Barry Murphy drives on his mobility scooter up to the glass door of Father Scully House and reaches for the green button to open the way from the entrance lobby into the main building.
He stretches for it, but can’t quite get there. He reverses back, and comes in from another angle. No luck, again.
Eventually, he steps off the scooter to open the door.
Several residents in the apartment building, run and owned by the charity Cabhrú Housing Association Services (CHAS), face this challenge every day, says Murphy, dressed in a mauve woollen jumper and a black baseball cap with a shamrock.
They can get trapped in the lobby on the way in, he says. “There is no disabled access. People are getting really fed up of it.”
It’s not just access to the building that residents complain about, but also about how the fire brigade can’t reach apartments at night, how the green space in the complex was rented to a creche – and, more generally, how changes are made with little or no conversation with tenants.
In November 2017, independent Councillor Mannix Flynn said it was past time that social-housing tenants were given a greater role in the management of the complexes they call home, whether they are run by the council, the charities known as approved housing bodies (like Cabhrú), or by other private players.
Flynn says that he wanted charities to allow residents to sit on the board of management. “The law is very clear,” he says. “Tenants are legally entitled to go on these boards.”
So far, no approved housing body that he knows of has appointed a residents representative to the board, he says.
Murphy, the tenant at Father Scully House, says he has wanted a meeting with the complex managers to sort through their complaints about Father Scully House. “I’m fighting since before Christmas to get a meeting on these issues.”
Operations manager, Pat Doherty says that Cabhrú used to hold tenant meetings but hasn’t done so since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Staff are working with residents to set up a new residents’ committee. “ A meeting was arranged but only three Tenants turned up. A follow up meeting is to be re-arranged.”
Renting out the Garden
Inside the bright and clean community room, Murphy points out of the window to a patch of grass surrounded by a wooden fence.
“That is the only green area that we have,” he says.
He was surprised one day to see “a clatter of kids” going into the communal garden, he says – and even more surprised to learn that Cabhrú had rented out that green space to a crèche.
“We were never consulted in any way,” he says.
That is typical of how things happen here, says Tony Egan, another resident, who is sitting on a kitchen chair opposite Murphy.
“As ever with CHAS we were notified well after the fact,” says Egan, who has long white hair, a walking aid in front of him.
At first, tenants were told the fencing was just for a few weeks, says Murphy. But it’s stayed up.
Apartment bedrooms back onto the communal garden, says Egan, so the children and creche workers could see into people’s bedrooms.
For a while the creche was using the space and then it stopped, says Murphy. Then someone suggested starting a men’s shed for the men in Father Scully House together with another neighbouring complex, he says.
He thought that was a great idea. “I got a brainwave and said wouldn’t it be lovely if we had a polytunnel to grow some vegetables,” he says. But he was told it wasn’t suitable, he says.
Shortly after that, the crèche began using the green space again, says Murphy.
Last year, the charity regulator carried out an investigation into Cabhrú. It found that the charity – whose CEO during the period looked into, Miceal McGovern, has since resigned – had rented out social homes to students commercially, but its report doesn’t mention the lease of residents’ green space to a crèche.
Doherty, the operations manager, says that the charity’s regulator was aware that Cabhrú had rented space to a creche. “A clause in the childcare provider’s lease allows for access to a play area.”
The children use the green space for a half-hour period twice a day, says Doherty. “All Tenants were notified of this children’s play area facility,” he says.
CHAS sought out community-based services to rent its commercial space, he says. “All income derived from the childcare facility is re-invested into the maintenance and upkeep of the charity’s building stock.”
He didn’t respond directly to the concern raised by tenants that they were never consulted about this use of their communal outdoor space.
The community room has a built-in kitchen on one side and bookshelves stacked with books on the other.
It is clean and bright with lots of chairs, a dartboard and a large flat-screen TV.
It is a nice space, but it’s much too small for a complex with 99 apartments, says Murphy.
