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Dublin: 13°C Sunday 24 October 2021

Column: What can you do when you're trapped on a council estate?

Drugs, violence, no sense of community and nowhere to turn – social housing can be a heartbreaking place for a mother bringing up kids, writes Lisa McInerney.

Lisa McInerney

COUNCIL HOUSE BRED and buttered, me. I was raised in a council terrace, and was awarded tenancy of my own local authority home when I was old enough. ‘Course, when I was old enough to know better, I handed it back again, and moved to the big city to chase employment, which no doubt I will be vilified for. You’re not supposed to hand back the keys to a council house. It smacks of throwaway gratefulness – “Thanks, but no thanks” – the very kind of wavering poverty pontificated on by those wary of benefit frauds and Burberry Boys.

A good friend of mine, a single mother (in full-time employment and taxed accordingly, haters!) was also bred and buttered along the same grey terraces, and has had her local authority house for a few years now. It’s stability for her kids, of course, and a roof over her head, which is fantastic and all (how lucky we are to live in a passably socialist state, where those who cannot afford their own are given government-subsidised homes?) but it’s not perfect, not by any stretch of the imagination. Now, I know perfection is something you have to buy, and that no one who can’t afford it should expect it. That my friend’s living arrangements aren’t perfect has nothing to do with the quality of the house she’s been given. It is not the fault of the state. She was not expecting a spiral staircase and her own two-car garage. Her conditions are not perfect because of the behaviour of those living around her.

But what can she do about it? She cannot afford to move, and the state has no intention of giving every uncomfortable tenant a carousel of alternative addresses to choose from. She’s stuck there, in her gift house. You shouldn’t mouth about a gift house, right?

There’s no standard to Irish council estates. You can get beautifully-kept terraces where all of the tenants are respectful of their neighbours and their surroundings, and go on to buy their local authority homes as soon as they are able. There are plenty of such estates in Ireland, swathes of once council-developed land, now privately owned. My own terrace is one of them.

And then you get those clusters in constant flux, some homes occupied, some boarded-up, some re-let to newcomers after past tenants moved on. They tend to be occupied by younger families – lots of kids, lots of teenagers. A different kind of culture from the meticulously-kept and neighbourly estates. All chavvy stereotypes aside, you know the places I’m talking about. You may feel uncomfortable just passing through, and you sure as hell wouldn’t want to live there.

‘No point calling the guards’

I can’t pin down why you get anti-social behaviour in certain council estates, though like I say, it tends to happen most in estates with younger tenants and younger kids. Unemployment would be high, education, not a huge priority. The place would be full of them oft-lamented Disenfranchised Youth, kicking lumps from anything solid enough to pass as a scratching post and peering like myopic cultists from under their perma-hoodies. There’d be nothing to do and all day to do it; Ireland is not very good at providing diversions to its stretching, restless teenagers.

There’d be a swaggering kind of one-upmanship, an endeavour confined to drinking marathons, drug-schnozzling, and sexual conceit. You’re the best if you’re the brashest and the loudest and the least afraid and you have to fight for that crown every day anew. Authority? Fuck authority. Education? Fuck education. Prospects? Fuck prospects. Who needs prospects? What kind of idiot flaunts a bit of focus and a bit of a longing for something bigger and better? No kind of idiot.*

What do you do, if you don’t want to raise your kids in such an environment, where those with ambition are encouraged to bury it, for fear they be thought conceited? And outside of my tedious sociological theories… What do you do, if you don’t want to raise your children in an area where underage drinking and hard drug use are the norm, where girls are expected to get pregnant and host house parties, and boys are expected to brawl their way to the top of the food chain? Where the other adults around you have no real interest in guiding their lanky teenage offspring, and leave them to raise themselves? Where, if you have a complaint about a fifteen-year-old boy rolling a joint in your porch, you’re expected to sit on it? No point calling the guards. You’ll have your tyres slashed if you call the guards. No point going out there to give the kid a piece of your mind. At best, you’ll be mocked. At worst, he’ll come back later and put your bin through your front window. Or stab you.

What do you do, if you can’t leave potted plants outside your own front door because you know they’ll be taken and smashed? What do you do, if you see a teenage boy barely able to walk at four in the afternoon because he’s out of his gourd? What do you do, if your neighbour decides to have a loud screaming match with her sister outside your front door at three on a Sunday morning? What do you do, if you’re genuinely afraid of leaving your kids out to play, because you’re scared of what might pass for normal amongst their peers, or you’re terrified they’ll come home with a bag of syringey treasures?

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‘You could be homeless’

The general consensus is that you’re lucky to get the house at all. You could be homeless. You cannot expect the Council to move you because your neighbours are nightmarish – the awarding of subsidised housing is not undertaken after long consideration of the moral merits of the applicant. And Irish social problems are far too complex to be wiped out by some clever urban rezoning – sure, the superestates were created by overly-clever urban rezoning, in the first instance. Though promoting a healthy sense of community wouldn’t be a bad move, how in Christ’s name can recession-plodding Ireland start on that? The major problem with socialism is that in order for it to work, everyone needs to have an equal sense of personal and civic responsibility. And, of course, they don’t.

My friend spoke to the Council about the possibility of moving from the estate she rents in, citing liberally from the examples I posted above. She was dismissed sternly with, “We do not move tenants because they complain about anti-social behaviour.” And, of course, it’s hard to blame the councils, whose resources are scant and finite. It’s not the immediate fault of the local authority if some of its tenants are determined to sully the gifts they were given and sour the experience for everyone else, too. My friend, it seems, must either get a better job, rob a bank, or put up and shut up. The wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly, you see, and they only grind one way.

* We have this funny carry-on in Ireland; you cannot be seen to want to be better than the fella standing beside you. So many of us don’t trust that kind of ambition. I wonder if it’s a leftover from the days when ambition was a luxury of the landowning classes and a peasant’s head sticking above the parapet meant that they were trying to ingratiate themselves to the enemy? I don’t know. I’m not a historian (says I, to the cries of “Look at yer wan over there thinking she knows everything. Does she think she’s some kind of historian or what?”)

First published on lisamcinerney.com. Lisa McInerney is an award-winning Irish blogger who writes for The Antiroom and Culch.ie as well as her own website.

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Lisa McInerney

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