‘I only know things seem and are not good.’
—‘Nightwalker’, Thomas Kinsella
When the astronauts on board the Apollo spacecraft first turned and gazed at the earth they were elated. In the midst of blackness floated a pale blue dot, home for all humankind. Wikipedia tells me that this experience is called ‘the overview effect’: seeing Planet Earth dangling in the dark void induces a cognitive shift in awareness as one sees for the first time the venue in which all of life—all of history—has taken place. I imagine the ego shattering like a broken glass, and in the fragments one sees clearly the interdependencies of all life on this little planet. Three days after the Apollo spacecraft left the Earth’s terrain, the astronauts looked towards the fine grey dust on the moon’s ragged crust and grew forlorn and depressed. A day later Neil Armstrong opened the hatch of the spacecraft and stepped onto the surface.
Alienation is the word we use to describe a sense of estrangement from our environment, from ourselves, and from each other. It is a condition of separation: we no longer consider ourselves part of the world around us. Many writers blame modernity and the onslaught of scientific progress. Our faculties are no longer capable of keeping pace with reality.
Twelve years before the Americans succeeded in putting footprints on the moon, the Soviets had sent Sputnik into space, the first manmade object to join the stars and planets, however briefly, in celestial orbit. Writing in 1958, eleven years before the Apollo moon landing, Hannah Arendt described this moment as ‘second in importance to no other.’ It was, as she recognised, a symbol for a science that had finally refuted human sense and human language and strove for the location of the Archimedean point.
In 1969, as Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit was being cleaned of moondust, the ribbon was cut on a ten-storey brutalist office block named Apollo House on Poolbeg Street, just south of the River Liffey. Dublin was becoming acquainted, rather hurriedly, with modernist architecture’s predilection for raw concrete and utopian ideals. In that same decade, seven fifteen-storey concrete towers were built in Ballymun, the government of the time’s attempt to house those left behind by the past in the future. The towers were named after seven of the signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic and represented a luxury never before experienced by their first inhabitants. Pearse, Connolly, Plunkett, Clarke, MacDonagh, MacDermott, Ceannt. They were all to be demolished within fifty years.
In 1916, outside the GPO, Pádraig Pearse read aloud The Proclamation, which declared ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland’. At the corner of Poolbeg Street, on a bitterly cold December night last year, a group of activists and artists under the banner of Home Sweet Home occupied a ten-storey derelict building with the intention of providing high standard accommodation to the people living homeless on Dublin’s streets.
Apollo House had been derelict for six years before its occupation. Like countless other buildings in the country, it was in the loan books of the National Asset Management Agency. The Irish State had established NAMA to take property-backed loans off the banks, socialising the risky assets, after the sixty-four-billion-euro bank bailout in 2008. NAMA was given a remit to recoup as much of the commercial value from the properties as it could. Hardly more than a smokescreen, it would not ease the taxpayers’ wounds, or bring developers to justice, or as Section 2 of the NAMA Act 2009 proposes, ‘contribute to the social and economic benefit of the State.’
One of the early Ballymun residents recalled that ‘it was like a haven; wooden railings dividing each house, with open plan lawns to the front with hillocks of green surrounding’. Many of the new residents had been moved from the city centre after a number of tenement houses collapsed. Four people had died and the government had been forced to declare a housing crisis.
As of August 2017, there were 8,270 people homeless in Ireland, with 91,600 people on social housing waiting lists. There were another 77,000 households in mortgage arrears. These numbers not only highlight a state of emergency, they show the mass unsettlement, widespread uncertainty and lack of security that exist across this island. The State has so far refused to acknowledge that their suffering is worthy of action.
Rebuilding Ireland, the government’s ‘action plan for housing and homelessness’, commits to local authorities building 26,000 homes by 2021. Only 370 of these had been built by the end of the 3rd quarter of 2017. Back in December 2015, in order to tackle the dramatic increase in the number of families falling into homelessness, the government announced an initiative to provide 1500 rapid-build homes by 2018. Only 169 will have been completed by the end of 2017.
