Is this the most beautiful social housing in Dublin?

Respond, a not-for-profit housing body, has renovated three Georgian houses on Mountjoy Square and Upper Gardiner Street. Deirdre Falvey gets a tour inside

This bright, airy two-bedroom apartment, with three large sash windows overlooking Mountjoy Square, is now home to Zainab El Mahy and her sons Moussa and Yousef.

This bright, airy two-bedroom apartment, with three large sash windows overlooking Mountjoy Square, is now home to Zainab El Mahy and her sons Moussa and Yousef.

 

Amid overpriced homes and escalating rents, tales of gouging landlords and unscrupulous developers, and a laissez faire that’s allowed homes become a commodity for profit, here comes one happy housing story, of how it can be done, and done right.

Zainab El Mahy came to Ireland from Sudan in 2007 and was granted refugee status. She was on Dublin City Council’s social housing list for 11 years, and now she and her sons Moussa (5½) and Yousef (nearly 4) have been in their two-bedroom home just over a week. She’s still unpacking, but the boys’ bedroom is already lovely: football headboards, toys, a play tent. El Mahy looks around and reckons the entire one-bedroom private rented flat on Dominick Street she lived in for nine years would have fitted into her boys’ new twin bedroom.

We wanted to ensure the building today can sustain people over a lifetime

El Mahy initially worried about more electricity, more heating – more cleaning! – but is thrilled to be here in this bright, airy apartment. It’s a gorgeous first-floor space, with three large sash windows overlooking Mountjoy Square. She’s started furnishing the kitchen/living room and has made an Ikea visit; she needs to connect her washing machine, and plans more bits and pieces to make it home – pictures on the wall, shelving, some plants . The boys are palpably excited; she is emotional. “I got my citizenship in 2011. Now this is my home. Now we are happy, thank you God.”

Zainab El Mahy and her sons Moussa and Yousef are thrilled with their new two-bedroom apartment on Mountjoy Square.
Zainab El Mahy and her sons Moussa and Yousef are thrilled with their new two-bedroom apartment on Mountjoy Square.

El Mahy’s is one of 31 apartments within a glorious Georgian terrace of three houses on (and just off) Dublin’s Mountjoy Square, a great location in Dublin’s north-inner city, 1km from the Liffey. The building has a chequered history, and is now restored to a high standard, as swish city-centre social housing.

Parag Joglekar, head of property development at Respond, a not-for-profit housing body, shows me round its latest project – three refurbished, interconnected 200-year-old houses, Nos 1 and 2 Mountjoy Square North, and around the corner, 69 Upper Gardiner Street. Their three hallways connect inside – there’s original tiling on the floor of No 1, and standard apartment-style carpeting on most other common spaces; the houses have superb cornicing and 18th-century plasterwork, restored original sash windows, and between them there are three gracious staircases, one of which was badly fire damaged a few years ago.

Sustainable facilities

Today. the buildings combine their period features with up-to-date, sustainable facilities. Of the 31 homes, no two are the same, and within the three houses are four studios, three large studio apartments, 16 one-beds and eight two-beds, for a diverse mix of singles, couples and small families. “We wanted to ensure the building today can sustain people over a lifetime,” says Joglekar, and adapt as people age and families change over 25, 30 years.

Up in the “attic”, the top floor of the four-story-over-basement houses, we’re in a one-bedroom flat reminiscent of a Parisian loft in a bourgeois apartment building. The large living-kitchen area has two windows in its gently curved wall, looking out over the city skyline; in the bedroom, the original water-tank room, Joglekar points out the striking glazed, panelled nook rising towards the roof.

A protected structure, the restoration had to comply with conservation rules, but also have high fire safety standards and be sustainable. So there are firedoors, smoke alarms, CCTV in the common areas. New gas-fired central heating boilers replace the old electric storage heating, with meters in each apartment, individually billed by Respond. All the apartments are finished to a high level for the new tenants, with good-quality wooden laminate flooring, a galley-style kitchen ready for white goods, shower-room, 110cm-high steel safety rails on windows to protect against falls, and white blackout blinds, for a uniform appearance from outside.

The buildings were unoccupied for some time, and in a bad state before the restoration. In recent years they’ve had a pickled history: various planning controversies, and owner Rothmount Ltd entered receivership in 2014, exiting two years later. In February 2017, the houses, then a hostel managed by Rothmount, made the news when occupants escaped a fire in the building.

Later that year, property development company Torca and its subsidiary Rothmount offered to restore and sell the protected interconnected property to not-for-profit Respond. The arrangement involved Respond getting the okay from Dublin City Council for a social housing development, and Rothmount doing the repairs and renovations, before Respond bought it. In the meantime, there were planning permissions for the protected structure, best-practice conservation and architectural heritage protection, with NDBA Architects and Chris Ryan Architects working alongside Respond, Dublin City Council’s conservation officer, building control and fire officers.

In December 2019, the building was handed to Respond, which will manage and maintain it: this is a long-term commitment, Joglekar stresses.

Bearing in mind commentary on the viability of apartment building, the finances are interesting. Respond acquired the completed property for €9,212,000, which averages €297,000 per unit (including flooring, built-in wardrobes and kitchens, window blinds, VAT). Some Capital Advanced Loan Funding came from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, and the bulk was borrowed from the Housing Finance Agency. Rental income, though it is much less than commercial rent, covers maintaining the property and repaying the loan. It appears to show what is possible when the profit factor is removed from the equation.

