The housing crisis has a racist underbelly

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As Ireland’s housing crisis continues to deepen, Lucy Warmington looks at the division it is causing in Irish society, and how seemingly neutral commentary on the crisis is creating a racist dialogue throughout the country.

It is difficult to have a conversation about Irish life without the housing crisis becoming a featured part of the discussion. It is amongst the worst housing crises in Europe, and the situation has only worsened over time. Over 120,000 people are currently on waiting lists for housing, with another 11,870 living in Direct Provision, and 24,000 asylum seekers in emergency accommodation. The Direct Provision system has been called a “severe violation of human rights” by the UN and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, yet the Irish government continue to push back their plans for phasing it out. The helplessness of Irish people can be sorely felt, as every year student unions organise housing protests to no avail, and news channels run stories of families living day-to-day from single hotel rooms. 

The housing crisis is quickly becoming the defining feature of young people’s lives in Ireland, fuelled by a floundering government who appear to think that their purpose aligns more with keeping vulture funds and energy companies satisfied, than it does with keeping the people who live here housed. EU wide, immigrants and minority groups experience more barriers to finding employment, housing, education, and social opportunities than others in society. As some of the poorest and most vulnerable groups in Irish society, the housing crisis has had its greatest impact on immigrants and ethnic minorities. As the crisis continues to deepen, it has created a harmful racist rhetoric that places the blame on these minorities, and intensifies the systemic racism already present in housing.

Not only are immigrants a staple for the Irish economy, but they should also be a celebrated part of an ever-diversifying Ireland.

A common trope of discussion on the housing crisis in Ireland is that it is illogical to accept more asylum seekers and immigrants into the country when Ireland cannot house its own citizens. This may seem like a well-placed argument, that giving asylum seekers empty promises of security and shelter is cruel, or that allowing immigrants access to housing when Irish people cannot access it is counterintuitive. However, it is from here that phrases such as ‘we have our own homeless people to worry about’, and the more unsavoury ‘go back to your own country’, become commonplace. This attitude is the foundation for an increasingly racist rhetoric throughout the country. Not only are immigrants incredibly important for the Irish economy, but they should also be a celebrated part of an ever-diversifying Ireland. To resort to turning away asylum seekers who are fleeing warzones, climate crises, and persecution would be inhumane, immoral, and a severe injustice. To house asylum seekers and to house Irish nationals is not mutually exclusive. The island of Ireland has a long history of divisiveness, and no good can come from retreading such a path.

Headlines in newspapers, such as “Housing supply buckling under extra strain of asylum seekers” in the Irish Times, and “Taxpayers are footing the bill for Ireland's 'reckless' immigration policy says Cork TD” in Cork Beo, are two examples of an increasingly racist rhetoric disguised as neutral observation. These headlines are only samples of the articles’ actual content, and not representative of the discussions the articles follow. The Cork Beo article could have picked a quote from TD Thomas Gould, “the Irish system is ‘broken’ due to ‘bad government decisions’” as their headline. However, they chose to follow a rhetoric that asylum seekers and immigrants are the reason behind Ireland's housing problems. The headline of an article is influential as it is often the only part people read. It is a dangerous rhetoric to form, as well as a factually incorrect and racist one. 

It is the Irish government who have failed time and time again to create a housing policy that can solve the crisis.

This message is not only seen in newspaper headlines; it presents itself daily with taglines such as ‘Ireland for the Irish’. A private Facebook group called “House the Irish first” has over 9,600 members. The groups’ moderators’ personal pages are littered with videos of immigrant groups in housing centres they describe as “non-nationals and non-vetted”, descriptions of young “African girl gangs” in their local area, and persistent displays of Irish nationalism. This brings into question the intent of the Facebook group, is this a group with genuine concerns about the housing crisis, or a group that is using the housing crisis as an excuse for racism? This wouldn’t be an unreasonable assumption to make; the Immigrant Council of Ireland has noted a recent rise in racially motivated attacks against immigrants and under-18s, including verbal harassment and physical abuse. 

The racism being exacerbated by the housing crisis is significant; the microaggressions, verbal and physical harassment, and social exclusion that it supports have direct impacts on the physical and mental well-being of its victims. Microaggressions are known to be a cause of high-stress and anxiety. The Immigration Council reported two suicide attempts “as a direct result of racially motivated anti-social behaviour”. The societal impact at large is also clear. In 2004, the Citizenship Referendum removed the right to citizenship from hundreds of children born in Ireland with foreign-born parents. Today, this rhetoric is a mirror to the line of thinking that won Brexit for the ‘vote leave’ campaign in the UK, in 2016. Ireland leaving the EU is almost unimaginable, but the same might have been said about the UK fifteen years earlier. Brexit is an example of how extreme consequences can stem from seemingly innocent rhetoric. 

Ireland has a housing system that cannot adequately help everyone, but immigrants are not to blame. The anger at the situation that is often misplaced onto minorities and immigrants can be understood, the housing crisis is exhaustive and never-ending, however this anger must be correctly aimed. It is the Irish government who have failed time and time again to create a housing policy that can solve the crisis. Since the formation of the Irish State over 100 years ago, only Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, or both, have had a majority in government. They have overseen the beginning of the Irish housing crisis and have been the key policymakers behind every housing policy. Their current housing policy, ‘Housing for All’, is more of the same policies that started the housing crisis. They are once again catering to vulture funds and ignoring the most vulnerable. It is time for a change in discourse surrounding the housing crisis, to step away from stale governments, tame policies, and profit-making schemes, and toward policies that are committed to providing social-housing schemes, affordable living, and reduced inequalities. This country is in a housing crisis because of a broken housing system, which, alongside the racist rhetoric it has fuelled, must be entirely scrapped.