Workers’ Party Councillor Éilis Ryan has long been campaigning against the development of private housing on public land, trying to undo Dublin City Council’s flagship Housing Land Initiative, which seeks to work with developers to build a mix of social, affordable, and private housing on some of the city’s biggest council-owned sites.
Along the way, most councillors have voted against her.
On Monday night at City Hall, Ryan asked her colleagues to back an emergency motion to look at an alternative to the current plan making its way slowly through the council’s bureaucracy.
Her motion called for “a feasibility study for the delivery of public, cost-rental housing on each of the Housing Land Initiative sites”, referring in particular to sites at O’Devaney Gardens and Oscar Traynor Road.
As before, most councillors voted against her.
But the vote was closer: 20 voted for her motion, 32 voted against it, and one abstained. Labour councillors, some Green Party councillors, Fianna Fáil councillors and the Social Democrat councillor all said for different reasons that they feel less comfortable now with their vote earlier in this council term.
Sinn Féin councillors, who make up the biggest block among the 63 councillors, all voted bar one against Ryan’s motion on Monday, arguing that it would delay already-delayed projects, and that councillors had already gotten the best deal they could.
In early 2016, a vote in favour of the Housing Land Initiative was much more lopsided: 48 councillors voted for it, and only 9 voted against.
Is It Feasible?
The motion noted that it’s been almost five years since first mention of the vague outline of what would become the Housing Land Initiative.
But the council hasn’t signed any contracts to deliver those homes yet, Ryan said.
Earlier sites, such as in Cherry Orchard, were dropped from the plan after private developers showed little interest.
Some residents near St Michael’s Estate pushed for their land to be used for a cost-rental pilot, instead – an effort that appears to have been successful, as that’s the plan at the moment.
Rents and purchase prices are up in Dublin, so there is a real likelihood “that the private housing built on these sites will be out of reach of the majority of working households in need of housing”, the motion says.
Disposing of council land is final so it’s important to make sure that the council pursues the best possible option for delivering housing, it says.
It asked for a feasibility study for the delivery of public cost-rental housing on each of the Housing Land Initiative sites, as for St Michael’s Estate. “It doesn’t outlaw any options, including options which I personally am totally opposed to,” Ryan said.
“It allows councillors to decide whether or not there is a better option, that allows us to achieve council objectives for mixed-income housing without allowing any of those in need of housing to be preyed on by landlords, investors and speculators,” she said.
The study should be placed for debate on a full meeting of Dublin City Council at least one month before any disposal or contractual being relationship established for the O’Devaney Gardens site, the motion said. It was amended at the meeting to add Oscar Traynor Road, too.
Again and Again
It’s akin to “Peppa Pig politics”, said Sinn Féin’s Daithí Doolan, who is also head of the council’s housing committee. “You march up to the top of the hill and you march down again. Back up to the top of the hill and back down again.”
The plans for the sites, which needed buy-in from the Department of Housing and were agreed by councillors, were the best possible, with more than the usual 10 percent of social and affordable housing, he said. “We’re operating in the land of political reality.”
Emails between the Department of Housing and the Department of Public Expenditure last year show how reticent the government has been to borrow and spend money on affordable housing, and instead wanted councils to use their land to pay for them.
Doolan said the motion’s proposed feasibility study was only meant to thwart or delay the process. “That’s the reality of it,” he said.
That’s exactly what the people in St Michael’s Estate were told before they won a cost-rental scheme there, Ryan said. You don’t win public arguments with nice meetings, she said. “You win it by putting the government under pressure because we can’t fund public housing ourselves.”
Dublin City Council’s deputy chief executive, Brendan Kenny, said the council is making progress on the Housing Land Initiative sites, and that passing the motion would mean abandoning the process, which would be totally irresponsible. “That would set the project back three to five years.”
Ryan said she didn’t intend to create delays with the motion. “I don’t want any kind of delay but based on previous experience I don’t think we should put all our eggs in one basket.”
Kenny said once a developer is chosen for O’Devaney Gardens – in February or early March, he said – it’ll all move much faster.
Who Is Delaying?
Some councillors who spoke in support of the motion were those who had all along disagreed with the Housing Land Initiative.
“I think it’s worth a delay to retain public lands for public housing,” said Perry, an independent councillor, who said he didn’t see how cost-rental was only possible for St Michael’s Estate and not other areas.
Some councillors said that the delays so far with the Housing Land Initiative, and the worsening housing crisis, led them to back the motion.
Labour’s Rebecca Moynihan said had already been uncomfortable with the idea of the land initiative, and had become more so over the last couple of years. “Because of the amount that people are paying in private rents as opposed to what people are paying in mortgages.”
Moynihan said she had flipped on Ryan’s last motion for public housing on O’Devaney Gardens from support to opposition. That’s because she was told that O’Devaney Gardens, St Michael’s Estate, and the Oscar Traynor Road site were “shovel ready”, she says.
“The delays in the process since then have been unacceptable in terms of the delivery of homes,” said Moynihan, who is also pushing for affordable homes on the Player Wills site in Dublin 8.
She said she is worried about homes being built by the state, bought by investors, and rented back by the state through the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) scheme. She is also mindful that many homes bought in Dublin recently have been purchased as investments.
The motion doesn’t meant O’Devaney Gardens would be cost-rental, Moynihan said. It would just start a study to see if that’s feasible. “I think that is a very reasonable thing to do.”
In this five-year council term, the Housing Land Initiative was one of the few things that councillors had to actually deliver, said Green Party Councillor Patrick Costello. But “this has just been delayed again and again and again”.
Councillors for the north-central area of the city, where the Oscar Traynor lands are, have said they are frustrated with how slow progress has been to develop that site, with obstacles from changing building standards, not enough council staff to work on it and other projects, and the continued lack of an affordable-housing scheme.
Fianna Fáil’s Paul McAuliffe also said it would be five years before that came before councillors and he didn’t know whether going to the private market was the best way to develop that site. “I don’t know because I don’t have any numbers.”
It is reasonable for councillors to have those feasibility studies, he says. “It doesn’t look for delay, it doesn’t look for a change in policy.”
The council’s chief executive, Owen Keegan, said there was political agreement between the councillors and the minister which underpinned the Housing Land Initiative. “We went out in good faith to the market to give effect to that agreement,” he said.
Everybody wants good housing built on these sites, he said. “At every stage […] members have been trying to stop it,” Keegan said.
Ryan said delays so far have been caused by a flawed process, changes to building standards, and the lack of an affordable-housing scheme. “Those have been the sticking points,” she said.
[UPDATE: This article was updated on 26 November at 19:14 to make it clear that one Sinn Féin councillor voted for the motion for a feasibility study.]