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How Rentier Capitalism Is Destroying Dublin

Dublin is sold as a modern city that is home to the world's most dynamic industries – but for its residents, daily life is scarred by one of Europe's worst housing crises and rampant workplace precarity.

It’s not that nothing good can happen here. It’s that it doesn’t last.

When I was a teenager, we used to build shacks. I grew up on the south side of the city, in a fairly nice suburb on the edge of a large industrial estate. There were pockets of scrap land, what are known as ‘brownfield’ or ‘greyfield’ sites, dotted about the landscape. They were behind hedges and fences, beside tram tracks and in between commercial buildings.

The one I remember best, where I spent much of my time age 14-17, was just beside the Luas lines, between Sandyford, Dundrum, and Kilmacud. A nothing place with no name we were aware of. It was covered in gently undulating scrub, accessible through a hole in the fence one of us had made with a pair of bolt cutters. A red Toyota appeared there once, stolen or abandoned. It was used for a shelter from the rain, slept in once or twice, and then it was gone.

It was there we built shacks, from pallets and lengths of chipboard. Once we levered an entire empty wooden shipping crate from a dump over the fence, nearly landing it on our heads in the process. These shacks each lasted a few weeks at most. They would inevitably be burned down some time in the night and we would find them after school, a pile of cinders and little more.

In the ’60s and ’70s, landlords who owned the beautiful decaying Georgian houses of the inner city would frequently, and deliberately, let them fall into such disrepair that they had to be condemned. When that didn’t suffice, a suspicious fire could give the desired effect. Land speculation made them worth more as cleared sites than as buildings with history.

Two of these neglected structures collapsed in the space of a fortnight in 1963, killing four of their working-class occupants. Social housing lists were long, rents were high, tenant protections were almost non-existent, and across the city, buildings sat empty, waiting to appreciate.

There is nowhere to take a shit in Dublin. I used to keep long mental lists of the best toilets, from Brown Thomas to Dublin City Hall. At the beginning of the lockdown, they all closed. Dublin has been locked in a months-long crisis over the lack of public facilities, and it’s no exaggeration to say the city is covered in lakes of piss and piles of shit.

Poor old dirty Dublin used to have a good few public toilets, the product of Victorian and Edwardian schemes of public improvement. Many were closed in the 1980s, under the justification that they were becoming zones for heroin use. Dublin city council used the same justification of ‘anti-social behaviour’ recently to close a public square being used by too many outdoor drinkers. The structures, solid stone and brick, lingered, some transformed into market units like tiny cafes and kiosks, others left fallow. One lies hidden in plain sight across the road from the Fourth Corner Pub beside St. Patrick’s Cathedral; another has been made into a Luas substation on the corner of College and Westmoreland Streets.

In the LRB, Owen Hatherley wrote intelligently (and quite movingly) about the same phenomenon in London. As someone with a stray food intolerance or two, the issue comes up fairly frequently. Once, several years ago, stranded on a Sunday afternoon by the long wasteland of the N11 at Belfield, I had no option but to walk up to a random stranger’s door and announce, humbly, that I had been ‘caught short’.

Here’s an image of Dublin you might recognise: the whitewashed window. The place where something used to be. Filmbase, Dublin Flea, Jigsaw, your favourite little café, a community space that produced memories, art, music, and connection. The remains of something wonderful. A place that was a place and is now not. Sometimes it will be recycled quickly, into a chain or an office, but sometimes it will sit empty. Posters will fade in the sun, dust will gather on the furniture, and the last day of whatever it was will linger.

It is always profitable to destroy in this city, and not always to build. I have spent years going to housing demonstrations, organised by good, decent, dedicated people. I remember Apollo House, and feeling as if something might just change. A group of activists occupied an empty building complex between Hawkins Street and Tara Street, and opened it as somewhere for people experiencing homelessness to live through the direly cold winter of 2016/17. Around the corner, the Screen Cinema, the former home of two-euro movies, sat empty too, a poster for The Danish Girl wilting by the day.

Apollo House drew attention, celebrities, donations, vigils, and marches. It was killed with kindness, and court orders and false promises and vague insinuations of malfeasance. Apollo has been demolished, as has the Screen. Only Hawkins House remains. Built on the site of the old Theatre Royal, its days are numbered too. Who would mourn them? But what will replace them? Certainly not homes. Certainly not homes for the likes of you and me.

Once, years ago, I led a group of tourists around a fairly grim pub crawl that took them to whatever place could be convinced to give a free shot of remaindered liquor at the door. In a forgotten spot in Christchurch a former army captain poked my chest and gave me unwanted life advice.

‘Get out of Dublin, mate. Nothing ever changes here.’ I told him that according to the song, Dublin keeps on changing, and nothing stays the same. He looked back at me blankly, born in that generation who neither remembered the old songs nor cared to rediscover them. I asked where he recommended I relocate. ‘Baku, Azerbaijan. New glass building goes up there every week.’

The city likes a temporary tenant. They were useful in Temple Bar when the place was supposed to become a monstrous bus station. Useful in Block T when the boondoggle opened in the teeth of a recession without a tenant. But as capital returns, and it always does, those residents are washed out again.

