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Una Mullally: Banning of bedsits set in train housing disaster

Cheap form of city accommodation was replaced by pricey studios and one-beds

Once upon a time, bedsits were banned. The ban was brought in under section 6 of the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations in 2009, with a four-year grace period until the ban for existing properties came into force in 2013. At the time, there was pushback from landlords and others who said that while there were obviously issues with standards, cheap accommodation serves a purpose.

On reflection, it would have been a good idea to instruct landlords to embark upon raising the quality and standard for bedsits while, and this is key, maintaining their cheaper rent. But that’s not what happened. Bedsits were banned, and then Eoghan Murphy introduced new design standards for planning authorities, which meant in real terms that flats could be smaller again, but the rent would keep going up.

Nothing good came of this mess. And now we have a studio-flat boom, with none of the benefits of low rental cost for people on lower incomes, or on no incomes at all. You will have noticed the enthusiasm with which developers are flooding schemes with studio flats and one-bedroom flats. Analysts who live by the stats will say that we have a dearth of one-beds in the city and that we need them. That’s true. But affordability is missing from the conversation. The point of studio flats (effectively bedsit accommodation plus a private bathroom, remarketed and made fancy so the rent can be expensive) is that they’re cheap. That’s not what’s happening. These studio flats will be rented out at multiples of what the old-school bedsits were.

The enthusiasm with which some economists and analysts greet studio flats and one-beds misses the basic idea that small flats should be cheap

What happened with the bedsit ban was that a layer of inexpensive accommodation was stripped out of parts of Dublin in particular, but other cities too, leaving people – many already vulnerable to eviction or arrears – out on their ear. And that cheap accommodation was never replaced with something decent at similar prices. Instead, people on very low or no incomes, were left to compete with everyone else for shelter.


Pokey bedrooms

Substandard accommodation in Dublin city still exists. At some of the evictions I’ve attended over the past couple of years, the accommodation is appalling. Pokey bedrooms, shared bathrooms, hardly any living space, poor ventilation, zero evidence of any kind of fire safety – this is still going on. Bunk beds clutter small bedrooms where poor migrant workers live. This is all bad. But what it does show is that many people need cheap accommodation because that’s all they can afford. But instead, what is being spun is the need for small-sized accommodation without the correlating small cost.

Many people need cheap accommodation because that's all they can afford. But what is being spun is the need for small-sized accommodation without the correlating small cost

It’s not enough to harp on about how we need studio flats and one-bedroom flats. We have to address affordability. Anyone who thinks the wave of studio and one-bed, build-to-rent schemes will address the needs of people who need cheap accommodation is delusional. What developers have done, very obviously, is use the need for one-bedroom flats as a way to squeeze as many “units” as possible into developments without addressing affordability.

The enthusiasm with which some economists and analysts greet the development of studio flats and one-beds based on stats alone, misses the very basic idea that small flats should be cheap. And thanks to the dominance of institutional investors in the market due to Fine Gael’s policies, these studios and one-beds won’t be cheap. So everything gets distorted. Instead of rooting policy in affordability and decent standards, it’s about the numbers of “units” and the ensuing profits. Supply without reduction in rent does not tackle the greatest stress of this crisis on people, which is that it’s financially crippling.

Investment vs function

We also know that the more institutional investors embed themselves in cities and countries, the harder it is to actually return to a normal housing market. Recent research on institutional investors in European cities by economics professors at the University of the West of England and Berlin’s Free University has show how housing has become an asset-class investment divorced from its actual function.

“This study shows how large investors are playing Monopoly with our homes, focusing only on returns, rather than providing a place to live,” the Dutch MEP Kim van Sparrentak said in reaction to the study, as reported by the Guardian.

Back in Ireland, the vast game of Monopoly continues. The Government is sleepwalking through this phase of development with an “all supply is good supply” mantra, and anyone who wants to discuss basic things such as light, storage, quality, community, street life, streetscapes, amenities and communities’ needs being met, is seen as obstructionist or somehow old-fashioned or anti-progress. This is nonsense. The media has a role to play in interrogating the very obvious bad outcomes of this situation in terms of urbanism and community-building, yet many commentators are still peddling the mind-numbingly myopic “nimby” narratives, as if participating in the planning process is a crime.

When the pokey places fly up priced at what used to be the cost of much bigger flats, we’ll have a government in five or 10 years’ time wringing its hands about what to do with all of these unaffordable studio flats. For now, developers are getting high on their own supply, with the Government’s encouragement.