All in this Together? Covid-19 and the Roof over Our Heads
CORK, IRELAND 05/05/2020
Hi, I’m Mark Cullinane- a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Applied Social Studies, University College Cork.
As I speak now in the first week of May 2020, for many weeks now well over half of humanity now lives under conditions of lockdown of various types and intensities, as governmental authorities around the world scramble desperately to suppress the spread of the coronavirus.
The wholesale or almost wholesale shutdown of workplaces, places of learning, of travel within and between nations, and of whole economies, have materially impacted the daily lives of billions. In many countries right now including Ireland, the first wave of the virus’ spread through communities appears to have peaked, leading to a greater or lesser extent to the challenging or overwhelming the capacity of national healthcare systems, but everywhere leaving a trail of suffering and death. Right now, talk of treatments and vaccines appear hypothetical and far-off into the future; and in the West at least, experiments in partially lifting lockdowns are just starting to get underway. And in Ireland, the sense of living in a liminal period is only enhanced by the fact that months after an earthquake election, we have only a caretaker administration in place. A government with a fresh mandate, however tenuous, has yet to come into view.
I give you this context because any effort to begin to make sense of the many impacts and implications of the corona crisis is grounded in the moment of time in which it is made- and for very many of us, this is a very uncertain, frightening and painful time. As the pause button is pressed on so many aspects of our lives, as economies go into hibernation and social distancing shrinks our external worlds, the full enormity of its consequences on individuals, and on our, communities, societies, economies and the planet are going to take time to be visible and to make sense of.
But the profound disruptions and deviations from the ‘normal’ that crises of this magnitude entail unavoidably bring into sharp relief for us essential aspects of the realities behind that normality. On a grand scale, the devastation being wrought by the virus’ spread has served for us as a brutal reminder of man’s essential vulnerability, the limits of our mastery of nature and, by all appearances, illustrating how man’s efforts to exert that total mastery created the conditions for the virus to jump the species barrier.
The clear need for drastic population-level actions taken in lockstep to defend against a pathogen to which all of humanity is susceptible forces us to confront, even a little, fundamental truths about our shared vulnerabilities and absolute interdependence on each other. This is exemplified by the way in which conventional ideas about the value of labour, captured in phrases like ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ workers, have become inverted, as it becomes crystal clear who keeps economic life running for the rest of us, even if that is rarely reflected in their pay packets, job security or social standing.
A version of this recognition of interdependence and collectivity is expressed in the refrain of ‘we’re all in this together’, a message constantly repeated by political leaders and media outlets eager to maintain social cohesion. This is a comforting and even alluring idea for lots of reasons. It’s an idea that gives isolation a collective purpose, and authentic collective purposes aren’t exactly encouraged in our atomised, individualistic, competitive capitalist societies
And it’s a message whose power is enhanced by the fact that it is at least partly true- in important respects, we are all in it together. There is a real collective resonance to the fact, drilled home in public informational campaigns, that the health of the collective depends on the health- and actions- of individuals. High levels of public support for and compliance with lockdown conditions and the spread of various formal and informal mutual aid efforts to help those worst affected by the lockdown and its consequences has shown that not only is this broadly recognised and accepted, an instinctive solidarity and desire to help others comes naturally to many.
But when pushed by official channels, this embrace of unity and communitarianism can obscure as much as it reveals. After all, we know that each of the countries that have been largely shut down were riven with inequalities of various kinds and intensities before the shutdowns were instituted. And far from being a great leveller, rapidly putting economies and societies into cold storage has inevitability meant the freezing in place of existing hierarchies, material and power disparities and inequalities. And there’s a mountain of evidence from around the world on how this has meant sharp disparities in how different populations, and parts of populations, have experienced and suffered from the pandemic, with those already at the sharp end of various forms of classed, gendered, and racialised economic and social exclusion being disproportionately affected by the virus. There is no doubt that as Dr. Aswin Vasan, public health expert at Columbia University put it, Covid-19 was not an ‘equal opportunity’ pathogen but one that was going ‘right to the fissures in… society’.
