Housing crisis: The outcome of a gombeen state and vulture capitalism
The crisis in housing extends well beyond Ireland, even though it is extremely acute here. A war is being fought between the classes with, on the one hand, properties in major cities being sold before they are built not to be lived in, but to serve as reservoirs for surplus capital. On the other hand more and more workers find themselves displaced as the store of social housing becomes ever smaller and as gentrification leads to their exclusion from rental properties. Many are squeezed in between, with mortgage payments coming before food and fear of job loss leading to homelessness at work.
The starting point to explaining the crisis is capitalism itself. Under capitalism a home is not a right or a need to be met. It is a commodity. In good times a mortgage is a massive strain. In bad times people find themselves in insufficient and dilapidated social housing, become victim to rankrenters or are forced onto the streets. The Grenfell tragedy should be seen against the background of years of neglect.
In Britain in the past the Labour party were able to ameliorate the market by building council housing. Now there is full-on class war where working class estates are left to rot and market forces gradually push many to the periphery.
In Ireland all these forces are at play and many other elements are piled on top.
After partition British landlordism left behind decaying tenements and a decrepit economy. Only a modest programme of housing was undertaken and these small cottages were reserved for the middle classes. The situation was made much worse by the composition of the Irish capitalist class, where landlordism and profiteering were well represented.
The gombeen men came up with an Irish solution. Public land was rezoned and given away to speculators at knockdown prices. In return approximately 10% of the build was reserved for cheaper, lower quality homes.
Frequently the Fianna Fail politician who looked after planning and the speculator who bought the land were connected by a brown paper envelope exchanged in a car park. Leading politicians and bankers operated overseas tax evasion schemes to keep the proceeds intact and invisible to the public. These are the central activities that are the basis for Ireland's long standing reputation for corruption.
The Celtic Tiger and the influx of hot money from European banks poured petrol on the fire. The only way to be assured a home was to have a mortgage. As home ownership soared Irish workers paid over and over: In tax relief for the banks, in tax relief for the speculators and for the builders and then again for the mortgage itself.
Payment did not stop there. When the crash came Irish workers, with 1% of the European population, were forced to saddle 46% of the European banking debt. Pay, pensions and public services were slashed to the bone. Now a hidden element of the austerity, the level of mortgage debt, is coming to the fore as the absence of social housing creates an overwhelming crisis.
Part of the debt was expressed in the shape of NAMA, the state property assets agency, a body shrouded in scandal that held mass fire sales of property with the usual local kickbacks and corruption. However the sale of property did not see a return of resources to the workers, but was rather used to make further payments of a sovereign debt that extends until 2054. In a massive social experiment large swathes of property were transferred to "Vulture Capitalists," feeding a mortgage crisis as they forced eviction and rent hikes.
To solve the housing crisis we must first confront its causes: The major Irish political parties and the Irish state represent the interests of landlordism and of Imperialism. Rent control and regulation hardly exist and what controls there are, almost never enforced. Social housing was always a small sector of housing provision and fell to zero following the credit crunch.
Notionally the workers, through the state and the sums taken from them in austerity budgets, owned large tranches of property, much of which could have been converted to meet housing need. That has been sold to vulture capital to pay sovereign debt and is now feeding a cycle of eviction and rent increases. Rent increases are supposed to be held to 4%, but the imposition of service charges can lead to 25% hikes. In any case rent controls of any sort are at a very low level and not enforced. Landlords have very little trouble in evicting tenants.
Ireland is also in the grip of imperialism as a dependent economy in the European Union, having volunteered to pay whatever the European Central back and the Troika set. In any case the Maastricht regulations, designed to enforce privatisation, forbid "unfair" competition by the state in the housing market.
During the credit crunch the Troika took direct control of the Irish economy. Formally they have now left, but the rules in force mean that government expenditure must now fit in a "fiscal space" that totally excludes the level of state housing investment that is required.
There is an immediate struggle that has to be waged against Landlordism. The government strategy is to recreate the rackrenting culture of overcrowding and the bedsits of a previous generation. Many of those with a mortgage will live in constant fear of falling behind in their payments and subject to greater exploitation at work because of these fears.
However a call on the government for a mass programme of social housing, while worthwhile as a form of challenge, will not work. Ideas of "taxing the rich" can't possibly generate the sums needed. Calling for the right to a home also involves breaching the guidelines set by the Troika.
The key demand, brought into focus by the Apollo House campaign before the left union leaders hastily retreated from it, is that we take control of property, paid for and owned by us, to meet our own needs rather than using it in a firesale to pay the European Central Bank.
To take up this line of march means that calls on the state must be supported by direct action. Calls for rent control and mortgage debt forgiveness run alongside occupations and mobilization to prevent evictions. Calls for social housing run alongside seizure of NAMA properties and of the property of vulture capital.
It also means recognition of the fact that, while some steps may be undertaken by current governments if placed under mass pressure, others require a revolutionary overthrow of the government and the existing social order.
That in turn requires a revolutionary working class party, brought into existence by the militants who come to the fore in the current struggles and who consistently put the needs of workers to a home above the use of housing as a commodity by our enemies, the native capitalists and the imperialist powers.