“Why do we have the housing crisis we have now?”
By Grace Dyas
Last week I was in the kitchen listening to the Talking Bollox podcast. I am ridiculously enthusiastic about it and what it could do for young working class activism and politics. As a working class artist, I’ve spent my life having conversations about class warfare. It always comes back to this. Politicians don’t care about working class people, because they think we don’t vote.
The way I see it, as working class people, we don’t vote because we don’t have time for a system that tries to either wipe us out, lock us up or make us dress and talk like them. We participate in a different parallel political system that happens within the power structures in our communities. We can and we do get involved in the farce of Dáil Éireann when we feel like our contribution will be meaningful, but the rest of the time, when its just the rich playing chess with their assets and our lives, we leave them off and get on with surviving hour to hour.
Politicians are really like reality tv actors, who speak the lines written by their producers; the civil service- representing the rich, and their success is just measured by how authentic they can make their script sound.
My play HISTORY opens with the 1916 Proclamation being read aloud with the backing of an improvised Patti Smith-esque drum beat with the actors emphasising the lines “Cherishing all the children of the nation equally”.
The play is a Public Art commission to mark the ‘regeneration’ of St Michael’s Estate in Dublin. It was first performed in 2013.
This is the same line that Terence Power decided, ten years later, to open his conversation with Micheál Martin on Talking Bollox with. He asked him, “does this government cherish all the children equally?” Micheál starts to repeat his script, at one point Terence interrupts and says “No, I went hungry. I was a child who went hungry” And as I was cleaning down my units I teared up. The contrast of something so true and authentic being said to a politician, something so from the real world, compared with the fictional political answers coming from the guest hit me hard in the heart.
Later in the interview, around the time I was taking the dinner up, Micheál Martin is asked by Calvin, why do we have the housing crisis we have now?
Micheál’s answer is population increase, and he says thats the most fundamental reason.
This is what politicians call ‘an answer’. What will you say when Terence and Calvin ask you about the housing crisis? This answer would usually have been carefully crafted by his team. Like a group of people writing the lines for a character in a play. But in this case, they really don’t care about the audience, they don’t vote. The answer is like a sly way to say “look over there!”. I read ‘population increase’ as dog whistle for ‘asylum seekers and refugees’. Like when you say someone is unique but you mean they are an odd ball. A Politician will spend most of their working life rehearsing questions and answers. They are really good at bamboozling us so we can’t see the wood for the trees. They do this to people on doorsteps and academics with degrees. This is the answer to why they keep getting back into power when they keep making the same mistakes.
In my play HISTORY, the character based on housing activist John Bissett says “To really watch how something like this operates you have to watch it for twenty years, and write it all down. People don’t have twenty years to be doing that”
St Michael’s Estate, which used to be massive area of 368 huge flats, is now an empty green park, with three small housing developments around it; Thornton Heights 75 apartments, Emmet Crescent 50 houses, and Bulfin Court an old folks with 22 homes.
In 1998, there was 368 homes there, then a Fianna Fail government started to knock them all down. They said knocking down the flats would solve the drug problem. They said everyone would have a front and back garden and then they wouldn’t take drugs anymore. They called it Regeneration. Words like trauma, recovery, therapy were nowhere to be seen.
The last families moved out in 2011.. Since then they have built a total of 147 homes.
Three hundred and sixty eight minus one hundred and forty seven equals two hundred and twenty one.
Two hundred and twenty one homes gone for me and people like me, who the market doesn’t take care of.
They knocked down all the flats and they didn’t build as many as they knocked down. Thats basically the answer to Calvin’s question.
I was raging when I told my family what the Tanaiste’s answer had been. He’s a sleeveen, basically. I told them. I heard the lads ask all the right questions but there was nothing they could do with his answers. A good man with the right intentions training to be a snake in the grass.
It’s one thing for us to be able to claim the space to tell our own stories, to build that up from a kitchen table when the odds are stacked against you, but this exchange made me think that we also all need to be able to work together to learn that it’s okay to answer these people back when they have the cheek to bullshit us.