The Covid-19 pandemic has cast into ever sharper relief the fact that disparities in housing and housing security remain some of the most profound fissures of all. The reality is that directives to shelter in place are experienced in highly differentiated ways- for some, it’s a manageable inconvenience but for others, it’s a major challenge or even an impossibility. We know that the ability to shelter in place and socially distance effectively is closely intertwined with other forms of structural inequalities, particularly income, labour and health inequalities, Enrico Bergamini from the Bruegel economic think tank has written on how Covid-19 has laid bare these forms of interrelated inequalities, pointing out for example how those who are already economically marginalised are more exposed to health risks because they work in critical sectors and are much less likely to be able to work remotely, tend to live in smaller accommodation within more densely populated neighbourhoods, and with fewer resources to provide an economic buffer to help tide them over the worst.
The human consequences of this can be seen for example in startling racial and socio-economic disparities in death rates in the rich world. Recent data from Louisiana in the US, African-Americans represent a third of the population but 70% of the dead. KeangaYamahtta Taylor has written on the deadly role played by race and class in the spread of the virus, and the ways in which ‘intersecting threats of hunger, eviction and unemployment drive poor and working-class African-Americans toward the possibility of infection’. In the UK, the Official of National Statistics has just announced that mortality rates from Covid-19 in the most deprived parts of England and Wales are twice that of the most affluent parts of those countries.
Such data should be a source of deep concern rather than surprise- after all, as Michael Marmot of the UCL School of Health Equity put it on Channel 4 News this week, it’s utterly predictable that the impacts of Covid-19 would follow the social gradient, because everything else does.
Housing in Ireland
Ireland has of course been in the grip of a prolonged and profound housing crisis for years now. I say ‘housing crisis’ but perhaps in the midst of “coronacrisis,” which has generated an enormous state response, we can better see it not as a crisis, as if it is something that inevitably generates emergency corrective policy responses that we can recognise as somehow proportional to the scale of the crisis, but as the outcome of a pretty durable structure of housing exclusions, mediated by the state and the market, and embedded in welfare, tax and economic policies as much as it is housing policy specifically.
The Irish case illustrates how those whose housing needs have always been peripheral to policy have now been left in many ways deeply vulnerable to the worst impacts of the coronacrisis- and now, how the state’s initial responses to the virus have in many ways reflected those pre-existing priorities rather than upended them, as it may be tempting to think. In the next clip I’m going to go through a few of these groups, covering those who are in rental accommodation, who are homeless, who are Traveller or Roma, or who are in Direct Provision.
So, first of all to those in rental accommodation.
The continued totemic place of home ownership as the heart of housing policy in Ireland and as the presumed tenure of choice for its population has meant that the rental sector has long been the forgotten sector of Irish housing policy. This can be seen in the residualisation of social housing as the state has over decades withdrawn from mass-scale provision of housing in the neoliberal era, and in the comparative under-regulation of the private rental sector relative to our European neighbours. This is despite a dramatic expansion in the number of those living in this form of housing tenure since the turn of the century, now accounting for around a fifth of all Irish households.
The housing crisis has already hit hard those reliant on rental accommodation. Lack of volume of social housing construction, at its most extreme during the austerity years after the 2008 crash, has seen a ballooning of waiting lists, putting public housing simply out of reach even for those who meet its narrow eligibility requirements and leaving many with little option but to rent privately or quasi-privately via the Housing Assistance Payment scheme which in recent years has represented two-thirds of all ‘social housing’ provision and involved transfer of >1/2billion to private landlords.
The extent of reliance on the private rental sector has generated enormous problems of access, affordability and security that are experienced differentially. These include the difficulties of even sourcing accommodation from a landlord in a context of low housing supply and high housing demand- we’ve all seen, or experienced the queues at rental properties in recent years. They include the economic stress of increasingly inaffordable rents, which have skyrocketed to above Celtic Tiger levels in many parts of the country and have hardly been tamed by very modest and difficult to police rent control measures in the form of the rent pressure zones. For the very many on medium to lower incomes, rents represent a major economic burden on many of those who are can afford rent; and locking out whole swathes of the population from the sector for those who simply can’t- forcing individuals and families into overcrowded homes of extended families if they are relatively fortunate, or into emergency accommodation if they aren’t.
