A decade after the collapse of the property bubble torpedoed Ireland’s economy, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar has conceded that the housing crisis is a “national emergency.” According to the latest figures, there are today 10,000 homeless people in Ireland (out of a population of under 5 million) — with one family joining their ranks every day. In the past year, average rents have risen to an eye-watering €1,261 a month, while the number of properties available to let remains a mere 3,086. Meanwhile, the construction of social housing is in constant decline; in 2015 councils built just seventy-five units. Private investors control swathes of unused land, yet many choose not to develop their sites until mortgage lending caps are repealed so as to generate maximal profit.
The housing shortage has been worsened by a rapid rise in evictions, as landlords scramble to remove tenants paying below the market price. Ireland’s Residential Tenancies Board now deals with four to five cases of illegal eviction each week. Charities have recorded innumerable incidents of landlords changing locks, withholding deposits, and terminating leases without written notice. Some families have had their windows smashed and cars vandalized, while others have been physically assaulted after refusing to leave their property.
The government has promised some anti-eviction measures to give renters greater security. But the deliberate loopholes in the legislation, continuing gentrification, and the profits guaranteed for the landlords who raise rents have turned such policy into little more than a PR stunt. Threatened with being kicked out onto the street and unable to rely on support from the authorities, tenants are instead organizing to stop the evictions by themselves.
One eviction row which captured public attention centered on a house in Summerhill (a district of inner-city Dublin) from which forty young migrants were illegally expelled last May. The tenants — who lived eight-to-ten to a room, with defective plumbing and faulty electricity — were up to date on their €400 monthly rent payments. Yet on the morning of the 3rd, representatives of the landlord arrived at the property and ordered them to leave within two hours.
The residents called Dublin Central Housing Action (DCHA), an activist group set up to stop evictions, and said that they had been threatened by the landlord’s enforcers. DCHA members went down to protect the migrants, but police took the side of the landlord, claiming the eviction was necessary for health and safety reasons.
Within a week, the houses had been vacated. Many of the renters were left with nowhere to go and received pathetically small cash payments from the owner. Activists attempted to transfer them to an empty property two doors up, but the enforcers returned, reportedly telling them to “get out, or we’ll burn you out.”
Once more than one hundred (mostly Brazilian) Summerhill residents had been removed, the landlord went on to expel another eighty people from his multiple properties in the area. Most of them were forced to stay with neighbors, exacerbating the notoriously overcrowded conditions in this part of the city. However, the DCHA — emboldened by a number of recent housing occupations — began coordinating with community organizations to reclaim the idle buildings.
After two housing forums of grassroots housing groups early in the summer, they pieced together a coalition with the Dublin Renters’ Union, the Brazilian Left Front, and student groups from Trinity College Dublin, who organized a rally for housing reform on August 7. Starting in the city center, the protesters marched to Summerhill, where they broke into the empty house, secured the entrance, and faced down police officers who pressured them to leave.
Over the following days, a hundred-strong crowd turned out in favor of the action. Politicians from Sinn Féin, People Before Profit, the Workers’ Party and the Socialist Party arrived with messages of solidarity and volunteers worked all-night shifts to ensure safety.
Spreading the Fight
Now, as the occupation enters its second week, organizers are hailing its potential to reinvigorate the struggle against Ireland’s neoliberal housing policies. They are convinced that the evictions in May were part of a plan to gentrify the area and inflate rents to match the city’s extortionate average: a trend which they will combat with further grassroots interventions.
“We’re going to take more places throughout Dublin,” says Conor Reddy of Take Back Trinity, a student group which also won significant victories against the marketization of higher learning last March. He told this writer that the activist coalition is assessing other sites for occupation, identifying vacant properties through the Land Registry, and speaking to groups who have undertaken similar campaigns abroad.
Inspired by efforts to de-commodify housing in Barcelona, Reddy and fellow activists are intent on mounting “more ambitious” protests which will force local councils to purchase empty properties and target the short-term lets which have driven Ireland’s meteoric rise in rent costs. On Wednesday, he teamed up with seven other community groups to stage a sit-in at the Housing Minister’s office.
