An anarchist approach to housing

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It has been said that the Irish are “obsessed with property”. Indeed the level of knowledge of the property market possessed by the average Irish taxi driver is Ireland is reputedly comparable to that possessed by full time real estate agents in some countries. In the run up to the 2007 election the various parties were scrambling to come up with an olive branch to offer the electorate in the property arena. The increasing difficulty faced by first-time buyers, and the pressure felt on the government was reflected to some degree in election promises including abolishing stamp duty entirely for first-time buyers and building more social housing.There remains an expectation in Ireland that the working class are entitled to ownership of their housing, an expectation which has been tested to breaking point by the level to which house prices have risen in the last decade. The current trend for many young Irish people looking for housing, faced with such difficult conditions is to look abroad for an initial buy and become minor property capitalists themselves.

The mainstream political parties talk about a housing “crisis” – as if somehow the housing situation is a surprising development that has only arisen through unforeseen governmental mismanagement of the economy. This is completely spurious – the situation is entirely to be expected within a growing capitalist economy, as housing is built for profit and not for need – and that this simple fact is taboo in any discussion about the housing “crisis” should alert any reasonably intelligent onlooker to the biases of those making such remarks. There are thousands of square metres of office space lying empty and unused in Dublin – this will tell you where the priorities of our government and property developers lie.

Countries which have had an advanced capitalist economy for longer than Ireland – like Germany for instance, have long had a situation where house pricing has been almost out of reach of the working class (only 42% of the population own their housing there), although pressure on the government has resulted in changes in housing laws to offer more protections to the tenant than in Ireland – while maintaining the near exclusion of the working class from property ownership.

Property struggles in Ireland have a long history – of particular note is the Dublin Squatters Association which won a victory in 1976 when they forced the corporation to rehouse hundreds of squatters as tenants through direct action in resisting evictions.

Since that time the state has taken a strong line on squatting of any kind and few squats have lasted more than a few months – the longest running squat has been the Magpie squat on Leeson Street which was evicted after about 9 months.

The irony of all this is that wherever you look in Dublin at the moment there is yet another complex of flats going up – there is no shortage of money and effort being put into housing – the problem is this is not housing built for the average worker on the average industrial wage – the affordable housing scheme or corporation housing list is about the only option for most working class people – and neither are an acceptable or adequate solution – only about 3,200 being built under the affordable housing scheme in 2006. As usual we face production for profit – housing being built by huge developers to rent at a profit rather than for sale to meet the needs of ordinary workers.

The nature of work in modern Ireland has also resulted in a big change in how we view housing – since many in their 20’s and 30’s will stay only an average of 3 or 4 years in the same job, or are contracting and so necessarily have to move around to their next position, few manage to establish any “roots” in the area that they are living in – reducing the chances of them building up any “community feeling” or feeling of belonging within the local area – this has a knock on effect of reducing their interest in participating in local political processes or battles – something that is very damaging for working class solidarity. This is more of a community than a housing issue, but finding an approach to building types of solidarity which overcome this alienating situation where people have only a fleeting attachment to their local area is of crucial relevance.

Although hardly a revolutionary development Ireland has a long-running housing-co-operative (The National Assocation of Building Co-Operatives) which has been in existence since 1973, and now manages around 700 rental-dwellings.

Despite all the unhappiness which people have about the housing market in Ireland these days, you will find few indeed who are prepared to lay the blame where it so clearly lies - at the door of property developers and the whole idea of property and renting itself. Proudhon’s slogan – “Property is Theft” has never been of greater relevance.

Homelessness remains a huge problem in Ireland, with around 4,000 people presenting themselves to the “Focus Ireland” agency as homeless in 2005. How many election manifestoes have you seen this year which claim to tackle this? Homelessness is completely inevitable in a capitalist property system, and every parliamentary political party recognises this, and by not mentioning it, are implicitly agreeing that is acceptable to them and are happy to let it continue. Only challenges to the property system that demand property be built for and made available for need can solve homelessness. Focus does a great job of helping those who are dispossessed by property capitalism but at another level you could say that they are only helping the situation to continue – their work and those of other NGO’s makes the effects of capitalism seem much less damaging than they actually are – since Focus are always there to pick up the pieces once the property capitalists and state have done their work.

The question remains, how to popularise the revolutionary idea of property as theft in a society which is completely obsessed with owning and profiting from property. Well, despite what I said above about young people getting into property capitalism quite early- although true, I believe this is only because they are left with so little options that will allow acquiring a home.

We can challenge the property-obsessed culture of our time by explaining how the major property capitalists and the acceptance of rental culture lie at the heart of both our homelessness problem and the unaffordability of housing for most working class people and how a challenge to the whole property system remains the only way of escaping from the current residential mess towards building an economy of housing built for those in need.

(This article is an edited transcript of an educational I gave to the Lucy Parsons Branch of the WSM)

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