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'Social housing should not just be for people with low incomes – this creates ghettos'

All housing is social, and having a mix of backgrounds will set standards and reduce social problems, writes Kate Kavanagh.

Image: Shutterstock/poylock19

HOUSING SHOULD NOT be a tradable commodity. If we allow builders to build dog boxes with shared kitchens – we should not be surprised when those we expect to live there end up behaving like pack animals competing for resources.

The new regulations to allow small housing units to be built will solve a problem – but not the problem we need to solve.

They will allow the investors, developers and builders to make more profit – which was a problem for them, but will not provide homes that are fit for purpose.

Doesn’t address the real problem

Solving the wrong problem creates more problems. This proposal is designed to increase profit and with it motivation to build, but it rides roughshod over very basic needs we have as a society. And it doesn’t address the real problem.

That creates conflict between what we want as a society, and what individual developers want as business people. Can you imagine what we could accomplish if we freed people from the emotional and mental struggle to find and afford a place – fit for purpose – to live in?

This is not just an issue for low income groups. All housing is social housing, because how we live affects all of us. Very few people can afford to rent or buy units. The homeless figure is much larger than what we hear because we are not counting those living with parents or in their parents’ second home.

We need to build units for people of all income levels. We need to build units for people of all ages and backgrounds, for families, for communities, with space to store bicycles and other stuff normal functioning human beings gather.

And we need to build units that people can call their long-term homes, with security of tenure, rent control, and freedom to furnish however they like. Landlords can evict from furnished apartments a lot easier than non furnished – that’s why they don’t move their stuff out.

The business of profit

If we look at the problem from the landlords’ and developers’ point of view, we’re never going to solve the housing problem, because these people are in the business of profit, and housing is way too essential to be beholding to profit as motivation.

I’m not blaming developers or landlords for chasing profit, that’s they system we’re in, but they don’t have to do it from housing, unless contracted by government. It is not the job of developers to plan for and provide housing for the citizens – that’s the State’s job. If we put control in the hands of those whose interests are pure profit, we will end up with proposals for smaller units that won’t solve the housing crisis and create new social ills.

If we want to find a solution to something, we first have to correctly identify the problem, and the problem is not how to maximise profits for developers. The problem is we haven’t accepted that housing is a basic need.

We haven’t recognised that all housing is social housing. And we haven’t learned that proper housing is the single most influential factor in creating a stable society where children have the space to live and flourish.

Previous social housing projects like Ballymun and other areas were failures and created massive social problems and generations of sidelined citizens – problems that you don’t see in more affluent areas. This is not because people who rely on State housing are more prone to social deviancy. It’s because we creates ghettos, and we grouped the most vulnerable people in terms of education and income, and subsequent health problems there and forgot about them.

And we did the same in parts of west Dublin. It’s no coincidence that drug gangs flourished in the ghettoes we created – they too are motivated by profit.

Repeating history on a bigger scale

Knowing that we know this, what do we expect to happen when we repeat this but on a worse scale? Developers and builders have persuaded our government that if they could only increase the return on their investment, they’d build more houses for us to buy.

This is outrageous on so many levels, it’s distracting to go into all of them and I’d just be reduced to an outraged rant and the issue is much too important for that.

If we allow builders to build dog boxes with shared kitchens – we should not be surprised or outraged when the people we expect to live there end up behaving like pack animals competing for scare resources.

There is a workable solution to our housing problem. It’s both complex and simple, and it will work, but it takes a change of focus from what we perceive is the problem, to what the problem really is.

Housing shouldn’t be a tradable commodity

Housing should not be a tradable commodity. Nor should it be built with ghettos as a given result. We need to provide adequate housing that people can call homes, with stable rent and security of tenure – and yes, storage space and light with recreation areas.

If the building industry thinks this is unworkable, that they won’t attract investors because the profit margins are too low – then don’t do it. Let government do it, and contract the work for a fixed price to the standards determined by government. I don’t accept that no-one will take up the contract – we are in Europe with access to a European workforce.

The premise that has to be to the forefront of all thinking when considering housing: 1) ALL housing is social housing, 2) people should be able to access and expect accommodation that has security of tenure, stable rent, adequate space to live, and 3) it’s too vital an issue to allow profit be the motivation that drives the solution.

Start at the best possible solution and work backwards. So we want to build adequate housing that people can raise their families in without trading up down or sideways. The only people who benefit from trading are the myriads of brokers in involved in the activity – and the consumer, and subsequently society always loses out. We must plan to build homes that people can and want to stay in long-term.

If they can do it in Germany, we can do it here

This means removing tradability and profit from the rental sector. The rental market is in chaos because landlords evict at will in order to raise rents. The real problem is hidden as families absorb evicted tenants.  Government – assuming no corruption – must introduce security of tenure and rent control, and landlords who resist this as unworkable could look for alternative ways in other industries to make a living.

Most importantly, we should allow people of all incomes to apply to live in rental properties. It should not just be for people with low income – this just creates social ghettos. All housing is social, and the mix will set standards and reduce social problems.

Take the instability out of the housing market, build low rise large apartments, and have the projects financed and managed by large institutions who are in it for the long-term and are subject to strict regulations about tenancy and rent. If they can do it in Germany with a population of more than 80 million people, they can do it here.

Kate Kavanagh is a writer and visual artist living and working in Dublin. She worked for several years as broadcast news journalist with RTE before working freelance as an editor/ journalist in print, photo and video media.

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