Build forward public: The case for a post pandemic housing imaginary

By Mary P Murphy (Maynooth University)

Expectations of paradigmatic change often overestimate the degree to which crises will result in change. The reality seems more consistent with Klein’s Shock Doctrine which associates crisis with a reinforcement of neo liberalism. Our experiences of the 2008 crisis and subsequent austerity means we should not be rose-tinted about the likelihood of the pandemic re-baselining the future. Indeed it is sobering globally the degree to which the richest men are getting richer, the powerful are demanding business as usual and a ‘back to normal’ narrative interrupts ambition for transformative change. We know crisis can be often a necessary, but is rarely a sufficient, condition for policy change. Blyth stresses the key role played by ideas and how it is only when the cognitive lock of consensus is broken that transformative change is likely. The fault-lines and failures of the present model have clearly been exposed during the pandemic, but we have not heard an ideational shift or championing of ideas that are crucial to critical change.1

A huge fault line exposed during the pandemic is Ireland’s globalised political economy model in which Ireland opened up to the market large parts of society as well as housing, health, and pensions. 80 percent of nursing home accommodation and 70 percent of childcare places are provided through the market. Conversely, Irish pandemic responses are severely limited by poor capacity in public services in housing, health, nursing homes, creches, education and special needs. The pandemic offers an opportunity to revalue the concept of ‘public’ and feminists have to lead the generation of a politics that puts the state at the heart of decommodified political economy and service provision.

A public future. The pandemic makes us hyperaware of our interdependency, vulnerability and collective need for care. Lynch argues for a new narrative of interdependency care and affective justice, and for a homines curans to replace the homo economicus. This idea is echoed in Power and Mee’s sectoral call for an housing as an infrastructure of care and Murphy’s argument for a ‘careful’ labour market policy.

A careful future. A careful and public future gas to be at the heart of our imaginary as we seek to move on, learn from and build a stronger society and economy in which we are capable of meeting the perpetual challenges and transitions that lie ahead. Mobilising towards such an alternative means generating a housing politics that puts the state at the heart of the political economy of housing. This is consistent with Susan Smith and Manuel Aalber’s2 call for a post-capitalist definancialised future, and Power and Mee’s call ‘housing as an infrastructure of care’. None of this can be delivered by a market society. The hashtag ‘stay home’ has demonstrated to us how central home and housing is to our well-being: home is somewhere we ‘ belong unconditionally’, we are ‘reciprocally accepted’ and are ‘ontologically secure’. The reality of domestic violence during the pandemic contrasts sharply with that concept of home and safety, and of course many have no safe abode, and live the reality of highly degraded socio-economic outcomes caused by new forms of rentier capital (rising rents, repossessions, mortgage arrears, public private partnerships).

While in Ireland domestic landlords, 95% of whom own only one or two properties, still dominate the private rental sector, the tone is set by larger oligarchic institutional investors who chase short term profit through higher rents. Social degradation reinforces and deepens existing inequalities, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexuality and age intersect with class to determine the lived experience. We see in the pandemic how Travellers, asylum seekers, migrants, homeless families more often headed by lone parents are likely living in over-crowded and/or congregated living. This regulated life impacts on autonomy, capability and ontological security. The multidimensional circles of deprivation are reinforced by discrimination, shame and stigma. Meanwhile policy continues to enable the rich to get richer.

While many hope the pandemic will trigger change, it has also impacted negatively on the momentum for change that was evident in the 2020 General Election and its focus on public health and social housing. Impacts of COVID-19 on housing and homelessness illustrate cracks, fault lines and underlying social conditions in Ireland which can be used to evidence the need for change. We need to appreciate the public nature of markets. A huge fault line in Ireland’s globalised political economy model is the degree to which Ireland has followed a financialised route opening up to the market large parts of society, as well as housing. The Irish state triggered key formative policy changes that lead to diverting investment from ‘bricks’ to ‘benefits’, policies and related outcomes are never natural or inevitable but always ‘man-made’, the men are still clearly fixated with market based provision of housing. Wijburg wets our imagination with the exciting prospect of a de-financialization of housing.