And for the many for whom renting is more than a short-term stepping stone to home ownership but the only realistic long-term prospect, the sector has hardly been able to meet the basic needs of security and predictability you might expect given the state’s official stance of tenure neutrality. The housing crisis has demonstrated to so many renters that they more or less reside at the pleasure of their landlords. This is true at the formal end of the sector, with residential tenancies legislation offering weak long-term security and ready means of on-demand eviction for landlords- let’s not call them loopholes, let’s call them policy measures to keep the balance of rights firmly in favour of property ownership. And it’s even more true at the informal end of the sector where those with licensee rather than tenancy status- such as those in digs or renting from another renter in the same accommodation- have vanishingly few rights of any description, and are particularly vulnerable to overcrowding, excessive rents, evictions without recourse, rental scams, and other abuses. And let’s not forget those who are sofa-surfing and conveniently invisible in the statistics and therefore in policy.
We know that those sharing rental accommodation are much more likely to exist in overcrowded conditions, which Gabriel Scally, Pres. Of Epidemiology in Royal Society of Medicine in UK has said are ‘tremendously potent’ conditions for spreading the virus- he went as far to suggest that houses in multiple occupation should be considered in the same category as care homes because of the sheer density of people sharing facilities.
For tenants, the government’s main policy response to the Covid-19 crisis has been sparse- not offering rent reductions, deferrals or waivers, but aiming simply to, in its own words, ‘stop the clock’ on pending notices of termination or rent increases for a period of three months.
After years of resisting increasingly urgent calls from activists, housing NGOs, civil society and political groups for a blanket, effective rent freeze, if not rent reductions, and durable security of tenure on the ostensible grounds of constitutionality and interference with property rights, renters have at least discovered the bar at which Fine Gael at least decide that the ‘common good’ override in the constitution applies, thus enabling such a move- albeit one they are keen to ensure is a temporary measure before business as usual is continued. And this keenness to ensure that the Covid-19 crisis doesn’t result in a rebalancing of rights in favour of renters was reflected in the efforts of FF/FG during the emergency legislative process in March to narrow the scope of the rent increase and evictions moratorium to formal private tenancies. Another illustration of this for renters- even though they are expected to pay rent, the emergency period does also stops the clock on the accrual of time towards achieving what’s called a Part 4 tenancy after 6 months, which grants at least some security of tenure to renters.
For the ten thousand people in Ireland currently facing some of the most severe housing exclusion, those who are officially homeless and reliant on emergency accommodation to put a roof over their head, the virus represents an acute threat to life. A continuing reliance on congregated settings, particularly in the shelter system already operating at or beyond capacity before the virus struck, makes social distancing all but impossible for those staying there- and intersecting in a deadly way with enormous physical and mental health inequalities amongst this part of the population. For those unwilling or unable to stay in shelters, the closure of retail shops and services as well as de facto recreational facilities like showers and other supports used by homeless people are making already deeply precarious lives less and less sustainable.
A key plank of the state response in Dublin, where most homelessness in the state is concentrated, has been to source on a temporary basis hundreds of self-contained living spaces to help support social distancing for those who needed it most. This has included securing over 150 apartments for use, which the Dublin Region Homeless Executive said was made possible due to ‘very significant changes in the private property market’. What she was referring to was a sudden flight by landlords away from short term Airbnb lettings in response to the tourism collapse brought on by Covid-19. This led to a sudden flood of properties released into the rental market, with available lettings reaching a five year high. The numbers involved are eyebrow raising and indicate a low rate of compliance with Dublin City Council’s new regulations around short-term lettings, which we knew was the case before Covid hit but about which little was done. The inability to effectively regulate the short term letting sector is indicative of broader dysfunction in policy in the sector, and this sudden new availability of temporary properties shows the consequences of leaving housing provision to the market and how these emergency expenditures, while helping individuals to self-isolate in the short term, do little to improve the longer-term housing prospects of those who are homeless and only beget greater reliance on private provision that involves upwards transfer of wealth.
