By Mícheál Mac Donncha.

“It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland.”

This extract is from the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil Éireann which was read in the Mansion House on 21 January 2019 in the presence of the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy and other government ministers.

The very next day Dublin’s Temple Street Hospital reported that in 2018 more than 800 children had been discharged from its emergency department into homelessness, a 29 per cent increase on the 2017 figures. Many of these children were suffering from illnesses and accidents directly related to the unsuitable conditions in which they live in hotels and other emergency accommodation.

And a week later again, Tanya Ward of the Children’s Rights Alliance was reporting to the ‘Raise the Roof’ conference in the Communication Workers Union head office on the wider impact of homelessness on children. The thousands of children in emergency are being deprived of their childhood, in many cases unable to fully participate in school activities, sport and leisure, often spending hours every day commuting. The toll on mental health is incalculable.

The housing crisis has been going on for so long now that people have become almost oblivious to the shocking facts about the human cost of the greatest social and economic issue of our time. Opening the ‘Raise the Roof’ conference on January 30, which was on the theme ‘Securing the Right to Housing’, Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) General Secretary Patricia King, pictured above, said we must not allow the government to normalise the housing crisis as it has been attempting to do.

Not for the first time, a well-attended conference including trade unions, left political party elected representatives, housing NGOs and campaigners, heard well-researched presentations on the causes and nature of the crisis and on the range of solutions that can and should be implemented. But of course they are not being implemented by the Fine Gael-led government and a big clue as to the reason was in a statistic given by architect Mel Reynolds. He pointed out that in 2018 nearly €1 billion was spent by the government on the various forms of rent subsidies – HAP, RAS etc.

In other words, top-up payments by the state to private landlords for tenants unable to afford the full market rent. This is projected to rise to €1.7 billion by 2022. Mel Reynolds also pointed out that in the Fingal County Council area the rent subsidy figure represents twice what it would cost to build homes for the numbers of people whose rent is being subsidised.

It is clear that Fine Gael represents the landlord and property-owning class, and in government they pour public money into the pockets of private landlords rather than funding the development of the public housing that is so desperately needed, and needed on a big scale.

The government in general, and the Department of Housing in particular, tries to justify its refusal to build public housing in the manner and on the scale required to solve the crisis by decrying large council housing developments as the failures of the past. In a trenchant and lucid presentation that received the warmest response of the conference, Professor Tony Fahey of UCD demolished this myth.

He said that, with a few exceptions, large-scale council housing developments, from the foundation of the 26-county state up to the 1980s, were very successful from a housing point of view. He said the requirements for a ‘social mix’ of private and social housing in all developments has become a new orthodoxy and that more often than not it provides a “false front for inaction”.

Fahey pointed out that one of the successes of the large council estates of the past was that they housed people of mixed income. They were done on such a scale that most of the tenants were working, the income limit for qualification for a council tenancy being at a level to permit this. And a return to this model is what is required – large-scale public housing developments with mixed income tenants, rather than mixed tenure. This would not of course preclude the parallel development of affordable homes for purchase also, but even here the Fine Gael government has failed abysmally, with no affordable housing purchase scheme in place, despite repeated promises.

The Raise the Roof campaign, anchored by the ICTU, has already mobilised an impressive array of unions, political parties, NGOs, academics and grassroots campaigners. It organised a major national demonstration of up to 15,000 people last October. There will be regional rallies and a further national mobilisation in 2019. This campaign needs to be built and sustained on the scale we saw in the campaign against the water charges.

Raise the Roof has organised a national petition on the Right to Housing. You can sign the petition and support the Right to Housing at: www.ictu.ie/raisetheroofpetition

Mícheál Mac Donncha is a member of Dublin City Council for Sinn Féin and served as Ardmhéara/Lord Mayor of Dublin in 2017-2018.

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