If we want to understand and to fix the housing crisis the first step is to understand that the cause of homelessness is not having a house. There is no mental illness or addiction that someone can suffer from that makes someone homeless. They become homeless when they lose their home.
This is a tautology of course, but one that needs to be stated amid the white noise of talk about tax breaks for landlords, or minor reforms to planning laws which dance around the obvious solution to the housing crisis – give everyone a home.
A similar idea is currently being implemented in Helsinki, Finland, where they have virtually eliminated homelessness. It is a really simple idea as well. We know our housing shortfall, according to Taloiseach Leo Varadker it’s 250,000, with 40,000 new houses needing to be built every year.
The Government does not need to tinker with regulations, it does not need to worry about how profitable renting is for landlords. To solve the housing crisis, it just needs to build these houses for people to live in at an affordable cost. Social housing on public land, built to a scale that meets the demand.
We used to do this as a country. Through the early 20th century when the state had far less money, we built far more social housing than we do today. This is not a complicated process. All it needs is the political will to implement. The reason that the will is not there is also simple. It is because this would hurt landlords and help tenants, and landlords as a class hold the political power in this country. Whether through their interest groups like the Irish Property Owners Association[KN1] or through the landlords directly sitting in the Dáil they are well organised and conscious of their class interests.
In contrast, as tenants we are unorganised and unable to fight for our class interests in any way remotely similar. The economic solution is relatively simple; if we want to get rid of homelessness and cut rents all we need to do is have the state provide a home to everyone that needs one. The fight for housing should not be seen as just an economic problem, but a political one as well. It is a problem borne from the political power of landlords, and the lack of organised tenant power.
On an individual level it is maybe easiest to grasp. Why was someone made homeless? Their landlord had the power to evict them, and they didn’t have the power to say no. Why did someone’s rent go up? Their landlord had the power to raise it, and they didn’t have the power to fight it.
The question of how much power the landlord has, and how much power the tenant has is what decides what will happen on the individual level, as well as on the national level. If a tenant can simply decide to move into cost rental housing provided by the Government a landlord no longer has all the power in the situation.
This ultimate goal, of the Government p[KN2] roviding housing to anyone who needs it, requires a better organised tenant class, while on an individual level the best way to protect any one tenant is also a better organised tenant class.
For example, the organisation I’m involved with, the Community Action Tenants Union, is resisting evictions, rent increases, and landlord abuses while building something that can fight for tenants on a political level as well.
Whether CATU itself is the ultimate solution or not, building proper and durable tenant power and organisations is going to be the only thing that can actually fix the housing crisis.