The Driving Force in Irish Politics? Finding a Decent Place to Live

DUBLIN — After Ireland’s economy cratered in 2008, the friends and fellow activists watched a mass exodus of young people do what the Irish had always done in times of crisis: Leave the country for more prosperous shores.

But now that Ireland has rebounded to become the fastest-growing economy in Europe, they had a different problem: how to stay.

“There’s definitely periods of my life where I’ve had panic attacks in the shower and it’s because of money and housing,” said Catherine O’Keeffe, 29, sitting around a table in a north Dublin storefront the other week with a group of anti-eviction housing activists. “I knew our landlords were pushing, pushing, pushing to get us out, and it was never clear when they would win.”

Ireland is in the grip of a housing crisis so severe that it has rendered thousands of people homeless and hollowed out a social contract that for decades allowed many Irish people to purchase a home.

It has also unmoored Irish voters from the center-right consensus that has dominated the country’s politics since 1932. Sinn Fein, a left-wing party long considered a pariah for its ties to the Irish Republican Army and that group’s often-violent struggles with the British government, catapulted to a second-place finish in Ireland’s general election this month.

Breaking from the government’s landlord-friendly policies, the party proposed freezing rents and building 100,000 homes, plans that dovetailed with housing protests of recent years and that have turned the party into a kingmaker in Ireland’s splintered political scene.

In doing so, Sinn Fein became the latest example of how housing is shaping politics across Europe. Back in the 1980s, right-wing parties like Britain’s Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher encouraged homeownership in the belief it would make people sympathetic to low-tax, right-wing politics. Today, left-wing parties may now stand to benefit from a generation of young voters watching the dream of homeownership vanish.

“In an environment where the proportion of people renting is increasing rapidly, from a country that used to have massive levels of homeownership, I think that creates some instability in the system,” said Kevin Cunningham, a political consultant and polling director of AskEurope, a research firm. “That could be an interesting dynamic replicated in the left of Europe.”

So far, right-wing populist parties have largely benefited from new divisions in the electorate over housing, with people living in areas untouched by the boom in property prices supporting causes like Brexit in greater numbers. But the Irish election showed the potency of a rental crisis for younger and more left-wing voters, too.

“This is the first example in northern Europe of a left-populist party really managing to capture the discontent of younger renters,” said Ben Ansell, a professor at Oxford University who has studied links between the housing market and populism.

Ireland’s housing crisis has its roots in the financial crash of 2008, which devastated the country’s economy and stopped virtually all new building projects in their tracks. People’s wages eventually recovered, but home prices exploded, soaring by 90 percent in Dublin since 2012. That pushed more and more people into the private rental market.

Strict new rules on mortgage lending, widely embraced as needed protection from another financial crisis, are one factor limiting people’s housing options. Another is the government’s decision to rely on what critics deride as market-based responses to the housing shortage, rather than building new public housing.

Soaring rents — driven even higher, critics say, by a misguided subsidy system — are taking ever larger chunks out of young people’s wages, making it all but impossible for them to save for a down payment on a house. And because Ireland has long treated renting as little more than a stopgap before people inevitably buy homes, its weak tenant protections allow landlords to evict renters almost at will.

Brian McLoughlin, the head of communications for Inner City Helping Homeless in Dublin, said the group had seen an explosion of families seeking help in recent years after being evicted by landlords. Often, the government houses them in hotel rooms, where the conditions can be severely cramped.

Large technology companies, attracted by government tax breaks, have created thousands of high-paying jobs in Dublin. That has helped push property developers into the higher end of the market, while creating the perception of a two-tiered recovery, with longtime Dubliners on the short end.

Brian Breathnach, 61, an artist who grew up there, said he remembered when it was “part of the tradition that most people went from their parents’ home into buying their own home.” But no longer. With his wife, who works in a shopping center, and two children, Mr. Breathnach spent 18 years on a waiting list for public housing.

In rental homes, he said, they faced regular negotiations with landlords over rent hikes and an expectation that they not complain about damp or broken appliances, lest they “waken the sleeping giant or such.”

A few years ago, they were evicted by a landlord who said a relative was moving in, a story often used as legal cover to drive out renters and break a house into smaller units to make more money.

This summer, Mr. Breathnach moved into an apartment in an affordable housing complex run by the Iveagh Trust, a charity, a reprieve after decades of instability. He lamented that housing had become a vehicle for building wealth.

“It’s a bit like an art auction, where things become rare and they go out of the reach of ordinary people,” Mr. Breathnach said. “And it seems to me housing should not be treated like diamonds or Rembrandts.”

Sinn Fein made those feelings the centerpiece of its campaign. The party, seeking to raise the pressure on its rivals to include them in talks about forming the next government, held a series of public rallies this past week that have drawn a thunderous reception.

The two big center-right parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, led by Ireland’s caretaker prime minister, Leo Varadkar, have hesitated so far to form their own coalition government, wary of being seen as blocking voters’ desire for change. But Sinn Fein’s left-wing policies and its old ties to the Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary group that fought for an end to British rule in Northern Ireland, have also made it an unpopular partner.

Una Mullally, a writer in Dublin, said voters were reacting to an economic recovery that still seemed to collect in the pockets of the rich.

“This election is kind of an echo or delayed reaction to the crash and the austerity policies that were implemented,” she said. “People are saying, ‘Well, if the economy is doing really well, why is the cost of living so high?’”

A few days after the election, in the Dublin constituency of Sinn Fein’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, Ms. O’Keeffe gathered with other young people affected by the housing crisis for an open-door support group, a place for people to bring their complaints about landlords and organize.

Their group, Dublin Central Housing Action, has taken part in high-profile occupations of disused offices or hotels that activists have turned into homeless shelters, and in confrontations with landlords at the homes of people facing evictions.

“We’re trying to push back against landlord impunity as much as we can,” said Tómas Lynch, 29. “Rents are going up; it’s very hard to find a new place to live in Dublin if you’re evicted, so people are very afraid to challenge almost anything.”

Mr. Lynch said many people he knew moved to Australia or Britain after the crash. The economic recovery has lured some back with better-paying jobs, while making it nearly impossible for many young Irish people to find a place to live there.

Another organizer, Brennan Lawrence, 28, said he had spent weeks living on friend’s couches during two stretches of being without a home recently, despite sometimes sending 100 requests a day to view properties. He said co-workers had become so discouraged by homeownership prospects that they were moving to London, hardly an affordable city.

Even after finding a place in Dublin, Mr. Lawrence endured a year and a half without heating in his bedroom, with little or no legal recourse.

“People are too afraid, or simply unable to move house, so it doesn’t matter what the letter of the rental law is,” he said.

Ms. O’Keeffe, who has been evicted twice in recent years, said a sense of transience hung over most young people’s lives in Dublin now, with the dream of homeownership replaced by the reality of aggressive landlords riding roughshod over renters.

“It’s weird not to have ownership of the place you live,” she said. “I love Dublin, I love Ireland, but it’s that thing of constantly being told over and over again that it’s not yours.”

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