Once again, the Irish government uses its power to protect the economic interests of an influential section of the capitalist class. By ending the ban on evictions, while the housing crisis lurches towards a social catastrophe, the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green Party coalition has consciously turned the screw on thousands of hard-pressed families.
Lifting the eviction ban is an act of economic cruelty, worthy of the pages of Charles Dickens. For potentially tens of thousands of tenants and their families this move signals a radical shift for the worst in their long-term living conditions.
In January, almost 12,000 people were accessing emergency accommodation because of homelessness. There are thousands more of the so-called ‘Hidden Homeless’ who rely on friends, families and support networks for a bed at night, but who are not officially recorded as homeless. The numbers of homeless grow each month with no end in sight or no interventions made or even planned to put an end to it.
For most working class people access to public housing is no longer possible. Where it is possible, the wait for a local authority house can last over a decade. Wages in many parts of the country are not high enough to buy a house. The Fine Gael and Labour government of 2011-16 unleashed the vulture funds onto the Irish housing system in 2013. These funds command tens of billions in euros looking for a profitable investment. First time homebuyers on modest wages must compete with the vultures. All too often, the vulture funds can outbid working class people for a house. Increasingly these funds just buy whole housing estates outright.
The debate on the eviction ban also exposes the extreme bias of the media against tenants. We are bombarded, in broadcast and print media, with sob stories of ‘accidental landlords’ who find themselves with a small property portfolio of several houses, and who can’t maximise their profits because of the eviction ban. Another angle is the tales of woe from the tiny handful of middle class professionals who migrated to Dubai and rented out their home while abroad, but who have returned early and find that they cannot evict their tenants immediately. Nowhere absolutely nowhere in the debate do we hear the voice of the worker on the median wage of around 38,000 euro per year who is forced to pay EUR 2,000 or more per month for a home in Dublin and who faces annual rent increases of 300 or 400 hundred a month. Indeed, there are workers on the minimum wage who are handing over 60-70% of their take home pay on rent. The media ignores these voices in the present debate. Their focus is solely on the well-funded and organised landlord’s lobby and questions of ‘incentives’ and ‘tax reliefs’. Proving again, as they did during the austerity years, that they are no friends of ordinary working class people.
Historic Shift in Housing Underway
Militant Left’s position is that the capitalist and political establishment is consciously engineering a shift away from the provision of public housing and affordable private housing, towards pushing more and more working class people into renting for life. The same capitalist and political establishment plan to keep protections for tenants weak to non-existent and to empower the landlord class to do whatever they like to maximise their profits. As we have seen on countless occasions in the past few years, the Gardaí are on stand-by to enforce the writ of the landlords and toss people out of their homes and into homelessness. In this, they seem happy to follow in the dishonourable footsteps of the Royal Irish Constabulary.
This development represents a huge threat to the long-term interests of the working class and calls for an organised and militant response. The emergence of tenants’ action groups like CATU is a very healthy development. But much, much more will be needed. The trade union movement must move on housing. The economic power of the landlord class can only be defeated by the power of the organised working class. It is time for the trade union movement to build links with tenants groups like CATU and other housing groups to put a stop to the current crisis.
The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has proven to be an unapologetic class warrior fighting to defend the interest of landlords and vulture funds. Fianna Fáil, dominated as they are by property developers, continue to trade on a completely dishonest and phony ‘Republicanism’. It is clear that for Fianna Fáil there is no place in their ‘Republic’ for tenants who they have relegated to permanent second-class citizenship. While the Green Party, packed to the rafters with the comfortable and complacent and, no doubt, plenty of landlords, reinforce their image as one of callous indifference towards ordinary working class people. How Sinn Féin handle the conflicting class interests in the housing crisis – landlords versus tenants; vulture funds versus workers looking to buy a home – will determine their long term political viability. However, experience in the North, where they are in power, would indicate that they will attempt to balance between these contending interests, before ultimately falling on the side of landlords.
Militant Campaign Needed
Access to housing, security of tenure and affordability all form part of an intensifying class struggle for a significant section of the working class. It would be a huge mistake for the many working class people who have secure tenancies with local authorities; who have paid their mortgages in full; or, are paying an affordable low cost mortgage, to believe this growing class battle over housing does not involve them. The establishment have used the years since the financial crash in 2008 to systematically reduce housing security for working class people with the aim of forcing private rental as the only option. Young workers face a lifetime of reliance on the private rental market for their housing, where protections for tenants are kept weak, and where no rent controls apply at all.
Ending this crisis and stabilising the provision of one of the most basic human needs – a secure and affordable place to live – requires building solidarity within the working class. There will be no parliamentary majority to end this crisis. Particularly in a parliament like the Dáil that is dominated by landlords. Decent, secure, comfortable and affordable housing will only be secured by a mass and militant campaign of direct opposition to evictions by the working class, backed by the trade unions. That campaign needs to start now.