State continues to demolish viable housing stock instead of repairing it

Government should address housing shortages and climate change at the same time

The large-scale demolition of social housing reflected an approach to regeneration which saw replacing the physical fabric as being the answer to social problems affecting certain housing estates. Photograph: David Sleator

The large-scale demolition of social housing reflected an approach to regeneration which saw replacing the physical fabric as being the answer to social problems affecting certain housing estates. Photograph: David Sleator

 

Travelling from Dublin city centre on the northbound Luas Green line, one of the first things you see, two minutes from the GPO, is a row of boarded-up Dublin City Council apartments in Dominick Street. With our acute housing shortage, it is bewildering that prime located social housing is out of commission. It is symptomatic of a deeper failure over many years to adequately manage our social housing stock.

Since the turn of the millennium, a lot of social housing stock has been taken out of commission, the tenants moved elsewhere, and the buildings either demolished or abandoned. This has happened in the name of “regeneration” – but in many cases the refurbishment or replacement of this lost housing was a victim to the crash. The result is that between 2001 and 2007 (the only period for which the data are readily available), one in every three council homes built or bought just went to replace social housing that had been removed from the system. In that period, about 37,000 new council homes were built or bought – but about 12,000 council homes were taken out of commission, a loss of about one tenth of the social housing stock. This is a much higher loss rate than occurred in private housing.

Where the physical fabric of the building is not the problem, demolition and redevelopment was a very expensive form of regeneration

The large-scale demolition of social housing reflected an approach to regeneration which saw replacing the physical fabric as being the answer to social problems affecting certain housing estates.

Social quality

However, a 1999 study, by Prof Tony Fahey and others, of what makes for success or otherwise on council estates concluded that the social quality of an estate is a bigger influence on its success or desirability than its physical quality. The researchers showed examples of successful communities and high-demand estates, where the housing stock was physically inferior to problem estates. They drew attention to failures of housing authorities in managing and supporting the social fabric of communities.

For example, by investing in controlled entry systems or a concierge, along with better policing of antisocial behaviour, some of the flat complexes that became “no-go” areas could have been made a success, a cheaper option than demolition and replacement.

Where the physical fabric of the building is not the problem, demolition and redevelopment was a very expensive form of regeneration. With so many of the regeneration schemes on hold since the crash, we have seen an expensive loss of housing stock with inadequate rates of replacement. With today’s severe pressure on the housing market, the loss of so many homes is really felt.

A more recent study by UCD’s Prof Michelle Norris, which revisited the original estates in the 1999 study, has shown a significant improvement in the management of social housing in the intervening period. Many lessons learned from the original study were put into practice by local authority housing management teams.

‘Voids’

Since 2014, there has also been a funding stream to bring empty council homes – “voids” – up to standard for reletting.

Nevertheless, the policy of demolishing potentially viable housing stock continues, at a time when homeless people and those on housing lists could really benefit from their repair. Even if redevelopment is to take place it would be better to keep those apartments destined for demolition fully tenanted until the wrecking ball moves in.

Over the 2001-2007 period, almost 11,000 council homes were sold to tenants at knock-down prices. While these homes have continued to be lived in, they have been removed from the social housing pool. So when the original family moves on, these homes are not available to anyone on the housing list. And because the sale price is a third of their value, or less, there is little capital realised to provide replacement social housing.

New challenge

Today, the imperative to tackle climate change poses a new challenge to social housing managers. The state, through local authorities, is the largest landlord in the State, and needs to play its part in upgrading its housing stock to become energy efficient and carbon neutral. If the cost of such upgrades is, as has been suggested, of the order of €30,000 to €50,000 a unit, the total bill could come to something around €5 billion. At a time when every housing penny is needed to tackle homelessness and housing waiting lists, and to provide enough homes for our growing population, this will be a big challenge. A new revenue stream from raising taxes on carbon could allow us address the environmental sustainability of our social housing stock, alongside expanding the scale of housing provision.

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