Saturday, 18 February 2012

Housing - a right we had to fight for

Children of the slums in Cumberland St, behind Gardiner St., 1913.

A few days ago I picked up a haunting book. It's called 'Darkest Dublin' and it features photographs of the slums of Dublin in 1913. The photographs were taken mostly in the autumn and winter of that year, in the wake of the Church Street disaster when two tenement houses, Nos. 66 and 67 Church Street collapsed, killing seven people. This led to an inquiry into the housing conditions of Dublin's poor and the photographs were taken as part of that inquiry.

The Church Street disaster happened at the start of the Great Lockout and one of the dead, 17-year-old Hugh Sammon, was a locked out worker of Jacob's Biscuit Factory, a member of the ITGWU. His four and a half year old sister Elizabeth also died in the tragedy.

The pictures are shocking, even today, nearly 100 years later. We see not only the familiar delapidated tenement rooms in which large families were crammed, but also the crumbling houses and cottages in dim lanes, alleys and yards, in which families tried to survive. Scores of people had to share one or two toilets and one water tap in the yard. These hovels were not fit for animals. It was fitting that the ITGWU chose Horse Show Week to stop the trams when their conductors walked off the job. The horses of Dublin's wealthy were housed in far better conditions than the families of the exploited workers.

It is reckoned that over 100,000 people lived in slum housing in Dublin in 1913, out of a city population of 300,000.

One of the stark facts exposed by the housing inquiry was that three members of Dublin Corporation between them owned 46 tenement houses and 18 smallers houses. Many of these were grossly sub-standard, classed as third-class dwellings by the Corporation's own Sanitary Staff. These and other landlords were given tax rebates for their slum properties. One of the Corporation member's houses was certified as unfit for a rebate but was granted it anyway by the City authorities.

Sound familiar? You will recall that property developers, speculators and landlords benefited hugely from tax breaks during the Celtic Tiger property bubble. Because, while housing conditions have improved beyond recognition during the last century, property rights and the rights of developers and landlords still count for more in Ireland than the right to housing.

As a report showed ths week we have masses of people struggling with mortgage debt, the toxic legacy of the property bubble. Contrary to Enda Kenny's assertion that people 'went mad' during the Celtic Tiger, the reality was that people had no choice but to take out mortgages to purchase hugely over-priced houses and apartments. Or else they faced sky-high rents imposed by private landlords. Now these people are in deep trouble; many are skimping on essentials to meet mortgage repayments, or are facing repossession. Street homelessness continues, a shame on our counrry. Meanwhile many of the developers who were reponsible jointly with the Fianna Fáil Government for the property bubble are being bailed out by NAMA.

In this siutation it is doubly damning that the Fine Gael/Labour Government is continuing the retreat of central and local government from their obligation to provide housing. Social housing budgets have been slashed, continuing the trend begun by Fianna Fáil, which allowed the selling off of a huge part of the social housing stock in land and dwellings. The result is that the supposed safety net of social housing is threadbare. This is something that we as councillors encounter every day of the week as citizens seek housing that most often is simply not there.
Housing is a right. Generations of Irish people had to fight for that right, gradually forcing Government to improve conditions, end slums and develop council housing across the State, as well as facilitating affordable housing for those who wish to own their own homes. As we approach the centenary of the 1913 Lockout we should re-assert  not only the right to work and to decent pay and conditions but also the right to a home.

* 'Darkest Dublin' by Christiaan Corlett. Published by Wordwell, 2008.

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