Once again, the housing crisis exposes strange anomalies and fault lines in Irish society. Now, we have the bizarre spectacle of left-wing parties such as Sinn Féin being opposed to increases in property tax. This makes us once again, outliers in Europe, where left-leaning parties rightly see property tax (like water charges) as a legitimate tax on wealth and a means of redistributing it. But the key is in the language used. All across the political spectrum, there is constant reference to an important group in society known as “first-time buyers”. Surely it’s time to examine the irrational compulsion to buy the home you live in, especially among young people?
This has been explained as a hangover from Ireland’s rural past, in that Irish people are still wary of more urban forms of housing, such as apartments with lifelong leases, housing co-operatives and so on, either in the public or private sector. But I believe the answer goes deeper. The Irish seem to have a compulsive need to own the property they live in, what I call the Irish property psychosis, because of a lack of faith in any other form of housing, which is historically programmed. It all boils down to fear of one thing: eviction.
Few words can arouse such strong, if only partially articulated emotions in Ireland. With good reason: from the Normans evicting the Norsemen across the Liffey, to Cromwell and William of Orange, Irish history could be read as a long series of evictions, and the trauma is surely inscribed in our DNA. It reached its climax in the 19th century with the Famine and the land war, vivid enough in recent memory for the trauma to be culturally transmitted.
Eviction literally means to be vanquished, to be conquered, and an eviction is always an act of extreme violence visited upon an individual, a family or an entire people, striking at the most basic of human emotions: the sense of home. Whether it be a mansion in Killiney, a cottage in Connemara or a room in a bed and breakfast on Dorset Street, home is home, and the emotion is the same.
Could it be that an inherited trauma, the fear of eviction, lies at the root of the Irish property psychosis, that is, the irrational need to own your own home at any cost, because as a tenant you must always fear eviction, that is, being vanquished, being conquered? It points to a profound and well-founded lack of faith in the State to protect us from this type of violence, because eviction is nothing if not an act of extreme violence.
On the other hand, interest rates on Irish mortgages are notoriously so high because of the political difficulty of repossession by the banks from defaulting owners. The political difficulty is that those suffering from the Irish property psychosis make up a large and influential part of the electorate, and one which even left-wing parties are eager not to alienate. Tenants don’t always seem to enjoy the same sensitive treatment.
Admittedly, things have improved enormously in recent years with regard to tenants’ rights, but they are still vulnerable to eviction in ways that owner-occupiers aren’t. The recent evictions pursued by vulture funds, well documented in these pages, are a case in point.
Of course, extra money to build the large amounts of housing needed, particularly in the public sector, is welcome. But there also needs to be a change of heart with regard to home ownership. And the only way to do that is for government to bite the bullet and introduce cast-iron legal guarantees for tenants with regard to security of tenure and rent control. Wait, isn’t that what we were fighting for in the 19th century?