A simple way to make the poor better off

9th May 2001

IF YOU were to ask most people what is the difference between the poor and the better off in this country you would probably get a blank stare followed by a scrowl at the stupidity of the question. Money, of course, is the answer.

And there’s no doubt that the wealthier do have more dosh. But what really defines the poor is that they have no property.

“Property is theft” the great French anarchist Proudhoun declared – and a million revolutionaries declared it too.

Bobby Sands extolled the virtues of ‘the people of no property’ and indeed the people of no property make good revolutionaries for the simple reason that if you have nothing – you have nothing to lose.

This is probably why the Irish people are so sheeplike when it comes to authority. The rate of home ownership is among the highest in the world. No-one wants to jeopardise the gaff by throwing petrol bombs at Leinster House whereas the French will burn down the middle of Paris if there’s an extra franc on a bottle of wine.

The idea that property is theft comes originally from the ownership of land. After all, there is only a certain amount of land and if I have it you must go without.

But nowadays property is a moveable feast and a small amount of land could hold a variety of property of constantly changing value.

For individuals and families, property represents a stake in society. It is security. It is an investment. And above all it is capital. Put simply, owners of property have access to money by putting their property up against it. This gives people enormous leverage in their lives.

Now perhaps property is a form of selfishness. Perhaps the need to own everything we have will finally leave us all strangers with nothing to share. Perhaps property underpins the class society.

But at the moment there is no alternative. Too many people have property. The majority in Ireland owns property, mostly their houses. Everyone, in fact, except the poor (and the young).

So if we are going to have the mixed blessing of property why exclude just the poor?

For the vast majority of people property means houses. But because of the outrageous rise in house prices, even people on good wages are stretched to the limit to raise a mortgage.

In response, the Government, the local authorities and voluntary agencies have come up with a number of schemes to help poorer people out.

The Shared Ownership Scheme is run by the corporation. In this case you get as big a mortgage as you can and the corporation provides the rest, say 40%. The the corporation owns 40% of the house which you can buy of them when you get the readies.

The Government is building ‘affordable housing’ where the price is kept low together with a promise that you won’t sell the house for many years.

What all this means is that an Irishman’s home is no longer his castle. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. The desire to own our own patch meant that for years Irish people wouldn’t buy apartments.

All very well, you say, but what’s this got to do with the poor. Well many of the poorest people in this city live in local authority housing. They pay rent every week or month for year upon year but they never receive a stake in the house in return.

Surely the time has come to offer tenants equity in return for their rent, even if it were only a small proportion of the house.

A system of micro-mortgages could be used where tenants would build up a 10%, 20% or whatever share in the house over a number of years for a small additional payment. Even people on social welfare or pensions could participate in these schemes.

This could be extended to the private sector where landlords would rent to long-term tenants on the equivalent of a hire-purchase scheme but where the overall value of the house is shared over a period of time.

At the moment the poorest in our society are prevented from holding property by inflexible laws and traditions in ownership. Property shouldn’t be an exclusive club.

As well as that…

The God of property

EVEN as the poorest are excluded from property, those that own it have their right to protected as though it were the number one human right in the Constitution.

So much so that when infrastructure projects like the Luas or the M50 are being built property owners receive huge amounts of money for the land they own.

The Government, it seems, must ensure that property is paid at the full market price, even where the land acquisition is a vital public interest. The Constitution says so and the highest courts in the land back the owners on this one.

Of the last pound I earn each month, the Government takes around 50p. They don’t pay me the full commercial value of that 50p.

Of course, I’m just a worker. I have to pay it in order that the functions of the State can continue. To be honest, I don’t mind paying it.

But it absolutely galls me that the Government can take half of what I have earned by going out to work every day while landowners get the full commercial value for land they have inherited.

This is completely wrong. The value of property should be capped when it’s needed for roads or trams, or most of all when it’s needed for housing.