Travellers and Roma
As T.J Hogan writes in another contribution to this website, Ireland’s Traveller communities come into this crisis continuing to face long-term deep structural disadvantages and discrimination, around access to healthcare, education, work and housing. The low levels of provision of culturally-appropriate Traveller accommodation has been one of the great social policy and human rights failings of the local and national state for many decades now. The Irish Traveller Movement told the Oireachtas earlier this month that ‘more than 2,000 families are living in inadequate, unsafe and impermanent conditions’. Travellers are more than 10x more likely to be homeless than the broader population. Yet, there is a pattern of expenditure over many years showing that most local authorities return to the exchequer large portions of their allocations for traveller accommodation, despite frequently dire conditions of existing Traveller sites which can lack the most basic of amenities. In 2018 for example, half of the e10 million earmarked for Traveller accommodation nationally was sent back unspent, with some local authorities spending none at all, despite demonstrably significant needs. Cork CC was among the LAs to send back half, despite serious conditions on Traveller sites here in the city.
A departmental circular to LAs mandated them in recent weeks to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic by putting in place various measures where needed, including extra toilets, running water, additional refuse collections and more units of accommodation where needed and temporary rehousing where appropriate. With Travellers subjected to housing discrimination on a large scale in normal times it is unsurprising to hear that LA’s readiness to act when the pandemic hit has been mixed, as the ITM put it. The Irish Times reported this month that ‘Many councils have provided Portaloos to families who have been asking for them for years, and some now have running water for the first time’ and that ‘Few councils appear to have provided additional mobile homes.
Ireland’s 5k strong Roma community similarly suffers from multiple forms of marginality, discrimination and exclusion; more than half live in consistent poverty, and a similar number live in severely overcrowded homes; are reliant on the most precarious forms of work to simply subsist; and many are locked out from the most basic of welfare entitlements due to increased conditionality, particularly the exclusionary criteria imposed by the habitual residency test since 2004. They too are a group profoundly vulnerable to the spread of the virus.
So too are the close to 6,000 asylum seekers warehoused in 39 Direct Provision centres around the country as well as increasingly in overspill emergency accommodation like B+Bs and hotels as the centres have become full. The many issues with the 20-year old system of direct provision are many and well-documented and are explored by Bulelani Mfaco and Lucky Khambule of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland and contributors to this series. Some of the core issues include the physical isolation of residents in centres located on the periphery of society; curfews that carefully control the movements of residents; the seemingly arbitrary moving around of residents to different centres around the country a tiny weekly cash allowance which effectively curtails any independent living outside centres, until recently, no ability for any form of self-catering; and of course, the fact that these centres, ostensibly designed for short-term residency while asylum claims are processed have become for thousands of people a long term limbo for anywhere up to ten years- and all the while often living in cramped, overcrowded spaces. In one of the more egregious centres, Mount Trenchard in Limerick, six to eight residents were forced to stay in one room, with curtains between beds the only form of privacy offered. Direct Provision is a human rights disaster as much as a housing policy failure, and like with so much else, the coronavirus exploits these failures. Of course, the HSE, Department of Justice and DP centre management have scrambled to institute some changes to reduce the risk of the virus spreading, but when you are sharing rooms with many others and have your independence curtailed to such a high degree in a system that is already operating at capacity and which is by design meant to be a carceral, institutional warehousing system, designed to be a ‘push factor’ to discourage those considering applying for asylum in Ireland, there is only so much that can be done with emergency measures. Amongst the many deficiencies and cruelties highlighted by the spread of the virus with regard to DP is that isolating particularly vulnerable residents has been complicated by the fact that individual vulnerability assessments of those seeking international protection, required under Irish and EU law, have simply not been routinely done.
