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Berlin proposal 'isn't necessarily' the answer to Ireland's housing woes, says Eoin Ó Broin

Berliners voted in favour of forcing large landlords to hand over apartments to the state.

Housing activists marching in Berlin earlier this month.
Housing activists marching in Berlin earlier this month.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

THE SOLUTION TO Ireland’s housing and rental crisis “isn’t necessarily expropriation” of large, corporate landlords, Sinn Féin housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin has said.

The Dublin Mid-West TD was speaking following the success of a referendum campaign in the German state of Berlin aimed at forcing major private landlords — defined in Berlin as those with 3,000 or more properties — to hand over a large number of apartments to the state government for public housing.

The companies should be paid “well below market value” for these properties, many of which were once state-owned but sold off to private investors since the 1990s, according to the grassroots campaign behind the referendum push.

Final votes have not been tallied but early indications suggest Berliners voted at least 56% in favour of the proposal.

The campaign has crystallised in the German capital against a backdrop of soaring rents and an affordability crisis, which have been linked by activists to rampant property speculation by stock market-listed investors.

While he welcomed the likely outcome of the vote, Ó Broin said that forcing large landlords to hand over properties may not be an appropriate solution to the Irish rental crisis.

“My understanding of the referendum was in relation to properties that had once been public and were then sold to institutional investors,” he said.

Here, I think, particularly in Dublin, the real issue is we have significant volumes of public land, but the State is unwilling to directly invest in local authorities, approved housing bodies and community land trusts to develop a sufficient volume of social affordable homes.

“So the solution here isn’t necessarily expropriation, it’s to stop gifting land to private developers. It’s to stop incentivising speculative private investment through tax breaks and planning through planning reforms and instead, directly invest in public housing and public lands to meet social and affordable housing needs.”

Under Irish law, if the Government wanted to use Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) to buy “recently built residential developments” it would have to pay “full market value” for the properties, he said.

“I don’t think the State needs to do that. I think we have other options that allow us to deliver much larger volumes of affordable homes at a more cost-effective way.”

However, he said Sinn Féin supports using CPOs to buy up vacant and derelict homes.

‘A scandal’

Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett told The Journal that his party would back the policy of expropriation in Ireland.

“We would be very much in favour of taking the residential property portfolios of the REITs, cuckoo funds and other big corporate landlords into public ownership so that we could control rents and offer affordable rents,” he said.

This would save the State money in many cases as there is already huge amounts of public money going through Housing Assistance Payments, leasing arrangements with local authorities and approved housing bodies. Let’s not forget that much of the property owned by these entities were previously in public ownership with NAMA.

The reaction from other Irish opposition parties to the Berlin referendum result has been relatively muted, however.

Social Democrats housing spokesperson Cian O’Callaghan also welcomed the success of the campaign but would not directly say whether he would support a similar policy in Ireland.

However, he told The Journal that his party does support a referendum to include a right to housing in the constitution.

“This is vital to support a rebalancing of housing policy, which has long favoured the rights of speculators and developers to those of people in desperate need of a home. I am calling on the Government to set a date for this referendum.”  

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Asked whether she would support ‘expropriation’ of big landlords, Labour Party housing spokesperson Senator Rebecca Moynihan said, “Ireland operates a different system than Berlin.”

She added, “We support the right to buy for tenants, we support the constitutional right to a home and we support strengthening CPO powers and providing funding to back up local authorities using their CPO powers.”

It’s estimated that over 240,000 apartments could be forced into state ownership if the results of the referendum are legislated for by the Berlin state government.

The referendum result is not legally binding but it will force the local government to debate legislating for the proposal.

Local campaigners say there is political will in Berlin to see the proposals implemented among the parties vying for control of the local government following last Sunday’s election.

A spokesperson for the campaign, Thomas McGath, told The Journal,” We would expect a new coalition to work quickly to enact this. The main candidate for mayor for the Greens has already said that this should be part of the coalition discussions and debates.

“The Left (Die Linke) is also 100% behind it and said this needs to be supported, otherwise it would be a scandal. So it’s heavily dependent on coalition discussions but we’re not going to stop and I think we would continue until it’s implemented.” 

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