Social housing: ‘Let’s not make the same mistakes again’

There’s a danger that quick-fix ‘solutions’ to the housing crisis will create new problems

Built in 1959, Croke Villas in Dublin’s north inner city had been mostly vacant for the past decade. Photograph: Alan Betson

Built in 1959, Croke Villas in Dublin’s north inner city had been mostly vacant for the past decade. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

I’m standing on a street in Dublin’s north inner city, in the shadow of Croke Park’s Cusack Stand, watching a block of council flats being reduced to rubble. Built in 1959, Croke Villas had been mostly vacant for the past decade as a tortuous re-development plan wended its way through the planning and administrative processes.

Now jointly funded by Croke Park and Dublin City Council, the plan envisages the building of a “processional boulevard” leading up to the stadium, along with new social units comprising apartments and houses.

It’s a very particular site with its own unique challenges and opportunities. But the story of Croke Villas is not particularly unusual. After drifting into limbo following the collapse of a public-private partnership scheme in 2008, the plan nearly fell apart again three years ago when the flats were identified as somewhere families could be housed under then-minister Alan Kelly’s action plan on homelessness. Ultimately, that didn’t happen, and the original project is now going ahead.

But it will take another four or five years before it is completed, so these homes will have been taken out of the city’s already inadequate social housing stock for almost 15 years at a time of unprecedented crisis in housing provision.

This is just one of many tales of post-crash inertia, lengthy delays and political confusion underlying the current housing fiasco. It may turn out to have a happy ending but it illustrates the challenges the country faces in providing affordable housing over the next decade.

It’s not just a question of increasing the number of homes we build every year – vital though that is (depressingly, figures show that 15 local authorities failed to build any homes at all last year).

There’s also a real danger that quick-fix solutions might just set up new problems for future generations.

So, if the rate of building does increase in the next two years (and that’s a big ‘if’), what kind of homes should get built and where? Who should they be built for and who is best equipped to build them?

A report three years ago from the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) argued that social housing was “at the crossroads”, with many people on low incomes confronting an extremely difficult housing situation. Since then, that situation has got only worse.

But the NESC recommendations – the provision of low-cost finance for housing in such a way that it does not add to Government debt, making renting more affordable and attractive and setting up a national housing body to drive public policy – remain largely unaddressed.

Mass social housing

Some have pointed to times in the past when the State found the wherewithal to invest in housing. But those mass social housing programmes took place in a very different era and were driven by a particular set of very 20th-century ideologies: the British concept of a “garden city” that would shift people away from the squalor of inner-city slums; a conservative Catholic suspicion of high-density urban living as a seedbed for corrupt morals and radical politics; and an American-influenced suburban vision of a future based around the private car.

Sean Treacy House is an award-winning regeneration project between Foley Street and Sean McDermott Street in Dublin’s north city centre.
Sean Treacy House is an award-winning regeneration project between Foley Street and Sean McDermott Street in Dublin’s north city centre.

Architectural historian Dr Ellen Rowley points to the influence of a 1931 Papal encyclical on how the State approached housing. “It was very behind the idea of the ownership of land, the smallholding,” she says. “Communalism was potentially subversive. But the idea of to each man his castle was very, very British, and it’s something we adopted too.”

The impact of this “Anglo-Saxon and Catholic” model of social housing was the low-density council-built estates of Donnycarney, Cabra and Crumlin, with similar housing coming later in Finglas, Tallaght and Clondalkin.

But if the State is to get back into building at that scale again, where would it put the homes? Building ever-expanding doughnut rings of three-bed semi-detached houses around our towns and cities does not equate to an intelligent spatial strategy in the climate-change-conscious 21st century. Nor does continuing to turn far-flung provincial towns into exurban dormitories.

Higher densities closer to urban centres make quality services and public transport more viable. With the shape of family formations altering and people living longer, the types of housing needed are also changing. Meanwhile, we are failing to provide an entire generation with reasonably priced accommodation – rented or bought – but currently spend €2 million every day on rent payments to private landlords via HAP schemes.

Irrational

Dublin’s north inner city is a patchwork of 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century buildings, many of them dilapidated, interspersed with social housing stock ranging from 1940s’ blocks to the incongruously suburban-looking houses built as a result of the Gregory deal in the 1980s, along with a few more recent, heavily gated private developments.

The most recent additions are the large student accommodation developments currently springing up in the area. But there are plenty of patches of unused or underused land around train and bus stations or left over from previous light industrial use.

In the 21st century, in the midst of a housing crisis, not using such land – near the centre, well-served by roads and transport and other services – seems irrational.

Data from housing policy analyst Mel Reynolds shows local authorities could directly build almost 40,000 new social dwellings on their own land – three times as many as are planned under the Government’s Rebuilding Ireland strategy.

But the strategy sets a target of just 13,189 social-housing homes to be directly built by local authorities between last year and 2021. In Dublin city, there are 120.6 hectares of local authority-owned land, on which Reynolds estimates 12,017 homes could be built.

Is social housing a safety net designed just for those who are dependent on social welfare, or does the State need to involve itself in providing affordable housing for a much bigger slice of the population?

“The key thing is what does ‘affordable’ mean?” says DIT housing lecturer Lorcan Sirr on the affordable housing policy that Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy has promised is imminent. “I suspect he’ll come out with something like a 10 per cent discount. That’s not affordable.”

