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Una Mullally: Why did it take a Kildare housing estate to wake up Government?

Fine Gael’s ideology is so embedded they cannot even recognise it themselves

It wasn’t just the investment funds buying up apartments in Dublin. Or the luxury purpose-built student accommodation littering our landscape. Or the co-living developments. Or the homelessness. Or the upwardly spiralling rents. Or Airbnb sucking housing stock out of cities. Or urban dereliction. Or land-hoarding. Or the lack of public housing being built. Or the mini-bubbles that keep inflating in certain areas where house prices are rising.

Or developers trying to sell entire blocks of apartments to tech companies. Or those forced to live in their parents’ homes well into adulthood because they can’t afford rent. Or the corporate gentrification. Or aparthotels being built where housing should be. Or the new wave of emigration instigated by a lack of rent affordability. Or the mental-health crisis our housing crisis has contributed hugely to.

No, it was a housing estate in Kildare that brought public sentiment on Ireland’s housing crisis to boiling point last week, and finally spurred a panicked, reactionary political response. Or perhaps it was an accumulation of all of those things. There’s only so much people can take.

Our housing policy was handed over to 'the market' and now that market is eating us

Investment funds have been buying up houses and apartments in bulk for years. It’s policy. Reits – real estate investment trusts – are a scourge. Ordinary people can’t compete. That a housing estate in Maynooth became a target for global capital, is, according to Taoiseach Micheál Martin, “unacceptable”. What about everything else? Why is this a tipping point? In practical terms, nothing has been done for the countless people priced out of renting in the area they want to live, owning in the area where they grew up, or even becoming homeless.

Instead, a decade of Fine Gael, and their now partners Fianna Fáil, allowed the crisis to worsen. So here we are. An estate in Maynooth is as “ordinary” as you can get. It strikes at the heart of the “young families” these political parties claim to represent. What was good for the goose in Dublin, the heart of the multifaceted housing crisis, was clearly not good for the gander, on the commuter belt.

It’s incredibly frustrating to see the Government scramble to react now that they know the political ramifications of their idiocy on housing are spreading and affecting people they perceive as their base. It’s as though the 2020 general election never happened.

It’s as though the housing crisis is new. As always, the pathetic freak-out over losing votes is what’s driving them, and inevitably, the outcome will be a disjointed, reactionary, poorly thought-out attempt to stick a thumb in a dyke, while the rest of us have been sloshing around in the tsunami of a broken housing system for years.

Global capital both supersedes and usurps the power of a state, unless that state is wise to such forces and embeds protections and shields. But instead of re-enforcing our resilience around housing, Fine Gael weakened it. Our housing policy was handed over to “the market” and now that market is eating us. Global capital is doing what it does.

Investment funds and their ilk gobble everything up. It’s not their fault, it’s their modus operandi. It’s government’s fault for not protecting our society’s housing needs against the glaringly obvious consequences and outcomes. Successive ministers for finance and housing presented an all-you-can-eat buffet to ravenous global investment funds, yet somehow expected them to magically stick to just one plate.

The housing game is rigged, and people are sick of politicians' 'don't ask me, I just work here' stance on housing

And now, every person who dreamed of, worked for and saved up to buy a home in recent years but arbitrarily got put on the PUP or had a pay cut underwritten by wage subsidies due to the pandemic, knows very well the back foot they’ve been put on. They know well that others with screen-jobs whose workplace and workflow altered dramatically, but not their incomes, have stacked up savings, leaving them in an excellent position to buy a home for the first time, or trade up, or become landlords themselves.

So there is now a confluence of two streams of oppressive capital; individuals who suffered economically during the pandemic will be outbid by those who didn’t, and investment funds are outbidding not just first-time buyers, but private landlords themselves, and housing bodies. This is a mess, and it’s a mess created by design.

The piece of information we don’t know is whether those presiding over our housing policy since the crash knew what they were doing and were so wedded to their neoliberal dogma that they kept flying the plane into the mountain despite the many alarm systems flashing, or whether they are just stupid and reckless and don’t think about consequences.

It’s hard to know which is worse, but it is what has happened. Fine Gael’s ideology, in particular, seems so embedded that they cannot even recognise it themselves, and instead whine about the “ideology” of others who are simply offering solutions rooted in fairness.

And a lot of this comes down to fairness, which is a core value in Irish society. The housing game is rigged, and people are sick of politicians’ “don’t ask me, I just work here” stance on housing. All that’s left to do is watch the political consequences play out, which is simply a matter of time.