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A Roof Over Your Head

Michael Byrne

Home: Why public housing is the answer, by Eoin Ó Broin, Merrion Press, 272 pp, €14.95, ISBN: 9781785372650

One of the most refreshing aspects of this timely work is that it steps back from the many and varied debates around the current housing crisis. Too often this debate is characterised by a focus on the homelessness crisis followed by discussion about how to “fix it”. Two important insights, both of which run throughout this book, often get lost in these discussions. The first is that we don’t need to fix the symptoms of the problem (the many lives undermined and even destroyed by insecurity and unaffordability), but rather the underlying causes. The second is that we need to analyse these causes as a long-term set of political, economic and social relationships. “Housing is not just a physical thing,” Ó Broin argues. “It is a relationship between the providers and the occupiers, the state and the market, between people who create homes for families, who in turn create communities.” It is these relationships, Ó Broin argues, that constitute the housing system and explain its dysfunction.

So how does Ó Broin conceptualise the dysfunctional relationships at the heart of our housing crisis? Having provided, in the first section of the book, an extremely lucid and helpful overview of early twentieth century housing policy, he focuses on two political economic processes: neoliberalism and financialisation. The neoliberalisation of the Irish housing system can be traced back to the late 1980s and early 1990s. During this period the long-standing policy of social housing tenant purchase was intensified and the state dramatically reduced social housing output. At the same time, widespread government involvement in the provision of mortgages, in particular through the loans available from local authorities, removed a key support for home ownership. There are echoes here of Michelle Norris’s analysis of this period in her recent Property, Family and the Irish Welfare State, which emphasises the marketisation of the provision of housing and the provision of mortgages during this period.

One of the most compelling components of this section of the book is the way Ó Broin draws on some recent insightful work on the political economy of housing and housing finance, in particular Ryan-Collins et al’s Rethinking the Economics of Land and Housing (there are also many resonances with Adair Turner’s critique of housing finance, although his work is not discussed explicitly in the book). Much of this work has returned to early political economy’s insistence on the specificity of real estate and land, and how they differ from other commodities. The supply of real estate is inherently fixed and real estate itself is immobile. As such it tends towards supply constraints, and thus rising demand all too often manifests in asset price inflation (increased price of housing) rather than increased supply. As a result, housing markets are plagued by problems of affordability, inadequate levels of supply and boom/bust cycles. This is important because the neoliberalisation of housing in the 1980s and the 1990s removed aspects of government policy that mitigated the supply constraints associated with the private housing market, for example through the direct provision of housing. Neoliberalism, in a sense, has brought housing systems ‑ not just in Ireland but in many countries ‑ back to what Engels called “the housing question” that characterised urbanisation during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, that is inadequate supply, chronic unaffordability, overcrowding and poor quality housing (a point made by Neil Gray in the recent edited volume Rent and its Discontents).

The neoliberalisation thesis explains much of our recent experience in housing and the current crisis. But it does not explain the intensity of the boom-bust cycle or why housing has become so central to the wider economy (as evidenced in the key role it played in the global financial crisis). Ó Broin turns to the concept of financialisation to do this explanatory work. Financialisation ‑ much like globalisation ‑ is a somewhat poorly defined concept, subject to dispute among academics. For Ó Broin, the key issues are the deregulation of the financial system in the 1980s and 1990s, the creation of a single European financial system through Economic and Monetary Union and finance’s tendency to overinvest in housing. When abundant credit meets an inherently supply-constrained asset like housing or land, the result can only be that booms get boomier and busts get bustier.

The intertwining of neoliberalism and financialisation is a powerful explanatory framework that sheds fundamental insights into how the Irish housing system works and why we are seeing such extreme levels of volatility in prices and supply. Ó Broin’s book is worth reading for this contribution alone. However, even more ambitiously, he attempts to take on the daunting task of setting out a vision of twenty-first century housing which can overcome these twin challenges. This vision consists of two components. First, a commitment to public housing as the cornerstone of a partially decommodified housing system. Second, a wider set of policy changes around land, planning and the private rental sector to complement this radical commitment to public housing.

