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Irish housing campaigners seize empty properties as homelessness crisis grows

OLIVER EAGLETON explains why activists are increasingly turning to direct action to beat the slumlords and an indifferent government

Since the Irish property bubble burst in 2008, the country has suffered a severe and protracted housing crisis. The latest figures put the homeless population at 10,000, with at least one family a day joining their ranks, yet there are only 3,086 properties available to let, many of which are priced above the shocking national average of €1,261 per month.

Vulture funds continue to purchase derelict houses and wait for their value to appreciate, while the state sits on hundreds of dormant properties with no intention to renovate them.

Ireland’s centre-right Fine Gael government has acknowledged that the shortage is a “national emergency,” but it refuses to finance the construction of social housing or introduce meaningful rent controls, voting down the only anti-eviction legislation brought to parliament.

Meanwhile, homeless children have been sleeping in police stations, rough-sleepers were forcibly relocated during the Pope’s visit and the number of illegal evictions has risen to five per week according to the conservative estimate of the Residential Tenancies Board.

Grassroots resistance to this situation is growing. After a locally organised boycott campaign defeated Fine Gael’s introduction of water charges, activists were emboldened to combat the government’s housing policy through direct action.

A group called Home Sweet Home occupied an empty state-owned building in December 2016, receiving support from local residents, homelessness charities, and celebrities such as Glen Hansard and Hozier. They stayed for a month, providing food and shelter to over 200 homeless people, until a judge ordered their removal.

Similar actions have taken place in Cork, where the Connolly Youth Movement turned an idle house into a functional commune, and in north Dublin, where organisers inspired by Home Sweet Home seized a vacant apartment block. In 2018, the Tenancies Board recorded a 25 per cent rise in tenants defying eviction orders and activist groups hosted anti-eviction workshops across the country in a clear signal that the effects of Fine Gael’s manufactured crisis will not be passively accepted.

However, the most significant and inspiring example of this resistance came last month, when a broad coalition of housing activists broke into a property in Summerville, a district of inner city Dublin.

The house had attracted media attention in May, when its 40 Brazilian residents were forced out by the landlord. The tenants, who lived four to a room, with defective plumbing and faulty electricity, were up to date on their €400 monthly rent payments, but the owner ordered them to vacate with only a few hours notice, citing health and safety concerns.

Once they had left, he went on to expel a total of 120 residents from his multiple properties in the area, leaving a spate of empty houses which could be refurbished to generate maximal profit.

His actions fit a pattern that is familiar to housing charities and campaigners — a slumlord buys an uninhabitable property and fills it with migrant renters, whose undocumented status makes them hesitant to complain to the authorities, and then, once its potential value has increased, they use these unliveable conditions as a pretext to terminate the tenants’ contract and turf them onto the street.

Most of the Summerhill occupants moved into neighbours’ houses, exacerbating the notoriously overcrowded conditions in this part of the city.

Yet some of them contacted Dublin Central Housing Action (DCHA), a campaign group set up to protect tenants’ rights. DCHA banded together with several other associations including the Brazilian Left Front (a migrant solidarity organisation), Take Back Trinity (a student group established to oppose Ireland’s marketisation of higher education) and Dublin Renters Union.

The resultant coalition spent months mapping out the strategy for a new coordinated campaign of civil disobedience which they hope will acquire the same momentum as the anti-water charges movement. It was launched with the reclamation of the Summerhill house on August 7.

After a rally in the city centre, activists marched to the property, gained entry, faced down police officers and established a volunteering rota to ensure its safety. Over the next week, messages of support were issued by left-wing parties, including Solidarity, Sinn Fein and People Before Profit, and hundreds of Dublin residents turned out to help the occupiers.

They held the building for 10 days before a legal injunction ordered them out, but this occupation was merely a first step.

The coalition went on to stage a sit-in at the office of Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy, whose handling of the crisis has sparked widespread calls for his resignation. They are currently installed in a larger house on Frederick Street which has been derelict for months, demanding that the local council issue a Compulsory Purchase Order that would see the property taken into public ownership.

This time, the activists have vowed to disregard court orders and defend the occupation with the backing of the community.

As the movement grows, DCHA and its allies will target commercial properties and short-term lets which drive up Dublin rents. They will also oppose the ongoing financialisation of the housing market — an urgent task, since over 15,000 mortgages were recently sold to the Cerberus Capital and Lone Star private equity funds with a record of driving mass evictions and ruinous gentrification.

If the Frederick Street occupiers can counter such evictions with effective organisation, press councils into buying vacant properties and highlight the impact of government inaction, they could mark a decisive intervention in the fightback against the insidious form of neoliberalism which Fine Gael has pushed since the financial crash.

Oliver Eagleton is a journalist living in London.

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