Ireland’s Housing Crisis Is an Indictment of Irish Capitalism

A dysfunctional housing system is putting intense strain on Ireland’s social fabric as rents spiral out of control. The current malaise has deep roots in the structure of Irish capitalism, and radical reform is the only way to turn things around.

Rental signs outside Georgian buildings in Dublin city center, Ireland on February 15, 2023. (Artur Widak / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

On April 1, amid a protracted housing crisis that has been steadily mounting in scale and intensity, the Irish government lifted an eviction ban that had protected tenants since last October. As the current housing minister Darragh O’Brien conceded, the predictable outcome will be a rise in already record-breaking levels of homelessness.

Whatever way you look at this hydra-headed housing crisis (which seems increasingly unmanageable for the ruling parties), it has produced catastrophic effects for the country’s residents, particularly in urban areas. Emergency accommodation houses 11,988 people, with others sequestered away in more hidden forms of homelessness. Those who wish to buy will see that house prices are now seven times the median income.

But we can find the most striking symptoms of the crisis in the private rental sector, as is the case in many other countries. One day last August, only 716 homes were available to rent in the south of Ireland, and rents stood at an all-time high. Even mainstream liberal commentators detect unmistakable signs that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have “decided to bring back nineteenth-century landlordism, to reshape Ireland as a nation beholden to private property owners.”

Overcoming the crisis will require a comprehensive transformation of the Irish housing system. But how are we going to achieve this?

The Irish Housing Question

Exasperated at the ineffectual efforts of bourgeois reformers, Friedrich Engels wrote in 1872 that the “housing question” could only be resolved by ending the capitalist mode of production. Yet Ireland’s capitalist class and its political elite are clearly not staring down the barrel of social revolution, however unanchored they may be in economic reality. While the problems with housing “may not be resolvable under capitalism,” argue Peter Marcuse and David Madden in their book In Defense of Housing, “the shape of the housing system can be acted upon, modified, and changed.”

If you want to make sense of the housing crisis, you have to understand why the development of the southern Irish state has been so bound up with housing and property. By drawing this historical arc, we can see how the underlying philosophy shaping Irish housing policy for a hundred years in the South — the North deserves its own analysis — has been an unhealthy obsession with owner-occupation. This preference interacted with the forces of globalization and the neoliberal turn to bring us to where we are today.

In the apocalyptic aftermath of an Gorta Mór (the Great Famine), an agrarian movement called the Land League, formed in 1879, organized the rural poor in Ireland into a mass national campaign that resisted evictions and employed rent strikes and boycotts. It eventually concluded that the only way to defeat a vampiric form of rural landlordism was through widescale farmer-tenant proprietorship. This dream soon became a reality.

Before the British state carried out agrarian reforms in response to popular mobilizations known more broadly as the Land Wars, thirteen thousand landlords owned the land of rural Ireland. By 1920, tenants had purchased 316,000 holdings. These tenants became private land- and homeowners, beneficiaries of a mass division and redistribution of estates held by the Anglo-Irish ruling class.

Politically, as the historian Diarmaid Ferriter writes, the implication was that the descendants of the “Land War generation” were “imbued with the idea that home ownership was the ultimate goal and renting was wasted money.” Those descendants, Ferriter concludes a little too definitively, were the “inheritors of a conservative impulse.”

Housing and the Irish State

After gaining independence, the nascent post-partition state in the South would come to assume a leading role in providing housing capital by funding a relatively large social-housing construction program, which constituted a majority of the housing built from the 1920s to the 1950s. At the same time, it also played an outsized role in the funding and building of dwellings for owner-occupation, its preferred type of tenure.

Similar surges in output during the 1960s and ’70s could not conceal the fact that government subsidies still favored, to a considerable degree, the private home-buyer more than the social-housing tenant. The 1966 Housing Act was a further boon for private ownership, extending the right of purchase to all local authority tenants. Come 1969, local authorities had sold an astonishing 64,490 council homes.

