Dublin’s docklands: ‘They call us Silicon Docks, but it’s my community’

Dublin’s docklands has gone from an area few wanted to live in, to one few can afford

As Google says it would "think about" subsidising housing in Dublin to ease the accommodation crisis, and developer Johnny Ronan offers the company the option to secure all 1,000 apartments he plans to build in Dublin's north docks, attention has again focused on the role large multinationals play in the city's housing market.

Last month’s ebullient headlines proclaiming Dublin 8 the “new docklands” will have caused many to wince. Not just those in the Liberties who remember previous promises of becoming the next tech mecca, with the hoped-for lift in employment, but also docklands communities who know that, for all its economic success, the docks are hardly a utopia.

No one can fail to be impressed by the turnaround of the docklands’ fortunes from a veritable wasteland just a few years ago post-crash, to being almost completely built-out. But no one can deny either that the docklands has a housing problem.

Earlier this summer Irish Times columnist Karlin Lillington warned that Dublin was in danger of developing similar housing problems to San Francisco, which tech companies have made a city for the rich only.


Dublin City Council chief executive Owen Keegan might have been expected to downplay this claim, but he didn't, and in response said concerns about low levels of social housing and homes for middle-income workers in Dublin's docklands were "legitimate" and "genuine".

How, in a relatively short space of time, has Dublin’s east end gone from an area few wanted to live, to somewhere everyone wanted to live, to a place few can afford to live?

‘Nowhere near enough’

Development in the docklands since 2014 has been governed by the North Lotts and Grand Canal Dock Strategic Development Zone (SDZ). This fast-track planning scheme, which allows the council to grant permission that cannot be appealed to An Bord Pleanála, was developed by the council after it took over control of the docklands from the now-defunct Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA).

The council determined that about 2,600 new apartments and up to 350,000sq m (3.7 million sq ft) of commercial space should be built, to complete the development already undertaken by DDDA that had come to a halt during the recession. This equated to homes for about 5,800 and offices to fit 23,000 workers. Recent changes to height in the area are likely to add 300-400 more apartments to that total.

It is nowhere near enough, says Michael Ingle, a docklands resident and a member of the Docklands Oversight and Consultative Forum, a body set up under legislation to monitor the fast-track planning district.

“The SDZ was rushed through at a time when there was no housing crisis – people were still talking about ghost estates, not families living in hotels. The focus was on jobs, not apartments, and getting the economy moving again in the docks.”

The relatively low number of apartments being built particularly hits people reliant on social housing. Part V of the planning acts require developers to set aside 10 per cent of their apartment blocks for social housing. This should result in a maximum of 300 homes for social housing tenants but in practice it’s a lot lower.

“The council missed a trick in not getting the Part V,” says Ingle, who chairs the forum’s housing committee. “We are blue in the face saying ‘why is anyone getting planning permission before they have committed to social housing? Why is it not factored in from the very beginning?’”

Late last year, the committee produced a report that found just 26 social housing apartments had been provided since the SDZ came into force, and agreements on those apartments had already been secured by the DDDA before its abolition.

This doesn't mean developers are wriggling out of their obligations to provide social housing, but that the council is choosing to accept cheaper homes off site. The council's head of housing, Brendan Kenny, earlier this year told The Irish Times that it was "not ideal" but "legitimate" when the prices were "way off the limits" of what the council can pay. He was speaking after the council agreed to accept apartments almost 6km away in Rialto.

Social housing

Owen Reilly, whose eponymous estate agency is one of the largest in the docklands, says the council's position is understandable. "It's not just the purchase price the council has to contend with. These are luxury apartments by nature with very high management charges, and the council can only pay up to a certain level. What's being built now is all going to be luxury; that's not going to solve the housing crisis."

The council is however, Kenny says, determined to secure some social housing in the docklands. “It is not our plan to take all our Part V off site. It is a last resort. In fact, we have taken social units in the docklands as off-site social housing from elsewhere.”

In 2017, Chartered Land bought the Shelbourne Plaza block of apartments close to Grand Canal Dock, and sold them on to the council for €24.5 million, instead of providing social housing in its new Lansdowne Place development on the site of the old Berkeley Court hotel in Ballsbridge. It meant the council got the apartments for about €400,000 a piece instead of more than €900,000.

“We are taking our Part V on site in Dublin Landings and in Bolands Mills and in other sites in the docklands, and the costs are high – but not high enough to turn them down,” says Kenny.

"On site is our first choice. The Berkeley Court apartments would have cost us over a million each. We couldn't do that, not in Ballsbridge or the docklands or anywhere, but through Part V we are getting social housing in parts of the city that haven't seen social housing, such as Rathgar and Clontarf."

Dolores Wilson, who grew up in the docklands, says the Part V system has manifestly not worked for the local community.

“We were promised 10 per cent but everything so far is going off site and it is the council that is to blame for that, it’s not the tech companies. We understand that those workers have to live somewhere too. The council say they are getting it in Rialto, but that’s no good to people on the housing list here. What benefit is it to us? We are just asking for our fair share.”

Wilson is a founding member and board member of the St Andrew’s Resource Centre on Pearse Street, a community, adult education and employment centre providing services to the docklands and surrounding communities since the late 1980s.

“We are an oasis in the middle of it all, trying to keep back some sort of control over what’s happening, but we do try and reach out and some good has come of that.”

Several docklands companies have provided funding, training and employment locally, and Dublin Port Company has been a “great supporter”, she says. “But this centre should be running without State funding with the amount of companies we have here.”