However, the pandemic also enabled policy makers demonstrate good policy, and we have seen government take swift and decisive action including prompt introduction of legislation to ban evictions and rent increases and acquisition of additional accommodation for homeless households. There has been more intensive co-operation between official bodies and voluntary agencies in dealing with homelessness and a proactive approach to protecting homeless people including innovations in use or rental subsidies to fund holiday accommodation short terms lets for women fleeing domestic violence.

However the temporary nature of such innovative pandemic policy responses is troubling. The quick move to ban rent eviction contrasts with the pre-pandemic resistance to legally ban evictions of tenants in all buy-to-let properties being sold/repossessed. Such legislation now seems legally possible. If the 1937 constitutional protection of private property presents less of an obstacle to progressive legislation, why not more fully legislate now and test the constitutionality of such legislation? Focus Ireland demonstrate how homelessness was positively impacted by the greater availability of tourist and other short term letting private sector property but lament the reality that moves to permanently hold previously short-term rental properties in the long-term market are conspicuously absent in Ireland compared to Lisbon, Rome and Barcelona.

The pandemic more fundamentally offers opportunity to revalue the concept of ‘public’. Irish pandemic responses have been limited by poor public services, be it health, nursing homes, creches, education, or special needs, and these fault lines relate to a political economy model that values the market over the public. Whether the pandemic leads to greater value in ‘public’ is not yet clear. Right now an anxiety inducing narrative reinforces low trust in public institutions and public policy, but confidence breeds confidence, and we know Ireland can do ‘public’ well.

The alternative is unambivalent. We need public led solutions to housing inequality. Our highly globalized small open political economy is highly dependent on Foreign Direct Investment and our highly centralised political institutions remain vulnerable to regulatory capture, while Irish local government, the weakest in the EU, lacks policy and operational capacity. Ireland’s historically mixed welfare state, is increasingly market orientated with many services, including housing, marketized, privatised, commodified and financialised – reshaping civil societies into a market society with consequences for their capacity to advocate, protest and imagine alternatives.

None of this is natural, inevitable or legitimate. The OECD in 2019 called for radical rethinking and alternative approaches over tweaking incrementalism. States create markets and there are multiple ways to rethink the relationship between state institutions, society and markets, including the focus on a care economy, human rights approaches that see the state and market are duty bearers, strengthening the local state and social institutions as alternatives to markets, developing Universal Basic Services, enabling public dominated provision by an innovative and active state. State provision of social and affordable housing over the short to medium term is central to a sustainable and green economy. The notion of a stronger, better post-pandemic world is a powerful call to action. The pandemic is an opportunity to create new political narratives, not ‘build back better’ but ‘build forward public’. The EU Green New Deal reinforces this focus of the need for a public oriented post pandemic adjustment towards sustainability. More needs to be done to reframe the debate about what we value, about how to strengthen public and social institutions, and to fight for a better regulated market that serves society and delivers the right to an accessible, affordable accommodation for all.


1. Text prepared for the online event ‘Post-pandemic housing transformation and the value of home’, hosted by the Royal Irish Academy 26 February 2021.

2. In discussion at 26 Feb 2021 in the RIA’s event ‘Post-pandemic housing transformation and the value of home’.

Mary P. Murphy is a professor in the Department of Sociology at Maynooth University. Previously, she served as Commissioner in the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (2013-2017). She is currently a member of the Council of State. This blog post was originally published on and is re-published here with permission.

One thought on “Build forward public: The case for a post pandemic housing imaginary

  1. The preponderance of planning permissions now stating baldly that they are applying for permission to Build to Rent is a dead giveaway. The new model is to drive the price of property through the roof make it completely unaffordable to ordinary people. Unless you are a vulture fund or an approved housing body building for the charity industry you would want to be stark raving mad to invest in Ireland’s residential building sector. Why? Well, for starters you would have little or no control over your investment. You would be told to whom, for how much, for how long you would be the landlord only in theory in reality you would be nothing more than a host for a proliferation of dubious political and charitable entities all of whom have one thing in common to screw the landlord class over and over until they no longer exist. This country is awash with pseudo intellectuals who never ran a business other than to stand at a lectern and waffle. This country is incredibly over leveraged in terms of its debt and unfunded pensions and it’s all going to end very, very badly.

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