As the Sinn Féin housing spokesperson and author Eoin Ó Broin points out, the “largest output of housing in the history of the State” during the 1970s was severely undercut by the “massive transfer of stock from the public to the private sector via tenant purchase.” This transfer tipped the balance in favor of homeownership further still.

Private homeownership, having stood at 52.6 percent in 1946, rose to 70 percent in 1971. The ruling conservative parties could reasonably have felt that this was the crowning achievement of the modern Irish state, after centuries of absenteeism, dispossession, and insecurity.

In a landmark study, Michelle Norris disputes the widely held assumption that the southern Irish state failed to develop a comprehensive welfare regime like many of its Western European counterparts. Instead, she argues, a paradigm called “asset-based welfare” meant that Irish governments prioritized ownership of property over other forms of social protection, reminding us of Ferriter’s contestable, if resonant, notion of the inherited conservative impulse.


From the 1980s onward, the structure of the system did not change — just the way in which it was financed. In his book Sins of the Father, Conor McCabe writes of a kind of “revolution” that was underway at the time:

Banks were becoming “one-stop shops” for financial services, and the Irish government played its part by changing the rules and allowing building societies and insurance companies to compete with high-street banks in the areas of personal and business loans.

The impact of credit and financial liberalization combined with the withdrawal of the Irish state from providing homes and funding their construction. The 1980s saw a 30 percent collapse in the output of social housing compared to the previous decade.

Yet as Ó Broin explains, the effects of credit liberalization on house prices were “more delayed than in Britain,” where the Thatcher government was engaged in a mass sell-off of council housing. By the time prices started creeping upward, financial deregulation and banking standardization steered through by the European Union in the 1990s exacerbated the trend — in particular the newfound access to cheap credit for Irish financial institutions arising from membership of the single currency.

Housing in Ireland, now thoroughly financialized, was thus central to the boom and bust of the Celtic Tiger. In 1994, the average price of a house in the state was €72,000. By 2004, it had soared to €249,000.

Then came the crash of 2008. Construction, private sector investment, and capital spending vanished overnight. Successive austerity budgets by the Fianna Fáil–led government slashed capital expenditure in social and affordable housing from €1.5 billion in 2008 to €485 million in 2011. After the bailout, when the Irish state lost its fiscal sovereignty to the European Union–European Central Bank–International Monetary Fund troika, social-housing output plummeted, shrinking to a new historic low of 642 units in 2014.

Getting Boomier

Meanwhile, housing affordability became a growing problem in the private rental sector, which had expanded during the Celtic Tiger as investors flooded into the market through buy-to-let mortgages. Rents in the state ballooned by 68 per cent between 2010 and 2021. Across the EU as a whole during that period, rents rose by just 16 per cent.

In 2014, the introduction of the landlord-friendly Housing Assistance Payment led, as Ó Broin notes, to a situation whereby “non-subsidised renters were being crowded out of the private rental sector by increasing numbers of social housing tenants.” He describes this as ground zero for the terrifying excesses of the homelessness crisis. All the while, house prices were rocketing skyward, squeezing prospective home-buyers into an ever-larger pool of tenants.

By explicit design of government policy, the latest phase of the crisis has increasingly been fueled by investment from what scholars call asset-manager capitalism. In the words of Rory Hearne, real estate investment trusts (REITS) and similar funds of that kind desire the creation of “a permanent renting class,” out of which they can wrench endless rents.

The economist Josh Ryan-Collins observes that this state-sponsored swarming of asset-management institutions around real estate in Ireland is a global phenomenon, as the “wall of liquidity created by Quantitative Easing” resulted in a search for “high yielding, but safe assets.” When those engaged in this search made it to Ireland, they set their sights on distressed commercial assets that were being held by Ireland’s National Asset Management Agency (NAMA).

