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Column: A home is a human right – not a commodity

For disadvantaged communities in Ireland’s cities and towns, Dublin’s Dolphin House is an important example of how a collective effort can be made to oppose the austerity that is being disproportionally enforced on them, writes Rory Hearne.

Rory Hearne

THERE WAS A positive development recently for a disadvantaged social housing community in Dublin’s inner city where I have been working for many years. Planning permission was submitted by Dublin City Council for the first phase of the much-needed, and strongly campaigned for, regeneration of Dolphin House.

The tenants and community organisations there had been campaigning on a human rights basis for a number of years, highlighting the terrible living conditions suffered by the 900 residents. This included sewerage invasions inside their homes and levels of dampness and mould that had serious health implications.

The Celtic Tiger legacy

Dolphin, along with other neglected local authority ‘flat’ complexes that had suffered from inequalities in education, unemployment, and poverty, had been promised regeneration through Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) during the Celtic Tiger. The PPPs involved the demolition of the estates and the creation of new communities through a mix of social and private housing and commercial units. Developers were given the public land to deliver the projects.

However, as the property market collapsed in 2008 private developers withdrew from the PPPs as they were no longer deemed ‘economically viable’. Thousands of local authority tenants, like those in Dolphin, were thus left living in substandard conditions. Despite the issues most tenants wanted to stay living in the areas as they had strong family and neighbourhood connections.

The fight to save a community

In response to the PPP collapse, tenants and community workers in Dolphin (including me) came together and decided they were not giving up and were going to fight to save their community. They developed a unique human rights based approach involving activist community development, training and educating tenants, organising public human rights ‘hearings’, media work, and lobbying politicians.The campaign pressured the Irish State to fulfil its obligations to the tenants, as “rights-holders”, arising from various international human rights treaties that various governments have signed up to.

The‘hearings’ gained considerable public attention as experts, including the Irish Human Rights Commission, and leading academics criticised as‘unacceptable’ the substandard housing that tenants had been left living in for years.

It was a difficult and long campaign for the tenants. Despite the challenges faced by their disadvantage, they were empowered through the human rights campaign to stand up to their landlords and the Irish state that had, for decades, denied responsibility and blamed tenants for the problems.

It was extremely brave of this vulnerable community to engage in such public critical action. It is an indictment of the level of neglect and oppression on the part of the state that it was left to the community to identify the existence of the problems. Not only that, but they were left with no choice but to have to engage in a public campaign to force the state to act. The community also understood the importance of continuing to work with the City Council to develop innovative solutions including regeneration plans that would serve the needs of the community.

The regeneration project

Significantly, in this instance, the state responded positively. Towards the latter half of last year Dublin City Council (through Department of Environment funding) refurbished approximately 30 apartments that were most severely affected by damp and mould on the estate. Now as part of the long term solution to the problems, plans have been submitted for the complete regeneration of the estate including demolition, refurbishment and new build of social housing, a park, new community centre and community support.

The first phase is due to start in 2015. The regeneration, according to Fergus Finlay, Chair of the Dolphin Regeneration Board, needs to:

Provide physical, social and economic regeneration so as to create a new and sustainable Dolphin estate. The process must involve residents as equal partners, sustaining the existing community, placing equal emphasis on the social aspects such as safety, unemployment, education and health and meeting its human rights by addressing key housing, urban design and social issues.

The necessity of this is apparent from the 2011 census figures which show that the third-level education participation rate in Dolphin House is only 4.6 per cent while unemployment is 29.9 per cent.

Regeneration can be a‘win-win’ scenario

Providing such social housing regeneration through direct state funding marks a welcome shift away from Public Private Partnerships and the associated displacement of communities. Regeneration can be a‘win-win’ scenario delivering an employment stimulus for the local communities and using public land to address the spiralling housing waiting lists. It offers people an alternative to the private property market and places the primary value of housing as a home – and a right – not a commodity.

The Dolphin community, however, is concerned that regeneration could still be delayed given the reduction in government funding allocated to regeneration nationally from €121 million in 2008 to €80 million in 2013. Other estates have been completely abandoned and had their plans significantly scaled back and delayed. The cuts to community development projects, employment schemes, youth services, local Gardaí and health services are also hitting hard.

For disadvantaged communities in our cities and towns, therefore, the human rights approach offers an important way to organise themselves collectively to oppose the austerity that is being disproportionally enforced on them – and to pressure government to fulfil their right to adequate standards of housing and community living conditions.

Dr Rory Hearne is a community worker, policy analyst, occasional lecturer and has been active in social movements and left politics for many years.  He is author of Public Private Partnerships in Ireland: Failed Experiment or the Way Forward for the State (Manchester University Press, 2011).

Read: For Dolphin House residents, concerns over ‘inhumane’ conditions continue
Read: Council flat conditions a breach of human rights, commission claims

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Rory Hearne

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