Kenny Ward sits outside his shop drinking coffee from a takeaway cup on a recent Friday.
The shop, Donore Stores is part of Dublin City Council’s housing complex St Teresa’s Gardens, a four storey redbrick development in the Liberties.
It used to be located in another building next door which was demolished, says Ward, pointing to an empty green area to the right.
“There was a fruit and veg shop, there was my shop, there was a butcher and a chemist,” he says. “The people got looked after here, they didn’t have to go anywhere else.”
Then around seven years ago Dublin City Council decided to knock a number of the blocks and refurbish others, says the shopkeeper, who also lives in the complex.
Dublin City Council spent a lot of money refurbishing the block his shop is now located in and another one beside it, he says.
Back then he used to be on the local committee liaising with the council about housing, he says, but he quit when the council announced soon after spending all that money that it planned to knock the newly refurbished blocks, he says.
Under the latest proposals for the complex, the building his shop is in is scheduled for demolition and the land will be used for a green space, says Ward.
But there are other greens and pitches contained in the new plans, so he thinks the refurbished blocks should be retained for homes. “They don’t need a green area, what they need are houses for people,” he says.
Families living in St Teresa’s Gardens were reluctant to move out of the area, he says. Some were moved out to places like Tallaght and Ballyfermot while others got housed nearby in Cork Street, he says.
Some still want to come back too. “I’ve old neighbours and customers that still come in and say – ‘when they have these done, I’ll be getting one’,” says Ward.
It is coming towards 11 am and builders from a nearby site are queuing up for breakfast rolls, so Ward heads back into the shop to serve his customers. Just after that three smiling young men on a horse and cart trot past.
Last week councillors heard the latest proposal for the development of St Teresa’s Gardens. That the council should transfer the land to the Land Development Agency (LDA) to develop around 600 homes, for a mix of cost rental and social housing.
Some councillors are excited about the potential for new homes to be delivered quickly on the site but some also worry that if they hand over the land to the LDA some of it could be privatised.
A Dublin City Council spokesperson says there will only be social and cost rental housing built on any council land transferred to the LDA.
There are questions too, about housing standards and affordability of the cost rental homes.
Doing Them Up To Knock Them Down
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council says that there are no formal plans for St Teresa’s Gardens at the moment but that the last remaining blocks will be demolished early next year.
The council is building 54 new homes on the site at the moment to accommodate the people currently living there, she says.
“Once the site is cleared it will free up [council] lands for the development of a new full-size football pitch and in the region of 600 new homes,” she says.
She was unable to confirm in time for publication, how much the council spent on the refurbishment of the blocks that are set to be demolished.
“Any refurbishment carried out on the existing flats was for the benefit of the remaining residents so we certainly do not see it as a waste of money,” says the Dublin City Council spokesperson by email.
“Mad to Build Quickly”
“We are mad to build quickly,” said Phelim O’Neill, the head of property at the LDA, as he gave a presentation to the housing committee in Dublin City Council on Wednesday 29 July.
At the national level the agency is involved in developing approximately 4,000 homes across 10 sites nationally, said O’Neill, including the Central Mental Hospital site in Dundrum and Shanganagh Castle in Shankill.
“The core objective of the agency is to deliver products as cost-efficiently as possible,” he said. “We have the ability to have a design team in place in a matter of weeks.”
The LDA will focus on delivering affordable housing, mostly cost rental, said O’Neill, the rent charged for cost-rental homes is based on what it costs to build and maintain them, rather than the market rate.
New legislation will put the agency on a statutory footing in the coming months and it will start out with a budget of €1.25bn, said O’Neill. That means that it can continue to build regardless of the economic climate and so it can “ensure a continuous supply in a downturn”, he said.
Dublin City Council housing manager Brendan Kenny said at the meeting that the council very much welcomes the input of the LDA and “they are very good to work with.”
Dublin City Council is in discussions with the LDA about St Teresa’s Gardens and Marrowbone Lane in Dublin 8, as well as other sites in Coolock, Ballymun and Ballyfermot among others, said Kenny.
The council finds it difficult to borrow for cost rental projects and it is costing the council around €400,000 to build a home on land it owns, he said.
The LDA “has really strong potential to develop cost rental”, said Kenny.
Labour Councillor Alison Gilliland, who chairs the council’s housing committee, said that the plans have “great potential”, but she wondered about how much the affordable homes will cost to rent or buy.
