16 January, 2017

Too many students?

There's been a lot of Planning Applications for student housing in recent years, particularly in the north inner city. The map above shows some of those planning application that I've noted in the last year or so, and if you click on the link you can zoom in or out. I've counted planning applications for 6,000 bed spaces in the North Inner City alone, and that's just in the last three years. Local residents are apprehensive about the impact of such development, and we need to get it right.

Across the River Liffey in the Liberties, on Bonham Street almost 500 bed spaces have been provided in an impressive development designed by O'Mahony Pike Architects. It seems to fit in well, and provides a nice way to walk from Usher's Island up to James's Street through the Digital Hub past the remnants of the old St. Patrick's Windmill. The first residents moved in six months ago, and I  haven't heard any complaints so far about the impact, and it seems to me to be a good addition to the neighbourhood. Years ago I remember a packed-out meeting of residents when Trinity Hall was being proposed in Dartry. Listening to the nearby residents it seemed like an Armageddon of drunkenness, relocated traffic cones and bus stop signs was about to descend on that fairly well-heeled neighbourhood. It seemed not to have occurred.

It is important that this type of accommodation is really well managed, and that the everyday issues such as waste bins and construction traffic are well taken care of. Some of these proposals are a bit over-scaled for their surroundings, and there are concerns about over-looking and over-shadowing. In addition there is a very real fear that an over-concentration of students in one area might make life difficult for existing residents. 

On the plus side they will take some of the pressure off existing housing, where rents and prices have sky-rocketed again in recent years. The real solution to a housing shortage is to build more housing! In addition, with a large construction phase of the new Dublin Institute of Technology campus at Grangegorman, these new developments will attract students to live near their campus which makes sense.

One of the interesting things has been that the developers aren't looking for vast amounts of car parking, and the planners haven't looked for it either. Some of them have no car parking whatsoever. This makes sense, as journeys in the inner city are more likely to be made by foot or bike or public transport. If we can't get students to travel using sustainable means, then what hope do we have in persuading others to do so? It will put pressure though on nearby areas that don't have a residential disc parking scheme in place, but that's inevitable as the city copes with a growing population.

I've made my own views known on several of these applications over the last few months, and you can see my observations on Prussia Street, the North Circular Road and Stoneybatter at these links. I've invited in our senior planning staff to make a presentation to Dublin City Council's Central Area Committee next month. We'll see what they have to say. One issue that's been on mind is as follows: We set lower space standards for students in our Development Plan (under pressure from the then Minister for Housing Alan Kelly). If the demand for student housing doesn't materialise, will we be easily able to convert these lower-specified units into regular housing for others?

03 January, 2017

Tackling decades of dereliction

What an extraordinary story!

Just a day after my rant about the new Vacant Sites Levy I get an email from someone in Phibsborough, upset about the continued dereliction of buildings on his street.

"I wonder if you can help. Myself & other residents of Connaught St, Phibsboro have been engaged with Dublin City Council for almost a decade regarding three derelict addresses, Numbers 7, 19 & 21 – the only three vacant on our thriving strip of ~150 family homes. But we are now stuck.
               
"These three properties are under three different ownerships, and each has been left unoccupied since the 1980s. In 2012 the state of dereliction became so awful, that Dublin City Council had to buttress, and make emergency repairs to prevent the terrace coming down. At that point, all three properties were on the Register of Derelict Sites. Dublin City Council made emergency repairs to the roofs & outer brickwork, and boarded up all accesses as shown in the images below.
                Locals were under the impression thereafter that the sites were in the process of being acquired by Dublin City Council. In December 2016, after inquiry, we find that there is no process ... in train, and that the sites are no longer on the Register of Derelict Sites.
                
"The impossible aspect of the problem as we see it is this:
·         In 2012 when there was no Housing Crisis, but the sites were derelict. Dublin City Council Boarded them up.
·         In 2017 when the Council’s Housing Development unit is actively looking to acquire such properties to meet the housing crisis, they cannot – as the houses are boarded up too neatly, and thus are not derelict."


