Private developers or healthy communities?

An Cailín Rua

SNAKES AND LADDERS Trying to get a foothold on the property ladder can feel more like sliding on a slippery slope to nowhere.

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

I’m a little late to the property-buying party. So late that I wonder whether I might have missed the last bus. Owning my own place was never really a priority – I always figured it would fall into place eventually. Young me was a bit naïve.
Returning to Mayo in 2015, I knew I had no choice but to change career and would probably be less well off. So it proved; moving from the corporate into the community sector is not a recommended path if you want to get rich quick. (Or ever.) And that’s fine – thankfully, the lower cost of living and the infinitely greater job satisfaction offsets this, a lot.
When it comes, however, to talking to the bank manager or the mortgage broker, the numbers don’t lie, and as a sole applicant, 3.5 times your community-sector salary in Mayo does not a mansion make. Nor barely a shack.
And that’s fine too – who wants a mansion, anyway? Far too much window cleaning for my liking. As a first-time buyer, however, even in Ballina – one the cheapest areas in the country in which to buy a home – it means options are limited. The nature of the sector in which I work, where jobs are dependent on uncertain annual funding, doesn’t help.
This isn’t a ‘poor me’ column. I’m very lucky in that I rent a lovely home, with a decent landlord. And with family nearby, I won’t ever be stuck for a bed. I can afford to save a little. In all likelihood, it will fall into place for me eventually. But it won’t be easy, and the Irish housing situation as a whole is septic. We should be aspiring to better.
The crisis is of course far from a crisis for everyone, and for some, it’s an opportunity. It’s not nice to realise that there is a line that separates property owners from the rest of us.
On one side, property prices are rising steadily and unless the disgraceful pyrite scandal has ripped that away, property ownership is in some ways equal to personal wealth or investment opportunity.
For the most part, those on the other side of the line are simply watching the line slip further from view every day.
There is a narrative there too that those of us struggling to get on the property ladder are somehow to blame and should just get on with it. We should have been more responsible. We should just find better jobs. We should stop looking for hand-outs (something very few people do, in reality). Be prepared to commute. The “I did it, so why shouldn’t you?” school of thought.
But why are we selling everyone short by accepting this unfair situation as normal? Why don’t all of us deserve better? Why should aspiring to have a safe, secure, affordable place to live in the community of your choice require years of scrimping, saving and stressing, without any guarantee of success? Why should you have to be married or in a relationship to have access to home ownership? Why should people fear for the future, if they get ill or if their earning power decreases?
Why should healthy communities not be prioritised over private developers, with public and social housing available in a progressive model that makes ownership attainable to all?
Why is this our policy of choice?
Let’s not get romantic about property ownership. Those in that position know the costs and responsibilities involved: the never-ending maintenance and the bills. Being a landlord (unless you’re making a lot of money, which the majority are not) is far from straightforward either. As a tenant, there is a certain comfort in picking up the phone to someone else when things go wrong, without having to shoulder the cost or responsibility.
But all many of us long for is the security and autonomy of having our own space. To be able to own a pet, paint the walls or have a party. And the comfort of knowing that no one can turn around to you in the morning and tell you that you need to pack your bags and move elsewhere. If you can find an elsewhere.