Housing crisis finds its own Bob Geldof

The housing crisis has lacked one crucial ingredient common to other epic human struggles: a celebrity cheerleader. In spite of the immense suffering – entire cities of semi-detached potential slain and a generation stuck renting – no famous person has come to the fore.

Until now, that is.

As a cornerstone of Irish boy band Westlife, Shane Filan packs a solid celebrity punch. He has sold 43m records, has legions of adoring fans, a young family and royalty income to keep him in combat trousers and hair gel well into old age. Apparently, then, a man with it all to live for.

Unfortunately, this month, he was forced to admit that he also has a rather stiff penchant for Irish property of the 2007 vintage.

In one of his rasher episodes, Filan, in cahoots with his brother, took it upon himself to build 90 luxury homes in Dromahair – a village of 500 people in the north of the country. Like so many other Irish developments rushed out during the good times, the project came unstuck. A few ill-fated property punts later and the wheels came off all together, leaving Filan nursing debts of €5.5m.

Declaring himself bankrupt the week before last, the man who once sang, “I should’a seen it coming. I should’a read the signs. Anyway ... I guess it’s over,” said that he was devastated. But all is not lost.

It’s highly unlikely Filan wanted to become the poster boy for the perils of investing in an unstable market. But there is actually quite a lot to be said for taking on the ambassadorial mantle for collective misguidance. The housing crisis has been crying out for its Bob Geldof. Now it has one. Only this one is younger and less sanctimonious. He has the power to raise awareness of the struggles of millions of non-famous speculators.

Ireland is a good place to embark on such a worthy cause. House prices in the country have crashed 50 per cent since 2007 and continue to decline. A generation, egged on by an unusually louche coterie of mortgage advisers, bought beyond its means. Thousands of homeowners have been plunged into negative equity and many more own unsaleable properties.

If he plays his cards right, Filan could be just the man to push this grim predicament to the top of the global troubleshooting agenda.

After all, as evidenced in the Westlife hit “My Love”, he can express, far better than most, the sinking feeling that comes from investing in property which doesn’t attract buyers: “An empty street, an empty house. A hole inside my heart. I’m all alone, the rooms are getting smaller. I wonder how, I wonder why, I wonder where they are.”

The beckoning finger of his second career could hardly have come at a better time. Westlife are in the process of disbanding. It is either genuine misfortune or deliberate and rather cynical spin that led Filan to the bankruptcy courts as the band embarked on its now much-publicised farewell tour. Either way, as of July, he will need to look for something else to do with his time.

In losing his way in the housing market, Filan has also become something of an everyman. It is hard to think of a more mundane way to blitz a fame-gotten fortune. Did you spend it all on cocaine? Women? Swarovski-encrusted Learjets? No, I built some family homes in a field at the top of the property boom.

The unflinching reality of his predicament bestows on him the kind of image celebrity micro-mangers spend hours hyperventilating over. Celebrities must not lose touch with the banalities of their audience’s existence, especially when times are hard. To maintain the façade of being a person of the people, they become the face of a discount supermarket or get papped at the dog races in their most threadbare velour two-piece.

But Filan need not stoop to these clichés. The ordinariness of his error is one that we can relate to. Most of us, in one way or another, have bought, or thought about buying, a home that we hope will be worth more by the time we come to sell it. The logic is ingrained and informs the way we think about property: as something we can live in and earn from simultaneously.

Harnessing his fame to help dispel this fallacy, or at least temper it, could do a lot to stave off the next housing bubble and resulting crisis.

Ed Hammond is the FT’s property correspondent

More columns at www.ft.com/perspective


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