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The unmentionable fact about Irish housing

There was, as one might expect, much weeping and rending of garments yesterday amongst the opposition, and the media, as the Government announced that it would lift its ban on evictions from March 31st. To listen to some of the commentary, one might have been forgiven for thinking that the ban on evictions was the only thing holding back a tide of homelessness.

But mathematically, that proposition makes no sense: The level of evictions does not in general impact the number of available houses, or the number of people seeking to access those houses. While it might make a difference at the margins – if, say, three tenants are moved out of a property, and two moved in – those differences should even out. Evictions generally represent churn in the market, not the addition or subtraction of available capacity.

Indeed, by providing a security mechanism for landlords who are the victims of bad tenants, the right to evict such tenants makes renting out a property more attractive, not less, and should – all else being equal – increase rather than decrease the available property in the rental market.

But all else is not equal.

The issue that cannot be discussed in the Irish housing debate is, of course, immigration. At the same time as the Irish Government is weeping about the housing crisis, it is offering owners of holiday homes €800 per month to make those homes available to Ukrainian refugees. I make no comment on that policy here – it is perfectly valid to seek to accommodate those fleeing war. But it is somewhat ridiculous not to note that this policy has a direct impact on housing, and therefore on the welfare of Irish people. We are, after all, actively incentivizing people to make housing available for refugees over and ahead of those seeking homes who are Irish citizens.

Housing like every other tradable good is vulnerable to the laws of supply and demand. When demand exceeds supply, the price rises until those who cannot afford it are excluded from the market.

In recent months, the demand for housing in Ireland has surged to record levels – almost entirely as a result of inward migration. This is why the Government is seeking to revamp Thornton Hall to make it a welcoming centre for migrants. This is why almost every county has local towns where dilapidated hotels are being refurbished quickly to accommodate new arrivals.

It is not a value judgment then to say the following: The Irish Government, in terms of the urgency of its investment in new accommodation, is directly and obviously prioritising non-Irish people over its own homeless. That is a statement of fact: There are no protests in any Irish town because a “welcoming centre” is being opened for Irish homeless people who cannot get a bed in Dublin. There are no protests, because there are no such centres. That is not where the money is going.

Making this link is, of course, so dangerous and racist that to do it automatically makes you a far right villain. Indeed, the very existence of such a link must be denied: The good, right-thinking Irish citizen is expected to publicly profess – even if they do not privately believe – that immigration and the housing crisis are two separate issues.

Yesterday, the Irish Times inadvertently made the link themselves: In an article titled “Housing shortage has sparked dangerous talk of ‘managed’ migration”, a London-based barrister called Eoin McLachlan writes:

But there are already threads to pull on in facilitating the rhetoric of “controlled” migration. Some housing commentators decry new developments as being geared towards “transient workers”, ie what they call workers who are only in an area for a short while and do not have an incentive to contribute to the local community. Whether intended or not, “transient workers” disproportionately means foreign workers.

Yes, indeed, Eoin: Accommodating foreign transient workers does indeed impact the level of available accommodation for Irish people, and does indeed rather suggest that “controlled migration” – apparently a concept too awful to even imagine – might make sense.

What is “controlled migration”, anyway? Well it is not, as some might think, a ban on immigration. It is simply the notion that perhaps the state should seek to reduce demand in order to meet available supply. There are those of us who think that it makes little sense to continue importing additional people in need of housing when we do not have sufficient housing for those already here.

I say in the headline above that this fact is “unmentionable”, and of course, in polite society – the pages of the Irish Times, for example – it is. But it is not unthinkable, and, polls suggest, it is already widely thought.

The housing crisis will end in Ireland in only one of two ways: Either the supply of housing will rise to meet demand, bringing down prices and allowing everyone who needs accommodation to find it at an affordable level, or demand will fall to meet supply.

The problem with a society without “controlled migration” is simply this: Supply can never rise to meet domestic demand when there are those who can migrate inwards with more money and buy or rent homes ahead of the people already here. You cannot build your way out of the housing crisis while permitting foreigners – for want of a better word – to buy or rent a significant proportion of each new development.

Of course, the truth is that many of us don’t really want the housing crisis to end anyway. It is good for developers, who are guaranteed high sales prices. It is good for landlords, who get good, well paid foreign workers to rent their properties, and can maintain high rents. It is good for homeowners, who are presently watching the value of their homes rise, while their mortgages are eaten away by inflation. It is good for the political establishment, who get to pose as welcoming and good.

Those it is bad for – generally working class Irish people sitting on a Government housing list for 20 years – don’t really factor in to anybody’s decision making. Or they won’t, until they figure out how to vote, and who to vote for.

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