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Fintan O’Toole: Snobbery is at the root of the housing crisis

Millions of us grew up in local authority houses. We are no worse than anyone else

Crumlin housing project. File photograph: Tony Linck/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Of all the problems that have gone into the creation of the housing crisis, the easiest to remove is also the most tenacious. It is a problem, not of money or land or building capacity, but of attitude. It is the problem of snobbery, a deep prejudice against social housing and the people who live in it.

At the end of last month, while being questioned in the Dáil about his government’s unwillingness to build local authority housing estates, the Taoiseach rounded on those he disdained as socialists: “They want to divide our society into people who live in different areas – some people who pay for everything and qualify for nothing and other people, eh, who-who-who-who, em, who-who, eh, peop . . .who . . .”

He petered out before he could get to where his words seemed to be going: people who live in public housing estates are people who pay for nothing and qualify for everything.

Snobbery is a material reality of the property market. Location, location, location also means status, status, status. Consider a recent headline from the Irish Times property supplement: "Lovely social housing original in Sandymount for €550k".


It tells us much more than that the house, built on Bath Avenue in south Dublin by Dublin Corporation in 1928, is lovely. It is in fact a very standard kind of council house from the era, very similar to the one I grew up in in Crumlin.

What makes it lovely is that it is in Sandymount, and that this former working-class enclave is now hip: "Bath Avenue is now one of Dublin's hippest locations, full of young employees from Facebook, Google and Airbnb. "

Desirability – and price – are functions not of the house but of what kind of people live around it.

And here’s the problem. The “lovely social housing original” that is now worth €550,000 could not be built today. This “original” social housing is now okay only for hipsters. Nobody minds at all if places like Bath Avenue or Marino end up being occupied solely by people who work for high-tech firms. That kind of homogeneity is fine.

But if they are occupied solely by the kind of people they were actually built for – ordinary working people whose need for a home could never be met by the commercial market – that is a very bad thing. It must never be allowed to happen again. And because it cannot be allowed to happen again, we cannot build social housing projects – we must wait for private developers to build commercial estates and siphon off, as a by-product of their pursuit of profit, a few homes for the uncommercial people.

The unvarnished truth

Nobody likes to talk about snobbery as a factor in all of this. It was acknowledged once, in 1999, when the so-called Section V provision for developers to set aside 10 per cent of what they built for social housing was coming into force.

Alan Cooke of the Irish Auctioneers & Valuers Institute warned of the consequences: "In future, people will speak of pre- and post-1999 developments ... whether they live in mixed developments or are among the lucky few residing in segregated private schemes. Of course, we don't approve of such snobbish attitudes – publicly. Privately, however, most of us will continue to do what we have always done – pay considerably more to be among the latter group."

He was right: “segregated private schemes” continued to exist because developers were able to buy out their social housing obligations. And that kind of segregation is fine. It is segregated public schemes that are the bugbear of planners and policy makers. An irrational dread of their very existence has taken a stranglehold on housing policy. The housing crisis will not be tackled until we break that hold.

This pernicious attitude developed side by side with the Celtic Tiger. In the period 1933-1943, more houses were built in Ireland by local authorities than by private developers.

In 1975, 33 per cent of all new houses were built by local authorities. A decade later, in 1985, the proportion was 27 per cent, and 10 years after that it was still more than 25 per cent. It was in the Celtic Tiger period that the percentage plummeted. In the years of the boom, from 1995 to 2007, just 6 per cent of newly built homes were local authority houses.

This is when the idea took hold that for-profit development would house almost everybody and that those who were left over could be accommodated as a by-product of the commercial market.

Termites on crack

During those boom years we were building houses like termites on crack. We were building houses so fast that we had to build houses to house the builders who were coming from all over Europe to build houses. So, if ever there was a time when private builders were going to deliver on social and affordable housing needs, this was it.

We thus have the benefit that current policies have already been tested in ideal conditions. We can ask a simple question: how many social, voluntary and affordable houses were actually provided by private developers in those conditions?

Ballymun flats in Dublin, circa 1968. Photograph: Independent News And Media/Getty Images

In the seven most manic years of the boom, 2002 to 2008, a total of 2,786 social, 1,133 voluntary and 8,214 affordable houses were squeezed out of the private building machine. That’s 12,133 in total. It’s pitiful: a mere 2.8 per cent of the overall output by private developers in those years.

Aside from the human cost, this failure has been woefully expensive. The gap between real housing needs and what the market provides is filled with public payments to private landlords.

In 1990 the State spent just €7.8 million on rent subsidies for people who could not afford market rents. By 1999 the cost was €127.7 million, and by 2003 it was €331.5 million. The Government expects to spend more than €3 billion on rent subsidies over the next five years. The combined cost of the three main rent support programmes – rent supplement, the housing assistance payment (HAP) and the rental accommodation scheme (RAS) – is expected to be about €535 million this year.

On the Government’s own projections, this will rise to €714 million in 2021. So between 1989 and 2021, the direct cost to the taxpayer of not building social housing will have increased by 9,054 per cent.

Not acceptable

And all because the equivalents of the lovely “original social housing” of pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland are not acceptable. But why are they not acceptable? There are two ostensible reasons, both superficially persuasive.

The first is that much social housing was badly planned, badly serviced, and even (as in the case of system-built estates such as Mayfield in Cork and Ballymun in Dublin) badly built. But bad planning is not inevitable. Ireland currently has some of the best architects in the world – let them plan intelligently and build beautifully.

The second reason is more complex. It arises from a vicious circle. As the number of social houses contracted, those that were available were allocated to a more and more restricted group of people: those in greatest need. This was terrible social policy – it concentrated the poorest, most vulnerable people in developments that felt to their inhabitants more like reservations than estates.

Social housing became synonymous with social problems. Perverse incentives encouraged families with more resources to move out of these areas, concentrating those problems ever further.

But this does not have to be the case. Social housing was previously built specifically for working people – farm labourers in rural Ireland; industrial workers in the cities. It was understood, not just as a social good, but as an economic necessity. We need to return to this basic idea.

Varied communities

The way to avoid turning public housing estates into ghettoes is not to stop building them. It is to make social housing available to a much wider range of people and to allocate it in a way that ensures that the communities that inhabit it are varied.

More than 300,000 houses have been built by local authorities in the history of the State – an achievement we should be proud of. If each of those houses has been home to an average of 10 people, that’s three million Irish products of these allegedly terrible places.

Vast numbers of us have grown up in those houses and in the communities they were part of and, taken as a whole, we are no worse than anyone else. We work and pay taxes because our families were given the stability of a roof over our heads.

Another generation should be given the same chance.