O’Neill acknowledged that affordability is the crux of the issue but said that he couldn’t answer that question.
It is up to the government to put in place an affordable housing scheme. The role of the LDA is to supply that scheme with homes, said O’Neill.
Kenny said the government is expected to publish a cost-rental plan in September or October of this year.
But some say that the workings of the LDA do have a major impact on affordability.
Sinn Féin TD and housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin said by phone on Friday that the agency borrows privately, which is more expensive than if the government borrows directly. “Private finance is more expensive and requires a higher rate of return,” says Ó Broin.
That more expensive borrowing, in turn, pushes up the prices of the affordable homes.
Obviously, if that price climbs too high, the affordable homes are no longer affordable, he says.
In the LDAs first development, Shanganagh Castle it is estimated that the cost-rental homes will cost €1,300 per month to rent, says Ó Broin. “That is way too high.”
If the government funded the development through public borrowing it could deliver the cost rental at €700 to €900 per month, he says.
He says he wonders why the councils have to go through the cumbersome four stage approval process to get money while the LDA is allowed to skip that.
“My strong view would be that local authorities shouldn’t be giving any land to the LDA and the government should be financing the direct delivery of social and affordable homes on public land,” he says.
“The LDA is just an unnecessary, cumbersome distraction,” says Ó Broin.
During the housing committee meeting on 29 July, Mike Allen, director of advocacy with the homeless charity Focus Ireland, asked who will own the land after it is developed.
All the land at St Teresa’s Gardens will continue to be “absolutely state-owned”, said O’Neill.
The council will own the social housing and the LDA will retain ownership of the land where the cost rental housing is built, said O’Neill.
The LDA will use that asset as “leverage”, to borrow more money, to build more projects, he said.
“Success in this field is not doing one St Teresa’s Gardens type scheme,” he said. “It is doing it repeatedly and scaling that product up and doing it 10 times, 20 times and 30 times.”
Potential for Privatisation?
“The potential is absolutely huge,” said independent Councillor Cieran Perry.
For that potential to be realised on council-owned sites the councillors will have to agree to dispose of [sell or transfer] the land to the LDA, said Kenny.
Perry expressed concern that some of the land could be privatised afterwards.
People Before Profit Councillor Tina MacVeigh said that the councillors are being asked to dispose of “large tranches of public land” to the LDA.
A disagreement as to the meaning of a disposal arose between MacVeigh and the council housing manager, Brendan Kenny.
“We are not selling the land to the LDA at all,” said Kenny. “We are handing the land over to the LDA to develop it in line with what we want.”
MacVeigh said that a “Section 183 disposal” amounts to the council selling the land. She was referring to the formal process by which councillors sell or transfer land, under section 183(1) of the Local Government Act 2001.
She asked whether some of that land could potentially be sold on afterwards.
“No, no, no they will not be able to do that,” said Kenny.
Said O’Neill of the LDA: “We are talking about direct delivery, about procuring a design team and procuring a contractor potentially thereafter.”
Speaking by phone on Friday, MacVeigh said that bringing in private investment is part of the LDAs remit, so she thinks that will involve them giving away ownership of at least some publicly owned land.
“I’m deeply, deeply concerned about the plans for St Teresa’s Gardens and the LDA in general,” she says. “Once the LDA is involved it’s a back door to privatisation.”
“I really hope I’m wrong,” says MacVeigh.
“Any sites being considered for transfer to the LDA will only involve social and cost rental housing,” says the council spokesperson.
Councillors elsewhere have also raised questions about the standards of housing in the first Land Development Agency project at Shanganagh in Shankill.
Fine Gael Councillor Jim Gildea, in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council said that he planned to object to the LDAs use of the Build to Rent regulations, which allow for homes to be smaller if they are to be rented rather than purchased.
Architect and housing commentator Mel Reynolds criticised the Build to Rent standards: “Build-to-rent has no requirement for balconies, no requirement for parking and no requirement for windows that open,” he says.
“All LDA developments will be built to standards appropriate for long term sustainable use,” says a spokesperson for the LDA by email on Friday.
The St Teresa’s Gardens project is at an early stage but “design decisions will be made in conjunction with project partners [Dublin City Council],” he says.
“Councillors will have a key role in this process,” says the LDA spokesperson.
There will also be extensive public consultation before the designs are drawn up, says the LDA spokesperson.