Even for those who have been granted a reprieve from DP and given asylum status or leave to remain, the nightmare doesn’t end. A dysfunctional rental sector remains the main option for those leaving Direct Provision, and in the context of a lack of supply, high demand and high rents, many hundreds of people remain stuck in a DP centre because they can’t find anywhere to live in the community. Like other marginalised groups, they are likely to find it very hard to compete for scarce rental housing and are subjected to high levels of discrimination. This is another consequence of the market-driven, poorly regulated Wild West that is the Irish rental sector.
Of course, DP itself is largely a privatised enterprise itself- only a handful of the 39 centres are run by the state- the rest are owned and run by for-profit companies, contracted out by the state to the tune of well over a billion euro as an Irish Examiner report revealed this week, to turn healthy profits from warehousing a population that is from the state’s perspective, unwanted.
Those forced into overspill accommodation in repurposed B+Bs and hotels exist in even more of a regulatory limbo- living at the whims of management with little or no experience as accommodation providers beyond the tourism sector, with no oversight and with predictable consequences for human welfare. Adding to the many indignities of institutional living is the way in which state policy has increasingly contributed to the flaring up of public opposition to the establishment of new centres and use of hotels and B+Bs in rural Ireland particularly- where opposition has run the full gamut from arson attacks on buildings rumoured to be contracted by the state to pickets, to concerns around lack of consultation with communities and economic concerns about the impact of significant additions to local populations; sometimes wrapping itself up in anti-DP rhetoric but in reality simply racist- the state bears enormous responsibility here for stoking division. And as Mick Clifford in the Examiner has pointed out, the establishment of centres is a function of the commercial property market- he notes that DP centres in the big urban centres have increasingly been closed down by owners because there’s greater profits to be made through other land use, and the Dept of justice has turned to rural Ireland, where the main criteria for where a centre will go appear to be, as he puts it, the availability of premises ‘where there will be least resistance and whether any political backlash is forecasted’.
We can see these dynamics in play now with emergency response stacked on top of emergency response, as asylum seekers shunted around the country to better enable social distancing in their accommodation. A case in point: 70 asylum seekers were moved to the Skellig Star hotel in Cahersiveen, Kerry last month, where there has now been a significant cluster of Covid-19 of over 20 people at the time of making this video; prompting a fearful response from local business and community and a decision to effectively confine residents to the hotel lest they infect others in the community. The padlocks and chains on the gates of the Skellig Star hotel right now remind us just how easily some people seem to feel that what freedoms asylum seekers have can be curtailed further still, lawfully or not- and now, local politicians demanding that they be taken away from the hotel en masse and brought back to wherever they came from, and accusing the dept of justice of ‘taking advantage of the coronavirus epidemic’ to bring asylum seekers to the heart of their town. Whether motivated by naked racism or not, they can plausibly claim that it is a humanitarian impulse, One of the main national organisations representing asylum seekers, MASI, has attributed the virus spread to managerial incompetence around infection control but most of all, the fundamental unsuitability of congregated living settings for effective social distancing, which is resulting in clusters developing in centres around the country. The Chief Medical Officer just yesterday admitted that sharing a bedroom with non-family members does not allow for the social distancing which is required to combat the virus effectively. Unsurprisingly and quite rightly, MASI and the residents themselves are now asking and protesting loudly for those in the hotel to be moved elsewhere to prevent further transmission and further degradation of basic human rights. But to where, and for how long, given the Dept’s insistence that it’s not in their ‘gift’ to allow those in the DP their own rooms? This human tragedy is borne of long-term failure to support basic living standards for those who come to our shores looking for respite- Covid-19 has laid it bare for us to see- again- if we want to look at it.
And it’s not just in Direct Provision that the cocktail of privatisation, under-regulation, neglect of human rights and ill-preparedness for effective infection control plays out in settings of institutional and congregated living. The emerging data from nursing and other residential care homes, where most of the deaths from Covid-19 have taken place here, speaks volumes about how as a society value the lives of those without housing independence, despite knowable risks, and despite Ireland’s ugly history of institutionalisation which we might like to think is a legacy rather than live issue. Like the other areas explored here, this is a topic deserving separate in-depth exploration.
