn off, I hastened to consult the relevant State authority. Many years living on the European mainland had unfortunately conditioned me to believe that housing was a basic right guaranteed by the State. I was quickly disabused of my fancy continental notions.

A tired and frustrated housing official told me that she sympathised with my situation as a returning emigrant, but quite simply, there was no housing available for me and my family – but she could put me on a waiting list. When I asked how long this might take, her reply was simple: two years minimum. In the meantime, the Irish State, in all its power and glory, could offer me a room in a bed and breakfast.

Retreat to Europe

I weighed my options , and having looked at some wildly expensive substandard accommodation in the private sector, I decided to retreat to the European mainland immediately. My experience is by no means unique, but the fact that this happened more than 15 years ago contradicts the very use of the word “crisis” to describe the current housing situation.

The State’s masterly inaction is not hard to explain . We have heard a lot about budgetary considerations in recent years, but if that was the case, how did the State manage to build adequate housing so successfully in the many decades preceding the so-called boom, and why didn’t the State build during the boom, when the coffers were full?

She told us how she had promised her local councillor total war: blockades, marches, they would take the council to every court in the land

Above all, why have some councils been returning their social housing budgets unspent at the end of the year? I believe the reasons which are seldom mentioned in these debates, may be cultural, and of course, therefore, political.

One incident sticks in my mind from the early 2000s. I was having a conversation with a colleague who was complaining about the poor state of her home’s sewage system. Why don’t you get the local council to do something about it, I asked?

She told me she had bought her house some years before, a cottage which had belonged to the local council. It was situated with three other similar dwellings at the end of a field, also property of the council. When they approached them, the authorities pointed out how expensive it would be to replace all the utilities for the four houses and they could only justify it if they built, as they had long been planning to, up to 20 housing units on the land, which they still owned.

How did my colleague react? Proudly , she told us how she had promised her local councillor total war: blockades, marches, they would take the council to every court in the land, and if that failed, they’d go to the European court to stop them building. The council backed down, of course, and 20 families remained unhoused.

I am sure she thought of herself as a good person, and I find it hard to see her as evil, even if I chose not to continue our friendship

My other colleagues at the table nodded assent and understanding, as they continued to munch their tuna salad sandwiches.

I have often thought of that colleague, and the moral and political conundrum she presented to me. I am sure she thought of herself as a good person, and I find it hard to see her as evil, even if I chose not to continue our friendship. She was a conscientious colleague, she read The Irish Times every day and separated her rubbish.

And yet, there is no denying that indirectly, and even directly, people like her are responsible for the current housing situation. Politicians are quite aware that the necessary massive building programme for social and affordable housing is going to meet stiff local opposition in certain areas, which, quite simply, vote for them.

Basic principle

It may require a cultural sea change before the housing situation can be resolved. The so-called liberals in our society have to finally face the contradiction in their classic Irish stance of being liberal on social issues but ferociously conservative in protecting their own financial self-interests. Politicians should constantly point out to their constituents that the Constitution does not guarantee an increase in the value of your property.

Above all, if we are be truly European, we must accept a basic principle: that in some cases, and this is self-evidently one, the social good must override the individual’s self-interest. Michael O’Loughlin is a writer and poet

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