Progress, or an empty gesture?

Following the much-publicised Garda and private militia action in last Tuesday’s eviction on North Frederick St, the government announced their latest measure in tackling the housing crisis. Had this announcement been planned or it was rushed through in the wake of all the bad publicity after Tuesday? Whether or not it was rushed through by the housing minister Eoghan Murphy is inconsequential (my suspicions about the timing of the announcement are shared in the excellent Missives to the Minister blog. Do please check it out). What matters is not the timing but what this new plan entails.

This new Land Development Agency has been set up to redesignate state land for use for housing, for 150,000 houses to be built over the next 20 years. On the surface, this is a welcome announcement. Obviously, we need a lot more than this number, but it is a start. However, the propaganda does not hold up to any scrutiny. Firstly, a lot of this land had already been designated for housing; it’s just being moved under the auspices of a newly-created state body. The rest of the land is already state-owned too. What we really need is the state to start to acquire more land for housing, like for example all of the vacant buildings and empty lots around Dublin that are being sat on by landlords to keep demand and prices up elsewhere. Governments have had no problem in the past in using Compulsory Purchase Orders to aid corporate interests, why not use them to help people put a roof over their heads? We could also do with the state not demolishing existing council apartments. Recently the council apartment blocks on Charlemont St were demolished, and the hoarding built around the site now tells us about the exciting new development called Charlemont Plaza. I await its glorious development with bated breath.

Secondly, and more tellingly, is that in the announcement there is no indication that the actual construction will be undertaken by the local councils. The most likely scenario will see it given over to private developers, to build expensive apartments, only earmarking a certain number to be sold back to the state for social housing. If you are from outside Ireland, this second option must strike you as being an utter ludicrous proposal. And that it is. Sadly, ludicrous though it may be, this has been the standard operating procedure for a succession on Irish governments, dating back to 1997. Since then, we have written off €16billion in tax breaks to private property developers, and have actually been further lining their pockets by buying back some of the property they have built for social and affordable housing.

A lot of those previous sales of public land was done by NAMA, the National Asset Management Agency, an organisation set up to deal with the nationalised bank assets after the financial crash in 2008. Did we, like Iceland, make the most of this nationalisation to help rebuild the economy? Of course not. NAMA sold off swathes of the property to developers and Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), for a fraction of their value, while the banks continued to be operated privately. REITs had not been permitted to operate in the state until the Fine Gael government granted these absentee landlords access in 2013. Since then, already rapidly-rising house prices have surged.

So, the last body set up in relation to Irish property was, and continues to be, a farce. I do not have any faith in this latest one. It is little more than a PR stunt. And it is not as if planning and building affordable houses is insurmountable. Only last week, in a sliver of positive news amid all the doom and gloom, we read about 22 reasonably priced houses build by Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. This proves that it can be done, without fuss.

Of course, no Irish government in recent decades has been interested in tackling this reasonably. They want the market to look after all property construction, development, sales and letting. After all, many TDs profit personally from it. And the neo-liberal philosophy of our two-party system means that they will do nothing but pay lip service to the issue. This announcement of the Land Development is just that.

Still though, doesn’t Minister Murphy look good in posing for social media posts?

 

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