This is true for individuals as well as collectives. Being a renter in Dublin is being transient. One year leases, your rent increased every time you turn around, one eye constantly on the room share pages and the other on your phone, seeing if you’re about to get the text. The promise of a lick of paint or a mysterious landlord’s nephew enough to turf you out at 28 days’ notice. Or maybe less than that, if they feel they can get away with it.

And why not? They usually can. Hire a few balaclava-d private security goons and set them to work with crowbars and angle grinders. Let them violently evict tenants as the Guards stand by. Don’t get comfortable. Tenant rights are some of the worst in Europe, and what little legal requirements landlords have to the people living in their properties are ignored without a thought. There are no enforcement mechanisms. The penalties are paltry and rarely employed. The Residential Tenancies Board, supposedly the neutral arbiter of disputes, is stacked with landlords and the landlord-sympathetic. No one is interested in punishing anyone who holds the deed. More than one hundred and fifty years ago the Tenant Right League began the campaign for the ‘Three Fs’. In 2021, we have neither Fixity of Tenure nor a Fair Rent. Half the people I know don’t even have a formal lease.

Capital has no morality; it merely follows its own algorithm into oblivion. But you can’t help but feel there is something intentional about the constant eviction, the enforced transience. Moving every year, you can’t connect to the place you live. You can’t make real communities on thin soil. These forces destroy solidarity, tear apart the tiny strings of community and organisation. They atomise you, make you think of yourself as an individual out for your own survival, an economic unit of one. Intangible bonds are meaningless to the world of profit.

Dublin is one of those cities that inspires a nostalgia and a pre-nostalgia. Even as you enjoy yourself you think about how transient it all is. The awareness of how temporary everything feels is tied to a sense that everything was just more real a few years or decades ago. It’s hardly unique there. Talk to a real New Yorker or San Franciscan and see how long you get before they tell you what it used to be like. What accounts for the popularity of social media pages digging into Dublin’s past, its modernist architectural heritage, the way we imagine life used to be?

Dublin for me is stuck between 2010 and 2014. We were young then, of course – a prerequisite for nostalgia is perceived youth. But the city was a wreck, obliterated by a global recession with Irish characteristics. Every pub was empty and places had closed by the lorryload. And it was ours. Filthy dirty and poor and downbeat and we had the run of the place. You could rent a room for two hundred and fifty quid and get a pint for three. This city is a place you can only enjoy when it’s down on its luck.

And sure now isn’t Dublin dead? Dublin is dead and everybody knows it. Everyone’s mates are in Berlin, or Glasgow, or Canada, or maybe even Belfast. They killed it. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail and landlords and Spoons and international capital and vulture funds and REITs and everything in between.

Or, more to the point, Michael Noonan killed it when he created the legal conditions during the last recession for international capital to buy up swathes of land and property at heavily distressed prices from the balance sheets of state-owned banks and dispose of it how they saw fit, with neither residency requirements nor tax obligations a problem anymore. Measures that were sold as necessary to get the country back on its feet have had the effect of funnelling billions in rent money out of the country into the pockets of anonymous shareholders. We are crushed between these two stone walls of capital, one petty and domestic, the other enormous, cold, and remote.

Our very lives are contingent on the good will of the wealthy. Public space is becoming history. Now there is only the privatised and the semi-privatised. No more public housing, but only the neoliberal version of the Khrushchyovka, the co-living complex. The bench you pay to sit on and the toilet you pay to use. The park with a fee for entry and the community space replaced by a co-working office. If you want a model for your future life, look at how the homeless, the stateless and the nomadic are treated now. Your whole existence is made illegal.

To be homeless is to have your life become a misdemeanour. Everything you are required to do to survive is against regulations. The very universal things of humanity, eating, sleeping, waiting, excreting, are made shameful, punishable by the fact of your poverty. Any safety is temporary, any help is an indulgence from the sentimental section of the ruling class that still imagines itself to have a soul.

We have accepted international capital as the only thing that can sustain an economy, keep the country afloat, keep the recovery going. Yet we have not even begun to reckon with the effects of letting it in. And so, the city fills with more and more tents, it buzzes with stories of families outbid for houses by representatives of distant, untouchable money. It is money in search of more money, profit in search of more profit, assets in search of rents. This problem is not unique to the capital. Rents and prices are on the rise across Ireland’s cities, and in any city across the world where large asset holders feel that profits can be extracted. The billions upon billions of dollars using Dublin as a home are like a burning sun. Some will get warm, some will get a tan, some will be incinerated.

So, is this despair? Not quite. Being a renter is not like being a worker. There is no factory floor to discuss the shared fact of exploitation. But that shared fact exists. The very choices made by the last few governments to render housing first and foremost a place to extract value have radicalised a wide swathe of people. They have created a new constituency, a fusion of the working class and the downwardly mobile children of the better off. They are ready to throw their lot in with the alternative, a bloc made up in the majority of Sinn Féin and in the minority of a constellation of smaller parties. But beyond their electoral allegiances, they are organising directly, and at the point of critical contact.

CATU (Community Action Tenants Union), a reasonably new organisation, structures itself explicitly as a union. It is early to say, but it appears to be the real deal. Only by making housing unprofitable can housing be made fair. Only when a rental property becomes a bad investment can it be a home.

This city may be a safe harbour for capital, but it is still made up of living breathing people. Their existence cannot be ignored. Their bodies need food and shelter and somewhere to sit and eat and live. They demand it, and they will have it.