Obsession with property ownership which got us into this mess continues

Obsession with property ownership which got us into this mess continues

October 14, 2009
The College View
By Cian Ginty

Nic Retsinas, a director at the Centre for Housing Studies at Harvard University, said recently that the Irish have a home-owning obsession which we need to lose. Comments along with a poll at IrishTimes.com prove Retsinas correct – we are still obsessed by property, or at least a large enough proportion of us are as to matter.

The poll asked, “Do Irish people have a home-owning ‘obsession’?” and while the majority agreed we had, 30% were in denial. Comments along with the poll were even more alarming.

“Renting is money down the drain with nothing to show for it at the end,” said one, adding: “Renting is only good if you want to live somewhere temporarily.”

Retsinas was quoted earlier that week by the same newspaper as saying: “Society almost demonised renting. You weren’t smart if you rented. But, as it turns out, those who rented could be said to be the smart ones now as property prices crash.”

While renters in general are now clearly better off than most who have bought property in recent years, it is probably unwise to think mindsets have changed so dramatically.

Another commenter said home-owning is not an obsession but comes from the “fundamental need for shelter.”

This commenter also described renting as “an insecure way to live,” with renters being at the “mercy of landlords.”

The bulk of comments left seemed to be against renting.

“Yes. It comes from memories of the mass-evictions and rack-rents during the Famine,” said another, with many others saying things in the same vein.

For an event – even on the scale of the Famine – to still have such a grip on our national mindset is telling.

Many others bizarrely asked what’s wrong with it if we do have an obsession. But an obsession by its nature is unhealthy. In the recent past, our obsession grew so out of control people were buying houses they could hardly afford.

This can’t really be disputed – the fact that banks were giving loans out to people far above what they could afford is now well established.

Obsession led to the irrational behaviour of buying property over an hour’s commute away from people’s workplaces, damaging family life and general quality of life for decades to come. This inflated property prices.

Because people were so obsessed with owning property we made things worse for ourselves and everybody else. This directly led to the mess we are currently in. But the renters are apparently still fools.

Of course, things are changing. Record levels of people who moved into Dublin city centre and the area between the canals confirms this shift.

The trend of renting accommodation, whether houses or apartments, in cities and close by suburbs is firmly established in other European countries, and Ireland is slowly coming to terms with it too. But the amount of anger expressed over the issue of home ownership obsession is akin to asking a alcoholic if they have an obsession with drink.

If it is not an obsession clouded with emotion then the reaction would not be so volatile.

It looks as if many have not learned any lessons from the property bust.

Even if the idea of renting is off-putting, it is far superior to getting a loan you can’t afford or living so far away that you’re commuting over an hour each way every day. Guidelines around building apartments have started to be strenghtened, while laws surrounding renting have been increased.

If more protection for renters is needed it should be put in place rather then dismissing renting or talking about demon landlords.

As Retsinas said: “People should not be obsessed with owning a property. Maybe the issue should not be about home ownership but about something such as making sure people live in decent homes.”

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