Two encounters last week stuck with me. Walking down the North Circular Road in Dublin one evening, an elderly woman was struggling with an empty buggy and a wooden pallet. I approached her to help, making a joke about Halloween bonfires. We chatted for a couple of minutes about how she was trying to cut down the cost of heating her home, so would collect wooden pallets from the surrounding shops and wheel them home on a buggy because buying fuel or turning the heating on was too expensive.
When I got home, there was a constituency newsletter from Fine Gael councillor Ray McAdam in my letterbox, about the fiasco that is the O’Devaney Gardens development in Dublin 7. What was once public housing was earmarked for “redevelopment”, then the crash got in the way, the flats were demolished a decade later, and now just 30 per cent will be public housing, 20 per cent purchase and rental, and 50 per cent owner occupied. Instead of building housing that is affordable and where families can live and grow in the city, this housing is going to be 439 two-bedroom apartments, 222 one-bedroom apartments, and then 59 three-bedroom apartments, 40 three-bedroom houses, and eight two-bedroom houses.
There is a big gap between hypotheticals and fantasy, and an even bigger one, it appears, between the world Fine Gael lives in and those staring in from the outside
Thinking about a pensioner chopping up wooden crates to keep herself warm, I read McAdam’s party-line appraisal of the “affordable” part of this scheme. McAdam gave an example: “Eilis and Ciaren are a couple with a joint income of €50,000 and are endeavouring to purchase one of the three-bedroom houses worth between €300,000 and €320,000 in O’Devaney Gardens under the affordable purchase scheme. They have a deposit of €31,000 and have successfully applied for €279,000 loan under the Government’s Rebuilding Ireland Home Loan Scheme. This will mean they have a monthly mortgage repayment of €1,195 as part of a 30-year deal with a fixed interest rate of 2.5 per cent.” Another example is “Anthony”, a single person with a €45,000 income and a deposit of €24,000 looking to buy a one-bedroom apartment priced €250,000.
A one-bedroom apartment priced at a quarter of a million euro is not affordable. And isn’t it funny how these people magically have deposits? Where did they get that money? It certainly wasn’t from saving while renting, not when the cost of renting a 1½-bedroom cottage in the same area is around €1,800. Of course, in Fine Gael’s world, parents just give their kids money to buy “starter” homes. Money is just … there. There is a big gap between hypotheticals and fantasy, and an even bigger one, it appears, between the world Fine Gael lives in and those staring in from the outside.
Even if this fake couple with their fake deposit were to seek a €279,000 loan, they couldn’t, as it would break the Central Bank’s own rules on lending, according to Eoin Ó Broin, who has rightly criticised this nonsense. A couple would need a combined income of €79,000 to get that loan, an income level that would disqualify them from accessing affordable housing in the first place, as you have to be earning under €75,000. Even the fact that a couple earning €75,000 qualifies for affordable housing is kind of incredible, and shows how out of reach housing is for so many people.
The council executive is taking their usual “our way or the highway” approach. Brendan Kenny, the deputy chief executive, has said that if councillors don’t vote to do the deal with the developer Bartra today (Richard Barrett’s company riding high on the tide of Eoghan Murphy-approved “co-living” developments) the O’Devaney Gardens Project will be abandoned. Sounds reasonable. Barrett, of course, recently got planning permission for a hostel-like development in Dún Laoghaire where a communal kitchen will be shared by up to 42 residents.
“There is NO PLAN B,” McAdam’s newsletter declares. Says who? And how on earth is that a way to frame anything? There are always other forms of thinking. There are always smarter approaches. There are always new ways forward. There are always other options. Saying “it’s this or nothing” is the most obstreperous, petulant, rigid, bullish way of going about things. But should we expect anything else from that impenetrable partnership of council and developer in Dublin? I emailed McAdam challenging his figures. He didn’t respond.
Fine Gael has failed so spectacularly on housing in this country that they have now moved to their next phase of actively gaslighting people on the concepts of affordability. So what to do?
I was interested to see Paul Murphy’s Rise project announced last week, even though it’s all quite vague. Murphy looking for a new space within the left shows that even at a party-political level – a space that is largely dead when it comes to ideas – people want to do something, but they perhaps don’t know exactly what. People want to latch on to a new movement, but it feels like there’s nothing there to get on board with. People know they can change things from the ground up, but also it’s much easier to change constitutions than it is to change capitalism.
The election will be upon us and Brexit will be used as leverage to maintain the status quo. We will be told to make no sudden movements, that treading water is the only way to stay afloat. But something has to give. A movement has to coalesce that challenges Fine Gael’s gaslighting and distortion of the lived realities of many.