Even the most indifferent, daydreaming student of our history will, even if by osmosis, understand that it is largely a story of those who own property and those who do not. That is the case in most societies, but it seems an especially sharp and enduring conflict in this country. Whole swathes of our history are focused on mitigating the disproportionate impact property ownership — landlordism, in the vernacular of our revolutions — had on the fate of those of no property.
As in all post-colonial societies, there was an assumption that we would use independence to better balance the ambitions and rights of property owners and others. That being a tenant rather than a mortgage-holding home-owner — eventually — is still almost regarded as a kind of expensive failure shows how uncomfortable much of this society remains with being dependent on a landlord. That institutional investors have taken such a grip in the home market will do little to allay those concerns.
There are many long-standing reasons for this but one has been highlighted by Cian O’Callaghan, the Social Democrat TD for Dublin Bay North. He and others have strongly criticised the Government for not making a deposit protection scheme effective almost six years after it became law. The Residential Tenancies Board was to hold tenants’ deposits so, in the event of a dispute, the tenant’s interests might be on an equal footing with their landlords. The scheme was designed to avert disputes involving the retention of deposits, which, in turn, can cause homelessness. Vulnerability is exacerbated while property is afforded the protection that makes renting such an unattractive proposition.
Not only does this failure to implement our parliament’s decisions work against tenants it underlines, for the umpteenth time, our enthusiasm for enacting legislation in a theoretical, pointless way as unenforced laws offer no real protection. This enact-but-ignore habit is one of the viruses eating away at the idea of participatory democracy too, making an ineffective legislature even more remote.
A different but related virus is eating away at our urban centres — dereliction. This dereliction is another manifestation of the latitude afforded to property owners. This draining away seems particularly intolerable as we are in the grip of an unprecedented housing crisis. It is also another indication of how feeble, or under-resourced, local authorities are should they find the gumption to forcefully challenge this legalised vandalism.
As the first instalment of our series on dereliction today shows, the process can destroy a town in an all too obvious way. That the upper floors of so many town or city buildings have fallen into disrepair is the first step in this sorry process, one that is simply not indulged in most advanced European countries. It is not rocket science, nor does it require a revolution to resolve these issues in a way that safeguards the rights of property owners while serving the pressing needs of society. But is urgent that the malaise be confronted in a way that better balances needs and rights — as any of the many eyesore cityscapes in this small country will confirm.