Councillors Delay Vote on Selling Site in Phibsboro to Approved Housing Body

Last Saturday, on Berkeley Street in Phibsboro, a student answered the door at James McSweeney House – a social-housing complex for the elderly.

More than a year ago, Cabhru Housing Association Services (CHAS), the charity that runs the complex, was criticised for moving out its elderly social-housing tenants, and renting instead to students.

CHAS’s plan – as was said at the time – is to demolish this three-storey red-brick complex and rebuild it with more social housing. In the meantime, though, they’re still renting it out to students, and some of the original residents are still living there too.

On Tuesday last week, at a meeting of Dublin City Council’s Central Area Committee, council managers proposed that councillors sell the site to CHAS for a minimal sum – as they do with land sometimes to approved housing bodies – so it can press ahead with its plans.

But some councillors said they’re reluctant to do so, worried about this past treatment of elderly tenants.

A CHAS spokesperson said, by email, that they have a duty of care to ensure that elderly tenants have high-quality homes, and they have received professional advice that they need to demolish and rebuild the complex.

The Plan and the Past

At the moment, CHAS has a 99-year lease on the land at James McSweeney House.

The charity has applied for planning permission to demolish the complex of 21 apartments – built in 1984 – and to replace it with a new building, containing 35 homes.

To get funding for the redevelopment, CHAS needs full ownership of the site, says a council report. It’ll get 70 percent from the Department of Housing and the other 30 percent in loans from the Housing Finance Agency or a private lender, the report says.

In October 2018, the Irish Times reported that that CHAS had moved out elderly social housing tenants, paying €238 per month out, and rented the flats to students for €800 per month. It did that to fill the flats short-term pending demolition and the rebuild, said McGovern at the time.

“Approved Housing Bodies cannot rent commercially,” says a spokesperson for Dublin City Council, by email.

Last year, CHAS “let their vacant units on a temporary basis to students while the de-tenanting process was ongoing and they informed us that the proceeds went towards de-tenanting costs and maintenance costs on the premises while awaiting its closure”, the council spokesperson said.

Micael McGovern, CEO of CHAS, said at the time that before renting to students, CHAS had offered the homes to Dublin City Council for homeless accommodation. The council turned down that offer because the apartments were one-beds, he said.

The Dublin City Council spokesperson said by email on Tuesday that they have no record of that offer having been made.

On Monday, McGovern said he rented the flats to students after having been approached by a student-housing company.

Approved housing bodies don’t normally rent the homes commercially, says Ken Reid, communications officer with the Irish Council for Social Housing. “AHBs are established for the provision of housing to people in housing need.”

They might occasionally rent a room to a community group for an activity, he says, such as bingo.

At the Meeting

At the recent Central Area Committee meeting, Brendan Kenny, the council’s head of housing, said CHAS’s treatment of the elderly tenants last year “wasn’t appropriate”.

“But I think that organisation realise now that they cannot treat the residents like they did … We intervened and we think we resolved that,” he said.

A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said what that meant was “it was agreed that de-tenanting would continue but with greater transparency and sensitivity and that no further temporary lettings would be made”.

But several councillors at the meeting said they were still reluctant to give the land sale and new project the nod.

“The way that this agency treated the elderly tenants was absolutely atrocious … ,” said independent Councillor Mannix Flynn.

Fianna Fáil Councillor Mary Fitzpatrick and Labour Councillor Joe Costello queried why the council should sell the property to an approved housing body, if the government was funding 70 percent of the work anyway.

Independent Councillor Cieran Perry said he was concerned about how the council report said CHAS could seek finance from a private lender, and thus part of the land could become privatised.

The report says that ownership of the homes will revert to the council, if they are no longer being used for social housing. Or if the company goes bust, unless the approved housing body “has entered into a mortgage with a private financial institution, for the purpose of financing development of the site”, it says.

Social Democrats Councillor Gary Gannon said he was concerned that if it sold the land to CHAS, the council would lose the mechanism through which it could intervene in disputes between tenants and the approved housing body.

“If there is a problem with regards to how residents were treated within one of these organisations, the only mechanism the city council had to … remind people of their responsibilities was the fact that we owned the property,” said Gannon.

The spokesperson for Dublin City Council says it will not relinquish its ability to intervene with the housing charity by selling them the land. “Dublin City Council will have oversight of all matters in this welcome new development and will get involved when and if necessary,” they said.

Tenants will also have recourse to the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB), they said. All approved housing bodies will soon be independently regulated too, as the Housing (Regulation of Approved Housing Bodies) Bill 2019 is due to come into effect, they said.

At the meeting, independent Councillor Nial Ring said that there is little difference in practice between a 99-year lease and the proposed sale, and that CHAS does a lot of good work.

“Look at what they are doing in Father Scully House it is a fantastic project,” he says, referring to CHAS’s award-winning project off Mountjoy Square.

In the end, councillors deferred until February the decision on whether to sell the land.

Elsewhere, in the Past

Approved housing bodies are not required to register with the charities regulator, but CHAS is a registered charity, with its main activity being to provide social housing for the elderly.

According to his Linkedin profile, McGovern, its CEO, started working with CHAS in 2016 and became the interim CEO in 2017.

While there are no indications of any financial difficulties or company-law violations at CHAS, McGovern himself had trouble with both, years ago.

Back in 1996, McGovern set up a company called Tenants First (Ireland) with Inge McGovern. According to the Companies Registration Office, that was an estate agent or property-management company.

In 1999, Micael McGovern says, he went bankrupt. In 2004, he was disqualified for five years from being a director due to a conviction for failing to file accounts for Tenants First (Ireland). At the same time, he was also convicted for acting as a director of a company while bankrupt.

“These things happen, it happened to me,” he says. “I didn’t file accounts and I got the punishment and that was that.”

“It is 20-odd years ago, I really don’t remember why, just probably laziness or just a mistake,” he says. “Nobody is cleaner than thou.”

Later in 2008, he says he suffered from a very serious illness for three years that left him unable to walk or talk, he says. That illness contributed towards his second bankruptcy (also in the UK), he says.

Under the Charities Act, someone with convictions for failing to file accounts for a private company can’t become a charity trustee, according to Heidee Kealy, head of communications with the charity regulator. “But there are no restrictions under the Act on such a person being the CEO of a charity,” she said.

According to his LinkedIn page, McGovern has had several different roles over his career. In 2006, he was a programme manager with Edinburgh City Council for a major regeneration project, it says.

On his LinkedIn profile, he says that he: “Managed a budget of £750m with full responsibility for resource planning, cost control, and risk log maintenance for new school development, linear city park and replacement commercial and social infrastructure.”

McGovern says CHAS was aware of his convictions and bankruptcy issues when he got the job. “I’ve been very open, I am an open person, I didn’t hide anything from the board,” he says.

Author:

Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at laoiseneylon@gmail.com.

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