Now that the market for commercial assets is contracting, the “wall of liquidity” has moved into the domain of residential development. Deploying scorched-earth investment strategies, these institutional landlords — who bought just seventy-six units in Ireland in 2010 — scooped up 5,132 homes in 2019, and now own more than forty-five thousand across the country.

Put simply, the private rental sector is completely broken, blighted by severe supply shortages and unaffordable, exploitative rents. Various rent subsidy schemes for social-housing tenants also drain close to €1 billion from the exchequer to fill the coffers of private landlords. Only harebrained schemes to line the pockets of developers are forthcoming from the government. The crisis thus rages on with no end in sight.

To make matters worse, the coalition government, in full knowledge of the scale of the crisis and the breadth and depth of hardship, has failed to spend over €1 billion of its housing budget over the last three years. Of perhaps greater concern is the unforgivable refusal of local authorities to spend 90 percent of their allocated affordable housing budget across 2021 and 2022. But if the system appears to be at a tipping point, then where are the main, viable solutions coming from on the Irish left?


On behalf of Sinn Féin, Ó Broin has put forward various proposals, mapping out in detail the most compelling reformist alternative. This vision closely resembles the housing policies supported by the strongest socialist force in the Dáil, People Before Profit (PBP). PBP’s ideas differ from those of Ó Broin in making an explicit call for rents to be set at a percentage of take-home pay and advocating the nationalization of all dwellings owned by corporate landlords. Few on the Left would resist such moves to radically rebalance the system.

So what are Ó Broin’s solutions? Chiefly, in the medium to long term, “the expansion of public housing on a scale not seen in the history of the State,” with something in the order of an additional 230,000 public housing units over the next ten years. Ideally, he argues, this would be led by resurgent local authorities that had been reassigned the power to build and build. Developments would be mixed-tenure and mixed-income, as well as world-class from the point of view of amenities and architecture. The housing movement also sees a constitutional right to housing as an imperative.

Ó Broin’s most interesting policy idea may be his lease-holding suggestion. Firstly, he argues, “the land on which the affordable purchase home sits should never be sold, rather it should be leased to the homeowner indefinitely at no or low cost.” Secondly, to avert re-commodification, it should not be possible to sell the property on the private market. A slightly diluted version of this model of affordable housing has already been developed, on a micro-scale, by Ó Cualann Cohousing Alliance in Dublin since 2017.

According to Ó Broin, public-private partnerships, sales of public land, private rental subsidies, and long-term leasing arrangements “all introduce ever greater levels of profit maximisation” and should be phased out of the public housing sector. To address the short-term affordability crisis as we await the largest house-building program in the state’s history, O Bróin has proposed an immediate three-year rent freeze, which would replace the existing, unfit-for-purpose Rent Pressure Zones.

To achieve a reduction in existing rents, he also wishes to introduce a refundable tax relief, pegged to “8.3 percent of rent paid in the previous year.” A three-year rent freeze, combined with a refundable tax relief alongside an ambitious program of public house-building, should in Ó Broin’s view see “private rental supply and in turn rents start to return to pre-peak levels by the time the freeze and relief expire.”

Even if these policies are successful, should the limit of our ambition, against a backdrop of hyperinflated rents and stagnating wages, be to return the cost of rent to precrisis levels? For Sinn Fein at least, that seems to be the case.

Supply Is Not Enough

Other policy interventions called for by Ó Broin include greater tenant participation in policy formulation and decision-making as well as far-reaching land reform. The latter could, he maintains, be tackled by actively increasing the stock of publicly owned land, reintroducing credit controls, and reviewing the current vacant tax rate. More broadly, he wants a reconsideration of how “land speculation is financed and taxed” in order to “end the corrosive impact of speculative investment in land on the housing system.”

The continued use of Irish housing as an asset class by international asset-management institutions deepens the links between the domestic housing system and global financial markets. For economist Ann Pettifor, the main “propellant” of this crisis is not supply shortages but an excess of finance. House prices will fall, she has argued, “when the propellant is withdrawn — and flows of finance decline.”

