The story of housing in Ireland in popular discourse, in particular the history of home ownership, remains one informed not by the facts placed in a historical context, but by that jumble of half-truths, myths, and afternoon expert musings that passes for social analysis in this country. There are scholarly works available, with Joseph Brady, Anngret Simms, Edel Sheridan, Jacinta Prunty, and Ruth McManus worthy of particular praise for their fascinating studies of Dublin and its suburbs. In tandem with the more historical works, the Combat Poverty Agency, along with the Institute of Public Administration, have built up a canon of work on the subject, the most recent of which is, “Housing, Poverty, and Wealth in Ireland“. And yet, the issue remains one where soundbites and folksy wisdom (or, to give its more technical term, complete and utter bullshit), rule the debate.
Two myths, in particular, struggle with credibility. These are:
1. The desire for home ownership in Ireland dates from the Famine
2. Our parents did it, so can we.
As with all myths, there is an element of truth in both statements. However, the element of truth in each one is not the central argument in each one. Home ownership in Ireland, at 76%, is about average in European terms, but what is not mentioned so often is the fact that it came about through significant government finance and policy. The construction, maintenance, and eventual privatisation of Irish social housing added greatly to that ratio.
The legislative background to social housing in Ireland lies with rural land reform from the 1890s to the 1920s. The transfer of land ownership from landlords to tenants led to demands for a similar franchise on the part of agricultural labourers, who were excluded from land reform, but who were too much of a social force to be ignored by the Irish Parliamentary Party under Parnell.
Every major step forward in land reform legislation in this period was paralleled by the provision of generously subsidised local authority rental housing for rural labourers, the category of whom eventually extended to encompass the entire working class outside of the major towns and cities. By the First World War, this programme had endowed the rural working class with high-quality, low-cost social housing and also created a social housing sector that was precociously large for its time.” (Housing, Poverty, Wealth, p.20)
Tony Fahey, in “Social Housing in Ireland. A Study of Success, Failures, and Lessons Learned“, calls the provision of social housing acts a “consolation prize” for the labourers - the initiative came from land reform and the Parliamentary party, rather than from separate demands for social housing. Even with this caveat, significant legislation was, nonetheless, passed -
starting with the Labourers (Ireland) Act, 1883 (as amended in 1885), which enabled boards of guardians to provide cheap housing for rent to farm labourers, subsidised out of local rates and low-cost loans from central government… This initiative, together with the Labourers Act, 1886, which extended housing eligibility to part-time agricultural labourers, resulted in the completion by rural local authorities of 3,191 labourers’ cottages in 1890 alone. Output over the following decade averaged at 700 dwellings a year, but it rose dramatically after the introduction of the Labourers (Ireland) Act, 1906. This Act established a dedicated labourers cottage fund to provide low-interest loans for rural local authority house-building and, most significantly, sanctioned that 36 per cent of the loan repayments would be met by central government. (”Local Government in Ireland, Inside Out“, p.169)
By the time the Free State came into being, local authorities were firmly established as the main providers of social housing for rent and, eventually, purchase.
By 1922, rural local authorities had built 50,582 dwellings - 41,653 of which had been built under the terms of the various labourers acts, and which accounted for about 10 per cent of the total rural housing stock. (Local Government, p.170). At the same time, only 8,861 dwellings had been completed by urban councils. The Cumman na nGaedheal governments did little to change this imbalance, preferring to subsidise private, rather than public, housing.
the new Cumman nc nGaedheal government focused on increasing private output. The result was the Housing (Building Facilities) Act, 1924, which introduced private house-building grants of Â£100 for serviced dwellings and Â£90 for unserviced dwellings, enough to cover approximately one-sixth of the usual building cost at the time. These grants triggered a dramatic increase in private building and the vast majority of new private dwellings built after 1924 availed of the grants.” (Local government, p.170)
The decision by the Cumman na nGaedheal government to suspend all state financial support for local authorities led directly to the severe curtailment of all local social housing construction. This decision was reversed in 1929, and in 1931 the government introduced the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act which replaced the slum clearance provisions of the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act. However, it is with the minority Fianna FÃ¡il 1932 government’s Housing Act - which was supported by the Labour party - that new energy was given to urban social housing.
It is important to note that rural social housing set the legislative agenda, with urban social housing playing catch-up - the complete opposite of the British experience. Furthermore, rural and urban social housing legislation do not merge until 1966. So, in the 1930s, when Fianna FÃ¡il undertook the first major Irish slum clearance projects, the rural local authorities are already moving from social housing provision to house purchase provision - a move that was not reciprocated in urban authorities to the same degree until the 1966 Housing Act.
[T]he Labourers Act, 1936, … obliged all county councils to prepare sale schemes for their labourers’ cottages. The dwellings would be sold by means of fixed-term annuity payments, which were originally set at 75 per cent of the rent but were reduced to 50 per cent by 1951… By 1964, approximately 80 per cent of the 86,931 labourers’ cottages built by that date had been tenant purchased, in contrast to only 6,393 urban dwellings.” (Local government, p.173)
The following long quote, taken from Housing, Poverty and Wealth in Ireland, neatly summarises the effect of the 1966 Housing Act.
The combined precedents set by rural land reform and rural social housing percolated in the 1960s and 1970s into urban social housing, which had been massively expanded in the slum clearance programmes of the 1930s and 1940s. The 1966 Housing Act, adopting and updating the model established for rural social housing in the 1930s, provided for simplified schemes of tenant purchase of local authority housing in urgan as well as rural areas. These schemes were widely implemented from the early 1970s onwards, resulting in waves of heavy selling of local authority housing…
Purchase prices for local authority housing were typically extremely favourable to tenants. The tenant purchase scheme implemented by Dublin Corporation in the late 1980s, for example, entailed discounts on the market value of housing of up to 60 per cent.
The consequence for Irish social housing was that by the early 1990s, of the 330,000 dwellings built by local authorities over the previous century, some 220,000 had been sold to tenants, which amounted to one in four of the homes in private ownership in Ireland by that time. They were thus a major contributor to the overall tenure revolution and in particular were the dominant means of access to home ownership for the urban and working classes” (pp.21-2)
In other words, the culture of home ownership in urban working class areas is not only a recent phenomenon, it simply wouldn’t exist in its present ratio were it not for substantial government grants and incentives. The culture of home ownership is one directly influenced by central government money.
Now, it has to be asked: are the people buying homes today, buying a home for 40 to 60 per cent of its market value? Is the rest of the purchase price supplied by the government? It was state-sponsored incentives such as these that allowed people in the 1970s and 1980s to buy their homes, and yet people today expect to own a home, but in a market that has been completely privatised in the past twenty five years.
In the 1970s, one of the largest supplier of mortgages in the country was local authorities: now almost the entire market is provided by private money-lenders. The economic dynamics have completely changed, but the culture of home ownership above everything else remains.
What we have in Ireland, at least since the late 1990s, is a generation of people who are expected to somehow purchase a house, but to do so without the substantial grants and financial assistance that local government provided to our parents.
In many cases, indeed, a worrying amount of cases, not only have hundreds of thousands of people bought a house they can ill-afford at full market price - many of those housing developments are almost certainly overpriced to begin with.
We have had high levels of home ownership in this country because of massive government intervention in the market. Now, we have a situation where speculators have been given a free hand to demand the highest prices for the lowest standards.
And yet, the cultural residue of government-assisted ownership remains a potent force, even though that assistance is well and truly over.
The reality of trying to buy a home in Ireland operates in a different world to the myth that sustains it.