The plight of our pyrite homeowners beggars belief

An Cailín Rua

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS Pictured is the large crowd who turned out to the North Mayo Pyrite Group protest at Dunnes Stores in Ballina on Sunday, September 26. Pic: John O’Grady.

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

A fortnight ago, this column wistfully reflected on the struggle to buy a home on a single income, at, shall we say, a more advanced age than your typical young couple starting out amidst the savagery of the current housing market. Being excluded from the market brings its own stress, but imagine succeeding in securing a home for yourself, only to find it starting to crumble around you through no fault of your own, to be then told you must demolish it and rebuild it, and – wait for it – pay for the privilege of doing so?  
This is the incomprehensible reality for hundreds of homeowners in the West and Northwest, some of whom have been dealing with the fallout – and the fall down – since 2007, when pyrite first came to light in Erris and other Mayo areas. Pyrite and mica are two forms of minerals found in stone, and when used in foundation backfill and building blocks, they can expand and absorb water, destabilising materials and causing significant structural issues in properties. Cracks start appearing in affected buildings, bricks and walls begin to crumble, and eventually, entire structures become too unstable in which to safely live.
How, in a developed country, could such a thing happen? Three words. Light touch regulation. A reactive system of enforcement action, as noted by the 2017 Report of the Expert Panel on Concrete Blocks, combined with a reliance on manufacturers to self-certify their own quality control standards created an environment where a significant amount of tainted construction materials made their way into hundreds of builds along the west coast. Naturally, no-one has been held responsible, apart from those unfortunate enough to assume that the houses for which they paid handsomely might actually stay upright for a few years. The perpetrators have merrily dodged sanction and even identification, and meanwhile, as is standard in this wonderful little country, it is the victims of wilful negligence who are expected to lay bare their trauma in the glare of the cameras, face down a lack of empathy from state officials and government ministers, and literally beg for a roof over their heads.
In North Mayo, a group of affected homeowners works daily alongside their equivalents in Donegal, sharing updates and information on Facebook, assisting each other with paperwork, preparing for meetings, organising protests, recruiting speakers for the media, meeting with officials and ministers, while trying to hold down jobs, raise families and – oh yes – pay their mortgages. That they have to fight so hard for the minimum you could expect – 100 percent redress to cover the cost of rebuilding their homes - is so very wrong.
The current Defective Concrete Blocks Scheme covers only 90 per cent of the cost of rebuilding and is capped at €275,000. Perhaps the Minister for Housing has failed to notice the stratospheric rise in the cost of building materials and construction labour? Testing for pyrite in the first place is astronomically expensive – up to €7,000 - with no mechanism for reclaim. Administration of the scheme is prohibitively difficult, laden with paperwork, complicated by planning requirements. There is nowhere for people to live during rebuilding due to a rental crisis, with only a pitiful rent allowance. There are concerns around the perceived value of rebuilt homes, and whether they will be insurable. The mental anguish of living in a crumbling home while spending every spare waking hour fighting for the most basic justice is barely acknowledged, nor its impact on family life and relationships - and the best of luck to anyone trying to access mental health supports, because our health system is another crumbling mess.
The minister has just received a report from the relevant working group examining the options for redress and is due to bring proposals to Cabinet in the next few days. Understandably, cynical homeowners in the West are planning another protest in Dublin, on Friday, October 8 to try to convince those in power that they are worth hearing. The very least they deserve is to be told that the homes they have worked so hard for can be rebuilt without them having to, shell out and in some cases, line the pockets of the very people who contributed to this scandalous situation in the first place. A wonderful little country, indeed.