What an affordable scheme should do, Sirr says, is target those who earn between €35,000 and €85,000 a year, and provide them with homes costing no more than three-and-a-half times their annual income. “And where repayments aren’t more than one-third of net income.”

Also, to maximise the value of the land available, Sirr says, you need high-density – 80 units per hectare. “But high-density doesn’t mean high-rise. And it doesn’t have to be apartments. Stoneybatter is high-density.”

So, multi-storey but not high-rise. UCD architecture lecturer Orla Hegarty says six floors is optimal for the best results in terms of construction, running costs and liveability (daylight, sunshine and usable outdoor spaces like balconies and gardens which aren’t overshadowed). “That gives you nice streets, enough density to support public transport,” she says.

The €20 million Cornamona Court in Ballyfermot, Dublin, will comprise 60 council houses and apartments and will be the largest housing estate built by Dublin City Council since the property crash.
The €20 million Cornamona Court in Ballyfermot, Dublin, will comprise 60 council houses and apartments and will be the largest housing estate built by Dublin City Council since the property crash.

Hegarty believes legacy issues with poor construction quality are putting people off buying apartments. “High-density must be design-led to make communities people want to live in. Too many small units lead to transient communities and a poor socio-economic mix that doesn’t support services.”

Sirr adds that infill and brownfield sites don’t just have to be near city centres or transport nodes like the new Luas terminal at Broombridge. “There’s a lot of employment in those concentric rings around the city,” he says. “You need housing there too.”

‘Knee-jerk reactions’

“Let’s not make the same mistakes again,” says architect Paul Keogh. “There’s so much talk about housing now, we really risk knee-jerk reactions and doing the wrong thing.”

Keogh’s company has designed a €20 million estate of more than 60 council houses and apartments to be built by Dublin City Council in Ballyfermot. Cornamona Court will be the largest housing estate built by the council since the property crash, and one of very few directly built by it in recent years.

“We designed it 10 years ago, which goes to show how long it takes to get things built,” says Keogh. “The brief has changed now, so there are family houses on the street, which are duplexes with front doors, and then there or four floors of one-bedroom apartments overhead. Then at the back there are two-bedroom family houses.”

This is the other side of social housing in some areas – ghettoisation and marginalisation

The idea is to start addressing the problem of family homes being under-used because children have grown up and left. “This comes up more and more, that older people want to move out of the houses they’ve been living in, but also want to stay in the same area,” says Keogh. “The thinking there is there’s a huge surplus, with one or two people living in three-bedroom houses. If you moved some of those people into new purpose-built apartments you could free up those homes.”

He says the council seems confident it can persuade older tenants to downsize. “Not to force people out but to incentivise them to move. You get a new apartment, you’re paying less rent and you’re still in the same community.”

Keogh also shows me around Sean Treacy House, an award-winning regeneration project between Foley Street and Sean McDermott Street in the north city centre, which he designed. It is run by the voluntary housing association Circle. It’s an attractive building, with bright, spacious apartments and quality exteriors and fittings.

But, when Keogh stops to say hello to one of the residents, she tells him she’s applied for a transfer because of problems with other tenants.

Keogh points to the exterior entrances to the stairwells, which have all been locked to prevent drug-dealing and other anti-social behaviour. Across the street, the grim, high walls of a former Magdalen laundry bear the scorch marks of burnt-out cars. The street is litter-strewn and filthy.

This is the other side of social housing in some areas – ghettoisation and marginalisation. It’s arguably made worse by the way housing is so strictly stratified in Ireland. The failure of successive attempts to introduce a greater social mix in new developments ensures those divisions remain as strong as ever. Introducing a comprehensive affordable housing programme might help to start breaking them down.

‘Anti-social behaviour’

Better design can help too, Keogh says. “What we’re doing in Limerick in St Mary’s Park is filling in the empty corners to create a more complete urban streetscape and filling in those spaces which were being used for anti-social behaviour.

“There’s always been this thought that the State would only build social housing for certain people, a bit like the medical card. That if you were above that line you looked after yourself,” says Keogh. “It cost €500 million to build a motorway from Tuam to Gort – and it shouldn’t have cost that much anyway. But you could build 2,000-3,000 homes for that.

“Why is it okay to spend that on roads but not on homes? We need to have affordable housing in Dublin city.”

Sirr believes the Government is afraid that spending on housing will end up on its balance sheet, but says there are different ways of addressing this. “And the affordability thing is going to have to be done,” he says. He thinks the real pressure will come from the big multinationals when the cost of accommodation drives up their wage costs and erodes their competitiveness.

The trouble is that building infill developments on urban sites can be a more complex process than building a new housing estate on the suburban fringe. There are more vested interests, more planning issues and more design challenges to overcome. Attempts to encourage infill developments in Dublin some years ago ran afoul of these difficulties.

“I think the really big problem with the history of Irish housing has been its homogeneity,” says Ellen Rowley. “What is it about our building culture that doesn’t enable new techniques and approaches?”

Two weeks ago, architect, developer and author Roger Zogolovitch addressed the joint committee of the Department of Housing and the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland. Talking about the subject of his critically acclaimed book Shouldn’t We All Be Developers?, he made the case for how small independent developers can unlock the potential of under-developed and pre-developed lands in city and town centres.

Minister of State for Housing Damien English wasn’t there, but he did acknowledge the point. “We have got to improve the use of brownfield and unused lands which lie within the built-up areas of our towns and cities,” he said. “This is because we need to take all avenues for delivering much-needed housing, especially in good locations.”

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