Ireland’s Property Crisis: Tales from the battlefront

This article was originally published by The Irish Times.

What is the best way to measure a spiralling disaster? The Irish housing crisis, now at its worst position since the foundation of the State, radiates out with overlapping circles of disorder, where too few available homes have sent rents soaring, homes in negative equity are piling up with mortgages in arrears, the waiting lists for social housing are progressing slower than the stages of purgatory, and Ireland faces an alarming epidemic of homelessness.

The makers of this new documentary on the crisis do not lack for material. Where will it all end? And where do you begin?

In Ireland’s Property Crisis (RTE One, Monday, 9.35pm) the answer is to provide a snapshot of the problem, or, given its vast and ambitious scope, something like an aerial view. Following one week in late February this year, it attempts to include as many examples of people on the battle lines of the crisis as possible.

“This has been a very unique catastrophic crash,” remarks one contributor, the financial advisor David Hall. You can understand the tautology: describing how a beleaguered Government chose to sell loans to vulture funds, which in turn gave rise to skyrocketing rates, he compares it to panic selling the beds of a hospital. “You can’t help but think some of this has been brought upon our selves.”

That, however, is as much an analysis of the causes behind these unravelling problems as the programme will provide. Instead, it prefers a flitter of brisk images, sometimes edited with an insistent click, as though presenting dizzying scenes from a catastrophe. Much of this is set to incongruously jaunty music, presumably in the hopes of mitigating viewer depression.

We catch a brief glimpse of Minister for Housing Simon Coveney at a press conference to explain the Housing Assistance Payment scheme (HAP), designed to help homeless families access the private rental sector, yet we have no access to him, nor anybody else in authority.

Nobody’s feet are held to the fire, then, no bland assurances are forthcoming, and buffeted between more individuals than you are likely to remember, a viewer might feel as beleaguered as anyone else within the property market’s dispiriting maze. That seems appropriate.

The first of two parts, the documentary is a busy piece of composition, created with 11 directors who have fanned widely through the ground level of these phenomena.

Occasionally the edit director, Liam McGrath, uses statistics, both sobering and worrying, as a structural device. In February, for instance, there were 4,875 adults and 2,546 children in need of emergency accommodation, and in Selena, a single mother in Ballyfermot, whose landlord is selling, we meet someone on the cusp of its trauma. She has until Easter Monday to find somewhere to live, amenable to HAP, with three rooms, and by the time we leave her she is still searching. (On the waiting list for social housing for two years already, at her current rate of progress she could have a home in a mere 15 years.) 

We also follow Ceire and Maurice Sadlier, lumbered with a one-bedroom apartment in negative equity (“I hate it,” sighs an exasperated Maurice, “I f**king hate it”), while renting a home big enough for their family, hoping the bank will allow them to sell and roll the debt into a new mortgage. In the end, they are not successful, and it’s a quietly devastating moment to see them try to make some accommodation with their diminishing prospects.

“We just have to find a way to not worry about it,” Maurice says, with straining positivity, while wondering if their landlord will sell.

This outlook, a kind of whistling over the abyss, is not unusual, even in the extreme circumstances of Colin McSweeney, an affable former IT employee who waits nightly for emergency accommodation in a hostel. Some nights, he confesses, he sits all night in Ireland’s only 24-hour Starbucks, now housed in the old home of the collapsed Anglo Irish Bank. “It’s kind of ironic,” he reflects.

In the classic mode of documentaries, here we only observe, and given the scale and acceleration of the problem, that may leave you with a feeling of helplessness. You would hardly be alone.

Facing another setback in the search for a secure family home, Ceire Sadlier could be speaking for any one of the people in this dismal situation when she says, a little stunned: “I just feel a bit lost, really. I don’t know where we’re going to go.”