HOUSING IS ALWAYS personal, not more than when a nation is in crisis.
This particular thread begins with me as a kid and memories of a summer vacation spent at my grandparents’ house in Camberwell, South London.
After leaving Vietnam in the late 1980s to follow my father, their eldest son, to Ireland, they briefly lived near me in Tallaght before moving to the UK with their young family, looking employment opportunities.
Today seven siblings are scattered all over London, but my uncle, his wife and children still live in that same Camberwell house that has housed family members for three decades. This is a comfortable four bedroom “split level apartment” part of a social housing complex, and I love it.
The unit is on the ground floor of a relatively small block with a single row of houses above, but in the shade of high-rise buildings. Over the years the neighborhood has suffered from underinvestment in local amenities and residents have suffered some demonization, but today it is safe and social.
My point is as follows: building social housing is building houses.
“Home” is the word, isn’t it? I did not spend the summers of my childhood in a town hall; I spent summers in my grandparents’ house.
Every time I am in Camberwell I think of the Irish government’s reluctance to alleviate the housing crisis by building social housing en masse. When I hear TDs and other critics calling such properties “free housing” – ignoring the rent tenants pay – everything in me rises in protest. In times like these, it’s crystal clear: housing and homelessness crises are not due to a lack of capacity, but to a political ideology that commodifies basic human needs.
Photographs were recently shot on social media microdistricts (or “microrays”) built in the Soviet Union after World War II to house the masses. The architecture of these huge structures is sometimes described as brutalist – heavy looking materials, predominantly gray color palette, lots of hard angles – but I find it quite beautiful. Let me tell you, I wouldn’t mind if some of these Soviet moxy were mass-building two and three bedroom cookie-cutter houses with central heating, private bathrooms and other amenities in Ireland.
Cosmetic appearance is of course not the most important thing. What is important is that we, the people, had a large stock of housing to be distributed according to the needs of the population, as has been done in other countries.
There is no reason why this should not happen in Ireland. Here is what it should look like.
Such housing should be affordable at all times and provide residents with security against eviction. They should be mixed, so as not to codify people according to their class. There should be investments in local amenities, area maintenance and public events to eliminate social problems that can arise when communities are neglected.
People affected by homelessness should receive housing and counseling without any preconditions – in Finland, four out of five homeless people were able to find a stable life thanks to such a program, which has also been found to be cheaper than accepting homelessness.
At this point, I must reveal that I partially own the house in Dublin where I spent the second half of my childhood. Sad circumstances made me inherit half of the property a few years ago.
I didn’t want to live in the house and wasn’t in the mood to let her go, so I rented it to a family through an agency. This is not a #NotAllLandlords play – stick your head out the window in any town in Ireland and you will find that trusting the morals of the owners comes down to trusting your ability to recite chapters from memory. Tolstoy’s war and peace.
It’s more about fairness.
I lived in a building on Upper Sheriff Street – the kind of new construction that can reasonably be called gentrification – controlled by an international real estate company that has not hesitated to raise the rent at every legal opportunity.
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Friedrich Engels wrote in 1872 that “to end this housing shortage there is only one way: to completely abolish the exploitation and oppression of the working class by the ruling class”. A century and a half later, Ireland longs for strong defenses against landlord despotism: a rent freeze, income supplements for those already trapped with high rents, the transfer of the building stock to public control. , the expansion of construction of public housing, houses and not hotels.
I was so angry with the eviction that took place in Phibsboro last year when nine tenants were forcibly evicted from a house in North Dublin. He offered a microcosm of where inhuman laws have taken us: absolute power in the hands of real estate funds and landlords, gardaí working against people instead of serving them, the dehumanizing treatment of migrants.
In 2018, I was among those who stopped traffic in solidarity with housing activists arrested by masked guards during an eviction on North Frederick Street. Three years later, it’s hard to see any changes to be happy about.
Some people will still want to own their own home, that’s true. How to make this viable for a generation of young people has been ad nauseam – of course the government can build houses for rent and for sale to compete with the market. But home ownership should not be the only way to establish a home with dignity and autonomy.
And no one should have to buy with the fear that a notoriously unstable economy will leave them with negative equity or in dire straits with a bank. (In this regard, the idea that capitalism protects property is a myth. You are never more than two steps away from losing everything.)
So where do we go from here? If the question is squarely directed at the government, then it is to stop circulating this political football as if it were a hot potato. The time to pay lip service to the question is over.
Those in positions of power and privilege need to understand the plight of people who want to value themselves in the form of a corner of their community reserved for them. People who just want to belong.
This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant program from the European Parliament. All opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are those of the author. The European Parliament has no involvement or responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.
Dean Van Nguyen is a music journalist and cultural critic