Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
When activists occupied a long-vacant building, the police response seemed to confirm suspicion that the state is siding with landlords.
This week, Dublin blew its reputation as one of Europe’s most easygoing capitals.
On Wednesday, the city saw impromptu demonstrations that ground several central streets to a halt as angry protesters sat down and chanted. The immediate source of their anger was an ugly fight between private security guards, police, and housing activists who occupied an empty building in the city center. In that fight, police backed up security guards in beating protesters, to the point that several needed hospital treatment.
When it comes to the wider sources of protesters’ discontent, however, that incident is just the tip of the iceberg. Desperation at an ongoing housing crisis is revealing that, as Irish Times columnist Una Mullally puts it “under the surface of glossy Dublin, the city is actually failing, fast.”
This week’s protest emerged after activist group Take Back the City occupied an apparently long-vacant Georgian building at 34 North Frederick Street. Having occupied several other central buildings, Take Back the City’s intention was to protest the housing crisis by shining the spotlight on buildings that have sat empty for a long while, as well as on those being converted for use by the tourist industry. The situation only intensified when the occupied building’s landlord sent in masked security guards to clear it, and when the police backed them up with batons. It has confirmed many people’s hunch that, as it has proved all but inactive over vacancies, the state is on the landlords’ side.
Exactly how things reached this point—and what protesters want—takes some explaining, although the backdrop to this month’s clashes will sound grimly familiar to many city-dwellers worldwide.
Dublin has a desperate shortage of affordable housing, one that risks pushing it toward dysfunction. The city’s average rent as of March was up to €1,875 ($2,176) a month. This is a large amount for anyone on the Irish average monthly wage of €3,181 ($3,692) and completely impossible for anyone paid anything close to the minimum hourly wage of €9.25 ($10.74).
Public housing for low-income residents exists, though much of it has been depleted, as in the U.K., by state sell-offs to the private market. What remains is far too small a quantity to satisfy demand, while new construction has dwindled. People still struggle to find a way because Dublin so totally dominates the Irish economy; young people are being scattered to other cities, and Dublin’s poorest are increasingly finding themselves on the streets.
All of this has happened fast. At the beginning 2016 there were just 400 families registered as homeless in Ireland—a small but not negligible number in a country of under 5 million. By the end of 2016, that number had more than doubled, to 1,000. That number continues to creep up, and currently represents around 10,000 individuals (not families). Dublin is the most pressured spot in the country, with 76 children made homeless within the city’s limits in the month of May alone.
The strains of housing costs are a constant topic of discussion among Dublin residents. In an example of this, a Facebook post by singer-songwriter David Kitt went viral this summer, announcing that he too would be leaving Dublin. “Dublin’s heart and soul is being ripped out and sold to the highest bidder,” he wrote:
The house I live in just got sold as part of a portfolio to a consortium of European investors. It will be sold or rented no doubt to someone working for Amazon on a base salary of 70k, while the people who make this city what it is are forced out to the suburbs, or to a city they can afford a reasonable quality of life, and where their level of income doesn’t make them feel like a complete failure.
The obvious answer to this impasse would be to build more homes—lots of them. Ireland in fact has many empty homes. They’re just mostly in the wrong places, thanks to a housing bubble that saw development across the country in the run-up to the financial crisis. Land around Dublin, meanwhile, is scarce and expensive. When it does get built, it does little to alleviate the situation for people on lower or middle incomes. As if prompted by the protests, the government has just released a plan that it says could deliver 150,000 homes in Dublin and Cork, Ireland’s second city, over the next 20 years—a promising proposal whose implementation and efficacy still need to be clarified.
There’s another predictable factor in Dublin’s housing crisis, however. Increasingly, landlords and developers aren’t interested in local residents at all. They’re after tourists. Much new inner-Dublin development is geared toward short-term visitors, with apartment hotels cropping up across the city center in places where actual long-term apartments are needed. The government and city council are widely resented for abetting this process—through lax planning, inaction over owners who leave their sites vacant or derelict, refusal to consider schemes to reduce rent rises, and a glacial approach to increasing public housing stock.
Seeing the Gardaí, as the Irish police are known, assisting balaclava-wearing bailiffs with their batons only reinforces this feeling. And while the current scuffle may soon fade from public attention, the struggle over Dublin housing may well accelerate.
Next on Take Back the City’s list is another key site, a building in central Dublin that housed Ireland’s last Magdalene Laundry, places where unmarried mothers were confined against their will and forced to work in brutal, exploitative conditions. You might expect a publicly owned site like this to house a memorial to the laundries’ victims, or at least some public or affordable housing that embodies a more benign vision of the state’s power. Instead the site is due to be turned into another hotel. In a city where many people are sick of such decisions, don’t expect the plan to go through uncontested.