Who is accountable when big-tech housing goes wrong?

State could provide social housing if likes of Apple, Google and Facebook paid full tax

We need to build social housing and affordable housing. But this Government has repeatedly signalled through its inaction  that it is ideologically opposed to building housing for its people. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

We need to build social housing and affordable housing. But this Government has repeatedly signalled through its inaction that it is ideologically opposed to building housing for its people. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

“He should be glad we’re still watching his movies after those raggedy houses he built.”

Driving through the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans on Saturday, I made the mistake of telling my Uber driver that I was on my way to see Ad Astra, Brad Pitt’s latest film. Pitt has been sued by residents in the Lower Ninth, for whom his Make It Right Foundation built housing after Hurricane Katrina, spending $26.8 million building 109 homes.

Those suing said the houses were deficiently constructed and built with defective products, with plumbing problems, mould, poor ventilation and so on. In turn, Pitt’s foundation sued an architect for defective design work. The ongoing saga raises the question about who gets to build housing for whom, and who is in the best position to do so. 

In the 1870s, Guinness built housing for employees near St James’s Gate, and then again in Rialto in the 1880s. The Iveagh Trust also responded to the housing crisis in the late 1880s and the first half of the 20th century. There were further Guinness housing schemes built in partnership with Dublin Corporation in the late 1940s in Terenure. These housing schemes are generally held in high regard, and they also illustrate that Ireland has lurched from urban-housing crisis to housing crisis for 150 years without things ever being solved. Instead, we recreate patterns, such as the tenement-style living some people in Dublin are suffering through today. When you don’t make things right, the past has a way of haunting.

Ridiculous rent costs

The way to solve a large element of today’s housing crisis – which crosses homelessness, ridiculous rent costs, housing shortages, dereliction and people living in housing they don’t want to be in; from adults who would prefer to have their own place sharing flats and houses well into their forties, or young people forced to live at home when they want the independence and privacy of rented accommodation outside their family unit, to people stuck in inadequate or unwanted living situations because they’re afraid to move – is to build housing on a large scale in places where people want to live.

We need to build social housing and affordable housing. It’s pretty simple. But this Government has repeatedly signalled through its inaction – and Eoghan Murphy’s propensity to be distracted by new toys (student dorms rebranded as purpose-built student accommodation, which is incredibly expensive and largely geared towards international students, and hostel-style accommodation rebranded as “co-living”) – that it is ideologically opposed to building housing for its people; and with Fine Gael’s voter base largely wealthier, and already in their own homes, everyone else can go and whistle.  

Enter the tech giants, just one lever in a large machine that has messed up housing in Dublin in particular. Google chief executive Sundar Pichai has indicated that subsiding housing here is “something we would think about doing over time”. He told the Irish Independent: “I think we are in the early stages here. I think being part of Dublin, for us, means it’s important that we get our development right in a way that works for the community.” Pichai was in town to bask in the glow of Google’s €1 million grant to Barnardos, a pittance to Google and a lot to the charity. 

Housing hellscape

In the housing hellscape that is San Francisco, Google has “pledged” $1 billion to facilitate the building of 20,000 houses in the Bay Area. But it’s not really a billion dollars. The land Google intends to build on is already theirs, with the intention of rezoning it for housing. A billion is a nice neat number, but perhaps not a realistic one. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that according to Cynthia Parker, the chief executive of Bridge Housing, which is a nonprofit developer in the city, building 20,000 new apartments would cost about $14 billion.

Johnny Ronan, meanwhile, has offered Google the option to secure 1,000 apartments he is planning to build in the Dublin’s docklands at his Point Village development.

Fine Gael, which have never met a private entity it wouldn’t prefer to do the work of a public one, must surely be delighted at this latest kite-flying. Imagine the get-out-of-jail-free card that would be: Google building housing. It ticks all their boxes; handing over public responsibility to a private entity, tech-related and, crucially for Fine Gael, it’s something that sounds progressive and forward-thinking when it actually has the potential to be regressive. What happens when housing built by such entities goes wrong? Who is accountable? 

‘Windfall’

The conversation about the responsibilities tech companies have to places they have altered – online and off – will continue to roll. But the best government-tech-company-partnership would be for them to pay a considerably fairer amount of tax, which the State could then use to provide the things that it is failing to provide. In 2017, Google paid €171 million tax in Ireland on profits of €1.16 billion, meaning it is paying a tax rate of 14.7 per cent. In 2017, Facebook channelled €18.7 billion in revenue through Ireland, and paid €38.3 million in tax on profit of €251 million, a tax rate of about 15.2 per cent. We won’t get started on Apple. While the Government is revelling in what is often described as a “windfall” of corporation tax (five billion this year), what would this tax take look like it if was the kind of percentage everyone else pays? Imagine what housing we could build with that. There’s an innovation for you.

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