CONCLUSION: HOUSING JUSTICE AFTER COVID-19
Political scientists talk about a ‘rally around the flag’ effect in times of acute sudden national crisis like wartime, which sees big boosts in popularity for political incumbents as they seek to bring their populations together in a unity of purpose. This has been as true in Ireland as elsewhere.
And in many respects its quite understandable- not just because most of us want to see an effective response that minimises human suffering and the value of unity of purpose in that mission is quite apparent to most of us, but also because in a country and in a world that seems utterly unable to respond to any number of pressing issues with any semblance of urgency or effectiveness and in which the state has so often retreated, it can be tempting to be impressed when we see the machinery of state swing into action in the way it has- sure, curtailing our freedoms in the short term but also, seemingly in the service of a greater humanitarian mission. It’s easy to see our centre-right political leaders in a new, less cynical light, less as venal, self-serving ideologues but more as statesmen and women, as public servants above all committed to the public good when it matters most, and as ordinary humans working through exhaustion, pulling every lever of influence open to them, sparing no expense because every life matters, and enlisting us in a shared project against a shared enemy. In short, we can see them, maybe for the first time, as actually worthy of the unity they ask for.
But rather than allow ourselves to be mollified by the mere sight of the lesser-spotted interventionist state or seduced by the West Wing- inspired rhetorical flourishes of Prime Ministerial speechwriters, we need to retain our critical faculties and constantly ask in whose interests are what actions being taken, and whether they are preventing or enabling a more just world to come into being.
I hope that this brief tour of some housing inequalities in Ireland, how they are impacted by Covid-19 and how the emergency responses of the Irish state to the virus has either perpetuated or further such inequalities and with predictably grave consequences, encourages us to resist Panglossian narratives that tell us we are all in this together and that we are all basically affected similarly, when this is far from the case.
It’s important to do so because as the first wave of the virus recedes and clamour builds around easing lockdown restrictions and where we go from here as societies and economies, there is much at stake.
Much will never be the same again, but the Ireland- and the world that will come into shape after Covid-19 not been determined. I say ‘after’ Covid-19, but given that we will be living alongside this virus likely for years to come in one form or another, the fight for how we organise society to cope starts now. After the short-term housing-related measures expire, what then? Do we keep our system of private landlordism intact, with more or less on-demand evictions for private renters with leases and unregulated modern tenement living for those who don’t? What happens to renters who’ve lost work and accrue rent arrears? In a future that demands social distancing for the maintenance of public health beyond the short term, how can we continue to lean on cramped shelter systems for the homeless, overcrowded direct provision for asylum seekers and a refusal to respond to the basic accommodation needs of Travellers?
But let’s not fall into the assumption that these states of affairs are no longer politically tenable.
Just as the 2008 financial crisis seemed to sound the death knell for financialised capitalism and centre-right hegemony and would irresistibly open up new opportunities for a better world but actually saw a decade of zombie neoliberalism, a resurgent radical right and the entrenchment of an ever more unequal and unsustainable world, the Covid-19 pandemic does not necessarily represent an portal, as Arundhati Roy put it, to a more just world that we just need to walk through. It’s comforting to imagine that an inevitable outcome of all this is a bigger, more interventionist state and a more substantive and all-encompassing social safety net. But a bigger state doesn’t by itself mean a better one, and the future is most certainly not written.
If this crisis opens up real doors of opportunity, to open our imaginations and to raise our expectations around all sorts of issues of common concern- around the necessity of housing rights for all, around the need for universal provision of healthcare, around the imperative to delink welfare from work, around what real collective climate action might look like- needs to look like- the response from political orthodoxies will undoubtedly be to exceptionalise it all- to say that yes, unprecedented times required unprecedented responses, but now we need to go back to business as usual, or as close to that as possible, as soon as possible.