Reddy’s conviction that Summerhill is “just the first wave of direct action” is echoed by the spokesperson of the Brazilian Left Front, who tells me that slumlords frequently “use the visa as a power of coercion against migrants,” exploiting the fear of deportation to violate tenancy agreements. The standard tactic is to harass renters who have poor English and limited access to legal support until they become “submissive and resigned,” accepting illegal rent rises or agreeing to vacate.
“Slumlords target migrants, especially undocumented migrants and people with precarious legal status, because they know that we are more desperate, and they think that we will be less likely to fight back,” explains Migrants and Ethnic Minorities for Reproductive Justice (MERJ), a campaign group involved in the DCHA. In recent times, Ireland has somewhat overcome its reputation for parochialism and prejudice, not least with the referendum to legalize abortion, a major advance for women’s rights. MERJ notes that this newfound enlightenment has not affected public perceptions of the housing crisis, whose discriminatory character remains largely unchallenged. “Migrant women, mothers and the people who do the majority of the reproductive labor in this country are the ones hardest hit,” yet their situation is neglected by the “’look after our own’ narrative that has taken hold in the housing debate.”
In this context, the Summerhill movement — with its unprecedented alliance of students, migrants, and unions — could reshape the terms of the debate, force action from councils, and challenge the behavior of racist landlords.
In recent years, the response to Ireland’s homelessness problem has been marked by a distinct lack of legislative measures to respond to the direct actions mounted by those affected. In December 2016, an empty state-owned building in central Dublin was seized by activists from the Home Sweet Home campaign, who stayed for twenty-seven days until the courts ordered their removal. During that time, over two hundred homeless people were given safe accommodation and a spate of Irish celebrities, including musicians Hozier and Glen Hansard, teamed up to support the occupiers. The action was ended partly out of residents’ reluctance to defy the High Court, and partly because Housing Minister Simon Coveney guaranteed them alternative accommodation and access to state services once they left. For some of the residents, a single month of shelter broke the cycle of despair and addiction and allowed them to rebuild their lives. However, Coveney reneged on his commitments shortly after the eviction, failing to free up new homes or maintain contact with the occupiers. Many were never appointed a keyworker by his department, and one has since died while sleeping on the streets.
Nonetheless, the Home Sweet Home occupation created a coordinated network of activists, homeless people, and renters in precarious accommodation. It aided the establishment of tenants’ forums throughout the country, brought hundreds of people to anti-eviction workshops, and inspired a proliferation of local volunteer groups whose practical support for rough sleepers has saved countless lives.
These flickers of resistance, of which Summerhill is the latest iteration, signal a lack of faith in Ireland’s governing politicians to resolve the housing situation. Indeed, during its time in office Fine Gael — the ruling party whose welfare cuts have driven many into homelessness — has consistently refused to compromise landlords’ interests.
This is partly because the Irish economy has a limited capacity to attract and retain capital. Housing remains one of the few areas outside tech, pharmaceuticals, and finance which can generate large returns for the investors whom Fine Gael are eager to court. After the financial crash, the government established the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), a “bad bank” set up to manage its devalued property portfolio. NAMA sold much of this to foreign investors with copious tax incentives, minimizing the exchequer’s returns and placing much of the country’s available building land in the hands of investors. 17,000 homes could be constructed on these sites, but the owners have no intention to utilize them since they are likely to appreciate in value.
The government’s dogged pursuit of foreign direct investment has also contributed to the crisis by encouraging companies like Apple and Google to establish their headquarters in Dublin — where they can avail of 12.5 percent corporate tax rates — thereby causing an influx of high-earning tech workers who have gentrified the city.
As well as aiding investors at the expense of renters, the crash had the effect of driving up the number of mortgages in arrears. Since Ireland has a high population of single-ownership landlords, many middle-income homeowners who could no longer make mortgage payments after 2008 transferred this financial burden to their tenants via rent hikes — a process enabled by the housing sector’s dire lack of regulation. Calls for tighter regulation are, in turn, rejected by a substantial portion of the electorate, whose personal finances would be hit by such reform: a situation which lessens the amount of public pressure on Fine Gael to resolve the issue.
