The combination of growing waiting lists for social housing and increased house building points to the increasing exclusion which is at the heart of Ireland's Celtic Tiger economy. While private sector housing has certainly boomed, there has been no such boom in building local authority or voluntary housing.
In fact construction of social housing has been declining since 1995. While local authorities provided 3,200 new houses in 1995 this was offset by the sale of 2,100 existing houses; a net increase of 1,100 houses per year is unlikely to make much of an impression on the waiting lists.
In Dublin public housing faces a further crisis, the Corporation claims that by the year 2000 it will have no land left that is suitable for housebuilding. However much of the private apartment building is happening on land that used to be owned by the Corpo but that they were forced to sell off to speculators a few years ago because of cutbacks in funding from central government.
These trends show that we can't expect the government to provide enough affordable accommodation to solve the housing crisis. The boom in the private sector is even less likely to provide a solution. The explosion of house prices, driven by government tax cuts for investment in housing, has meant that it is increasingly unrealistic for many workers to buy their own house.
Many of those who can afford to buy a house are crippled by huge mortgages. The result of this is that more and more of the property is in the hands of rich investors, speculators and developers who have enjoyed massive profits from the housing boom.
High demand has ensured that investors can charge exorbitant rents to their tenants. Traditionally Ireland has been a country of high owner-occupancy, where we spent the smallest proportion of income in Europe on housing. The current situation represents a concerted attack on this economic profile.
Housing is the primary area highlighted for "attracting higher spending growth" by NCB stockbrokers in their long-term forecast for the 26 county economy. They note that Irish people spend on average only 10% of their income on housing, compared to 18% in the US. They confidently predict that "this percentage will grow".
It is conservatively estimated that more than 25% of all new house purchases in 1996 were for investment purposes. Market forces are intent on creating a housing situation whereby only the rich can afford their own home while the majority pay ever increasing proportions of their income as rent to private financial institutions.
Exorbitant house prices and a massive lack of social housing mean that many people have no option but to seek private rented accommodation. In some urban areas the demand is so high that landlords have been able to increase rents at will. Rents in the private sector went up by 12% last year and are expected to rise by 20%-25% this year. In Dublin it is not unusual to pay £500 per month for a small one-bedroomed flat.
This situation highlights the two-tiered nature of the Celtic Tiger economy. On the one hand the building boom has been good to landlords whose profits continue to rise as rents go up, on the other hand tenants find themselves paying ever more money for their housing. Increasing rents are just one of the socially adverse effects of the burgeoning market in investment housing.
Public sector housing has generally been aimed at the less well-off. On the other hand most private landlords aim only to extract the maximum profits from their investment. Tenants are valued only in so far as they are secure sources of income. This leads to a situation where a large slice of society is excluded from most privately rented housing. Students, single parents and the unemployed or casually employed are effectively barred from the majority of new urban apartment developments.
Many landlords will simply not rent to tenants without first seeing bank statements or work references, others refuse to accept health board rent allowance cheques. Professional letting agencies refuse clients who don't have a regular income. The high demand for rented housing allows landlords to refuse to deal with the poor and a type of social apartheid is thus created.
Threshold, the housing charity, reported that in the first six months of this year they were approached by - and unable to help - over 1,000 people who could not find affordable private rental housing.
Refugees and immigrants are finding it particularly hard to get decent housing. As well as facing discrimination due to their poverty they also face racism, inspired by countless media stories depicting them as 'spongers'. Samuel, a black immigrant who is currently looking for an apartment in Dublin, says that he is so used to being rejected on account of his skin colour that the first question he now asks landlords on the telephone is "I am black, do you have a problem with that?"
Those people excluded from much of the rental market and abandoned by public housing are forced to take accommodation wherever they are accepted, the only alternative being to join the growing ranks of the homeless. This generally means that they have to pay outrageous rents for tiny flats in decaying buildings.
In Dublin it is not uncommon for landlords, wishing to make a quick profit out of the housing crisis, to fill dilapidated houses with beds and rent each out for £50 per week. The condition of much of this type of rented accommodation is appalling, repairs are rarely carried out, appliances often don't work and the only thing that is done promptly is rent collection.
Tenants are fully aware that they are effectively without rights in this rented accommodation, that they can be evicted at will and that they have no real legal means of forcing landlords to uphold their meagre legal responsibilities. Of the 6,000 rented dwellings which were inspected for compliance with legal minimum standards, a massive 2,109 failed to meet the regulations. However, in only 22 of these cases was any legal action taken. A clear sign that there is one law for the rich and one law for the poor. Imagine if the state only granted eviction orders in 1% of cases of non-payment of rent!
Most public planning, at least in recent years, has acknowledged the necessity of providing amenities to residents and attempting to integrate building into the community. Private sector developers can often get away with no real planning whatsoever, leaving a myriad of problems which the taxpayer will be left with the burden of correcting. Many of the new apartment buildings in urban areas have been constructed quickly, using cheap materials and in some cases they haven't even employed architects. Developers' thirst for profits has caused multiple deaths due to ignored safety procedures on the sites.
Much of the new apartment building in Dublin has happened in inner-city working class communities, and in these areas the new apartments are designed to provide security against the local community, rather than even pretending to integrate into it. Many of these new apartment blocks resemble fortresses complete with electric gates, closed circuit video cameras, and multiple alarm systems.
The apartments themselves are generally strictly functional and tiny. Poor design often means that tenants are left with a tiny amount of liveable space, while the cheapness of the building materials has meant that the windows are so small that little light can enter and the walls are so thin that you can hear your next door neighbours conversations.
With such high demand for rented accommodation and the lack of effective legal restraints, landlords have no motivation to provide decent accommodation. Thus some of the modern private developments resemble large, very expensive dormitories.
Clearly the government is not going to solve the housing crisis. If at a time when the tax coffers are so full, public sector housing is in decline and waiting lists are lengthening, what chance is there that they will solve the problem when the inevitable downturn in the economy arrives? The boom in private sector housing is no solution and is in fact contributing largely to marginalisation, social exclusion and growing divergences in wealth. Meanwhile the situation continues to worsen as rents rise, affordable housing becomes scarcer and landlords continue to reap vast profits.
The situation will not improve unless there is significant opposition from those who are its victims, that is the working class. Solidarity between workers has proved an effective means in the past of opposing ruthless exploitation of housing need by capitalists. Rent strikes, squatting and occupations of properties can not only force rents to be lowered but can also force the government to invest more of our tax money in social housing.
Twenty years ago Dublin Corporation was forced to give tenancies of hundreds of squatters. Those people got themselves housed, not by pleading with politicians, but through direct action. The Dublin Squatters Association physically opposed evictions and eventually forced the government to rehouse all the squatters .
Democratic tenants' associations can give residents the confidence and the mechanism with which to face up to exploitative landlords. Indeed, without solidarity among tenants, we are forced to rely upon politicians, and as the current situation has exposed they will do nothing to resolve the crisis. In any case the politicians are often too busy collecting brown paper bags from developers to solve workers' housing problems.
2 For more information on this campaign see http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/ws/squat48.html on the internet