The slogans being chanted by the Portuguese echo those chanted at rallies in Dublin, Madrid and Athens in recent times. The result of the austerity measures introduced Europe-wide is almost identical – bankers being blamed for the crisis, then going unpunished, people on lower and middle incomes carrying the brunt of the burden, those with the ability to pay more being asked to pay the least, cuts to the most disenfranchised and most vulnerable in society and so on.
Lisbon has a lot in common with Galway. It is a coastal city, on the Atlantic, with a rich maritime heritage, a vibrant and eclectic population boasting thousands of students, with people from all walks of life and from all over the world. We are also similar in that on the face of it both cities have an affluent veneer, but behind this lurks an underbelly of hardship, poverty and stress from the burden of trying to make ends meet on drastically decreased means.
This week I am involved in a campaign to try and draw attention the inequity this Government is imposing on people receiving support to pay their rent from the Department of Social Protection. The ‘Reverse the Rent Cap’ campaign aims to ensure that no family is forced to move from their homes and communities because they cannot find alternative accommodation on the lower levels of support being provided and asks the Government to stop using vulnerable individuals as pawns in an attempt to force landlords to lower rents.
The campaign is also trying to explain that the source of this
problem is the lack of adequate provision of social housing, particularly in the boom times and the ill-advised policies implemented by Fianna Fail, The PDs, the Greens and now the present Government - using private rented accommodation as an alternative to social housing.
Sinn Féin agree that we the State pays far too much annually for accommodation of this type. Over 4600 people in Galway are in receipt of rent supplement. But these are people who didn’t share in the spoils of the Celtic Tiger years, were not in a position to secure massive mortgages to buy grossly overpriced houses and who depend on the State to assist them in finding suitable accommodation for themselves and their families.
Housing policy in Ireland in recent years has, as we know too well, been an absolute disaster. Most developers in this city who were supposed to build estates which were a mix of private and social housing manouvered their way out of this obligation – leaving the State to row in and pick up the slack. This was achieved by rent supplement being provided by the former Community Welfare Officers.
The levels of support they provide have now been reduced radically, which means that tenants are being forced to renegotiate leases with their landlords. Most landlords are not in a position to reduce rents as they may have large mortgages to repay themselves, as well as increased charges such as the household charge and rented accommodation charges to pay. This leaves the tenants with no option but to find alternative accommodation elsewhere, move out of their communities and their children out of schools in an attempt to stay within the levels of support being provided.
Some people are understandably saying that these tenants should be damn glad that the State is giving them support towards their rent, as they themselves are struggling to repay exorbitant mortgages and make ends meet while living in houses which are in massive negative equity. But the tenants should not be scapegoated in this dilemma.
The rent caps being used, which were based on statistics from Daft.ie, the CSO and the Department of Social Protection’s data do not reflect the reality of rental prices at present. They are well below what is actually being charged. This means that if tenants cannot get landlords to negotiate
rents downward they must either get them to sign forms saying they are accepting the rent which is allowable by the Department and pay the difference ‘under the table’ which if discovered could lead to the tenant losing their support completely and possibly prosecutions for both parties – or find alternative housing.
Galway has a relatively buoyant rental market, due to the large student population. Many landlords won’t take tenants in receipt of rent allowance as they see it as too much hassle. This is leaving these tenants in a predicament - find a cheaper house or lose the support. Some of the difficulties here can include the fact that they need a hefty deposit to secure alternative accommodation. The cost of moving house is substantial. And, if they can’t secure somewhere they are left with very little option except to beg or borrow from friends and relatives, move in with them, or join the homeless list - where people will still have to be housed at immense cost to the state with the probability that couples and families will be split up in the process. This is simply unacceptable and doesn’t make social, or economic sense.
Surely, at the rates of Rent supplement support of up to€725 per month for a family, the Government would be able to buy and service houses which would remain the property of the State. What about all of the NAMA housing stock we all own? Why have we not seen action to make that available for social housing needs? Why has the Government not moved to address the mortgage crisis that is crippling homeowners across the country – which would also allow landlords to be more flexible with the rents they are charging? What about using some of the money from the National Pension reserve Fund in an investment drive to provide social housing which would stimulate the economy, get many of our unemployed off the dole queue, increase the tax take and reduce the deficit? There are other ways of dealing with the housing problem as oppose to pitching landlords against tenants.
But this is another example of the divide and conquer tactic being employed once more by a Government dancing to the tune of the Troika. We in Galway should stand together in solidarity against this. We should all join together – workers and unemployed, tenant and landlord, young and old to say to the Government you must find another way which is fairer, more practical and which will not demonise and punish those who had no hand or part in this economic crisis. We must do this as citizens striving for a better future for the people of Galway, Ireland and Europe. In doing so we are joining with the ever increasing number of citizens who are becoming more steadfast across Europe – including those I stood shoulder to shoulder with in Lisbon last weekend.