It is 2029, and the morning news bulletin reports that the Chief Executive of the State Housing Agency, known in the media as “the Housing Czar”, is finishing her ten year term at 12 noon today. Already a crowd of protestors has augmented the usual crowd demonstrating outside her modest home in south Dublin. The dozen Gardai usually stationed there, some suspected to be armed given the not infrequent death threats, have also been reinforced by members of the Public Order Squad parked discreetly around the corner. The czar, a divorced 55 year old mother of two, architect, engineer and professor in urban planning before her appointment steps out of her front door to the usual cat cries and abuse, a significant amount of it sexually orientated.
No one throws anything this time, and her Garda driver and bodyguard secure her in the vehicle before inching out of the driveway. Protestors hammer the roof of the car despite the best efforts of the Garda to keep them back.
She avoids eye contact with the protestors, studying her tablet. She genuinely doesn’t notice them that much, so used to this behaviour for at least eight years of her term. Her children will be brought to school later by the au pair, as they have found that they receive less abuse when she is not present.
The last time a protestor screamed abuse at one of her children, a ten year old, one of the Garda broke the protestors’ nose.
An even bigger crowd will be at her office on St Stephen’s Green. Opinion polls give her a satisfaction rating of nearly just under 30%. They don’t seem to poll many of the people who now live in the 100,000 affordable rented units across the country built and operated by the agency under her leadership. From the 30 storey towers overlooking the mouth of the Liffey to the integrated new towns linked by speedy electric light rail outside Galway, Cork and Limerick. Everybody remembers the huge public demonstrations against the towers as she used her powers and budget to overrule legal objections to “go high”.
The same politicians who had demanded a national housing emergency and immediate action on housing stood with the mob booing as the diggers and cement trucks inched their way past. She smiles at the memory of columnists and talking heads on the radio who swore blind that no Irish person would ever live in towers as high, that they’d be white elephants, left empty.
Some even talked of a public inquiry into the waste of taxpayers money. There was the usual talk that she was obviously in someone’s pocket, as there always is in Ireland.
Then when the first tower was completed, and the media revealed the spacious high ceilinged apartments, with their floor to ceiling windows looking out over the coast on one side and the city on the other, and their moderate controlled rent, the same politicians backflipped.
One sanctimonious member of the Oireachtas notorious for playing both sides of the housing issue was the first on the airwaves demanding that his constituents be given preference, having stood against the building a mere six months previously.
As she arrives at the agency’s offices a small phalanx of Gardai force a channel through for her, as all sorts of jibes and allegations are flung at her. That she is a fascist for forcing through the building of units against local objections. That she is an elitist for insisting that every tenant sign a social contract allowing for prompt removal under the agency’s “three strikes” policy.
That had been a controversial decision, but one she regarded as vital for making sure that every sector of Irish society bought into the idea of the state as the primary provider of affordable housing to all. No more public housing being for “those sort of people”, and as part of that she focussed on ending the stigma (often myth) that somehow public housing wasn’t safe.
The agency had its own live-in supervisors in all its developments, all with the power to call in an anti-social behaviour (ASB) unit . Tenants didn’t have to put up neighbours playing music at all hours or dumping rubbish in the hallways. A phone call to the supervisor and the ASB were at the door in 30 minutes guaranteed, normally four big Eastern European ex-military. Three warnings and they’d assist you in moving out, on the spot, whether you liked it or not.
It was probably her most popular policy, at least as far as the neighbours were concerned.
Of course, Ireland being Ireland, there was always some party willing to stand on the side of the anti-social, declaring that they themselves are the victims and are being oppressed.
Columnists in leafy suburbs or private well-to-do apartments wrote savage pieces accusing the czar of being a right-wing authoritarian, attempting to impose her social values upon the creatively challenged who don’t wish to “get up early in the morning.”
As was the case with the man from the International Monetary Fund and the chief state pathologist, she gets a public profile far out of what would be expected for an appointed public official.
Irish people just can’t help but personalise everything, even her policies.
Her counterparts in other EU countries and internationally find it surreal that she is so well known, to a degree that newspapers actually run opinion polls as to the public’s attitude to her performance.
It’s not just her building policy that shapes the country. Early on in her term a shortage in available builders with skills, brickies, electricians, plasterers, carpenters, leads to her setting up a state construction sub-agency with its own apprentice scheme. Politicians attack her as the school fills with Eastern and Central Europeans, but within three years she has her own capacity to supplement the private builders she is issuing contracts to.
As she packs the boxes in her office, taking the last of her private belongings, she looks at the far wall facing her desk. Hundreds of small single pictures of her or one of her officials presenting the keys to a new home to a smiling family. She remembers the tears, the people who never thought they’d afford a decent home. The excited children marvelling at their new rooms or the playgrounds at the heart of every development.
She also remembers how almost every single development was met with local opposition, the housed coming up with excuses as to why they sympathised with the need to build new housing, but here was not the appropriate place.
Who did she think she was? Coming into our neighbourhood, our town, our parish, issuing her diktats?
She was the first housing czar. She’d built 100,000 affordable high quality homes for rent, as her mandate had been when she had been appointed by the minister.
She would also be the last, her position to be abolished as part of a coalition deal with a promise to find a “more appropriate structure.” Populist politicians talked about selling the homes she had built to their tenants, with the promise to build more, but without a housing czar “bullying local communities and riding roughshod over local feelings.”
She looked at the mob outside. They’d demanded a national housing emergency be declared.
Then a terrible thing happened: the politicians had given them one.