In the rare cases where the government has bowed to public anger, their policies were rendered timid and ineffective by these structural constraints. When NAMA sold a series of homes in Tyrrelstown, northwest of Dublin, to a Goldman Sachs vulture fund in 2016, serving eviction notices to the 200 families living there, the local community mounted a campaign to halt the deal. Their protests and legal battles culminated in a court ruling which rejected the investors’ case, at which point the state was forced to adopt legislation which ostensibly outlawed mass evictions when a property changes owner.
Alongside the “Tyrrelstown amendment,” Fine Gael have capped rent rises at 4 percent per year and launched a “Rebuilding Ireland” strategy which allocates Rent Supplements (RS) and Housing Assistance Payments (HAP) to those priced out of accommodation.
Unfortunately, each of these measures is tailor-made to have little impact on the housing situation. When one examines the policies closely, they seem more like a considered PR package than a concerted solution.
For example, the government’s anti-eviction legislation is peppered with enough exceptions and qualifications to undermine its supposed purpose. Since the Tyrrelstown amendment was passed, tenants cannot be evicted in groups of ten or more. But there is nothing to stop landlords from carrying out mass evictions in groups of nine, so long as they wait a few months before serving each eviction order.
This was the fate of numerous families in Sandyford whose homes were bought by another international vulture fund last year. The new law can also be ignored if the landlord raises rent costs by 20 percent once the current tenants are ousted — an absurd clause which in fact incentivizes landlords to increase rents far above the government’s supposed 4 percent cap. Perhaps most shockingly, the restriction on multi-unit eviction is also lifted if “the application of the rule would be unduly onerous or cause hardship to the landlord,” or if the landlord fills out a cursory application form. When opposition parties brought a more rigorous anti-evictions bill to parliament in 2017, the government voted it down.
Landlords are further able to evict their tenants and disregard the 4 percent cap if they wish to carry out “substantial refurbishment of the dwelling.” What constitutes a “substantial refurbishment” is left unspecified: according to the Irish Times, this means that “often not more than a quick paint job” exempts a property from the latest legislation. As the Summerhill case demonstrates, the refurbishment clause has the added effect of rewarding landlords who let their properties fall into disrepair. If the owner can drive down living conditions enough to necessitate an overhaul of the property, he profits by circumventing rent controls and tenants’ rights — a situation which has led to yet more mass evictions in Cork.
Because of these disastrous policies, the government’s meager assistance to renters has fallen far short of keeping up with market prices. Whereas rent caps for landlords go largely unenforced, tenants can claim a maximum of €660 in RS/HAP funds. As of 2017, that meant that 83 percent of houses were outside the price range of those “helped” by Coveney’s Rebuilding Ireland program. While the overall number of private-sector rental properties has risen, the number of properties available to low and middle-income renters has decreased.
The absurdity of this situation reflects the foundational illogic of Rebuilding Ireland: a scheme which offers public subsidies to the private rental market at the expense of public housing projects. The entire RS/HAP bureaucracy is an elaborate and futile attempt to skirt around the obvious solutions to the crisis.
As academics, housing activists, charities, judges, and opposition parties throughout Ireland have repeatedly insisted, these solutions include: the adequately funded construction of social housing; the issue of Compulsory Purchase Orders to reclaim vacant properties; the introduction of robust anti-eviction laws and genuine rent controls (which cap prices proportional to renters’ salaries); debt forgiveness for those with mortgages in arrears; restrictions on short-term lets; and urgent measures to convert dormant state-owned properties (of which there are almost 350) into public accommodation, instead of selling them off to investment funds.
Since none of this is likely to happen overnight, and since each night that passes imperils a newly homeless family, the importance of local campaigns cannot be overstated. As the government pursues a policy of calculated inaction, those who care about the humanitarian cost of commodified housing will be galvanized by Summerhill, whose residents and organizers deserve our unconditional support. If an occupation like Home Sweet Home can spawn a network of dedicated activists, today’s struggle will extend that community to migrant and student groups, previously peripheral to the fight for social housing. It will also send a powerful message to landlords: expect each illegal eviction attempt to be met with civil disobedience. The coalition has been assembled and more groups are likely to join. It can play a decisive role in the fight to transform Ireland’s housing policy.