And in Ireland, that return to ‘normality’, or the fantasy of it, will in all likelihood be delivered to us by the two main parties of Irish capital, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. Let us not forget that it’s just two months since widespread dissatisfaction and public anger around policy failures around housing and homelessness was broadly seen as a key factor behind a historic election result that saw the emergence of a three-party system in Ireland, a historically low share of the vote by the two dominant parties that looks like its about to bring the power duopoly into formal coalition for the first time ever. Our media tends to put this in the most banal of terms, that the election simply represented a vote for ‘change’- as if the electorate were a bored child, spoiled by years of boring but prudent governance. I’m inclined to think that it represented something deeper- an impatience with the neoliberal state which tells us we’ve never had it so good, whilst declaring itself all but impotent to tackle innumerable matters of common concern, particularly around housing where there is an increasingly recognised need to reverse the balance around public and private power in this country in the interests of those who do not possess housing security, or housing at all. The election in February showed that this approach had finally run out of road.
The Covid-19 disaster presents opportunities and risks here in terms of the possibilities for change. The sweeping national response to Covid-19 reminds us that what some of us call a housing crisis or housing emergency was never such for those in power- rather, as I said at the outset, who lives under what conditions in Ireland is a function of a series of policies and patterns of housing inclusion and exclusion mediated by the state and market, and the approach to housing for the last decade has been to guided (and impeded) above all by a desire to disturb as little as possible, for electoral, material and ideological reasons, the power structures and principles of resource allocation that govern those patterns of inclusion and exclusion.
This has meant an extreme reliance on incentivising market forces to eventually remedy issues of supply, while chiding those impatient for change for believing in pie in the sky, unaffordable or ‘quick fixes’ where none exist. Well, Covid-19 hasn’t just shown us what an emergency response looks like- flawed as it undoubtedly is- but it’s also shown us how ideas around what the state can and can do are so often ideological constructions, as the crisis response has seen overnight policy shifts that we thought we’d never see in our lifetimes instituted at the stroke of a pen like the effective universalisation of healthcare provision- as sacred cows like balanced budgets go out the window, that cost is no impediment to the provision of life-saving care around Covid-19. The obvious response is- if we can do it for Covid-19, why not other basic human needs like housing? And there is a difficulty here for those keen to reimpose the pre-coronavirus status quo that there is a raising of expectations as to what constitutes a reasonable and necessary response to human need and human suffering, and what role the state can play in guaranteeing basic needs for all on a universal basis. After all, as Vincent Browne has pointed out, while at the time of writing we’ve had 1,000 deaths from Covid-19 so far, more than 5k people in Ireland die every year because of social deprivation and health inequalities, and housing is far from peripheral to this.
One of the risks, I think, is that much like Democratic Party voters appear to be so fatigued with the Trump presidency as to crave a return to what they might hope is ‘normality’ in the form of Joe Biden, even though he opposes the introduction of universal healthcare in the midst of a global pandemic (to mention but one aspect which you might think would be disqualifying), as the crisis wears on, and the economic damage becomes more apparent, and more frightening, our expectations will fall and our hopes will dim, and we too will crave a return to whatever semblance of normality we think we can get.
Will we find which injustices will we decide are ultimately ‘palatable’ to us after all? Will we be satisfied with a government that commits to ‘protect the vulnerable’ as an economic recovery plan is initiated, which will amount to parking the idea of expanding housing rights and instead merely offsetting some of the worst aspects of existing structural vulnerabilities and disadvantage through funding the charitable works of what we might call the NGO industrial complex, as we’ve done for so long now, while failing to problematise the concept of vulnerability itself- or what it’s caused by? Will we be continue to be persuaded that the existing balance between rights of property and tenants is basically appropriate, that homelessness will always be with us, that there are insuperable limits to how we can welcome into our society those seeking asylum, that travellers and other ethnic minorities on the margins of the mainstream will always be there margins, and that this is probably mostly their fault anyway? Will we be persuaded that what seems blindingly obviously necessary now is impossibly utopian tomorrow? Will we allow Covid-19 to give the old political order an utterly unearned opportunity for redemption?
