NAMASTE

We are just over the one hundred day mark into the reign of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the only substantial change is that the lack of substance is now communicated as a virtue. Of the core challenges facing the government, we can only say with certainty, that there are certain plans with less than certain outcomes.

There are also more kites floating around than on Dollymount Strand during a Kite Surfing Contest. One such kite, that flew from the Taoiseach’s lips, was the proposal to convert NAMA into a Housing Development Agency to help tackle the housing crisis. That this is considered new and innovative, as part of the new and innovative government, is disappointing.

This is, in fact, old news. NAMA has always had the ability to help in tackling the burden of homelessness. NAMA was created, on day one, with the powers to do just that.

Section 2 (iv) and (viii) of the NAMA Act state that the purposes of the establishment of NAMA are: to protect the interests of taxpayers and to contribute to the social and economic development of the state.

There it is in black and white. NAMA doesn’t need any new powers, it simply needs to be directed to carry out the task for which it was created. NAMA should already be working to “contribute to the social and economic development of the state”.

The kite of getting them to do so now is not new and innovative. The question, that sadly is not being asked, off this government is, Why Haven’t You Done This Already?

Fine Gael are in power since 2011, for them to not have even suggested this before can only be negligence and or an ideological choice. There is nothing new in putting markets before people. There is nothing innovative in falling asleep at the wheel.

The argument that they couldn’t have seen this crisis coming doesn’t hold up either. As early as 2013, the then Minister for Housing Jan O’Sullivan said:

“Homelessness is an affront to every value that we assign to the concept of citizenship. In a real republic there is an onus on us all to ensure that all citizens have a place they can call home”.

Sadly, there’s not much room for optimism. When Leo spoke of the NAMA possibility he was quickly shut down by his ‘handlers’ and further explorations were closed to questioning. NAMA are part, and have been part, of discussions on the housing crisis for years now. Foisting it on them now isn’t a solution. NAMA have shown no desire to enter the “contributing to the social development” stage of their remit.

Leo, who has a history of saying “it was like that when I got here”, needs to step away from the PR for a few hours. He has said funding isn’t an issue, great. Issue the funds Taoiseach.

Give the Local Authorities the responsibility to get on with building. Make the Department of Housing, and your good friend Minister Eoghan Murphy, responsible for removing roadblocks and expediting building.

Support the Non Governmental Organisations who are on the front line, taking the flack that six years of Fine Gael government has had a hand in creating. Make the Local Authorities, the Department and the Minister accountable. Do what Section 2 (viii) of the NAMA act says: contribute to the social development of the state; not just the social media side of things.  

 

Tony Groves

 

Opportunity Won’t Knock

There was an interesting development in how the Government have decided to handle (spin) the housing crisis this week. After a raw and at times brutal interview with a homeless Secondary School student named ‘Amanda’, the Minister for Housing, Eoghan Murphy, rather than feel ashamed decided he’d side with the poor girl. He said:

“The piece that was broadcast this morning on Morning Ireland is probably one of the most important contributions to this debate that we’ve heard in the past number of months,” he said.

“The bravery that they had this morning to come out and tell the country about their particular circumstance was very brave but very important for people to understand what these families are facing.”

The family tragedy compounded by a Minister who is calling this crisis a debate. The time for debating is long gone. It is time for action, real decisive action.

Campaigns like #MyNameIs have raised the consciousness of the general public and the sense that more must be done is palpable. In reality we have the means to take much more ambitious steps than the planned 23,000 social housing homes by 2021.

More importantly, even with this limited plan, who will be held accountable should this target not be met? Given that only 22 of the 1,500 promised by next year have been completed to date, can we believe in any new plan? Where is the accountability?

The lack of accountability in Ireland undermines many facets of our society. But to just focus on housing we can identify the problem quite quickly. Unlike many other European countries, including Belgium, France and the UK, housing is not a right in Ireland.

In Ireland, under the 1988 Housing Act, our citizens run into a verbal wall.

 

10.—(1) A housing authority may, subject to such regulations as may be made by the Minister under this section –

  1. make arrangements, including financial arrangements, with a body approved of by the Minister for the purposes of section 5 for the provision by that body of accommodation for a homeless person,
  2. provide a homeless person with such assistance, including financial assistance, as the authority consider appropriate, or
  3. rent accommodation, arrange lodgings or contribute to the cost of such accommodation or lodgings for a homeless person.

2. A request for accommodation may be made to a housing authority by or on behalf of a homeless person.
The blocker in the system is a small word that covers all manner of excuses. The word is ‘may’; as in the housing authority may or it may not do a,b,c or d.

It is not compulsory, and if it is not compulsory then there is no accountability. If there’s no accountability then there’s no repercussions for missing targets. Until may becomes must and the power to act become a duty to act then nothing will change.

This crisis didn’t sneak up on us either. It is the result of decades of bad planning and even worse policy making. We have gone, progressively since the 1970’s, from State provision to a combination of NGO and Market provision.  Both are failing – for different reasons.  The NGO solution is common – the UK for example has a similar situation, with the important distinction that the State in UK decanted housing stock progressively to the NGO’s, thereby providing a balance sheet base from which the NGO’s could leverage collateral to fund future housing stock.
The NGO model is endemic in Irish Social policy – the same approach applies in Health, Disability Services and in the past in areas such as industrial schools.  Whatever about its origins – a pauper State seeking access to property and services from institutions such as the Church, it now represents either an abdication of responsibility or, worse, an adherence to Victorian attitudes to relative poverty and provision, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  Without diverting from the current crisis, this needs to be reassessed in all areas of Social policy.

