Dublin city councillors are backing plans for the council to develop 420 social and affordable homes on council-owned land at St Michael’s Estate in Inchicore.
The council’s South-Central Area Committee and housing committee have supported the new plans proposed by Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan, under which the council would develop the site itself as 100 percent social and affordable housing.
“If it works, it’s a game changer for financing of public housing,” says Doolan.
He wants to shelve the current plans, approved by the council in January, to get a private developer to build homes on the council-owned site. Those plans commit to providing 50 percent private, 30 percent social housing and 20 percent affordable-rental.
Doolan says that if the pilot gets the go-ahead from the Department of Housing, the council will provide more social housing, and all the private housing will be affordable purchase or “rent-to-buy”.
Rent-to-buy is aimed at people who have a sufficient salary to qualify for a mortgage, but don’t have a deposit.
The St Michael’s Regeneration Board want to see the entire site retained in public ownership, and would prefer if the affordable homes were cost-rental rather than affordable purchase, says community activist Rita Fagan. It is “public land, once it’s gone it’s gone, you can’t get it back”, she says.
A draft proposal for a similar development has already been submitted to the Department of Housing by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. That council wants to build 200 social, 200 affordable and 140 rent-to-buy homes on land it owns at Shanganagh.
Will It Happen?
This is not the first time that Dublin city councillors have called for a site to be developed as 100 percent social and affordable housing.
In July 2016, they voted for a motion from Workers’ Party’s Éilis Ryan under which the council-owned land at O’Devaney Gardens was to be developed for 100 percent social and affordable rental housing.
But in September, the council, led by Sinn Féin, did an about-face and rescinded its support for the plan, instead backing a plan for 50-percent private, 30-percent social and 20-percent affordable housing on the O’Devaney Gardens site.
Sinn Féin’s Doolan argued at the time that that housing allocation was the best possible outcome. He said Ryan’s 100-percent motion was “aspirational” but unrealistic under a Fine Gael minister.
At the time, Dublin City Council’s executive housing manager, Anthony Flynn, told the Irish Times that Ryan’s proposal was “incompatible with planning permission”.
This time is different, says Doolan. Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy has reacted positively to the idea of a mixed social-and-affordable development, he says, and the city council management is on board with it too.
The senior civil servants in the Department of Housing remain to be convinced, says Doolan. “Obviously there is a battle ahead of us.”
But he is determined that the pilot will go ahead. “This is going to be our trailblazer,” he says.
However, the official line from Dublin City Council is that the plans passed in January 2017 for St Michael’s are still going ahead, including 50 percent private housing.
The council “approved the Housing Land Initiative process for the development of this site”, said a spokesperson. “This process is underway, and Submissions of Interest from Developers will be advertised for early in 2018.”
The Lands Initiative is a council-led plan that comprises three council-owned sites: Oscar Traynor Road in Coolock, O’Devaney Gardens, and St Michael’s Estate in Inchicore. It’s proposed to work with private developers to build roughly 1,345 homes on these council-owned sites.
Doolan says one of the reasons the councillors selected St Michael’s for the pilot is that the other two Lands Initiative sites, Oscar Traynor Road and O’Devaney Gardens, are further along in the process of securing private developers to work with to build on those sites.
If the Department of Housing greenlights the pilot, the council will develop St Michael’s along the lines of what is in the current plans, says Doolan.
That means they’ll build around 420 homes, a mixture of houses and apartments, as well as some retail units. The homes will include one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments and duplexes in blocks with a maximum height of five storeys.
“It will be high-density,” says Doolan.
The Department of Housing will have to cough up a lot of money up front, but much of that will be recouped when the affordable-purchase properties are sold on, he said. And the department has repeatedly said there’s no lack of money for housing.
Much of the detail of the proposed pilot will be made available in the coming weeks, Doolan says. So far the amount of social housing isn’t set in stone, but Doolan says it will be more than the 30 percent allowed for in the current plans.
There is no affordable-purchase scheme in operation, so it is not certain who would qualify to buy the homes at St Michael’s. Doolan suggests using the same qualification brackets as for council mortgages.
According to figures provided by a council spokesperson, income levels for council mortgages are from €25,000 to €50,000 for a single applicant, and from €35,000 to €75,000 for a couple.
