Councillors Vote Through Deal to Redevelop O’Devaney Gardens After Fraught Debate

At about 9.25pm on Monday night, as councillors debated a major deal to develop houses on council land at O’Devaney Gardens with a private developer, a protester began to shout from the back of the room.

“Homes for Need. Not for Greed,” one shouted, others joining in.

“Shame, shame, shame on you,” another yelled, before they left their seats to stride around the well at the centre of the council chamber in Dublin City Hall.

Lord Mayor Paul McAuliffe moved quickly to call the vote.

With 39 in favour, 18 against, and 1 abstention, councillors backed a deal with Bartra Capital Property that, if a commitment separate to the main contract is stuck to, will see 192 social homes, 165 “affordable” purchase homes, 164 private market-rate homes, and 247 homes on some kind of “affordable” rental or “cost rental” model.

Promising that a slice of the homes would be “affordable” rental or “cost rental” was a recent update to the proposals.

Councillors who backed the deal said it was the best they could get in the current climate and that it would bring much-needed affordable and social homes without further delay. They’d inherited the scheme from the last council, they said.

“This is a proposal that will produce a good neighbourhood to live in in the long-term and not an empty wasteland while we wait for the perfect conditions to arise,” said Green Party Councillor Neasa Hourigan.

Those who opposed the deal – some long-time dissenters, others who flipped more recently – criticised putting private homes on public land, the cost of the “affordable” purchase homes, and the lack of clarity around what exactly the “affordable” rental deal would mean.

“The more I see the plan the more I am convinced it is an actual giveaway with millions in government and council subsidies, and minimal community facilities provided by the developer,” said independent Councillor Cieran Perry.

A Long History

Almost three years ago, councillors on the Sinn Féin-led council voted to press ahead with a vision for an O’Devaney Gardens redevelopment with 50 percent private homes, 30 percent social homes, and 20 percent “affordable”. For that vote, 53 were in favour and 8 against.

They had earlier voted for the redevelopment to be 100 percent public housing. But after negotiations with then-Housing Minister Simon Coveney, councillors had backtracked.

The project progressed through the tendering process, and the local elections in May changed the balance of power on Dublin City Council, putting in charge a coalition including Fianna Fáil, the Green Party, Labour and the Social Democrats.

Last month, this new council was asked whether to accept an offer from Bartra to move ahead with redeveloping the site along the lines the previous council had set out. Instead, they decided to defer the vote.

In a last-minute intervention, Fine Gael Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy said that he would pull funding for the project if they sought to change direction.

But many in the new ruling coalition had said they were not happy once they’d seen the details of the plan. Long-time dissenters in People Before Profit and some independents were still against it, too.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin councillors – who had driven the original plan – said they couldn’t support it because of the price tags of the “affordable” purchase homes.

The Deal

From time to time, throughout the meeting on Monday of more than three hours, the doors at either end of the council chamber were pushed open and chants of a crowd of protestors, stood at the top of the steps outside City Hall, drifted up the stairs.

“What do we want?”

“Public housing on public land.”

“Whose land?”

“Our land.”

Built in 1954, O’Devaney Gardens once had 272 social homes. Plans to redevelop the site with a private developer in the mid-2000s fell apart with the economic crash, but the council continued to gradually move people out, and the last buildings were demolished in 2018, leaving the site open to redevelop.

Under the current plan for the site, Bartra is to develop 768 homes on the land, according to a report from Brendan Kenny, Dublin City Council’s head of housing.

On top of that, the council is building another 56 social homes separately, next door – bringing the total number of homes to 824.

Of that total, 248 homes would be social housing, 165 would be “affordable” purchase, and 411 would be private, the report says.

The change since last month is a commitment from Bartra CEO Michael Flannery to offer some of those 411 private homes – at the moment, the idea is for 247 of them – to an approved housing body to buy to use for some kind of affordable rental or cost rental.

“It would be a challenge for an approved housing body to develop cost rental on this site,” said Kenny, at the meeting. But the council is happy to work with them to try to make it happen, he said.

The council reports for the agreed plan said the prices for the social and affordable purchase units would be fixed, and the city would also get infrastructure on the land, roads, a public park, and a creche.

The council would also get €7 million cash payment to offset what it has already spent, of which at least €3 million would be ring-fenced for community and cultural facilities nearby.

Torn

Last month, when councillors deferred voting on the deal, they did so because they were hoping to find a way to change parts of it, some of them said. But major changes from what had been procured might open the council up to legal challenges.

Councillors from the main parties backing the new deal stressed that this was an arrangement that new councillors elected in May had inherited, and that it wasn’t one they would choose if they were starting again, planning the project from scratch.

Fianna Fáil Councillor Mary Fitzpatrick talked about how bad the housing crisis had got, and how O’Devaney Gardens had been talked about for years as land with potential for homes. “I’m really torn on this issue,” she said.

Hourigan, the Green Party councillor, said she had watched O’Devaney fall into dereliction as friends and neighbours are pushed into homeless accommodation. “Is this my preferred way to deliver housing in the state? Absolutely not.”

Councillors had deferred the vote to try to find alternatives – and there were alternatives but they would require a different housing minister and government, she said.

As Social Democrats Councillor Gary Gannon began to speak, a housing protestor in the stands, Patrick Nelis, began to heckle – calling him a “sell-out”.

Said Gannon, picking up on it: “I want to own that.”

If he was selling out, he wanted to make it clear that his terms were social and affordable homes for those who come into his clinic in crisis, he said.

Some people in the chamber would sacrifice people to faceless markets and others to ideological purity, he said. “I don’t live in a market and I don’t live in a utopia.”