There is a serious engagement with the history of financialization in the interventions of Ó Broin, Hearne, and others. However, they fail to fully connect the financial exuberance that underpins the current economic order in Ireland to the need for a reformed housing system. Extra supply will not resolve everything.

We should therefore place greater emphasis on land reforms. We should also give more consideration to whether a continuation of the current Irish economic model — based on an overreliance on foreign direct investment, with Ireland as an intermediary zone between US and European capital — will allow for the kinds of reforms that are required, and not simply bake further instability and pricing flux into the system.

As the example of Finland has shown, the policy of Housing First — giving homeless people a home unconditionally, preferably with integrated support in a context of higher supply — can work and come close to ending different types of homelessness. It is also necessary to rein in the brutal predations of landlordism through regulation and possibly new taxes.

A common narrative suggests that this whole crisis was not a necessary outcome of Irish economic policy in general but rather a housing-policy failure in particular, which arises from the misjudgments of politicians, not any inner logic of capital. If not for those misjudgments, everything might be okay.

However, this reasoning is seriously flawed and myopic. Irish housing activism must make arguments that challenge the entire edifice of housing commodification and Irish capitalism.

Housing Activism

A militant uprising in the style of the nineteenth-century Land Wars seems unlikely, and not only because those struggles arose from the specific historical conditions of post-famine rural Ireland. It is also because Sinn Féin, on the brink of real power for the first time in the South, has effectively monopolized the debate on an alternative model, ably assisted by housing activists, the socialist left, and even some social democrats in other parties.

Over the past decade, however, there have been real echoes of the Land Wars on the ground, particularly in Dublin. Postcrash Ireland witnessed a new wave of extra-parliamentary housing activism, from Housing Action Now to Home Sweet Home to Take Back the City. These campaign groups emerged to build a counternarrative on the housing crisis and engaged in forms of direct action such as the occupation of vacant buildings. Many were connected to the Right2Water campaign, Ireland’s largest grassroots mobilization so far this century.

Formed in 2019, Community Action Tenants Union (CATU), the only tenants’ union in Ireland, has gone from strength to strength, accumulating members across the island on an all-Ireland basis. Along with the inherent difficulty in organizing atomized tenants, Irish tenant politics, in the judgement of Michael Byrne, suffers from political centralization, which moves sites of organized conflict away from the city or town to central government.

This is an obstacle CATU must overcome, but it is not helped by the passivity of the trade-union movement and the pacifying effects on the housing movement of NGOs. A number of small charities that rely heavily on state funding are among the loudest voices in the debate, yet simultaneously find themselves unable to advocate for sufficiently radical change because of “service level agreements” and the threat of losing access to funding.

We can see the consequences of this “NGOization” of the response to the housing crisis most starkly in advocacy over homelessness. As some scholars have observed, the Apollo House occupation maintained a rather “restricted focus on homelessness” that “failed to connect up with the wider impacts of the housing crisis.”

Fighting Back

Today, we run the risk of succumbing to the same temptations: focusing our attention on rising homelessness and evictions at the expense of reexamining a wider system that also alienates us in our workplaces and in our everyday interactions with the world around us. As Marcuse and Madden argue, a “truly radical right to housing” cannot be limited to a narrow legal right: it must “comprise a similarly expansive set of political demands”.

Even if a left-leaning coalition led by Sinn Féin comes to power, it would leave the current economic model largely untouched, so activists should not rest on their laurels. Given the scale of the crisis, all actions should be on the table. During the Land Wars, the Whiteboys and Ribbonmen — secret organizations whose tactical repertoires included attacking landlords and their property — attracted notoriety.

But much more recently, at a time when levels of trade-union density and activity were high in Ireland in a European context, tenants still undertook national rent strikes. In 1972 and 1973, tens of thousands of tenants fought back against deteriorating housing conditions and spiraling rents. Powered by a social movement, the Left can confront the beast head on, smashing the neoliberal consensus on housing and cleansing the system of predatory land and property speculation.