The housing occupation movement

With Dublin in the throes of a housing crisis many are labelling a national emergency, Gavin Tracey examines the origins and tactics of the activists occupying buildings across Dublin. Photo credit: Jack Power.  With the influx of thousands of new and returning students arriving in the capital to find accommodation, the already dire housing crisis has become more pronounced. Long queues, ranging anywhere from 40-100 people long, form outside of property viewings. Meanwhile, the quality and safety of many properties is not being addressed, as many tenants are unaware of their rights and do not wish to be evicted.
“Landlords have taken full advantage of this current shortage of accommodation to capitalise on people’s desperation”
A cursory look at reveals just how bad the situation is. For example, an inflatable mattresses in a kitchen for €650 a month, a tiny flat in the city centre with two sets of bunk beds set up in the living room; sights all too common for those looking for somewhere to live in the city centre. Landlords have taken full advantage of this current shortage of accommodation to capitalise on people’s desperation, charging exorbitant rents and paying little to no regard for the safety of their tenants. With little being done by the government, and the only change in the markets being that rents were increasing, a small group of activists seized on a high profile eviction to make a stand and to demand action be taken by the government and local councils. In May 2018, a number of predominantly Brazilian tenants were evicted from 35 Summerhill Parade, as well as the surrounding houses, in North Dublin inner city, after being given only 24 hours notice. The houses had been inspected by Dublin Fire Brigade, and many rooms were deemed to be dangerous, and that in the event of a fire, lives would almost certainly be lost. The condition of the properties were squalid and overcrowded, with up to 20 tenants living in each property. After the properties had been left empty and untouched for a few months, a consortium of left-wing groups, including housing and student activists came together to occupy the property. Speaking to the University Observer, a spokesperson for the occupation said, “the places, having seen inside them, are basically tenement like conditions, 8-10 people to some of the rooms... black mould on the walls” with each one of the tenants paying between €300 to €400 a month in rent. After the occupation enjoyed a substantial level of public support, and the activists were told to vacate the property by the high court, they moved to another vacant property, this time on North Frederick Street, also in inner city north Dublin. On their facebook page, the group have published information about the owners and landlords of the properties they occupy, outlining their backgrounds and personal information. Under the name “Take Back the City - Dublin”, they have moved into several properties, and appear to be gaining traction and support. The question arises as to why they have enjoyed success where other housing protests in the recent past have not, notably the Apollo House occupation in late 2016, which left many of the activists involved feeling “burnt” in the words of the spokesperson for Take Back the City. It is clear that from the beginning, the movement displayed a knack for public relations, and have used social media to garner support and help recruit volunteers. All of those occupying the Summerhill and Frederick Street properties donned paper masks of Leo Varadkar, serving the dual purpose of sending a clear political message about who they hold to be responsible for the crisis, as well as removing the possibility of the movement becoming about individual personalities. After so little has been done for so long, they are tapping into a genuine public anger surrounding the inaction of the government and county councils. Using this to their full advantage they were able to schedule a meeting with Minister for Housing, Eoghan Murphy.
“Unidentified masked men arrived at the… property in an unmarked van with no registration plates, and entered the building using electric tools to gain access”
However, in recent days things have begun to turn for the activists. On the evening of Tuesday the 11th of September, unidentified masked men arrived at the North Frederick Street property, in an unmarked van with no registration plates, and entered the building using electric tools to gain access. This same van was later found to have been previously owned by the Manchester Police, and has not been taxed since 2014. They were followed shortly after by the Gardí. A press statement released by Take Back the City details that “as community response to the eviction attempt began to build, they were joined by 1 Garda Riot Squad, 1 Public Order Unit, 1 Garda Transit Connect van and 1 Garda Jeep with dogs.” The activists claim that “physical force was used against a number of attendees”, and 5 of the activists were arrested and brought to several Garda stations, outside of which protesters began to congregate after the footage had been broadcast live on social media. In the same statement, Take Back the City - Dublin condemn the actions of An Garda Siochana, who they claim “facilitated these illegal activities” The decision to carry out such forceful evictions in this manner is baffling to many. Coverage of the occupations, which in the days beforehand had been dying down (at least in the mainstream press), is now frontpage, breaking news. Accompanied by images of dozens of masked Guardí and persons unknown, this will only serve to further glavinise the public, increasing support for the movement, as well as adding even more pressure to those in government, in particular Eoghan Murphy, to do something about this issue.