When residents first moved into Father Scully House, the residents had access to a much larger shared community room upstairs, he says, but that was later swapped for the ground-floor one.
Residents were told the new community room would be made wheelchair accessible, says Murphy, and another door installed to open out onto the communal garden.
Those improvements never happened, he says, and those with mobility issues cannot get into the room.
Doherty says that the design of the complex is age friendly but “there are limitations in its accessibility for people with wheelchairs or for Tenants who develop a need for wheelchairs or mobility scooters after they move in”.
Prospective tenants are shown the property and for those with mobility issues, Cabhrú recommends an occupational health assessment, he says.
Cabhrú provides independent living facilities, with outside agencies providing supports, it doesn’t provide assisted living facilities, he says.
“It is stressed to Tenants at the outset that Cabhrú does not provide care and social supports but that if additional supports are required, they may be secured by the Tenant directly from one of these external agencies,” he said.
Then there is the lack of access for emergency services to get into the apartments at night. “That is a major issue,” says Murphy.
A few weeks ago a woman had fallen in her apartment and managed to contact the fire brigade by pulling a cord, says Murphy.
Murphy let the firemen into the building, he says. But then they couldn’t get into the woman’s apartment to help her, and had to break down her door, which took around an hour.
A couple of weeks before that, management told him that the emergency services had access to the apartments, he says.
“I was told that more than once over the years,” says Liam Mooney, another resident in a khaki cap and wearing an Easter lily pin, who is sitting on a brown armchair beside Murphy.
If someone had a heart attack the paramedics wouldn’t be able to get into the flat without breaking down the door, he says.
Doherty says that the fire brigade can access the apartments. “The Fire Brigade does have access to the building,” he says. “If the fire alarm goes off all fire doors are released.”
In the case of other emergencies, there is an alarm system in place, which allows tenants to call the emergency services directly. “Cabhrú has an out-of-hours key-holding arrangement in place for Tenants to call if they require emergency assistance.”
That service takes an average of 30 minutes to respond, says Doherty.
Consultation, or More?
According to its website, Cabhrú believes it needs to “work closely with tenants, seeking their feedback and including them in decisions that affect their day-to-day living”.
But Mooney, Egan and Murphy say there is no format for residents to provide feedback, and they don’t think that decisions are made in an open and transparent way.
“This organisation operates on dictate and decree,” says Egan, a Cabhrú tenant since 2007. “There is no consultation with anybody about anything.”
Egan says that someone in the complex has been feeding the birds. He doesn’t agree with people doing that but he also didn’t agree with Cabhrú’s response, he says.
The charity wrote to residents to say that their tenancy could be at risk if they were caught feeding the birds, he says.
That was totally over the top, says Egan.
Doherty says that Cabhrú received complaints from some tenants that bird feeding was causing littering on their balconies.
“A circular was issued to Tenants, requesting that they please desist from this practice and reminded all Tenants that littering in the building is a breach of the tenancy agreement.”
Some of the building rules are strict, says Murphy, yet residents aren’t consulted on them.
Staff told him he was not allowed to change the curtains in his apartment, he says. But he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and needed to change them for ones that don’t gather dust, he says.
Egan says that a few years ago residents were refused permission to hang net curtains in their homes.
There hasn’t been a residents’ meeting in years, says Egan, they stopped long before Covid-19 restrictions, he says.
Murphy says he has been looking to organise a residents’ meeting to address a number of issues for months. He has a date for that now – later this month – but only seven residents can attend, due to Covid-19 restrictions, he says.
Doherty said that the organisation issues a quarterly newsletter. And “a Tenant Liaison Officer is available to handle all Tenant’s day-to-day queries”, he said.
Flynn, the Dublin City Councillor, said that all approved housing bodies should allow residents to sit on the board of management.
Some charities talk a lot about empowerment and consultation but appear to be doing the opposite, he says.
Egan says he would prefer if Dublin City Council took over management of the complex because he finds them more straightforward in their dealings. “We deserve to live in peace and get on with our lives.”