In the last few months, Ireland has seen a series of protests over housing affordability. Demonstrators are calling for action on the country’s housing crisis. To fight the housing crisis in Australia, we will need to start by building a similar movement.
The protests have been called by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) and the National Homeless and Housing Coalition. This is a coalition of trade unions, student unions, housing campaigners and political parties – including Solidarity, an initiative of the Socialist Party in Ireland.
Like Australia, Ireland faces unaffordable rents, high rates of homelessness and the threat of a whole generation being locked out of the housing market. Also like Australia, the action taken by the Irish government has been grossly inadequate. They have brought in limited rent controls, keeping rent increases below a certain rate in certain situations, but with glaring loopholes for landlords to exploit.
The Andrews Labor government in Victoria recently passed the Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill. This bill gives tenants some basic rights, such as the right to keep pets and the expectation of a stove, heating and deadlocks. Those fleeing domestic violence will be allowed to break their lease early. The right-wing Berejiklian government in New South Wales has brought a similar bill before the NSW parliament.
The basic standards in these bills already exist in other OECD countries. They don’t address one of the biggest issues facing renters, which is the exorbitant cost of rent. For many people rent is greater than 30% of income, the point at which a household is considered to be under housing stress. Rents rise with the inflated housing market, while wages stagnate.
The situation in Australia is very similar to that in Ireland before the financial crisis. The difference is that in Ireland, after years of being promised a recovery that didn’t come, people began to move into action. Ordinary people have scored a number of victories there in recent years, on marriage equality, abortion rights, and on fighting back unfair taxes and charges imposed on working people.
A number of big demonstrations have been held across Ireland on housing in recent months. On October 3, there was a demonstration of ten thousand people out the front of the Dáil – the Irish Parliament. At the time of writing, our sister party is calling for a mass demonstration to be held in November.
One feature of the Irish campaign is the support of the Irish trade unions. It is the organised working class that ultimately has the power to change society. By jointly calling protests with the National Homeless and Housing Coalition, the ICTU have gone much farther than the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) on this issue.
Housing is of fundamental importance for working people, and it should be the job of the trade unions to be part of a movement for affordable housing. We need to build a movement of unions and community campaigners here.
We need to fight for an alternative to the market and to the control of big private landlords and developers. We have more than enough resources to end homelessness, clear the public housing waiting list, and wipe out housing stress.
The Socialist Party and the Renters Fightback campaign in Melbourne are calling for real rent control to be brought in. This has to go further than the limited controls seen overseas; rent must be capped at 20% of the tenant’s income.
A democratic and accountable public authority, controlled by ordinary people, should ensure that landlords cannot shop around for higher-paying tenants, and that everyone is able to find affordable housing in areas that are convenient for them. It should not be acceptable for big landlords to leave homes vacant.
It is clear that private landlords are incapable of serving the community’s needs, so we are also calling for the government to build or acquire 500,000 high-quality public homes across the country. The Andrews government’s pre-election promise of 1000 new homes could only house about 1.2% of the Victorian public housing waiting list. Rather than continuing to let people languish, we need to expand public housing to provide high-quality homes both for the very poorest in society and for working people in general.
With a bold movement drawing in unions and community campaigners, we have the potential to win much more than the scraps the government throws us.
By David Elliott