These are just some brief reflections from last Saturday’s Housing Rights and Emergency conference. They’re not meant to reflect the day as a whole, but rather my take on what were the main themes that emerged both from the speakers’ inputs and from the discussion in the workshop.
Analysis of the crisis
While the day was more focused on solutions and actions, there was some analysis of the situation we’re in and why we’re in it. In a nutshell, there was a widespread view that the housing crisis has two root causes, one general and one specific. At a general level, housing is currently treated as a commodity and a source of profit, rather than as a right and a public good. It was suggested that this was more or less inherent to our economic system. At a more specific level, we are living through a particular phase of the ‘commodification of housing’ in which a close relationship has emerged between the property market and the global financial system. This causes volatility in housing markets and rapid price increases and also means housing and housing policy is largely dominated by financial institutions (from our own banks to global vulture funds).
Following on from this analysis, the discussion of solutions and actions focused, as Sinead Kelly said, on how to protect housing from the market rather than incorporating housing within the market. Three main sets of issues came up here: the importance of an alternative set of values around housing; greater regulation of housing; and new ways of providing new housing. These are discussed in turn below.
There was widespread agreement that housing should be seen as a right and a public good and not as a source of profit or a financial asset. This was seen as a key political and ideological distinction in terms of different approaches to housing. A number of people spoke of the possibility of enshrining the right to housing in our constitution and holding a referendum to do so, which I think is a pretty good idea (although by no means a solution in itself).
Interestingly virtually all of the discussion around regulation related to the private rented sector. This is perhaps unsurprising given that this sector is the main cause of homelessness currently. Everyone at the conference, from what I could see, endorsed a set of measures which are by now widely accepted by advocates for tenants’ rights. These are: increase in rent supplement; rent certainty/control (for example pegging rents to the Consumer Price Index); and greater security of tenure. Better security of tenure should include the removal of several sections of the current legislation (the Residential Tenancies Act (2004)). In particular, the landlord should not be able to evict a tenant for no reason within the first 6 months nor should they be able to do so because they are selling house or because they or their family want to move back in.
There was some discussion of the mortgage crisis and calls were made for an end to evictions due to repossession as well as a write down of mortgage debt.
As well as regulating existing housing, people were keen to think about how we provide new housing. There was widespread agreement that we need much more social housing. I wasn’t at the workshop were this was discussed in greater detail, but Michael Taft gave a very good presentation which outlined a number of policy proposals to enhance affordable and social rented housing. His ideas were based, in a nutshell, on the idea of setting up a new housing body which would provide cost rental to a wide variety of tenants and be able to borrow off balance sheet. Taft’s ideas reflect what is by now a very widespread consensus that the current model for financing social housing is not fit for purpose.
There was also discussion of NAMA’s role in providing housing through its assets (housing and land) and its ability to finance development (as indeed it is already doing with many private housing developments).
A housing movement?
The overall sense from the day is that, despite the systemic nature of the housing crisis, there are plenty of solutions to the housing crisis and that those of us involved in housing activism can rely on high quality research and policy support from housing experts.
This raises the question of how do we go about bringing about those changes?
There was definitely great energy at the conference and quite a few different groups. Almost all of the groups, however, have been formed in the last year and are still finding their own feet in terms of their objectives and how they work.
Moreover, I really had a sense that the ‘housing crisis’ is kind of overwhelming in two senses. On the hand, housing is a very wide and complex issue, or set of issues. It brings in land markets, planning policy, regulation, the financial system and many other facets. This makes it difficult to have a focus, and there was a bit of a sense that our nascent housing movement has not really found a way of navigating that complexity and honing our focus. The other overwhelming thing about the housing crisis is its urgency. The feeling of urgency helps to mobilize people and get them energized around housing. But it also makes us feel like we’re in a huge rush all the time, whereas what we need to is think strategically over the longer term about where we’re going and recognise that it will take years to build the capacity to shape housing policy.
All in all, it was a very inspiring day. We finished off with the suggestion that a similar event be held soon, possibly next month.