This is one vivid element of a housing crisis that combines the most contorted aspects of the private market with a rising need that continues to go unanswered. About 10,000 people in Ireland are reckoned to be homeless. The number of families who have nowhere to live has increased by more than 20% since 2017. These are national problems, but they are inevitably concentrated in Ireland’s capital, home to more than 10% of the country’s population. In the four months between June and September, 415 Dublin families – including 893 children – became newly homeless, adding to a total across the city of about 1,400. Increasing numbers are being forced to live in hotels.
Meanwhile, residential neighbourhoods echo to the clack-clack-clack of suitcase wheels. The city is smattered with key boxes for Airbnb apartments. A stock line among activists demanding action from the government gets to the heart of all this: in 21st-century Dublin, they say, homeless families stay in hotels, and tourists stay in houses.
Last week, a survey titled the Expat City Ranking found that among people who live and work abroad, Dublin came out as the world’s worst capital for affordable accommodation. Since the summer, there have been repeated protests in the city, focused most spectacularly on occupations of vacant buildings. This Saturday, a protest organised by the National Homeless and Housing Coalition is expected to attract thousands of people to the middle of Dublin, set on making the case for housing as a basic human right and venting their anger and fear about a simple enough fact: that Ireland’s capital is fast becoming an impossible place to live and thousands of lives are being ruined as a result.
The free-market boom that saw Ireland’s economy hailed as the Celtic Tiger, he goes on, was partly built on the easy availability of mortgages and a frenzy of house-building and land-buying, both of which fed into the crash of 2008. In its wake, Ireland saw the phenomenon of “ghost estates”: housing developments left unfinished as funding suddenly dried up. At the same time, mortgages and property portfolios were sold at knock-down prices to international “vulture funds”, which also bought up huge swathes of land that often have been left empty – partly, says Hearne, because scarce land and housing keeps rents and property prices high.
In 2014, Ireland began a supposed economic recovery, recently crowned by an annual economic growth rate of over 5%. “But you had a private construction industry that had been decimated,” says Hearne. “You also had a generation coming in who can’t get mortgages, and the growth of precarious work. And all these things come together: people who either used to get housing from local authorities, or who bought their home, were now all going into the private rental sector. So, of course, what happened? Rents started shooting through the roof.
“Homelessness also started to rise. You now see this completely new phenomenon called family homelessness: predominantly lone parents, because lone parents’ welfare was cut. Rents are rising, benefits are being cut – and they’re being pushed into homelessness.”