There is a lot to be said for this vision. Given the premise of the book, that the problems of the housing system are caused by dysfunctional structural relationships, it makes sense that any vision for the future should deal with various interacting pillars of our housing system. Particularly welcome here is the engagement with the private rental sector. Not only does Ó Broin recognise that the rental sector needs to be radically transformed so that real security and affordability can be achieved, he also plots out a detailed and convincing set of policy proposals, including a three-year rent freeze, indefinite security of tenure and the professionalisation of landlords. In terms of public housing, the argument brings together an ambitious vision and a detailed road map to realise it. The vision is of affordable, high-quality non-market housing that supports thriving communities and beautiful built environments. The road map to get there is a combination of increased support (including capital funding) for social housing to dramatically increase the supply of units and a new “cost rental” sector. The latter is designed along the lines set out by the Nevin Economic Research Institute in their Ireland’s Housing Emergency ‑ Time for a Game Changer report from 2017 and is very similar to the so called “Vienna model”, which many see as the secret to the Austrian capital’s highly successful housing system. This cost rental sector will complement the traditional social housing sector by including those who would not typically be eligible for social housing. This would allow integrated communities which are mixed and diverse in terms of income, professions and so on.

This is indeed a compelling vision. But there are also some problems here. It is in this part of the book that Ó Broin’s day job in Dáil Éireann is evident. There is a deep level of policy detail here. I suspect that policy anoraks will relish this, but for many readers, the level of detail and the large number of policy areas discussed may prove somewhat daunting.

Relatedly, it is hard not to want a little more politics and a little less policy from this part of the book. At the very outset, Ó Broin makes clear that the radical and progressive changes in housing policy of the mid-twentieth century were the outcome of class conflict. From this it follows that the nature of class conflict shapes the politics of housing in a given era. The class dynamics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought together a newly urbanised and often dispossessed working class that was characterised by spatial concentration, relative cultural homogeneity and a strong shared experience of work and consumption. This produced not only shared political and material interests, but also social relationships, solidarity and the capacity for collective action. These reflections pose the question as to how contemporary dynamics around class interact with the current politics of housing. In what ways do the political economy of work and housing interact today to suggest new forms of urban class politics, with novel social and spatial characteristics?

In a sense, Ó Broin’s proposals respond to these questions. The combination of social housing, cost rental and a well-regulated private rental sector he advocates is no doubt designed to produce a coalition of interests among the traditional working class, a segment of service sector workers and professionals, and more excluded social sectors. But this remains somewhat implicit in the arguments and is never addressed head on. There is also limited attention paid to the forms of class politics today that militate against placing public housing at the centre of our housing system, in particular the significant (if dwindling) majority in Ireland who are property owners.

If Home does not answer all these questions, it does offer a very compelling invitation to the reader to be part of the public debate that is needed if we are ever to find such answers. Ó Broin has no hesitation in urging readers to get involved in campaigning for the radical change of our housing system. In the closing pages of the book, he celebrates Nye Bevan, the British postwar minister for health and housing, whose “vision for public housing was broad, humane and inclusive. It sought to guarantee the right to housing not only of the most vulnerable in society but of working people generally, through the direct provision of high-quality, socially mixed, publicly funded and managed housing”. Ó Broin argues that public housing “should include beautiful, iconic buildings designed by the very best architects and built by trades persons who value their craft”. At a time when our capacity to imagine any future which is meaningfully different from the present has been catastrophically curtailed by three decades of myopic neoliberalism, Ó Broin reminds us of the infectious utopian spirit of early twentieth century urbanism. He reminds us that the housing system is based on a set of relations which we have created and on a particular set of values. And that, more importantly, we can replace these with new relations and new values.

1/10/2019

Dr Michael Byrne is a lecturer at the School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice at University College Dublin.

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