It was the Housing Land Initiative, the flagship plan started in the council chamber four years earlier, that had left councillors in this position, Gannon said.

“I believe it is an absolute travesty that in order to deliver public housing on publicly owned land, we need to first line the pockets of a developer in this city,” he said.

Another Option

Gannon said he respected councillors who had demonstrated their convictions going back four years – who had voted consistently against this plan.

“There are others who have demonstrated immense cowardice and they’re playing politics with people’s lives and it is grotesquely unfair and I want you to know that I see you,” he said.

Some of those who spoke against the plan had campaigned against the arrangement since its earliest days.

The deal on the table was bad for the council, the taxpayer, and those suffering from the housing crisis, said independent Councillor Perry.

Perry said he wanted to tackle the idea there was no alternative, he said. “We simply want a northside version of what they’re getting in Inchicore. Is that too much to ask?”

Perry was talking about plans for a “cost-rental” development at St Michael’s Estate in Inchicore, an affordable-housing model whereby rents are pegged to the costs of building and maintaining housing rather market rates.

Tina MacVeigh of People Before Profit said the O’Devaney deal was a massive transfer of public wealth: “There is no way we are going to support this.”

Around Affordable Purchase

Council housing head Brendan Kenny’s reports to councillors said that the 20 percent “affordable” purchase homes at O’Devaney would cost an average of €300,000, and the dearest will cost €310,000.

That’s metered off the developer’s market price with subsidies. For each home, there’s a discount from the developer of 20 percent, a further €50,000 from the government’s Serviced Sites Fund, and €10,000 waived in development levies, a council report says.

Sinn Féin councillors opposed the deal on the table on Monday, saying the proposed affordable homes were too expensive – that the average loan wouldn’t cover it.

“The affordable housing is way beyond the reach of ordinary people,” said Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan.

The biggest loan given so far under the Rebuilding Ireland Home Loan scheme has been €288,000 and, in the Dublin City Council area, the average loan has been €188,000, he said.

Doolan said he had driven the Housing Land Initiative as head of the council’s housing committee before May’s local elections and that it was an imperfect solution. But “it was never our preferred option”, he said.

Sinn Féin wanted to go back to the drawing board, Doolan said, and press for one-third affordable, one-third council homes, and one-third cost-rental on the O’Devaney site.

Social Democrats Councillor Catherine Stocker said councillors are operating within the constraints of the legacy deal created by Sinn Féin councillors pre-May and negotiated with the Fine Gael housing minister.

“I would love to have the option of ideological purity on this,” Stocker said. But ideological purity wouldn’t put roofs over the heads of those who could be homed in the social and affordable homes, she said.

She took issue with Doolan’s figures. With a Rebuilding Ireland Home Loan, applicants could get €288,000, and with a 10 percent deposit on top of that they could get one of the top-priced homes at O’Devaney, she said.

Labour’s Alison Gilliland said she too had been torn by the situation. “And particularly the financial options open to us.”

Gilliland said people had mentioned taxpayers’ money, and that it would go to a private developer – and that was true.

But she was considering the cost to taxpayers of families in private tenancies in receipt of the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) and families in costly emergency accommodation.

“Let’s look at a conservative three-year wait if we were to go back to scratch,” she said. They’d spend roughly €31 million on HAP and emergency accommodation in that time, she said.

“We don’t have options, we have to deal with realities,” she said.

The “Affordable Rental” Deal

The big change from last month, when councillors delayed voting and said they’d seek a better deal, and this month, when they voted to back the deal, was the offer of “affordable” rental housing on the site.

The deal on the table last month included 248 social homes, 165 “affordable” homes for sale, and 411 market-rate private homes.

After that, though, Bartra Capital Property CEO Michael Flannery said the company would be willing to enter into an “option arrangement” with the council, or its nominee, which would give the council the right to buy some or all of the 411 private “at the average prices per unit type” set out in Bartra’s final tender.

This could help, for example, the council or an AHB get another 30 percent of the total units to use as an affordable or cost-rental scheme, the letter says.

To give Bartra certainty, the council and the Department of Housing would need to tell Bartra whether, and to what extent, it wants to exercise that option “within a reasonable timeframe” of signing the development agreement, Flannery’s letter says.

At the council meeting, Fine Gael Councillor Ray McAdam said he had concerns over the funding for the cost-rental proposal. “Therefore we would like clarity on four points,” he said.

He asked when an AHB had been chosen to do the project, whether an exact sales price had been agreed, and whether the Department of Housing advised about that.

He asked, too, what discussions there had been with the Irish Council for Social Housing around AHBs being on-balance sheet, and the impact of that. He asked whether the council had engaged with the Housing Finance Agency.

If an entity is classified as being off balance sheet, its revenue, expenditure and borrowing are of no relevance in the calculation of general government revenue, expenditure or borrowing.

Meanwhile, independent Councillor Anthony Flynn said the agreement around the affordable rental was still smoke, mirrors, and promises – with nothing legal yet. “There’s no commitments,” he said. (Bartra’s letter isn’t legally binding.)

Perry, the independent councillor, asked where the money was going to come from, to buy back the 247 homes at market rates so they could then be used for affordable rental. “How will the 30 percent affordable actually be affordable if it’s based on what we’re paying for them?” he asked.

Whether the Department of Housing will agree to help fund the affordable rental or cost-rental homes is unclear. Its press office hasn’t yet responded to queries about that, sent on Tuesday morning.

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Lois Kapila: Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's editor and general assignment reporter. She covers housing and land, too. Want to share a comment or a tip? You can reach her at lois@dublininquirer.com.

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