In its proposals, officials in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council suggested that a couple on between €45,000 and €90,000 might qualify for the affordable-purchase scheme. But Green Party Councillor Ossian Smyth cautions that those are draft guidelines.
It can be difficult to decide who gets to buy affordable homes, as many people might want the opportunity to purchase one.
Sometimes a lottery system is employed, and this was done in the Docklands, says Doolan. It was set up so that locals were given a higher chance of success, as were those who were handing back a social-housing home to the local authority. “Locals got two bites of the cherry,” he says.
Another potential model would be to hand the land over to a co-op and let them develop it – inspired by the homes built by the Ó Cualann Cohousing Alliance in Ballymun.
Doolan doesn’t expect the homes in Inchicore to be as cheap as those in Ballymun, where some two-bedroom homes sold for €140,000.
Many homes in the St Michael’s Estate development would be apartments, which are more expensive to build because of the cost of lifts and underground parking, says Doolan.
But “we own the land so we should be able to reduce the costs significantly”, he says.
He also hopes that many of the homes in St Michael’s Estate wouldn’t need parking spaces, as the estate is close to the Drimnagh Luas stop.
Across the City
The proposal for St Michael’s Estate is similar to the more detailed proposals that councillors at Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council have worked up for the site at Shanganagh Castle near Shankill.
Councillors there have agreed that the council itself should develop the site, which used to be an open prison. They’re planning a mix of social, affordable and rent-to-buy homes.
The original plan was to sell some of the lands and use that money to build the social housing, says Councillor Smyth. So “it’s a big deal to have the council agree to build the entire thing”, he says. “Affordable and social mixed in together, it is a good thing.”
The council is seeking €100 million in funding from the Department of Housing, but much of that money will be recouped from the sale of the affordable units, he says. “They haven’t said yes yet, but I certainly hope they will.”
According to the draft proposals, the affordable homes would be sold for at least 25 to 30 percent below market rates.
The rent-to-buy scheme allows those who qualify for a mortgage but don’t have a deposit to rent for a set period, and then get the chance to buy the home. The rent payments are counted towards their deposit, Smyth says.
The proposals also set out a clawback mechanism for when people sell on their affordable home.
If the occupant sells within the first 10 years, they would have to give 50 percent of the profit on the sale to the local authority. If they sell it after 10 years, the local authority would recoup a levy of €50,000 to compensate for the site it gave the owner for free.
There would also have to be a clawback built into the affordable-purchase homes at St Michael’s Estate, says Doolan.
Rita Fagan, of the St Michael’s Estate Regeneration Board, says that her team believes the “public land should remain public, that public housing should be built there”.
Ideally, that would mean half of the homes would be social housing, and the other half would be affordable rental, she said. “In the time of a housing crisis, the state should not be giving away its land,” she says.
Fagan said she is concerned that the current plans don’t provide as much social housing in St Michael’s Estate as there used to be.
There were 340 social homes in St Michael’s Estate and some have been rebuilt, she said. But if the plan goes ahead, there will still be less social housing there in total when it is finished. “We are short 100 homes,” she says.
If the affordable homes are purchased, then they could also be sold on and rented out, Fagan said.
People Before Profit Councillor Tina MacVeigh says that if the council allows developers to build private housing on public land, there won’t be enough land left to build the public housing that the city needs.
People Before Profit prefer the idea of extending public housing to a greater range of income levels to create a social mix; creating a social mix is a reason sometimes offered as to why 100 percent social housing should not be built.
The most expensive part of housing is land, and she said she would support some element of affordable purchase, but only if the council retains ownership of the land.
Last summer, one group of Dubliners put forward the idea of a community land trust on the site, as a way to make sure that any affordable-purchase schemes don’t become a one-generation giveaway, and so that any increase in land value benefits the local community.
Said MacVeigh: “I’m for 100 percent publicly lead housing on St Michael’s Estate. Any schemes that are put in place to facilitate people to access the kind of housing that suits them I’d support … as long as the land remains within the ownership of the council.”
[CORRECTION: This article was updated on 14 Dec. at 16.56 to make it clear that councillors, not officials, at Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council worked up plans for the site at Shanganagh Castle.]