Housing list

The tenants of this impressive building came from Dublin City Council’s housing list, and one of the shocking aspects is their 10-plus years waiting for a social home. Respond’s tenant relations officer Garreth Mullan has been managing tenants’ transition, to create a community from the diverse groups. He mentions how settled those who’ve already moved seem; there’s a small communal area outside and some residents hope to turn it into a garden, he says. In terms of tenant issues and compliance, the building falls under the Residential Tenancies Board rather than DCC, but rents are DCC social housing rates, so tenants pay 15 per cent of net income. Some are on social welfare, while others are working, so rent prices vary, but are substantially less than in commercial developments factoring in high profit margins.

Michael Murphy (48), originally from Mayo, is moving his stuff over the next week into his new home. It’s what might once have been a gracious drawing room in the grand Mountjoy Square house, with impressive oval plasterwork on the ceiling. Now described as a large studio apartment, it includes a separate bedroom whose dividing walls doesn’t reach the ceiling, to protect the beautiful cornice. He was on the DCC list since 2006, and says he doesn’t know anyone else who has been housed off the list. He’s lived in a private rented house in Cabra for 10 years, with his own bedroom but sharing living, kitchen and bathroom with five others.

The landlord was decent, he says, but he was aware he had no long-term security – either of tenure or of price. “I’d have no say in that. There’s nothing to stop landlords putting up the rent.” With Respond as his new landlord, “it’s a charitable organisation. I know where I am.”

Not-for-profit approved housing body and service provider Respond, founded in 1982 to combat housing insecurity and homelessness in Waterford, now operates all over Ireland. It has built nearly 6,000 properties – homes, community buildings and group homes – and has 9,500-plus tenants. Nearly 300 staff include an in-house property development team of chartered architects, quantity surveyors, planners, project managers, clerk of works and technicians, and the agency also runs family emergency accommodation with wraparound support, day care for older people and early childhood, family support and refugee resettlement. It focuses on social inclusion, personal dignity and sustainable communities and aims to make high-quality, sustainable and safe homes that are value for money.

No 1 Mountjoy Square is one of three Georgian houses that have been transformed in 31 apartments
No 1 Mountjoy Square is one of three Georgian houses that have been transformed in 31 apartments

Its work is not all urban regeneration and infill like this project, Joglekar stresses: Respond builds new homes, instancing a new mixed development of 55 homes in Ballymun.

Cultural and political connections

One of five Georgian squares in Dublin, Mountjoy is known for its cultural and political connections, as well as its architectural significance. Developed by Luke Gardiner, 1st Viscount Mountjoy, in thriving mid-18th century Dublin city, the square was surrounded on all sides by terraced, red-brick Georgian houses of the wealthy. In the mid-18th-century, writer, politician and barrister James Whiteside, who defended Daniel O’Connell in the state trial of 1843, lived at 2 Mountjoy Square. In March 1855, Arthur McMurrough Kavanagh and his cousin, Frances Mary Leathley, were married at 1 Mountjoy Square: “The Limbless Landlord” was born into a family of aristocrats and landlords in Borris, Co Carlow, without arms or legs, but he nonetheless became an accomplished shot, horseman, yachtsman, local justice of the peace and MP. Later, Tim Healy, Home Rule MP and the first governor-general of the Irish Free State, lived at No 1.

Only for the likes of the Peter McVerry Trust and Respond helping people like myself, I probably wouldn’t have a place

Nearby on the square, playwright Sean O’Casey lived in a tenement at No 35 (a Respond tenant lives in an apartment there now), James Joyce lived just off the square at one point, and WB Yeats stayed at his Fenian friend John O’Leary’s home in No 53. When the provisional Dáil was forced underground during the War of Independence, the assembly met at No 3, home of wealthy Sinn Féin alderman Walter L Cole; in 1916 Cole had hosted a meeting of five signatories of the Proclamation. More recently, the square featured in the film Once, where Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová sing Falling Slowly.

Some Mountjoy Square buildings fell into ruin in the 20th century and were demolished, and new infill buildings have reproduction façades.

At one stage, there was a school in the three Mountjoy/Gardiner houses. And in a lovely serendipity, Michael Cumberton, who’s about to move into a new basement-level apartment there, remembers his days in the same building at “the Denner”. When he was a teenager 30 years ago, St Garvin’s VEC boys secondary school on Denmark Street used the Mountjoy buildings for English, geography and history classes. He grew up in Hardwick Street flats, and now 44, Cumberton recalls walking from Denmark Street to Mountjoy for classes – “it used to be mayhem, messing and loud, lads trying to get over to the park”. It was an old building, not well maintained: “I remember being cold, but I had some great times there. I remember the classrooms and the teachers, and I’ve good memories of school pals, some who are not with us any more. I’ve fond memories.”

Cumberton has just finished a college course in alarm installation and hopes to find a job. He was on DCC’s housing list for 13 years – “20-odd years really, but my files were lost” – before he was offered a place.

He’s moving from Peter McVerry Trust transitional housing on Seville Place. “I found myself homeless three years ago. I had a serious neck injury from working on building sites. I lost my job, couldn’t pay the rent, lost my place in Coolock.” He was homeless for nearly eight months, on friends’ sofas, and sometimes on the streets. “Only for the likes of the Peter McVerry Trust and Respond helping people like myself, I probably wouldn’t have a place.”

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