In the past decade or so, there are two projects that I have worked on closely that I’d like to tell you about. The first of these: the post-2005 Dublin City Council apartment standards. The second: the vacant land levy. They weren’t universally popular, but we got them in place.
And here’s why I’m bringing them up: I think we can learn from these achievements as we work out what to do next, to ensure that we are delivering good-quality affordable homes in an attractive city environment.
In the 1990s and into the 2000s, there was growing public concern that the apartments being built were too low-quality. Words like “shoebox” were used. They were going to be the slums of the future.
Around 2005, city councillors decided that we [Dublin City Council] would have to review the apartment standards in place at the time. I was assigned to work full-time researching and devising and winning support for new standards.
What we came up with was a radical increase in apartment housing standards. For example, the minimum size of a one-bedroom apartment went from 37 square metres in the 1990s to 45 square metres in the 2000s – and it has now risen to 55 square metres.
The minimum floor-to-ceiling height was increased to 2.7 metres. Balcony and terrace areas were also significantly increased, as was the requirement for dual-aspect apartments.
There was huge and dogged opposition to these new standards from the Construction Industry Federation (CIF), estate agents, some developers, and, most strangely, from sections of the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland.
I should say that quite a few architects strongly supported the new standards. Also, some developers were supportive, saying they just wanted a level playing pitch so that every developer had to build to these standards.
In any case, the new standards were supported by city council management and overwhelmingly adopted by the councillors in 2007.
The opposition resurfaced during the preparation of the current development plan around 2010. And now it has emerged once more as the current development plan is being reviewed.
In many ways, the opposition is cynical. One developer who was opposed to the current standards, made the amazing statement that they are too low, for middle- or upper-income areas of the city.
So what is being sought is lower housing standards for regeneration areas of the city. What is being sought is poorer quality housing for poor people in poor areas.
One of the real answers to increasing the supply of good-quality, affordable housing is increasing the supply of – and lowering the price of – development land.
There are 60 hectares of vacant development land in the inner city of Dublin. As Paul Kearns and Motti Ruimy have said in Redrawing Dublin, this is despite 15 years of unprecedented economic boom (up to 2008) and tax breaks in some cases.
How can we explain this paradox? Land hoarding.
In a recent report, the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) stated that landowners “cooperated” and did not “compete” with one another. One developer said recently in the Sunday Business Post that 80 percent of development land is owned by people who have no intention of developing.
Thinking about this, I came up with the idea of a levy on vacant development land and proposed it to Oisin Quinn, as he was about to become Lord Mayor in 2013. I drafted the detailed submission to the government, proposing the levy.
Again, there was huge opposition from the CIF and others, similar to the opposition to the improved apartment standards. There was also great support, with people saying, “This is so obvious”, “Why do we not have this?”
Two years later, the levy is now in the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015. This is strikingly rapid progress on a contentious issue relating to land ownership. It is one of the most powerful pieces of planning and development legislation introduced in recent years.
To conclude, these are two very simple ideas: to increase the minimum floor area of apartments, and to place a cost on those who hoard land.
There was strong opposition to both initiatives. And also strong support. Both are now implemented.
So what comes next? We now need to look at the next simple, easy-to-implement initiatives to significantly improve our city and its housing.
This is an edited transcript of a talk that Kieran Rose gave at the recent Big Housing Debate at Liberty Hall on 14 October.