Listening to Tenants in North Dublin and Limerick

meeting with the tenant action group recently formed in Limerick, Ireland

Limerick    Hitting the ground in Dublin, Nick Ballard, ACORN UK head organizer, and I jumped in the car with Tomas O’Loingsigh and Seamus Farrell, and we were on our way to visit with activists at the Darndale housing estate in North Dublin.  The social housing complex numbered over 5000 units stretched over quite a piece of ground.  We met in a former church building that was now part of the social services compound built to support the tenants that included a health center, youth area, and other programs.

There is an amazing record of tenant activism and progressive organizing in Dublin and Ireland generally, so we were getting a short course.  Most recently there had been huge marches and rallies to block the privatization of water by Veolia, the French conglomerate, we know well after dealing with them all over the world.  There had been an attempt to meter the water in the estates and housing units and the successful protests had stopped the project at least for now.

The story of rent surges in Dublin was less cheery news.  Our friends told us that Dublin had now edged past London even and was pushing up on New York City and San Francisco for the highest rents and rent increases in the world.  Unemployment was relatively low, and Ireland had emerged from much of the financial crisis, but similar to so many other countries, wages had not kept pace with rents and were soaking up every euro around.  They jokingly referred to Ireland as the Cayman Islands of Europe as a tax haven for so many tech and other companies without the jobs and income to show for the wealth on paper being produced.  Apple was assessed a $13 billion tax bill by the European Union, and government is joining their fight in refusing to pay.  How can anyone explain that?!?  A lot of housing could be build with Apple’s tax payment!

A three-hour bus ride later, and we were along the riverside in Limerick, and minutes later caught up with a group of ten involved in organizing the newly formed tenant action group in the city, including some students who were facing a sudden bump in their housing costs as well at the city’s art school.  Rents were better than Dublin, and in some cases, tenants had been pushed out of Dublin because of the housing crisis there.  Unfortunately, that did not mean conditions were better in many private flats or social housing situations.  Protections were few, and investment in more social housing was stagnant.

A couple of the members told us of various issues in social housing.  One veteran with decades in the project had seen some regeneration in her unit, but went on to describe a half-dozen huge problems from open gaps with wind coming in to black mold and worse.  She had tried to downsize, partially to alleviate the huge waiting list that included her daughter, but it was a mess.  After describing how ACORN worked, we ended up spending some time bouncing ideas back and forth on how tenants on the waiting list might be organized to force change.

We also went back and forth on the dilemma being faced by the students.  The housing was connected to the university but managed by a private company and not owned by the school, allowing them to try to wash their hands of the problems.  The increase announced after Christmas was not the usual 1 or 2% but ranged up to 15%, putting hard pressed students between a rock and a hard place.  Several meetings had proven the anger, but the debate over tactics and strategy, including a rent strike, were ongoing.  We offered to connect them to the ACORN group in Brighton where a strike had been won.

We’re on a crash course with more meetings in Galway and Dublin to come.  These are the kind of fights and folks whom we would love to see wearing ACORN buttons on their chests and with ACORN banners flying.

Meeting at Dublin Estate

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Roma Rising from Status as a Despised Minority

Roma Slum in Bulgaria

Sofia        Bulgaria and other Eastern European and Balkan nations with significant populations of the Roma minority can easily be compared to African-Americans and their situation in the American South of fifty years ago.  They are a despised minority that has begun to see some improvement after years of forced segregation, disempowerment, and secondary status, but they are still impoverished and largely powerless.  The good news, after several hours of meeting with key Roma activists in Bulgaria, where the largest Roma population in Europe lives, is that they are rising with ambitious organizational and political plans that, if successful, could be transformative over coming decades.

The statistics are dismal and contradictory.  Roma populations are seriously undercounted in the Bulgarian census with some stating their ethnicity and as much as 10% of the population leaving the question unanswered with arguably even answering disingenuously to protect themselves and their status.  Recent census figures, though disputed, count 325,343 Roma in Bulgaria or 4.4% of the population, but other figures including the European Union estimate, claim there are 800,000 or more than 10% of the total population.  Some nongovernmental groups argue that the population is increasing by 35,000 per year, and that the number is significantly more than one-million, and perhaps twice the EU estimate.

What is beyond dispute is the level of poverty in the community.  Though decreasing, 21stcentury figures hover above 60% of the Roma population below the poverty line with unemployment figures over 50%.

Illiteracy is decreasing but the situation in the schools constitutes de facto segregation even if not de jure segregation.  The government contends that there has never been a mandatory segregation policy, but that it is a matter of “administrative districts.”  There is no pretense of “separate, but equal,” rather the government argues that this situation is simply a matter of people living in close communities.  An Open Society Institute report cited in Wikipedia is explicit:

A monitoring report by the Open Society Institute found that Romani children and teenagers are less likely to enroll in primary and secondary schools than the majority population and less likely to complete their education if they do. Between 60% and 77% of Romani children enroll in primary education (ages 6–15), compared to 90-94% of ethnic Bulgarians. Only 6%-12% of Romani teenagers enroll in secondary education (ages 16–19). The drop-out rate is significant, but hard to measure, as many are formally enrolled but rarely attend classes.[66] The report also indicates that Romani children and teenagers attend de facto segregated “Roma schools” in majority-Romani neighbourhoods and villages. These “Roma schools” offer inferior quality education; many are in bad physical condition and lack necessary facilities such as computers. As a result, Romani literacy rates, already below those for ethnic Bulgarians, are much lower still for Romani who have attended segregated schools.[67]

Activists argue that housing is the key issue since the lack of a governmental support policy has led to informal and often haphazard construction everywhere, often on municipal lands without title.  Other key objections are dealing with the large youth cohort which means supplementing education and developing new community leadership styles, and ending “hate speech” and blatant discrimination.

Organizational ambitions are analogous to the civil rights movement focusing on pressuring parties and office holders without aligning or forming a separate party, but holding feet to the fire on programs and accountability both in elections and socially.  One-hundred organizations of Roma have already coalesced around some issues and demands.  Leaders have set a goal of mobilizing more than 100,000 Roma in Bulgaria over the next year, and are looking to build organizational and communications infrastructure to make the movement sustainable and powerful.

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Please enjoy Natalie Jean’s What Would You Do for Love? Thanks to KABF.

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