The most honest answer to the question – “Why do we have the housing crisis we have now?” is “Our housing policies failed”. Micheál Martin and Fianna Fail and their twins in Fine Gael believe the Market will take care of everyone, though it never has.
FIanna Fail used to believe the government should take care of everyone, and they did. It’s a tired point to make at this stage that they built massive public housing projects all over the country in the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1970s. Sean Lemass told us “People will live in the sky”
But then, They didn’t know what to do with the new state so the let the church look after everything else. They sent us to the care of abusive priests and nuns to be punished when we needed support. They sexually abused us so we took drugs to deal with the pain. They responded to an epidemic of trauma in the form of heroin use by bulldozing peoples homes in the promise of front and back gardens. They called it Regeneration.
They looked at ‘social housing’ like somewhere the state would protect you if you failed at life, a place for people down on their luck, who couldn’t make it in the ‘Market’. They started to say things like why should anyone have a free house.
They started to believe in the Market the way they used to believe in God. They started to believe emphatically that the market would take care of everything.
Micheál Martin and Fianna Fail believe the Market will take care of everyone, though it never has. Just like Christians believe that there will be a second coming, though there never has. Fianna fail and Fine gael believe and defend Neoliberalism just as passionately, they don’t say it in as many words. They do it by talking about home ownership over public housing, by making buying your first house a sacrament and not even allowing the option that you may just want to rent, or live in public housing. If you don’t own a home your sinful.
On the podcast, Martin goes on to say that for that for the last ten years, (who was in power then?) they weren’t building enough houses – but that they are ‘throwing the kitchen sink at it’ now. If I had any upper body strength I was liable to pull out my own kitchen sink in the hopes of throwing it at him.
“To really watch how something like this operates you have to watch it for twenty years, and write it all down. People don’t have twenty years to be doing that”
Its now 20 years since the Moving Ahead Plan for St Michael’s Estate was scrapped by a Fianna Fail government led by Bertie Ahern. There’s even a rumour that when he visited the fourteen storey tower blocks that he got trapped in a lift with a notable local activist, who may have used the opportunity to apply some pressure on behalf of the residents.
This plan was scrapped overnight because it would have cost the State too much money. That was their stated reason in a letter. Instead, they decided to go into a Public Private Partnership with Bernard McNamara, who went bust in 2008, because he promised to tap the value of the land and get the social housing for the state for free, off balance sheet.
They didn’t want to invest in social housing twenty years ago, when the numbers of asylum seekers were in the hundreds. Population increase, me hole martin. The Tanaiste picked up population increase, or maybe he was whispered that in the car on the way to GoLoud studios because he thought that was the shoe that would fit this audience, who don’t even vote.
Of course, thousands of people suddenly seeking refuge has made the housing crisis look worse, but the social housing system is not broken because people, any kind of people from anywhere, need it.
It is broken because they meet people who worship the market in the same way on the doors. Neighbours in Inchicore who thought a budget in the millions was ‘a lot really’ for regeneration in St Michael’s Estate.
We’re talking about here so we can talk about everywhere.
St Michaels is a metaphor, that holds the problem and the solution.
When the people of the Estate got the news that the moving ahead plan had been scrapped, they refused to take it lying down. They knew then, that public housing was important for them and for generations to come. A chant rang out in the hall at the meeting that night that went ‘The plan agreed is the plan delivered’ and it was repeated, and is repeated, to this day.
And then the people did watch for twenty years and write it all down.
And now along with the community of Inchicore, they have another plan, the seventh proposed plan since demolition, for the future of that 14 acres site. Hundreds of new homes. And every single one is Public Housing in a new model called cost rental. They have met weekly, for more than twenty years. The powers that be tried talk bollox and grab the land, but the people learned not to take their answers, and ask better questions.
A Fianna Fail minister has given the OK for this new development, and you can see him gleaming in the photos. Why can’t he do this everywhere?
At the end of the interview, Calvin reads out the numbers of people facing eviction, and he includes how many of those are children. The Tanaiste doesn’t catch the irony of all those children being treated equally, he doesn’t acknowledge it, and he moves on.
Link to the Talking Bollox podcast referenced is below
“Two lads from the inner city of Dublin sitting around doing what they do best, talking bollox.”