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Opinion: Ireland is yearning for strong defences against landlord despotism

Building social housing means building homes, writes Dean Van Nguyen.

Dean Van Nguyen

HOUSING IS ALWAYS personal, no more so than when a nation is gripped in crisis.

This particular yarn begins with me as a kid and memories of summer holidays spent in my grandparents’ home in Camberwell, South London.

After leaving Vietnam in the late-1980s to follow my dad, their eldest son, to Ireland, they briefly lived in close proximity to me in Tallaght before moving to the UK with their young family, in search of job opportunities.

Today, seven siblings are scattered out all over London, but my uncle and his wife and kids still live in that same Camberwell home that has housed members of the family for three decades. It’s a cosy four-bedroom ‘split-level flat’, part of a social housing complex, and I love it.

The unit sits on the ground level of a relatively small block with just one row of homes above, but in the shadow of high rise buildings. Over the years the area has suffered from underinvestment in local amenities, and the residents have endured a certain amount of demonisation, but today it’s safe and social.

My point is this: building social housing means building homes.

‘Homes’, that’s the word isn’t it? I didn’t spend the summers of my childhood in a council house; I spent summers in my grandparents’ home.

Every time I’m in Camberwell, I think of the Irish government’s reluctance to ease the housing crisis by mass building social housing. When I hear TDs and other critics call such properties “free housing” – ignoring the rent tenants pay – everything in me rises up in protest. In these moments it’s clear as crystal: the housing and homeless crises aren’t down to lack of capacity, but political ideology that commodifies basic human necessities.

Photographs were circling on social media recently of the microdistricts (or “microrayons”) built in the Soviet Union after the Second World War to house the masses. The architecture of these immense structures is sometimes described as Brutalist – heavy looking materials, a predominantly grey colour palette, lots of hard angles – but I find it quite beautiful. Let me tell you, I wouldn’t mind some of that Soviet moxie to mass build cookie-cutter two and three-bedroom homes with central heating, private bathrooms, and other amenities in Ireland.

The cosmetic appearance is, of course, not the most important thing. What is important is that we the people own a large reserve of housing stock to be distributed based on the people’s needs, just as has been done in other countries. 

There’s no reason why this can’t happen in Ireland. Here’s how it should look.

These homes should be permanently affordable and provide residents with security from eviction. They should be mixed-income, so as not to codify people based on class. There should be investment in local amenities, area upkeep and public events to see off the social issues that can occur when communities are neglected.

Those affected by homelessness should receive homes and counselling without any preconditions – in Finland, four out of five people affected by homelessness have been able to make their way back into a stable life by such a scheme, which also proved to be cheaper than accepting homelessness.

Landlords

At this point, I should disclose that I partially own the house in Dublin that I spent the second half of my childhood growing up in. Sad circumstances meant I inherited half the property a few years ago.

I didn’t want to live in the house and wasn’t in the state of mind to let it go, so I rented it out to a family via an agency. This is no #NotAllLandlords piece – stick your head out the window in any city in Ireland and you’ll see that relying on landlord morality is like relying on your ability to recite chapters of Tolstoy’s War and Peace from memory.

Instead, this is about fairness. 

I’ve experienced living in a building on Upper Sheriff Street – the kind of new build that can reasonably be described as gentrification – controlled by an international real estate firm that didn’t mind upping the rent at every legal opportunity.

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Friedrich Engels wrote in 1872 that, “in order to make an end of this housing shortage there is only one means: to abolish altogether the exploitation and oppression of the working class by the ruling class.” A century and a half later, Ireland’s yearns for strong defences against landlord despotism: a rent freeze, income supplements for those already trapped in high rents, the transferal of housing stock into public control, expanding public housing builds, homes not hotels.

I was so angry about the eviction that took place in Phibsboro last year when nine tenants were forcibly evicted from a home in north Dublin. It offered a microcosm of where inhumane laws have led us: absolute power in the hands of property funds and landlords, gardaí working against the people instead of serving them, the dehumanising treatment of migrants.

In 2018 I was among those who stopped traffic in solidarity with the housing activists shut down by masked gardaí at an eviction on North Frederick Street. Three years later it’s hard to see changes to be happy about.

Some people will always want to own their own home, that’s right. How to make this viable for a generation of young people has been poured over ad nauseam – of course, the government can build houses for rent and sale to compete with the market. But property ownership shouldn’t be the only way to establish a home with dignity and agency.

And nobody should have to buy with the fear that a notoriously unstable economy will leave them in negative equity or in desperate straits with a bank. (In that regard, the idea that capitalism protects property is a myth. You’re never more than a couple of steps shy of losing everything.)

So where do we go from here? If the question is squarely pointed towards the government, then it’s to stop passing this political football around like it’s a scalding hot potato. The time for paying mealy-mouthed lip service to the issue is over.

Those in positions of power and privilege need to understand the plight of people who want self-worth in the form of a corner of their communities that’s just for them. The people who just want to belong.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here

Dean Van Nguyen is a music journalist and cultural critic

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