Because there’s going to be enormous pressure on us to lower our sights. As the slow move towards government formation proceeds, we are going to move away from blank cheque humanitarianism and the drumbeat of ‘how will pay for it’ from the usual sources of fiscal rectitude, including the two parties of capital, is going to get louder and louder. Too many of us too meekly accepted that austerity was the only possible response to the 2008 crisis. This time around, capitalism’s contradictions may be deeper and even more apparent to more of us, but we will be told that this was an exogenous crisis, that the fundamentals are good, and the good times will roll once again so long as we pay our bills- and after all, we can’t have nice things unless we pay our bills.
After a round of congratulations over the great national effort to limit the spread of the virus, we will be swiftly asked to demonstrate our maturity again by enlisting in a new great national project of ‘hard economic choices’.
The details of the playbook will be different this time around- political leaders know that austerity is, to put it crudely, a tarnished brand in 2020. We’ll have more deficit financing this time around, a greater reliance on borrowing, but there’s little doubt that the economic contraction we’re currently going through is going to mean a period, perhaps a protracted period, of don’t-call-it-austerity-austerity- sure, it’ll probably be more targeted, less obviously callous and with greater gestures toward social solidarity and sharing the burden, and maybe some other baubles to get the majority of us onboard- what Conor McCabe described as ‘austerity with a human face’.
But it’s undoubtedly going to mean putting a ceiling, a low ceiling, on action and aspirations for serious expansion of housing provision and rights whether for social or private renters, the homeless, Travellers and those in Direct Provision. In this sense, austerity with a human face is the soft choice- as McCabe puts it, the real hard choices lie in taking on taking on entrenched power and wealth in the form of ‘landlords, vulture funds, banks, private health, home/childcare, tax haven industries of law and accountancy firms’. At the time of speaking there’s no programme for government, let alone an actual administration in place, but a cursory look at the recent policy documentation doing the rounds from the main parties as they scramble to form a coalition tells you all you need to know about which path is likely to be taken- even as they grandly proclaim the necessity to do things differently in a post-Covid Ireland, on the big economic questions, and on housing, the old orthodoxies jump off the pages- a continued emphasis on home ownership as the one true housing tenure, no challenges to entrenched wealth and power that might open up the doors to a future beyond landlordism, and little to no sign of any serious intent around ending homelessness, expanding housing rights, or anything more than cosmetic changes to direct provision. Like after 2008, the voices of fiscal rectitude and maturity, whether coming from the political, media or financial classes will rely on mystification around how money and economics works and can work to insist that there is only one path out of crisis, and it is a path that is laser-focused on changing only on what must be changed to keep everything else the same. And where the stick of ideology doesn’t work to persuade us, the carrot of slow, consensual reform might. We see it already in, for example, in FF and FG’s statement to the Green Party that they would in principle commit to working towards ending the Direct Provision. Given that they state that this would be looked at in the context of other priorities in the area of housing, as well as the fact that this is a sudden reversal of policy in a document designed to tempt the Greens into coalition, it’s not cynical to suggest here that this is utterly insincere and that usual tactics of endless commissions, reports, sectoral consultations and expert groups will be rolled out in order to muddy the waters, delay change, and that we’re actually in for another twenty years of Direct Provision. These pressures are real, and many of us might be persuaded again that the prospect of some change, however piecemeal, might be better than none at all. For NGOs nominally committed to ending Direct Provision, the question becomes: is signing up to another phase of state-led diversion and prevarication really in the best interests of those whose futures have been stolen from them and those yet to arrive? Other versions of this same sort of question will apply to many other organisations and groups when it comes to other areas of housing policy, as FG/FF steal some progressive clothing for reasons of short-term expediency.
More broadly, for the rest of us, when we’re talking about the things that matter around housing- public land being used for public ends rather than private profit, a rental sector with real security of tenure and effective and fair rent controls, guaranteed and effective rights to housing for all, and an end to warehousing populations deemed lesser, the only question for us all is- what are we prepared to settle for?