The council and the State in general could seek more from developers, she says. “Developers don’t need to be coaxed down here . . . so we should be making demands of them.”

In her decades of community work, Wilson has seen the docklands governed by a number of agencies, and she says the DDDA did deliver for the community.

“Under the docklands authority the community was looked after. The only one thing that went wrong was the Glass Bottle site. People have picked on that one site to do it all down. But there were apartments provided in Gallery Quay, in Hanover Quay and other developments, and we got the social mix,” she says.

“The SDZ has washed the social mix out completely. I have no faith in it whatsoever. The DDDA didn’t allow that to happen. I know that it was easier then, because they owned the land, and I’m not looking to hammer the council but, in a way I think the council should buy the expensive apartments and take the hit to teach them. Then maybe they will learn the lesson next time to do the pre-planning in the proper manner.”

There is no “next time” for the docklands SDZ sites, she says. Too many offices have been built in proportion to homes, and there is little development land left. Her hope is that the mistakes of the past won’t be repeated in the next SDZ planned for the Glass Bottle site in Ringsend, Dublin 4.

“If there is another downturn I am terrified that we will just have tumbleweed down these streets of office blocks.”

Dr Mary Lee Rhodes, Trinity College professor of public management and director of the Trinity Centre for Social Innovation, says the only way social, or even affordable housing is going to be secured in communities such as the docklands is if it is not tied to market development.

“We know that the proportion of social housing that’s going to be in the dockland will be low, and definitely not the 10 per cent. Economics and market realities are militating against the ability to do it,” she says.

“The situation in Ireland is we concentrated on building a very vibrant economy without building the range of housing we need. It’s not a problem that’s unique to the docklands. Housing policy has not kept up with the needs of housing delivery.”

While in time the policies the Government is currently pursuing “might work out”, Rhodes says, social housing and housing for lower-income workers is only really attainable if an “off-market” or non-profit focused entity is developing it.

“In the past 20 years housing policy has focused almost exclusively on the market . . . We need something that stays off market, that is always going to be off market and is never sold privately.”

San Francisco parallels

Originally from the US, Rhodes says she does not believe the housing problems in the docklands or in the city as a whole has reached the proportions of those in San Francisco. “California has had an affordability problem for a long time and its homeless problem dwarfs anything in Ireland.”

However, she says there are similarities in terms of people’s perception of where they live. “It feels to people in the community that they are being excluded from their community through housing, and that is consistent with San Francisco,” she says.

Another reasonable parallel drawn between San Francisco and the Dublin docklands is one of cost. Headlines here regularly announce “record rents” for apartments, almost all of them in the docklands.

“The current average is a little over €2,400 a month,” says Reilly, a figure which tracks about €400 a month above average Dublin rents, but he says that gap will widen.

“The schemes that are being added to the docklands at the moment are luxury in nature, with an average two-bed costing €3,000 a month. It’s unclear as yet what the demand will be for the €3,000 and higher apartments, but we have rented out a two-bed – in a waterfront building, with waterfront views – for €3,250 a month with no parking.”

Only 6 per cent of the tenants Reilly lets to are Irish. This, he says, is not reflective of the profile of people working in the docklands, nor does it suggest that foreign workers are earning more than their Irish counterparts; rather it is that Irish tenants have a different tolerance for high rents.

“The Irish attitude to paying high rents is still that it’s dead money. So if rents go over a certain level, they’ll just go elsewhere.” Their outgoings may also be higher, he says.

“Irish tenants are more likely to have a car that they have to have insured and pay for a parking space, so it’s not that foreign staff are being necessarily paid more, but they are less likely to have a car, more likely to eat their meals in work, so their take-home pay seems higher.”

Finding, and affording, a docklands parking space is a major issue for tenants, he says. “A car-parking space will cost €2,000 a year at least, and it would have cost €40,000 to €50,000 to buy one, so it’s not the sort of thing a landlord is going to provide.”

They are also competing with corporate car space buyers. “A typical tenant will pay €150-€200 per month per space but a law firm or a finance firm will pay €250 to €300 a month for a space for their executives.”

Despite the perception that apartment blocks are flying up in the docks, the number of apartments for rent is diminishing, he says.

“You do see a lot of cranes in the sky, but they are largely building office blocks or hotels. Around 75 per cent of the sales we handle are landlords exiting the market. Around 67 per cent of sales are to owner-occupiers. The amount of available rental in the last six months is lower than in the previous six months and I think it will be lower again in six months’ time. This crisis is going to get worse before it gets better.”

To Ingle the level of rents in the docklands, while not desirable, is to an extent understandable. “It’s a nice area, close to the city centre, with nice views over the water, nice cafes nice restaurants is going to be more expensive, whether the tech industry is there or not.”

"It is very expensive everywhere in Dublin. A two-bed in Glasnevin might cost you €1,800 a month, in the docklands you are maybe looking at €800 more than that, but again, you are right next to the city, so from one prospective what's happening here is kind of normal."

Ingle bought his apartment under an affordable housing scheme. These Government help-to-buy schemes were discontinued in 2011, and while a new scheme is being established, it is unlikely there will be many sites left in the docklands to avail of it.

“That is very disappointing. I got an affordable home, and I want more people to be able to get what I got.”

Enabling people to put down roots in the docklands, through affordable purchase or long-term rental, is essential to maintaining a community in the docklands, he says.

“I can’t walk from one side of the square to the other without someone saying hello. People don’t see that. They call us ‘Silicon Docks’, but for me this is my community, and it’s not just a transient community . . . it’s a neighbourhood.”