Should Big Tech start providing homes in Dublin?

Net Results: It could be argued that tech firms have responsibility to take action on housing

Cranes in  Dublin’s docklands area.  Photograph: Dara MacDónaill

Cranes in Dublin’s docklands area. Photograph: Dara MacDónaill

 

Just over a month into 2019, the jobs news is flowing. Already more than 2,500 jobs have been announced for Dublin city centre, celebrating the IDA’s Silicon Docks success story. But there is a peculiar paradox at work. Inevitably the news of a large number of jobs for Dublin is followed by one question: where are we going to put the new workers?

On the one hand you have an incredible number of jobs planned for the city centre, which is good news by anyone’s standards.

On the other you have the recognition that we are in the grip of a housing crisis because there simply isn’t enough housing for people to live close to their workplace.

That makes several assumptions: that people will be moving to Dublin from elsewhere rather than already living in the city; that people will want to live within easy walking or cycling distance from their office; that the suburbs are considered so far flung that city living is the only option.

On the same pages that reported on the latest tech jobs boom are stories about the ongoing housing crisis gripping the city, and the incredibly slow pace of progress in resolving it. Clearly we can’t blame the tech giants for Ireland’s long-term property problem. The boom and bust nature of the Irish property scene is largely of our own making, fuelled by cheap credit during the Celtic Tiger years.

It is also inevitable that locating a large firm in a particular location will lead to rising prices for accommodation nearby. In November, Amazon announced it had chosen Long Island City as one of the two locations for its new headquarters; by December listings in the surrounding areas were showing a marked increase.

Residential market

However, the case can be credibly argued that the expanding tech giants are now active players in Ireland’s property scene. Besides their impact on the commercial property market, they employ so many highly paid staff, all centred within a 5km radius of the city centre, that the residential market in the city is clearly influenced by their operations.

This begs two questions: why do they have to be crammed into the city centre in the first place, and should they be asked to contribute directly to building affordable housing in areas where their staff are pushing up rents?

The usual explanation is that staff want to live in the city centre, and to retain them the tech giants have to be located here. There’s also the idea that these companies should all be located within a stone’s throw of each other.

Several of these tech companies are already putting their hands in their pockets elsewhere

While there may be some merit to the latter argument – a cluster of high-tech companies can function as a support system, giving birth to more start-ups and fostering a general spirit of innovation – the former can be shot down by pointing to companies such as Intel, Microsoft, Dell and Apple. None seems to have difficulty in attracting highly qualified staff to work for them in Ireland despite being located outside Dublin in some cases. Apple is in Cork, Dell is in Limerick and Cherrywood, Microsoft in Leopardstown – and outside a city centre environment. They draw the staff to them.

It’s ironic that the companies currently crowding out the city centre are the very ones that are giving the rest of us the tools to work remotely. Most of the offices I’ve been in offer hot-desking, but still buy up vast office blocks and campuses. The world of work is changing, but not that much, apparently.

Commuting distance

Given the high rental costs around Dublin, there must be many tech workers already in this position, weighing up the pros and cons of renting a single room dressed up as a “studio apartment” for an obscene amount of money just so they can be within easy commuting distance.

You could also argue that after taking so much from the local areas, the tech firms all have an obligation to give back more than they already have under their corporate social responsibility programmes.

Contributing to affordable housing would be one way; the precedents already exist, and several of these tech companies are already putting their hands in their pockets elsewhere.

Last month Microsoft pledged to spend $500 million building affordable housing in Seattle, accepting its role in pushing up property prices and rents.

Google and Facebook have made similar moves in other US cities, although some would argue the effort could be more.

But it begs the question of whether they should start providing homes in Dublin as well.

Digging deep into their pockets would certainly help in their efforts to amend the perception that they are only here for the low rates of corporation tax.

And it would certainly do more for both their public image and their standing with their employees than the thin veneer that the usual array of staged PR stunts brings or an office decked out with free snacks, bean bags and in-house gyms.