Whichever perspective you look at it from, it’s easy to see that Ireland is changing rapidly. The non-stop mobilisation of student protestors says it all. Right now, the housing crisis sits firmly atop their activist agenda. The problem of housing is one that young people have inherited: the wheels of the crisis were set in motion long ago, by decisions made before we had voices and policies enacted before we had votes, even though we are the ones most affected today. But it’s not just the crisis that we have inherited. The housing shortage is a pivotal moment in a wider cultural revolution, one that students can take – and indeed, have been taking – a lead role in steering.
Right now, there’s one core demand scrawled across activists’ placards: more housing. But beyond the urgency of accommodating people with nowhere to live, these changes in the housing scene give rise to more questions. When the crisis cools down, what kind of homes will we be living in, and where will they be? Thanks to factors such as urban overcrowding, price hikes, an ageing population, and less stable working lives, the Irish housing landscape is changing beyond recognition.
A lot of students have grown up in homes that were lavish compared to what is on offer now and is likely to be on offer in the future. Three and four-bedroom houses with gardens were once the norm, even for lower-income families, thanks to periods of whirlwind social housing development. Raising a family in an apartment was considered by many to be a privation. This isn’t so any more. Ireland’s apartment culture is growing, albeit slowly. Like in many European cities where flats are the norm and houses a luxury, we must now get used to apartment life: balconies instead of gardens, house pets, being economical with rooms. Between the unaffordability of a three-bed semi, the lack of space to build one, and environmental concerns, living in a house is becoming a pipe dream rather than a realistic future reality.
As for the possibility of actually owning one’s own property – something that has long carried great symbolic importance in Ireland – that’s a way of life that is also pending change. It’s certainly not feasible for young people to buy homes today on the scale that it was in the past. It’s not surprising that last year, home ownership fell to a near 50-year low. Gigantic deposits and exorbitant house prices have long been driving forces behind the crisis, with many young people who are unable to buy their own place trapped in a rental market that is ever more tightly squeezed.
As for the possibility of actually owning one’s own property, that’s a way of life that is also pending change
While this generation’s hand may be forced on the question of whether to rent or buy, a move away from home ownership isn’t in itself necessarily a bad thing. Renting for life is common in other European cities – in Germany, for example, less than half of people own their own homes – and is a feasible alternative where there are fair regulations on renting. Whether these can be effectively put in place in Ireland, notorious for failing to protect renters’ interests in favour of landlords’, is the pertinent question.
The perceived stability that characterised our parents’ and grandparents’ generations is long gone. Young people today don’t fall into steady, pensionable jobs. We don’t settle into lifelong marriages young. We don’t buy our houses. Instead, we’re mobile: we rent, we emigrate, we move about. Sometimes we’re homeless. People move out of their parents’ home and, very often now, back in again.
Young people are being forced to live with their parents for longer (if they’re fortunate enough for that to be an option). This, in itself, isn’t necessarily the end of the world. Once again, in many cultures, it’s an accepted reality that young people don’t leave the family home until they’re married, or else a more flexible approach to the nuclear family means that one home regularly houses several generations. In Ireland, we may be headed in the same direction: last year saw the first increase in the average number of people in a household in 50 years and, with an ageing majority population, the question of where parents and grandparents will eventually live looms large.
The perceived stability that characterised our parents’ and grandparents’ generations is long gone
For most young people, moving out from under the feet of parents is an important rite of passage for establishing independence. But in the current climate – one in which young people are less likely to have steady jobs or homes – gauging independence based on these old metrics may be a misnomer. This generation may have to rethink what it means to be an adult in this new world.
In addition to these economic, and consequently social, changes, the physical landscape of the county is evolving, too. Dublin city centre is in many ways at boiling point. Where it is not plainly overcrowded, it is at least overpriced. Areas such as Stoneybatter, Phibsborough, and even traditional student haunts such as Rathmines and Ranelagh, are experiencing a gentrification that is making them unaffordable for everyone but the most well-off.
High-rise buildings have long been pitched as a solution to this scarcity of homes in the city. Some doubt the efficacy of this, accusing it of being a simplistic answer to a complex question, especially given that many tall buildings in other cities are commercial rather than residential. However, the fact remains that planning authorities have in recent years set the precedent of greater leeway towards building up rather than out, and while we’re not seeing skyscrapers dominate “historic” hubs just yet, only a stone’s throw from Dublin’s protected city centre in areas like the Docklands, we’re seeing enormous and unprecedented changes to our cityscapes.
Students have their finger on the pulse and are being proactive in fighting this crisis: they’ve taken matters into their hands and have been at the center of Take Back the City protests, which continue to grow in momentum. But as the generation that has inherited this housing problem, we have a lot more than just the immediate solutions to contend with. The situation is undoubtedly a crisis. But it’s also an opportunity to do better and cultivate a new approach to homes for all.