Tuesday, 6 September 2016

A view from the basement

I was up in The Smoke on Thursday hangin' with my mates at the annual VIBE meeting. At one of the coffee breaks, a couple of mothers were comparing notes about the availability of schools in their area: it's headache because about 90% of primary schools are owned and operated by the Catholic church although paid for out of general taxation (and whatever they can soak out of the parents for enriching the educational experience). The Catholic schools give priority to Catholic families who live in the catchment area and protestant, muslim and agnostic tax-paying parents get the seats that are left, if any. Dilemma: Should the parents take out a second mortgage to pay for private school or spend hours in the car each week schlepping little Jimmy to a distant but right-on and inclusive Educate Together school? I said smugly that we hadn't that problem because our girls never went to school at all at all. To which the fair-enough response was "Well that is predicated on having at least one parent who wasn't working". My rejoinder was that if you live simple, you maybe don't need two salaries to put food on the table and shoes on the feet.  That was rather disingenuous because the major outgoing transaction in most family budgets in Ireland is money for roof. We are a long way from the situation 100 years ago in Rotterdam where I have been advised that in those days folks typically allocated 1/7th of their after-tax income to rent. One of The Beloved's sisters lived in London in the 1980s and bought a house in salubrious Chiswick, payments for which consumed all of His salary and half of Hers.

That was London. At the same time we bought a house in the NE of England in 1986: a rather run down 150 sq.m. red-brick terrace about 90 years old. We were not in the business of making a killing on the market so, of the 20-25 properties we viewed that Summer, we bought the second cheapest. The very cheapest had a hole in the roof and pigeons in the attic. Our gaff cost £21,000. Four years later, we moved back to Ireland and put our slightly improved and much loved home on the market. It fetched £56,000! We could have taken everyone's advice in '86 to buy the most expensive property we could afford - maybe £60K - and seen that more than double in price. But we didn't because we were thrifty and risk-averse. Back then we could live comfortably on one salary although for much of the time we were both earning and so salting away some extra cash for the future.

We thus acquired >!windfall!< a chunk money to put towards a home in Ireland. Not through hard work or canny practice - just by catching a wave of rising prices induced by various manipulations of the market by the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher. Tomorrow belonged to me. I was back at work last week and chatted to one of my office mates. He is trying to get the paper work sorted so that he can move his family to a bigger house in which each child has its own bedroom - a perfectly normal reasonable aspiration in today's Ireland. The new house is 399. That's casual code for €400,000 . . . for a 4 bed house in a crumby midlands town close to the centre of Ireland; albeit only a price-driving 80 km railway commute from Dublin. We bought a farm of land and 1/24th of a mountain for €77,000 20 years ago!

My colleague can do that because he already has equity in his existing house and by trading-up needs only pay for the differential. The new PhD graduate who will take my job when I retire in a few years time, could no more get finance for €400,000 than s/he could run to Kilkenny and back before classes. My generation has robbed her generation of the chance to live in a decent house despite having middle class academic aspirations like a room for each child or a scrap of garden to have a swing and a rabbit-hutch.

This was all brought into focus by hearing Fr Peter McVerry [on the Left as befitting and with an edgy urban background] on the wireless [again!] about homelessness in Ireland. He was being given air-time because, on Tuesday 6th Sept 2016 TONIGHT, RTE is putting out a documentary A view from the basement about his work with the Peter McVerry Trust. McVerry has spent the last 30+ years working stridently against homelessness and government indifference to the Dispossessed. His Trust has started building homes because nobody else is. Interviewer "Isn't that the Government's Job?". McVerry replied that he'd been on a fact-finding mission to Derry, North of the borrrder. The population of Derry is more or less 2% that of the Republic of Ireland and they have plans to complete 1,000 units of social housing this year.
Q. In 2015, across all the local authorities of RoI, how many S.H. units were built?
A. 74.
Q. What is the Irish for Shame?
A. náire

A view from the basement is a McVerry metaphor for modern Ireland. Imagine a fine red-brick Georgian house in Dublin, long since carved up into flats. The Man lives on the top floor. In the morning, he flings open the curtains to greet the day. The Summer sun is up, the breeze is shickering the leaves are on the old apple tree at the bottom of the garden, the grass of the lawn is more green than can be easily imagined, the sun picks out the Fine Gael blue speedwell Veronica arvenis that makes the lawn seem greener still. There is dew on the grass but it only seems to rain at night. At the same time in the basement of the same house, a woman also opens her curtains. She is too far down to see the lawn or the apple-tree, her view is bounded by the whitewashed wall of the outhouse. It has rained overnight and there is 10 cm of standing water between her and the toilet.

The Man at the top of the house is everyone who has a job with a pension, who bought their home more than 20 years ago, whose children go to fee-paying schools and expect to go to university and expect Mammy and The Da to pay the fees and the rent when they leave home for college. The Man makes all the rules and regulations for everyone, assigns the tax-breaks, sets housing policy, runs the [independent] judiciary and the [independent] trade unions. According to the OECD, the top 10% in Ireland earn 7.4x the bottom 10%. This is marginally less iniquitous than the OECD average but that's still a LOT of inequality.

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