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The driving force in Irish politics? Finding a decent place to live

DublinĀ 

AFTER Ireland's economy cratered in 2008, the friends and fellow activists watched a mass exodus of young people do what the Irish had always done in times of crisis: Leave the country for more prosperous shores.

But now that Ireland has rebounded to become the fastest-growing economy in Europe, they had a different problem: how to stay.

"There's definitely periods of my life where I've had panic attacks in the shower - and it's because of money and housing," said Catherine O'Keeffe, 29, sitting around a table in a north Dublin storefront with a group of anti-eviction housing activists. "I knew our landlords were pushing, pushing, pushing to get us out, and it was never clear when they would win."

Ireland is in the grip of a housing crisis so severe that it has rendered thousands of people homeless and hollowed out a social contract that for decades allowed many Irish people to purchase a home.

It has also unmoored Irish voters from the centre-right consensus that has dominated the country's politics since 1932. Sinn Fein, a left-wing party long considered a pariah for its ties to the Irish Republican Army and that group's often-violent struggles with the British government, catapulted to a second-place finish in Ireland's general election last month.

Breaking from the government's landlord-friendly policies, the party proposed freezing rents and building 100,000 homes - plans that dovetailed with housing protests of recent years and that have turned the party into a kingmaker in Ireland's splintered political scene.

In doing so, Sinn Fein became the latest example of how housing is shaping politics across Europe. In the 1980s, right-wing parties such as Britain's Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher encouraged homeownership in the belief that it would make people sympathetic to low-tax, right-wing politics. Today, left-wing parties may now stand to benefit from a generation of young voters watching the dream of homeownership vanish.

"In an environment where the proportion of people renting is increasing rapidly, from a country that used to have massive levels of homeownership, I think that creates some instability in the system," said Kevin Cunningham, a political consultant and polling director of AskEurope, a research firm. "That could be an interesting dynamic replicated in the left of Europe."

Right-wing populist parties have largely benefited from new divisions in the electorate over housing, with people living in areas untouched by the boom in property prices supporting causes such as Brexit in greater numbers. But the Irish election showed the potency of a rental crisis for younger and more left-wing voters, too.

"This is the first example in northern Europe of a left-populist party really managing to capture the discontent of younger renters," said Ben Ansell, a professor at Oxford University who has studied links between the housing market and populism.

Ireland's housing crisis has its roots in the financial crash of 2008, which devastated the country's economy and stopped virtually all new building projects. People's wages eventually recovered, but home prices exploded, soaring by 90 per cent in Dublin since 2012. That pushed more and more people into the private rental market.

Strict new rules on mortgage lending, widely embraced as needed protection from another financial crisis, are one factor limiting people's housing options. Another is the government's decision to rely on what critics derided as market-based responses to the housing shortage, rather than building new public housing.

Soaring rents - driven even higher, critics said, by a misguided subsidy system - are taking ever larger chunks out of young people's wages, making it all but impossible for them to save for a down payment on a house. And because Ireland has long treated renting as little more than a stopgap before people inevitably buy homes, its weak tenant protections allow landlords to evict renters almost at will.

Brian McLoughlin, the head of communications for Inner City Helping Homeless in Dublin, said the group had seen an explosion of families seeking help in recent years after being evicted by landlords. Often, the government houses them in hotel rooms, where the conditions can be severely cramped.

Large technology companies, attracted by government tax breaks, have created thousands of high-paying jobs in Dublin. That has helped push property developers into the higher end of the market, while creating the perception of a two-tiered recovery, with longtime Dubliners on the short end.

Brian Breathnach, 61, an artist who grew up there, said he remembered when it was "part of the tradition that most people went from their parents' home into buying their own home". But no longer. With his wife, who works in a shopping centre, and two children, Mr Breathnach spent 18 years on a waiting list for public housing.

In rental homes, he said, they faced regular negotiations with landlords over rent hikes and an expectation that they not complain about damp or broken appliances, lest they "waken the sleeping giant or such".

A few years ago, they were evicted by a landlord who said a relative was moving in, a story often used as legal cover to drive out renters and break a house into smaller units to make more money.

This summer, Mr Breathnach moved into an apartment in an affordable housing complex run by the Iveagh Trust, a charity, a reprieve after decades of instability. He lamented that housing had become a vehicle for building wealth.

"It's a bit like an art auction, where things become rare and they go out of the reach of ordinary people," Mr Breathnach said. "And it seems to me housing should not be treated like diamonds or Rembrandts." NYTIMES