Oliver Callan: Hubs for homeless families a bonanza for owners

Council must hand back refurbished properties to owners within five years

The Government’s homeless family hub solution is not only a short-term fix for a long-term crisis, it’s a shocking deal for taxpayers that benefits private operators. It began with Simon Coveney’s hopeless effort to move hundreds families from hotels and B&Bs by July 1st, a failure rewarded with Cabinet promotion.

When Coveney announced the plan, a joke did the rounds that he would simply call hotels something more cuddly. It wasn’t far wrong, and sure doesn’t “hub” have a cosy ring to it? There will be a total of 18 family accommodation hubs in Dublin, nine of which include hotels and B&Bs already in use being “adapted”.

The hubs will cater for about 634 families, although latest figures put the number of homeless families in the city at 1,115 and rising. The council admits they are not a long-term solution, and that families will move into houses and apartments “as supply becomes available”, which basically means whenever the market provides. Sadly it’s not providing, not even close.

In the meantime, they will be relying on hubs providing for less than two-thirds of affected families. To be fair, the adapted centres will be an improvement on hotels and nine are being purpose-built. This, sadly, is where it gets even worse for the Government's moribund vision. Let's take the former Mater Dei site as a prime example. Dublin City Council (DCC) earmarked €4.5 million to refurbish the former college complex to house 50 families, the first of which it welcomed in July.


High-tech accommodation

Sources say the project is likely to substantially overrun due to “many extras”, but the final cost won’t be officially known for months. Overall, the renovation was a success – DCC and its contract developers MOM turned it from a shabby wreck of a college into shiny new high-tech accommodation, a huge improvement on cramped hotels.

Residents will have rooms with key-fob access, as well as a secure playground, a laundry, a fully equipped computer room with free broadband, a cinema and industrial-standard kitchens. While the tenants (they'll pay between €37 and €45 a week) won't have their own kitchen, caterers will provide hot breakfasts and dinners. Their next-door neighbour is the property owner, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who lives in his palace on the Catholic Church's 36-acre estate. Modest Dr Martin likes to cook for himself and famously had a €77,000 Miele kitchen installed when he moved in.

The problem is, after ploughing millions into a magnificent revamp, the council must hand the property back to the archdiocese in less than three years. Somehow in the meantime the homeless crisis will have to be magically solved by the market. This is mirrored in every one of the family hubs, the longest lease being just five years. It starts to look like an incredible deal for the private owners.

They get back a terrifically refurbished, furnished and equipped building, paid for by taxpayers, that can be rented out for profit. Everything goes back to the owner and crucially, hundreds of units exit the social housing system. The Dublin archdiocese said it had not yet decided what it’s going to do at the end of its lease. The design and layout make it ideal for student letting, a red-hot market for landlords. On top of the deal of a lifetime, DCC is paying rent on the site, a figure it described as “nominal” but not nominal enough to make public.

When the Dáil returns in September from its 15th week of recess this year, expect to see smiling politicians cutting ribbons at family hubs. It’s a bittersweet moment for DCC. Privately, it says hubs are something it would never have pursued instead of modular builds. Under pressure from the Department of the Environment during Coveney’s tenure, the council paused its modular housing plan. Just 22 houses were built, and 131 will be added this year, after a media assault that mocked the scheme as prefabs “ghettoising the poor”.

Modular builds were launched in the innocent days of 2015, when 550 families were homeless in the city, precisely half the current figure. The council planned to build 500 units with a lifespan of 50-60 years. Instead, resources were pumped into family hubs with three- to five-year leases.

Volumetric builds

Expect "volumetric builds" to become the new buzz term. These are light-gauge steel-frame buildings manufactured off site and stacked on top of each other to form apartment blocks. This type of construction is now used in densely populated cities such as London where they can be erected quickly with minimal disruption. The Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy is banking on the volumetric solution, reiterating in July the Government's promise to build 47,000 social housing units over the next four years.

It's been a trademark of governments to promise the delivery of huge projects over a period that extends beyond a Dáil term. Just ask anyone waiting on broadband outside the Pale for a timeline of broken promises. The reality is Murphy's figures are preposterous. The modular project is already far behind, due to time and money spent on the shortsighted family hub plan pursued with irrational rigour by failed party leader contender Simon Coveney.

Despite Murphy’s target, not even one pilot scheme of volumetric apartments has been approved for tender in the city yet. They would be considered cost-effective at an estimated €150,000 per unit, but with building inflation, the longer it takes the more that price tag will rise. With only 131 modular houses and a handful of social houses from private developments entering the system this year, the grand 47,000 homes vision looks at best foolish and at worst disingenuous.

Even if development was to somehow dramatically increase, Murphy would have to find at least €7 billion, before 2021 and in the middle of Brexit, to fund it. That’s half an Apple tax bill, by the way. Not to worry, sure what’s another broken deadline?