 Ironically the new Vacant Site Levy won't apply as the houses between them only amount to 400 square metres, including the back garden and the threshold for inclusion is 500 square metres.

I've replied to the resident saying that I'll submit the following Question for written reply by Owen Keegan next month.

“That the Chief Executive present a report on actions that Dublin City has  taken to render 19 & 21 Connaught Street, Phibsborough, Dublin 7 non-derelict, and to present any opinion that he may have (including advice from the Law Agent) indicating that the properties are no longer derelict given that they are boarded up, have Buddleia bushes growing out of the roofs, and decaying masonry, and are located in a Residential Conservation Area, and could he outline what action he now intends to take to ensure that these homes are made available to assist in the tackling of Dublin’s housing crisis. Furthermore would he agree that the empty state of these homes for more than a decade necessitates a more proactive approach by the Council?”

From my perspective as a councillor it seems that we need to broaden the definition of what constitutes a derelict or vacant site, and lobby Minister Simon Coveney to set the minimum threshold at 100 sq. m. rather than the current 500 sq. m. in the 2015 Urban Regeneration and Housing ActWe also need to get the Vacant Sites Register up and running as soon as possible, and I've already written to Owen Keegan asking him to do so. 

I'll keep you posted. 


31 December, 2016

Apollo House: time for a new space programme?

Rows about Apollo House aren't in anyone's best interests,  least of all those in chronic need of housing.


 I only wish though that more of the goodwill and endorsement channelled towards Home Sweet Home could be directed towards accepting higher taxes to pay for decent housing for those in need.The remarks of Dublin City Council's Chief Executive Owen Keegan in an interview in the Irish Independent didn't help however. He dismissed the occupation of Apollo House as a stunt, and this was bound to cause anger and resentment. I suspect his remarks were prompted by a certain frustration over the work that the Council does that isn't recognised. The provision of 70 bed spaces at Little Britain Street, another 70 on Benburb Street and on Francis Street, and 20 more in the Civil Defence building at Wolfe Tone Quay haven't been in the limelight, even though they amount to five times as many as are currently being provided by Home Sweet home at Apollo House.

What many people also fail to recognise is that most of the capital funding for housing comes from central government, and Dublin City Council doesn't have the powers to simply get out there and build, much as we would like to. Ultimately Minister Simon Coveney and his colleagues in cabinet make the call on how much is spent on housing. In recent years this has been informed by the Fiscal Space that we operate under, and this is determined by European Union rules and in a nutshell limits the amount of money that we can spend on housing. What we should be doing though is shifting the capital spending around significantly. It simply doesn't make sense for Government to be be spending €400 million on gold-plated road schemes when thousands of families are living in sub-standard temporary accommodation. We must spend more money on homes and less on roads, and this is what Coveney should be arguing for at Cabinet.




We've also got to recognise that Housing Associations are not the only game in town when it comes to housing for those on lower incomes.  Local Authorities should be funded to build decent quality housing schemes, just as they did in the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s. We also need to ensure that such housing isn't just reserved for people on the lowest 10% of incomes, we need to implement a Cost Rental model that encourages people on different incomes to lives in the same building and thus combat the segregation that bedevils housing policy in Ireland.

New forms of funding are also required. We should redouble our efforts to draw down European Investment Bank funding for housing. If we can do it for motorways, surely we can do it for homes. We must also follow the lead of other European countries and use some of our semi-state pension funds for housing. The irony of the CIE group having €1.5 Bn. in a pension fund that goes into the UK markets while the sons and daughters of Dublin Bus workers can't access housing is acute. Its also worth noting that over one hundred years ago the privately owned Midland Great Western Railway Company built the beautiful Great Western Square in Phibsborough for their key workers, this should also happen in the twenty-first century.

