Changing the Narrative: the normalisation of the homeless crisis

The Irish housing crisis has carried on for close to a decade now, with boom to bubble to bust and boom again. Policies of deregulation, corruption and market based planning led to an unsustainable bubble that burst and led to a lost decade. Post crisis, while there have been some tightening of banking regulations, the overall view of housing as first and foremost a commodity has not changed, nor the ideological aversion to social housing exercised by the leading political parties.

One of the outcomes of the crisis, caused partly by the crash, alongside the lack of social housing, and underlined by the extreme laissez-faire attitude to the private rental sector has been the continuing rise in homelessness, which has been steadily rising over the last number of years. Rents have been rising at astronomical levels putting entire families on the streets, where inevitably they are housed in private hotels at far greater than the cost of social housing.  Likewise the Housing Assistance Payment, sees the state paying out to private landlords for decades at a time, rather than build themselves. This bizarre arrangement lays bare claims of market efficiency over  public provision.

We are very quickly entering a new and  very deep class divide where so called millennials without substantial parental support will probably never be able to own a home. This will include people from both working class and middle class backgrounds. On the other hand landlords, under the current regulatory and political climate, will be able to build portfolios with ease. And the ever spiralling rents make saving for a deposit, post crisis a much stricter process, near impossible. As people who would have traditionally owned their own homes, or lived in social housing have joined the private rental market it’s hardly a surprise that those in difficulty have ended up homeless. Add to this the current trends in precarious working conditions for the young and we are faced with an entire generation, and their children, a pay check or two away from homelessness, in all its forms.

There seems to have been a flurry of activity in recent days by elements of the government and broader state to normalise what is in fact a crisis situation. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last week informed us that happily there are plenty of affordable homes, which he seemed to consider at 300,000 euro plus. However, any quick calculation shows that 300,000 plus is out of reach of anybody on a low wage, the maximum allowed is 3.5 times your wage. So a couple on 30,000 each, what would be considered a decent wage are priced out. Moreover, Varadkar followed by stating that homeless level are low by international standards, something disputed by  housing groups.

Even more bizarrely Conor Skehan of  the housing agency came out with the statement that ‘homelessness is normal’ and we shouldn’t get ‘emotional’ about the issue. This is more or less a call on people not to empathise with the homeless, which includes families with small children.

This was quickly followed on by the ERSI who, just like in 2007, tell us housing is fine, but prices may go up 20% in the near future. In other words, get on that ladder, buy your investment property for a quick buck etc. At the same time the Daft report, as always led with an ideological defence of market based housing, and opposition to regulation, announced that rents had gone up yet again. And in the great tradition of the Irish petit bourgeois Damien English,  Junior Minister for Housing, was more concerned about so called ‘reputational damage’ that the ‘negative narrative’ may be creating internationally.

Finally to underline the issue of individual accountability Eileen Gleeson, director of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive told us not to try to help the homeless, as they have arrived through years of ‘bad behaviour’ not outcomes of a deep structural crisis.

The cynical amongst us might suspect some sort of campaign, even linked to Leo Varadkar’s new five million euro communications strategy unit, and sure there might be an element in government spinning of the crisis. But far more likely is it is the latest incarnation of a deep seated class based ideology, that sees housing as a commodity and those outside the ‘market’ are simply there due to bad individual choices.

The boom is back baby.