NAMA announced its own residential delivery programme in October 2015. The programme would see the agency invest €4.5 billion in the development of its sites in order to make them more ‘commercially viable’. Despite the continuing arguments that NAMA is not a property developer, the 20,000 residential units to be made available over the next five years would all be sold at full market value. In essence this has made NAMA the State’s largest development agency but with a primarily commercial mandate.
The Archimedean point is a hypothetical point in which the observer can view the object of inquiry in its totality, with complete objectivity. One imagines that the astronauts floating in space, looking towards Earth, were closer than any human had previously been to reaching the Archimedean point.
We interpret reality through the data at our disposal. Alienation acts like a wedge, forever separating our truth from another’s reality. The continued obfuscation of housing data by the government mires the debate on the extent of action needed to address this crisis. To address the extent of the crisis would be to address their implicit role in its making. No wonder that there are numerous arguments raging at the moment centred on the data. Specifically on the supply of housing: how much housing is being built, how many houses are actually vacant, what constitutes social housing, what constitutes affordable housing.
Last April, writing in Village Magazine, architect Mel Reynolds took the government to task for its inaccurate reporting of the number of housing units built last year. Rather than the 15,256 new homes announced by the Department of Housing, he argued that the figure was closer to 8,000. ‘The Department of Housing figures use connections of dwellings to the electricity supply as a proxy for completions, and dwellings vacant for two years or more are double-counted as new-build completions when connected even if they have registered in figures before. Given the large volumes of vacant NAMA and ghost-estate units, this methodology gives inflated new-build numbers and creates a false perception of dynamism in the market.’ The methodology, for one reason or another, gives us a false perception. We believe something is going on other than what actually is.
In 1984 Garrett Fitzgerald’s government published the document ‘Building on Reality’. It promised to create ‘an economy and a society that provides justice and security for all of its people’. It stated that: ‘Society needs a unified and integrated economic and social policy. Economic growth can be self-defeating if its effects are to maintain and reinforce injustice. A balance is required between what relates specifically to the creation of a more just and equal society.’
In 1984 there was no housing crisis. The seeds of our current crisis, however, were being planted. Hidden behind this document’s language of checking economic growth with social equality were the burgeoning policies of privatisation, of dismantling existing social democratic institutions (such as social housing) due to their being understood as inherent barriers to the proper functioning of the marketplace. The introduction of the ‘Surrender Grant’ began the long tumultuous journey towards the financialisation of Irish housing.
The Surrender Grant offered £5,000 to local-authority tenants who wished to forfeit their local-authority dwelling and enter the private market. Depleting the social housing stock was a move by the State to widen the market for providers of private housing. It became the first fissure in the deregulation of the housing supply and opened the ground for the housing boom of the 1990s.
What has occurred in Ireland and abroad over the past few decades is not so much building on reality as a reality-building exercise. Our consciousness of what ‘housing’ even constitutes has fundamentally altered, from it being primarily a space to live, grow and die to one that is now chiefly a commodity from which to profit off. Compare the 247 new social housing units built this year to the 5,000 built in 1984 and the extent of the shift becomes clear. Yet the State insists on labelling the €900 million that it will spend in the next year on HAP (Housing Assistance Payment) as a ‘social housing solution’, despite the fact that it is effectively subsidising private landlords.
By the mid 1980s Ballymun had become a byword for neglect, poverty, social breakdown. The infrastructure and amenities promised in the 1960s never arrived. With the Surrender Grant Scheme, it wasn’t just social-housing tenants who surrendered their homes, the government had also surrendered a form of social progressivism it had briefly dabbled with in the 1960s.
In Ballymun: A History, Robert Somerville-Woodward describes the impact that the new grants had on the community: ‘The introduction of the 1985 Surrender Grant Scheme caused tenant turnover to reach an unsustainable 50% per annum… Some of the most able and active members of the community departed. In 1985 new lettings in the Ballymun flats rose to 1,171, almost 50% of the total, and vacancies multiplied five times in the following years. Many contemporary and later observers have seen 1985 as “the year of the crisis” at Ballymun.’
