Saturday 3 December 2016

Castle Rackrent

Caisleán cíos forlán
The price of a roof is being much discussed in the media and at coffee-breaks across the country this weather. The Central Bank has reduced the requirement for a deposit on a mortgaged property from 20% to 10% and the government has brought in a needlessly complicated scheme to subsidise 1st time buyers. The 20% deposit was designed to stop home 'owners' going bankrupt in a negative equity trap that caught 50,000 people at the top of the Celtic Tiger boom in 2006-2008. In 2009 there was much talk of ghost-estates where speculative builders had started 100s of homes in peculiar places in the hope of turning them into profit. Now we have a gross insufficiency of housing stock and consequent inflation of both rental costs and house/apartment prices - especially in Dublin.  It can't all be put down to the 200,000 extra Poles and Balts Witamy chłopców! that Ireland has acquired since 2000 or the fact that every IT multinational megacorp has opened its European headquarters in Dublin. We returned to Ireland in 1990 having, along with half the population, spent the 1980s depression abroad.

We found an old farmhouse out near the airport to rent which was a) enormous b) inconveniently remote from my place of work and c) cheap at £180/mo. The landlord, who had grown up in the farm but built a warmer, drier and easier-to-clean bungalow when he got married, was renting out the home-place since his parents had died 5-6 years previously. Each year, a couple or a family would come and view the place in the Summer, fall in love with the ideal of rural bliss and sign a 1 year lease. They would then endure a Winter with no central heating, whistling drafts, rattling windows, leaking roof, and a kilometer to the nearest bus-stop . . . and go live somewhere else. We stayed there for six years; Dau.I then Dau.II were born there; we wore hats in bed at night; consumed prodigious quantities of solid fuel; it was grand altogether. I cycled to work - a round trip of 24km - and clocked up a round the World total of 40,000km before my non-fatal RTA turned the bike into a pretzel.. After about three years, the landlord said he'd have to put up the rent . . . to £200/mo and we had to suck that up. We stayed there for another 3 years until . . .

It's 20 years since we moved from that almost-rural down to the real country and raised 2 girls on a 7 hectare micro-farm. The raising two daughters worked out rather well, the farming was much more of a joke and certainly not a way of making a living. So I continued to hold down a job in Dublin, which put shoes on the girls' feet and food on the table. I looked around to find a room in Dublin where I could spend M-Tu-We-Th nights and the only sensible thing that turned up was a 1-bed apartment in salubrious Dublin 4 which would set me back £320/mo. That was still cheaper than commuting to Dublin from home; quite apart from the gruelling amount of time spent in bus and car. Our farrrmlet is 20km from the nearest bus-stop. The Dublin pad was remarkably civilised and grown up and we would often spend the weekend in Dublin. I walked to work - a round trip of 8km. After 3 years, as the Celtic Tiger started to roar, the landlord raised the rent by 28%, I cut down my hours to 4 days a week and it was no longer sensible or affordable to have my own place in Dublin. This may surprise European readers but there is no rent-control in Ireland. It is entirely driven by supply-and-demand, nature red in tooth and claw 19thC capitalism.

I wasn't homeless for long but threw in my lot with a couple of long-haired botanists, with a long-haired cat, for the three days a week I was up in town. I hardly saw them because I'd be late 'home' and up early, but it was gezellig and hygga, and a round trip of 12km. My share of the rent was a little less than I'd been paying in Dublin 4 but I had to share a bathroom and front-door and snores, so it was on balance a step down in the world. Apart from anything else it was in Dublin 6, very much lower in Monopoly board terms than Dublin 4. In the small-small world that is Ireland, it turned out that our landlord was a landlady who was the teacher in a secondary school very close to our farrrrm. After I'd been there about 18 months, the landlady announced that the rent was going up 40%! We three sat down and had a full and frank discussion about whether this was fair [not!], possible to support [reluctantly yes] and signed up for another year at the grossly increased rent. As that term drew to a close, the landlady announced that we were to be evicted: she was about to retire and wanted to cash in her chips for her pension. I was outraged, not on my own behalf because I had a home, but on behalf of the senior tenant who had been there for 11 years paying his rent regular-as-the-clock and walking to work round the corner. It was his home and he was being thrown out on the street because the building was somebody else's investment.

My life moved on, I went on pilgrimage and slept in a great variety of unprivate and uncomfortable places and the sky didn't fall. When I came back to work in Dublin I was down to 3 days a week and built up a wide experience of hostels in Dublin city centre where you could have you pick of bed&breakfast for €12/night. After a few weeks of that, I was at a Chinese New Year celebration and was sat between a pair of short-haired molecular evolutionists who made me an offer in these terms.
"This is ridiculous, a man of your seniority sleeping with a miscellaneous crew of Australian back-packers and Polish Gastarbeiter. You could be a professor, if you weren't such a lazy-arse; and quite frankly you're letting the side down. If you pay us whatever you're paying these berluddy hostels, you can have our box room in Marino".  I though about it overnight and accepted their offer the next day. Every morning I was there, I'd get up bright and early and put €20 on top of the TV before leaving for work. That went on for a tuthree years, we spent at least one night a week in the pub drinking far more than I had the capacity for until . . . we were evicted. The landlady was retiring from a life-time in Baltimore and she intended to live in her own house. We moved round the corner to another place owned by an Irish physicist who was working in JPL in California, until after a couple of years the landlord came home to be married and we were evicted again. Our menage broke up as one of the lads got married himself and I went back to hostels.

That's it, I don't think this sorry tale of rent-hikes and evictions is extraordinary over the last 20 years of boom and bust in Ireland. A typical rent for a 2-bed Dublin apartment with a kitchen the size of a shoe-box and bathroom with no window was £500 = €625 in 1996 and is now €1,800. You may be assured that wages have not gone increased by a factor of 2.75x over the same time scale.

I heard that the high-school teacher landlady died a few weeks ago.  She didn't live long on the money she raised by depriving a fellow man of his home. What's the point? You can't take it with you so you might as well be kind while you're still above ground. If we lived in a socialist paradise such as imagined by Padraig Pearse and his fellow revolutionaries of 1916, we wouldn't be allowed to think of domestic housing stock as a commodity or an investment. The fact that we do allow, and indeed encourage, that attitude results in the fact that 25% of Dublin's rental market is owned by anonymous foreign corporations who can't get a better return on capital elsewhere.

It was Andrew Carnegie's birthday 25-Nov-1835 and wordaday popped up this quote "Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community".

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