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'It had fantastic resonance': A year after taking over Dublin's vacant buildings, Take Back the City disbands

The coalition of housing groups occupied buildings and offices in the capital last year.

Take Back the City activists protest on Parnell Street in Dublin
Take Back the City activists protest on Parnell Street in Dublin

TAKE BACK THE City activists have formally announced the end of the housing movement, a year after they made headlines for occupying vacant buildings in Dublin.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, former members of the movement confirmed that it had disbanded and that they would no longer coalesce under the banner to protest against the housing and homeless crises.

“Take Back the City has been finished for months; the last big action was the takeover of the Residential Tenancies Board offices in November,” Peter Dooley of the Dublin Renters’ Union and a former member of the group said.

“Certain elements of the movement tried to pursue it further, but a lot of people involved just wanted to go back to their own communities and build from the grassroots up.”

The movement, a coalition of several local housing groups, made headlines in August and September 2018, when they occupied a number vacant buildings in north inner city Dublin and held protests at the offices of the Department of Housing, Airbnb and the Residential Tenancies Board.

Some of its members were the subject of High Court injunctions to prevent them entering the buildings the group had occupied, while a number of others were arrested and injured during an eviction from a property in North Frederick Street last September.

However, Take Back the City has not held any actions in a number of months, despite receiving support from hundreds of volunteers during the time the group was active.

Conor Reddy of Dublin North West Housing Action, another former member, confirmed that while no formal decision had been made to stop protesting under the Take Back the City banner, the movement no longer existed.

“We’ve never officially disbanded, but at the same time we haven’t had meetings or actions in the last few months,” he said.

There were 18 different grassroots and housing groups involved, so it just became a thing where those involved wanted to focus on our communities more consciously.

Summerhill Parade

The movement began last year with the occupation of a number of properties on Summerhill Parade owned by landlord Pat O’Donnell.

The decision to occupy the properties followed the removal of dozens of tenants living in them the previous May, when Dublin Fire Brigade issued a notice that the houses were unsafe to live in.

A number of local community grassroots groups, including the Take Back Trinity student group, then held a housing forum in August and made the decision to initiate a protest and take over the buildings.

On August 7, they held a protest on Dublin’s O’Connell Street against the housing crisis, before marching to Summerhill Parade to occupy the buildings. 

“We saw that these houses that were able to be renovated and used,” Reddy – who was also a member of Take Back Trinity – said.

“So we demanded that they should be taken over by the council and used to help alleviate its housing waiting list.”

0024 Activists Occupy Property_90550933 Activists occupy a vacant house at Summerhill Parade in Dublin 1 Source: RollingNews.ie

As the movement grew, the group also demanded that other buildings that had been vacant over a long period of time should be taken into public ownership using compulsory purchase orders; that rents across Ireland should be capped at €400 per month; and that there should be a permanent end to evictions.

Unlike previous demonstrations by other groups at Apollo House and Bolt Hostel, the movement saw itself as different because it wanted to highlight how all sections of society are affected by the housing crisis, not just homeless people.

Historical roots

However, despite protesting against a current crisis, Reddy explains how the roots of Take Back the City were based in housing movements of the past:

We took some inspiration from recent occupations at Apollo House and Bolt Hostel, but there was some historical inspiration too.
Fifty years ago last year, a united front campaign called the Dublin Housing Action Committee took over vacant Georgian buildings to demand public housing.

The group, which contained figures including the late TD Tony Gregory, was formed in response to a shortage of affordable housing in Dublin during the 1960s, when there were also problems with a large number of vacant houses and long housing lists.

In one instance, members of the group occupied a property at Mountjoy Square – hundreds of metres from Summerhill Parade – while there were also protests outside the Mansion House, inside the Four Courts, and another demonstration which blocked O’Connell Bridge.

Peter Dooley of the Dublin Renters’ Union said that, as with the Dublin Housing Action Committee, Take Back the City became a cross-party movement about an issue affecting various parts of Irish society.

“It brought people of all backgrounds together,” he said.

“That’s how movements come together: if people have a common purpose and an outlet to protest against something that affects them, they feel they have power.

“That was the biggest lesson learned from Take Back the City.”

‘The tip of the iceberg’

After a High Court order to leave the properties on Summerhill Parade on 16 August, members of the group occupied a second property at 34 North Frederick Street, owned by Patricia McGreal, the following day.

On that occasion, a spokesperson for the group said that Take Back the City had acted following the “outpouring of support” it had received after its first occupation, something which gave the activists the confidence to create a new housing movement.

“Summerhill was only the tip of the iceberg,” they said. “We’re ready to keep going.”

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004 Housing Protest_90553861 A protest outside 34 North Frederick Street following the eviction of members of Take Back the City last September Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

Another High Court order to vacate the building followed, but the activists refused to do so, leading to a high-profile eviction by a private security firm and masked gardaí and the arrests of six members of Take Back the City in September.

Reddy, one of those who was arrested, admits that he was afraid of the personal consequences of occupying buildings, but said this was something that was considered by those who had gotten involved with the group.

“Of course I was afraid that I might get in trouble,” he said.

But that was a personal risk that all of us who were involved weighed against the gravity and scale of the housing crisis.
Ultimately, we felt that what we were worried about personally paled in comparison to the actual scale of Ireland’s housing problem.

Sustained housing movement

The group also occupied a third property on nearby Belvedere Place, but soon limited its activities to protests at the offices of some of those it felt were enabling the crisis to continue.

Among the locations where Take Back the City activists demonstrated were the offices of the Department of Housing, Airbnb, and the Residential Tenancies Board, which was the group’s last major demonstration in November.

On that occasion, activists forced the cancellation of a tribunal hearing into the case of a tenant living in a Focus Ireland house in north Dublin, after occupying the tribunal room for more than an hour.

1280 Housing Mural_90553690 A mural on the corner of a building on North Frederick Street occupied by Take Back the City activists last year Source: Leah Farrell/Rollingmews.ie

But despite hundreds of volunteers joining the group during the six months it was active, it was unable to keep up its initial momentum.

“The signs were there that we had huge solidarity,” Reddy says. “But people ultimately felt they wanted to deal with problems in their local communities where they were based.”

For Dooley, the disbanding of the group was something of a setback: he believes its success showed that there is an appetite for a sustained housing movement in Ireland, similar to recent protests against water charges.

“The only way we’re going to change things is to get a movement,” he said.

There’s a real democratic deficit in the system at the moment, because a lot of people have no security where they’re living, so don’t feel like they’re part of a community.

But he adds that he does not regret that Take Back the City is no more.

“At the time, it had a fantastic resonance,” he said. “Looking back, you don’t have regrets: you have experiences. It was great just to see a lot of people get involved in direct actions for the first time.”

For now, it remains unclear whether the groups involved in Take Back the City will reform into another movement to protest against the housing crisis.

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