Residents had campaigned for more than a decade for the services and amenities they had been promised: for the lifts to be fixed, for playgrounds to be installed, even for the heating system to be upgraded. It must have been at first disheartening, then exhausting. The promise of a home and a community ripped from you. The realisation that one has so little power to influence the council, to shape one’s community, to prevent the destruction that one sees going on around oneself. Little wonder so many surrendered and left.
This is the essence of alienation. We can no longer put a shape on this world.
With NAMA, the State somewhat reluctantly embroiled itself in the management of property once again. The State may have socialised the bank bailout but there was zero chance it would socialise the assets it accrued. What has happened instead, as Rory Hearne from the Department of Geography in Maynooth University pointed out, is that NAMA is ‘playing a significant role in worsening the housing crisis through its sale of assets to real estate investment trusts (REITs).’
Yet all discussions surrounding NAMA being repurposed to deal with the crisis, to become a vehicle to deliver public housing rather than commercial housing, have been muted. The only instance in which we have seen a repurposing of NAMA’s objectives was when it benefitted a private investment fund. Section 10 of the NAMA Act declares that NAMA ‘shall obtain the best achievable financial return for the State’. However, with the sale of the Northern Ireland portfolio called Project Eagle, which was sold for £1.3 billion rather than its net present value of £1.49 billion, there was a loss of £190 million to the State. This, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General’s own Special Report, represented a ‘significant shift’ in NAMA’s strategy.
At Apollo House on December 19th last year, Glen Hansard sang Woodie Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’ to the crowd of several hundred people who had gathered outside. Three days earlier the building had been occupied to prevent more homeless deaths on Dublin’s streets. The building offered residents shelter, privacy and most importantly safety. The property was being socialised for the most vulnerable in society, opening up a discussion around for whom, and for what, such properties could and should be used for.
The declared aims of the Home Sweet Home Campaign were simple and straightforward: address the individual needs of people who are homeless; ‘stem the tide of homelessness’ with a series of government measures; build housing for people and not for profit; and prevent a future housing crisis by entrenching the right to a home in the constitution. One of the campaign’s demands was that empty buildings, especially those in the possession of the Irish State via NAMA, should be used to accommodate those worst affected by the housing crisis and to create long-term affordable housing.
Over the course of 27 days, with the help of over 250 volunteers, 90 people were given high-standard accommodation in Apollo House. The Campaign showed that the socialisation of NAMA buildings could work if the political will was there. It also showed that the prime objective should be the duty of care to the people who had suffered the most as a result of the shortage in housing.
Since being involved with Apollo House and the HSH Campaign, I have noticed a shift in awareness on homelessness. There is an understanding now that it has become a kind of abyss. That every day the edges crumble. Rents rise, landlords evict, banks repossess. More and more people dangle on the precipice, balancing precariously between the assurance of a home and the barbarity of dealing with life strewn in the void. There is a brutality to this housing crisis we have yet to get our heads around. Anxiety, family breakdown, health problems, self-harm, suicide, death on the streets. Children being raised in hostels and families forcefully kicked from their homes by thugs. And all of this underpinned by the political violence of those in office who seek to ignore the suffering they are causing through a pathetic public relations campaign more intent on managing our perception of the crisis than actually addressing its root causes.
Apollo House may soon be demolished to make way for yet another drab office block with a vacuous name, but it has contributed strongly to a consciousness that can’t be stilled by the current government’s continued attempts to deny the existence of a crisis. It is as if, in those four weeks, more was done to wrest the Archimedean point from the State, to highlight that they were not detached, objective players in this crisis but one of its main instigators.
The housing crisis will never be solved, however, without affirming action. Little is going to change unless we join tenancy associations, hold landlords to account, create housing support groups, empower those that are worst affected by the crisis with information and knowledge. These are the building blocks for larger scale actions like Apollo, the ecosystem that sustains prolonged movements. To ignore the importance of such small actions is to let alienation wash over you, to live unhappily yet accepting it nonetheless, in the new reality unfolding around us.