Given the intolerable crisis we have today – 8,160 people homeless and nearly 3,000 children – anything less than “The State Will Provide” response from the Government will not suffice. Even if we are to only do so on a temporary basis until the crisis has abated.

There’s nothing in EU Law that forbids a country from acting to protect its citizens. Therefore it follows that there is nothing in EU Law (including the Debt to GDP rules) that can prevent the government from raising money to build social housing. The “off balance sheet” argument is a red herring. They raised over €5bn to pay off the IMF. To not do the same for our citizens is an indictment of Right Wing slaves to the “free” market ideology. It is an indictment of us as a society and a country.

It is within our powers, as the 14th wealthiest country in the world, to build 10,000 social houses in the next 12-18 months. Any legislative roadblocks can and must be given the NAMA treatment. Exceptional times call for exceptional measures.

If we can create NAMA overnight, ignoring legislative processes, to stop a Bank crisis and we refuse to do the same for our citizens then any plans from the Third Emergency Housing Summit are only window dressing.

The pressure is on, Fine Gael are rattled by claims that their ideological blindness to the less well off in our country have exacerbated this crisis. Campaigns like #MyNameIs have embarrassed them and stung a Taoiseach obsessed with his image into action. This action must happen now and it must be on a scale that dwarfs the current 2021 plan.

Time is of the essence here. While things are bad they are about to get much worse. There’s 14,367 Buy To Let Mortgages at repossession stage. There is no incentive or reason for the Vulture Funds that own these properties to rent them to the social housing/homeless part of the market. This will be like throwing petrol on a bonfire unless our government turns “may” into Must.

We have the means, the finance is available and the solutions are simple:

Make the provision of housing a right, at least until the crisis has abated.

Use the NAMA exceptionalist model to protect the citizens.

Commit to building 10,000 social houses in the next 12-18 months.

Make the Departments accountable and have repercussions for failure.

Incentivise/Legislate that the Vultures make their properties available to the Social Housing schemes.

Deliver.
Fine Gael are 84 years old today. The Taoiseach used this occasion to remind people that he wants “to build a Republic of Opportunity”. Well Leo, it’s no good waiting for opportunity to knock when you don’t have a front door.
Tony Groves  

 

The Not So Good News

Language can be a lot like the Leaving Cert Geography lifecycle of a river. Words start out vibrant and energising; soon they’re meandering along corporate corridors and through bankers boardrooms only to slow to a crawl in the mouths of politicians. 
Around 2006 the word granularity came into the military lexicon. General David Petraeus, while discussing the situation then in Iraq, told the Armed Services Committee that “it is hard at this distance…to get the real granularity of what’s going on”. 

Two years later, as Irish Banks were preparing to close their doors, I was listening to a Chief Strategist explaining the “granularity of the crisis”. 

Sometime around 2013, I saw a tweet from a Fine Gael TD in response to the (even back then) housing crisis saying those calling for immediate action “needed to familiarise themselves with the granularity of the situation”. Granularity, like so many once militarily sexy words, had passed from the mouth of a 4 Star General to the tweet of a free market apologist.

Granularity used to mean the finer details, in political speak it was used as smug way of trying to sound clever. The granularity of the word had been ground away. It is waffle like this that results in the Taoiseach appointing his own Strategic Communications Unit. 

This “good news” department, as it has been dubbed, is to help the Taoiseach effectively communicate (dare I say propagandise) the workings and achievements of his government. It is telling that the rank and file members of Fine Gael aren’t uncomfortable with this new development. No one is questioning the value of the unit, nor the cost to the state. 

When members of Sinn Fein similarly stay on message they are routinely called a cult. When Fine Gael do it, crickets…

Nor does the language devolution stop with the politicians. In his weekly address the Taoiseach, first patting himself on the back for “taking more people out of homelessness this year than any year in the past”, then said the problem was that “more people BECOME homeless every week”. It’s as if these people simply decided to get up, leave their homes and start camping in the Phoenix Park. 

People don’t become homeless; they are MADE homeless. 

Imagine my disappointment then when the media then went on to parrot the “people become homeless” line. Across the airwaves our inability to address this national shame was sanitised away with the lie of the ‘accidental’ inference of a simple word like BECOME.

There are 14,367 Buy to Let Mortgages in arrears of over 720 days, these homes contain rent paying tenants who risk losing their homes through no fault of their own. The vulture funds are closing in for the kill on these loans and these families will be MADE homeless.    

I’m not sure how the “good news” unit will spin this, but one thing is for certain, another housing summit is not the answer. We’ll have had 3 emergency housing summits since 2014, 1 more and we get the 5th one for free.

The Taoiseach has said that he “believes communication is a virtue”. It is not. It is simply an exchange of information. Virtues are things like honesty, integrity and trustworthiness. There’s no virtue if the information you are exchanging is dishonest, unbelievable and untrustworthy.  

The “good news” unit isn’t about virtues. It’s about putting a verbiage plaster on an open wound. 

When you really get down to the finer details (the granularity), the purpose of the “good new” unit is to give the appearance of substance to plans made on foundations of sand and worn out words. 
Tony Groves