The housing crisis in Ireland and the tenants movement- interview with Aaron Downey

Aaron Downey is an activist and organiser who has been involved with the housing movement and the Community Action Tenants’ Union (CATU) for a number of years

Ireland seems to be facing a housing crisis for some years now. Can you give us a picture of the situation- some facts and figures about the origins, the character and depth of the housing problem working class people face?

The housing crisis has been deepening and accelerating since the 2008 financial crisis. Its roots lie before this however.

The government in the 26 counties (in the south of Ireland) historically subsidised housing beyond what could be afforded by ordinary workers since its foundation and encouraged a high rate of home ownership, seen in part by the Catholic Church as a way of suppressing radicalism. Post-independence, the state was left with a glut of slum tenements which were prone to collapse and initiated several mass public housing projects as a result, one of the largest being in the 1960s and 70s.

Much of this was then transferred to tenants with the surrender grant where social housing tenants were encouraged to buy their homes (and move out of apartments if they rented those). By the 1980s it meant that there was as many new council builds as there were people buying council stock. This ultimately led to a decreased amount of social housing and the concept being stigmatised.

In the 6 counties (in the north of Ireland), housing was a site of discrimination and used as a way to control voting patterns and ensuring a Unionist majority. This led to the foundation of groups like the Derry Housing Action Committee and the civil rights movement, ultimately delivering the Housing Executive in the early 70s as a concession by the state to make the housing system more equitable.

Ultimately both sides of the border were affected by the neoliberal turn and the running down and depletion of the viable public housing stock. The 26 counties experienced a massive amount of foreign direct investment and an inflated property market as credit was cheap in the 90s and 2000s. Known as the ‘Celtic Tiger’ it deepened divisions between those who benefitted from owning property and those who did not.

The global economic crash in 2008 brought the Celtic Tiger to a roaring end, resulting in massive amounts of mortgage debt, vacancy (so called ghost estates), and the collapse of public private partnerships which were supposed to regenerate public housing stock. The Fianna Fáil and Green Party government in the 26 counties set up the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) as a way for the state to socialise the bad loans property developers had been left with, as the public paid for their debts. Much of the stock NAMA bought was then sold back on to investors at a massively deflated rate.

North and South of the border is now on the same track of neoliberal capitalist policies. Rents are high, the standard of the private rental market is poor, and there is not enough public housing available. The 6 counties has had increasing homelessness with over 3600 households living in temporary accommodation in 2022, a 77% rise on 2019’s figure. By December 2020, the social housing waiting list had 42,000 households on it. Rent has risen 19% between 2013 and 2020, and there are more than 20,000 empty homes.

In the 26 counties the picture is even worse, particularly in Dublin. Record homelessness figures are hit nearly every month with over 12,000 currently in emergency accommodation (which are often private hotels paid by the state). Rent prices have increased by 82% in 12 years despite modest rent control measures, and while there are more rented homes now than in 2016, there are fewer registered tenancies. There are 48,000 homes vacant for more than six years. Finally, the state has taken a more active role in the housing market which has mostly meant subsidising private landlords through things like the Housing Assistance Payment or long term lease agreements with institutional investors. Ireland’s biggest residential landlord, Ires REIT (REIT stands for Real Estate Investment Trust – a vehicle for investment of things like pension schemes), now owns more than 4000 apartments, with annual rental income of €32.6 million, some of it from such state supports.

What is CATU? How did it originate as a movement? What is its structure and main actions? 

CATU stands for Community Action Tenants’ Union. We are a grassroots union for people outside of their workplaces, focused on the basic principles of membership, democracy, and direct action.

The union came out of previous waves of housing activism which often involved large scale public squatting or occupations. The union model was one that was introduced to reach more communities, generate more sustainable resources, create a wider base of activists, and win achievements in people’s lives.

We have around 2000 members organised into local branches on regional levels. These then elect members to the national steering committee who have oversight of the whole organisation and our small staff team. We also have a national campaigns team, caucuses for oppressed minorities who also have representation rights, and various working groups for specific issues.

Our main actions have focused on the housing crisis, and depending on the context have meant marching on landlords’ homes or businesses, supporting occupations, physically blocking evictions, or even just mass phone and email pickets of the landlords or county/city councils that are making our members’ lives worse.

What is the CATU strategy in fighting against the housing crisis? What are the main demands and how do you see the possibility to realise them?

CATU’s strategy is based on winning achievable campaigns which empower tenants and working class communities and give us the confidence to push for more. The stronger a base of power we have, the more we can push whoever ends up in government to align with our demands. 

So on a case by case basis our strategy is to map who holds power and who is exploiting communities or tenants and use our strength in numbers or economic power to frustrate them, disrupt their lives, and hold them accountable.

Our national demands are broadly an end to evictions and public housing universally accessible to all regardless of income. We see this as the only possible solution (or at least major easing) of the housing crisis. By universal public housing we mean that everyone could live in good quality public housing, and it is not being seen as a site of last resort.

In line with those two aims we have recently had two major wins that build the strength of our members – one was resisting a mass eviction of tenants by one landlord in an apartment block in Dublin, another was our public housing members winning an improvement in retrofitting for their housing from the council.

The far-right seems to try to use the housing crisis in order to gather support for their racist policies and actions. Can you give us some examples? What was the response of the housing movement against these developments?

The far-right has been opportunistically using the housing crisis to drive a wedge between working class Irish people and migrant workers, but particularly those who are refugees or seeking asylum. As shown above the Irish housing crisis has been rapidly deteriorating for the best part of a decade and this has been ripe for exploitation. As tens of thousands linger on county council housing lists and rents spiral forcing many of young people to live at home with their parents or emigrate there is a natural frustration at housing.

Add to this the increase in migration to Ireland during the economic boom which has continued with promises of high tech jobs or student visas to learn English and it becomes easy for far-right actors to point the blame at migrants for the housing crisis, even though these migrants are often the most exploited by landlords. With the war in Ukraine and the general increase in asylum applications across Europe as global conditions worsen, the far right have picked fights with protests directed specifically at asylum seeker accommodation. This accommodation is itself privately operated for profit which brings all sorts of issues but also makes it harder for the state to find alternatives. These protests have intensified to the point of arson recently. Meanwhile many far-right activists are vocally against the right to housing (even for Irish people) as they hold up individual property rights as a core political principle.

The housing movement has generally held strong against these developments and maintained that we are fighting for homes for all, regardless of nationality or race. The vast majority of our members who stand up and fight back against their housing issues are not Irish and the union has always said that we are stronger together to stand up against the people really causing the crisis – the landlords, developers and banks all facilitated by the right-wing government – rather than turning on each other and marginalising the most vulnerable. Some groups such as the Revolutionary Housing League have taken to occupying buildings to house the homeless – Irish and asylum seekers alike, while others have joined broad coalition groups to protest against racist hatred or organise solidarity dinners with those in asylum seeker accommodation.

Our members in Direct Provision (the 26 county system of asylum seeker accommodation) who have been granted refugee status or leave to remain have recently been resisting their forced relocation as the state claims the system is over capacity. This often means forcing people across the country away from work, family, or study commitments. Through reaching people on the sharp edge of racist or state violence we are aiming to broaden our struggle.

Anti-racism work has been increasing in importance within the union as a result of the far-right developments with an emphasis on being able to redirect conversations, build solidarity through shared struggle and experience, and show that the fascists have been nowhere to be found in the housing struggle for the last ten years.

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