Dublin city councillors gave a strong mandate to council management on Monday night to drop plans for private sector development of public lands.
They voted by 48 to 14 against the €14 million sale of a site at Oscar Traynor Road in Santry, vacant for 40 years, to Glenveagh Homes to build 428 private, 253 social and 172 affordable purchase homes.
Fine Gael councillors, along with three Fianna Fáil and one Labour member voted in favour of the deal.
Back in January 2017, the councillors gave an even stronger mandate to the council to pursue the same deal for 50 per cent private, 30 per cent social and 20 per cent affordable housing on the site.
At that time 53 of the 63 councillors voted in favour, including Sinn Féin, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour and the Green Party, with People Before Profit and left Independents voting against.
While there has been a local election in the meantime, it is still quite a volte face for the majority of councillors and begs the question, what do councillors want for the site and what is achievable?
Labour's Alison Gilliland, chair of the council's housing committee, on Monday proposed a motion for a new plan to be drafted for "public housing" on the site, and for an urgent meeting to be sought with the Minister for Housing to secure sanction and funding.
The motion referenced St Michael's Estate in Inchicore where a pilot scheme of 70 per cent cost rental and 30 per cent social housing is being pursued, but Gilliland said this was not necessarily the form public housing will take on the site as "we have to consider the demographics in the area".
Gilliland voted in favour of the 50/30/20 model in 2017 but said circumstances have changed. “Affordability for renters has become a particular problem since then. The State has to intervene and provide affordable rental solutions.”
The council's head of housing Brendan Kenny on Monday night told councillors Glenveagh was willing to sell 50 per cent of the private housing to the council for affordable rental, but Gilliland said this wasn't acceptable.
“We want to make break with developers, this would have left the developer in the driving seat.”
Independent councillor Cieran Perry, one of the few councillors to vote against the deal in 2017 and this week, welcomed his colleagues’ change of heart.
“The very fact that we have such a monumental change in housing policy, that public housing is now seen as the way forward, was one of the best moments of my time on the council.”
Perry said he was "under no illusions" that the money would be found to develop the site in the council coffers, but pointed out that interest rates on borrowing were historically low, and the European Investment Bank was willing to lend.
He believed it would be viable for the site to stay within public ownership, with “cross subsidisation” of rent from those on higher incomes, to those on less.
“I think there will be a huge demand this, and we will get the income mix needed,” he said, adding that the Minister should be able to “streamline procurement” so the scheme was “shovel ready” within two years.
Fine Gael councillor Naoise O Muirí, who voted for the council’s plan on both occasions, said he could not say if he would support the new public housing proposal, because he did not know what it was.
“When I see a proposal on official city council paper I will evaluate it, but there is no proposal. At the moment there is just a ‘castles in the air’ motion to meet the Minister. With the scheme that was proposed we could have been breaking ground in 2021.”
Brendan Kenny, the council’s head of housing, said he was also unclear what the councillors were seeking in terms of public housing.
“I don’t think it’s fully developed what they want. If it’s the same model as St Michael’s, with 70 per cent cost rental and 30 per cent social, or something else. What we had was a high quality scheme and I don’t think we will get a better scheme, or a better value scheme.”
He said he would work with councillors to bring forward new plans for the site, but cautioned that borrowings from the Europe or the Housing Finance Agency still have to be paid back.
“We would be totally reliant on sufficient rents, and on people paying their rents, something we don’t have a great track record on,” he said.
There was too much emphasis, he said, on the local authority being the developer of housing.
“People never ask us who built the house, they just want somewhere to live.”
A spokesman for Minister for Housing Darragh O'Brien said he noted the councillors' decision and would be seeking a report from council chief executive Owen Keegan.