Vacancy rates need to be looked at in existing housing. In Dublin's North Inner City, the area that I represent as a councillor there were 67,309 residents in 2011. However there were also 5,095 vacant households. an astonishingly high number. Sure there will always be vacant homes, but reforms are required. Probate should be speeded up so that buildings aren't left empty for years. The Derelict Sites levy should be increased from 3% to 10% of the value per years, so that owners of vacant property refurbish them and let them out more quickly, (and that should include state owned buildings), and vacant sites should be built on or the owners forced to sell them on. The Living City Scheme should be simplified and extended so that older buildings become a good refurbishment opportunity. I look forward to someone answering the phone in Dublin City Council and saying "Living City Scheme, how can I help?" 

Self-build housing can also contribute to solving the housing crisis. In Amsterdam groups of prospective home owners are being sold sites by the City Council, and are pooling their resources to put a roof over their heads. This can and should be an objective of Dublin City Council.

As NAMA recoups a significant amount of the value from the loans that it manages, and as Ireland's economy improves we should consider legislative changes that would focus its mission statement more firmly on the housing crisis, and ensure that  key sites have a significant proportion of affordable housing linked into their development.

The Home Sweet Home initiative at Apollo House is working, as it is putting pressure on Simon Coveney, the Minister for Housing to deliver and prioritise housing. However we should recognise the work that is being engaged in by Dublin City Council to tackle homelessness as well as the constraints that they operate under.

The name Apollo House reminds me of America's Space Program, which was kick-started by JFK's speech in 1962 where he announced that "We choose to go to the Moon". The moon landing occurred less than  eight years after he gave that speech. In 2016 we need a space program in Ireland, but one that resolves to provide living space for all, and end homelessness before a decade is out.

20 August, 2016

Debtors' Prison Occupation

Called in to the Debtors' Prison today and had a chat with Ania, James and some others who've been squatting there for the last week. They seem to have moved there from the Grangegorman squat on North King Street.  That site is due to become student housing. Back in the 1990s as a member of the Green Street Trust I worked with some creative people to save the building.  At that stage it was due to be demolished for road widening, but thankfully things have moved on. It's good to see another occupation drawing attention to the significant number of underused and empty buildings in the city while we're in the midst of a housing crisis. Here's a few scattered notes of my thoughts at this stage.

1. It's good to see new life in this historic old building, and hopefully this action will put pressure on the Office of Public Works to find a new long-term tenant for the building.

2. On 15 August 2016 Mr Justice Michael Hanna granted Department of Public Expenditure and the Office of Public Works (OPW) an injunction compelling the group to leave the building so it looks like eviction may happen soon.

3. The building currently has electricity, but not working toilets, so a long-term occupation would be challenging.

4. Although the building has been empty for the best part of a generation, the OPW has undertaken some much needed lighting, drainage and structural improvements over the last ten years. Income from filming has contributed to funding this.

5. Over the last couple of years I've been in the building several times. Several arts organisations such as Block T and Broadstone Studios may be interested in taking space in the building. It would be worth meeting with them to further the project.

6. Build alliances with local representatives and residents.  It is  worth seeking support from the eight local city councillors, and the three local TDs, as well as Minister Seán Canney, Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works and Flood Relief.

7. Show that you're safety conscious. The building has holes in the floor, and doesn't have a working fire alarm system. This probably means that the City Council will want to move you out sooner rather than later, and this may be an insurmountable problem. Unless you can show that you're on top of this you'll be moved out really quickly.

8. Produce a clear vision for what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it. People will find it difficult to support you unless you have clear aims and objectives.

9. Once you have a clear idea on what you want to achieve, move quickly to establish a structure to achieve this. This may be a cooperative, a company or a charity, but unless there's clarity on this it'll be hard to convince others to support you.

10. Spread the word. Flyers and a Facebook page with lots of likes is a start, but you'll need a website, a spokesperson and a clear concise message for the media, the general public and everyone else.

They're having an open day on Sunday 21st August 2016 at 4pm.

I hope it goes well for them.
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