Comment: Centre won’t hold as housing crisis deepens

From Yeats to Joyce, there is little poetry to be found in the Ireland of today, writes Social Affairs Correspondent Noel Baker.

If you can grab a spot, there’s free parking near Ashton School in Cork City.

Walking towards the city centre there is a choice of great coffee shops, down past the grand-looking three-storey houses.

And yesterday there was a new feature: A pile of blankets heaped on a bench in the green off Victoria Rd.

If you go looking for them tomorrow they might be gone, but they were there — the remnants of someone’s bed, a timely reminder of where we now are regarding the worsening housing crisis.

Lord Mayor of Cork Michael Finn said as much as he opened the Focus Ireland annual conference yesterday. 

Surveying the unfinished concrete-and-glass splendour of Millennium Hall in City Hall, he said no one would have thought people would be living in tents by the banks of the Lee, while at the same time cranes erected new hotels.

The current housing situation, he said, is the worst crisis the country has faced since the Famine.

He bemoaned the problems: Landlords issuing notice to tenants “out of the blue”; the “new homeless”, cast onto streets and a chaotic rental market that can’t cope; “torturous” red tape that holds up procurement and development.

The lord mayor said Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy — who recently had a pop at councils over their failure to address the crisis — needs to trust local authorities and should look at his own department.

Cork City Council had made strides, said Mr Finn, pointing to the opening of the first family hub this year and the delivery of a 68-bed unit in Togher. However, frustrations are also evident, such as staffing issues. Given the scale of this crisis, he said, there may be a role for the Citizens’ Assembly to intervene.

This idea of more voices playing a role was central to the keynote speech delivered by economist David McWilliams, who brandished a volume of poetry from WB Yeats to make his point, reciting that “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.”

According to Mr McWilliams, Yeats forecast the future from his vantage point in time much better than the economists whose job it was to wield the crystal ball.

The need for such “unconventional thought” is paramount now, given that the sorry housing situation is “a failure of our collective imagination”.

Our school systems reward conventional thought leading to confirmation bias leading to groupthink.

“The housing market is an exemplar of that,” he said.

Instead, he posited the irrationality of people: When prices go up, those who can sell houses wait a little longer to see if a better price can be achieved. People panic when buying and fear being left behind if they don’t. Life milestones now take longer to come around; so we have more single people in their 30s who want to live in cities that can’t accommodate them.

We have underutilisation of land — 100,000 people living between canals in Dublin versus 600,000 in the same space in Copenhagen.

What are the ways out? An incentive scheme to penalise land hoarding, argued Mr McWilliams, married to rewards — maybe tax breaks — for developers who want to develop, refurbish, renovate. What we need to avoid are the vagaries of “the new banana republic”, a place where you “oppose every development”.

Prof Michelle Norris, head of the School of Social Policy, Social Work, and Social Justice at University College Dublin, made a similar argument. Assumptions that large-scale social or mixed tenure housing will inevitably lead to social problems are wrong. A one-size-fits-all approach to new developments there won’t work — she compared Ballymun, which she argued does not necessarily need more social housing, with O’Devaney Gardens near Dublin city centre, an area peopled by hipsters and where more social housing could work.

There was the remarkable statistic that 22.2% of all our housing stock was built by local authorities, yet just 8.7% remains in council ownership. Prof Norris referred to “the enormous levels of objections to small and mixed tenure social housing estates”.

This kind of thing won’t help the folk in the tents by the Lee, the families in hotels, those clinging to their tenancies. It also brought to mind another line, not one from Yeats, but from Joyce: “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow.”

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