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Pervasive homelessness is an Irish choice

Bad policies lead to bad results

By Seána Glennon

At Christmastime last year the Capuchin Centre in Dublin distributed almost 3000 grocery vouchers to those in need. A Christmas Day dinner for the homeless was held in the Mansion House, providing around 200 hot meals and distributing thousands more around the city. Meanwhile in Cork charities such as Penny Dinners reported being overwhelmed by the demand for meals over the holiday season.

Some of the people using these services were officially homeless: sleeping rough or availing of temporary emergency accommodation in shelters. Others are living in precarious circumstances, in private rented accommodation, at risk of eviction. Most were experiencing poverty: the stress of not knowing where the next meal or the money for next month’s rent is coming from.

Unlike many other countries in Europe, renting in Ireland is simply not a secure option

Successive governments have made promises and produced action plans to address homelessness and poverty. The Residential Tenancies Act has been amended and supplemented repeatedly in an effort to enhance security of tenure and close loopholes enabling mass eviction of vulnerable tenants and uncontrolled rent increases.

Why, then, has homelessness become pervasive in our society? Why, in Ireland today, do we see queues of people in our cities getting food vouchers for Christmas and people sleeping rough all year round?

The answer might be that this is a choice – not the choice of those experiencing homelessness and poverty, but a political choice. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, in his 2020 Report, delivered a staunch rebuke of the narrative of the supposed decline of global poverty. Under the World Bank’s international poverty line, Alston notes, the number of people in extreme poverty fell from 36% to 10% of the world’s population since 1990. On any average day the number of people in extreme poverty declined by 130,000 people, mostly in China and India.

The benchmark set in assessing the meaning of poverty for the purposes of this statistic, Alston argues, is far too low and represents a meagre standard of living well below what would be required to live with dignity. This benchmark gives the misleading impression that poverty is much less pervasive in this day and age than it actually is.

Alston argues that poverty is a political choice: a choice about the distribution of wealth in society, a choice about tax structures, a choice about social protection and a choice about how we govern ourselves and the role of government.

Almost one in five households live in private rented accommodation, compared to one in 10 a decade ago – due to a lack of social housing provision, and the resulting shortage of rental properties and rising rents

Where have the political choices made in Ireland over the years left us? Research by Focus Ireland and Trinity College estimates that the number of families in emergency accommodation increased by almost 350% between 2014 and 2019.

The reasons for this state of affairs are complex, but of particular concern is the increasing number of people living in private rented accommodation, and the state of the law as it relates to tenant protections in this country. Focus Ireland estimates that almost one in five households in Ireland today live in private rented accommodation, compared to one in 10 only a decade ago. It attributes this to a lack of social housing provision and notes the resulting pressure on the private rental market, which has led to a shortage of rental properties and consistently rising rents.

Unlike many other countries in Europe, where renting is the norm and where tenancies tend to be longer with much greater security of tenure, renting in Ireland is simply not a secure option. Tenants can pay their rent on time and obey the terms of their tenancy, and yet still be vulnerable to eviction for a host of reasons including the landlord’s desire to sell the
property, refurbish it or to move in a relative.

The political choices that have been made over the past decades, including the reduction in social housing and the deference to the rights of property owners in the drafting of legislation, have contributed to the insecurity of renting in Ireland.

The artist and social commentator Blindboy recently commented on how striking it is that so many young adults in Ireland today are paying substantial mortgages each month: not their own mortgage, but that of their landlord. They will not own the property at the end, he points out, and they are unable to obtain a mortgage of their own (even one that requires a
smaller monthly payment) due to their spending the bulk of their salary on rent.

These factors, on top of a culture which can tend to stigmatise non ownership, are part of the reason many people are anxious to escape the rental market and own a home. Even those who do manage to purchase a property, however, are far from secure in the long term – Ireland has one of the highest levels of mortgage arrears in the EU.

This state of affairs is not accidental, it has resulted from a series of choices made by those who govern. Social housing provision, private rented market regulation, fiscal policies and minimum living standards are all active political choices that affect real people day-to-day. In his book ‘Housing Shock’, Rory Hearne criticises the series of neo-liberal housing policies in Ireland that has led to the financialisation of housing here: the treatment of houses as commodities rather than social needs. What we in Ireland have been left with is an unfair system which unquestioningly prizes home ownership on one hand, and shuts so many people out of that possibility on the other.

Of course there are some circumstances that government cannot control, such as the outbreak of a pandemic. As pointed out by Dr Mike Ryan the Executive Director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, however, it is not just the virus that is killing people; it is the consequences of underprivilege and lack of access, which the pandemic has highlighted.

Each time the question of eviction bans and rent freezes has arisen, in response to the pandemic and before, questions have been immediately raised about the constitutionality of such measures, usually relying on the constitutional protection of property rights. Property rights are not, however, absolute under the Constitution and can be limited in accordance with the common good. Furthermore, even if a constitutional impediment were to exist, the Irish constitution is not set in stone and can be amended with relative ease compared to other jurisdictions.

Critiques of capitalism have gained currency recently as it becomes plain that the system is working to the benefit of a select, privileged view and
the detriment of many. We do not even have to go so far as to fundamentally alter the structure of our political and economic system, however, to make an active choice about equality and the minimum standards we demand for each person.

There is no easy solution to homelessness, but committing to eradicating it is a political choice. In doing so, consideration will need to be given as to how to accommodate both a functioning rental and property market and proper provision of social housing, with renting and other options as legitimate choices alongside purchasing.

The pandemic has pushed millions of additional people around the world into poverty, homelessness and hunger. It has also provided a golden opportunity to face up to reality and to make a very simple choice not to accept a society where our most vulnerable can so easily fall through the cracks, into poverty and homelessness, simply through circumstance. Nor one where those without family money or inherited property are excluded from the opportunity to own a home and doomed to move from one precarious tenancy to the next. We must demand a society in which each person is guaranteed a life of dignity and security in a stable home, whether rented, purchased or provided by the state.

Achieving this will involve plenty of intricate planning, technical detail, diverse expertise and a participatory approach; but making the decision itself is simple.

February 2021

Séana Glennon is a PhD candidate at the School of Law in UCD, recipient of the 2019 UCD Sutherland School of Law doctoral scholarship, and an Irish- and English- qualified solicitor.