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Quality, not just quantity.

Don’t forget the biggest lessons of the last 20 years (editorial Nov 2014)

November’s Village contains several disconcerting pieces about the state of housing and the property market (Michael Smith on the new Planning Bill [p 26], Paul Newsome on our obsession with Landlordism [p38] and Ronan Lyons on the social imperative to reduce costs for beleaguered young purchasers [p24]). Meanwhile a whole generation of first-time buyers is reeling from recent news that the Central Bank will require lenders demand prohibitive 20% deposits before purchase. We need dynamic solutions.

Nevertheless, clearly caution is necessary. We need to avert the danger of repeating our calamitous property bubble and remember what it was like at its now embarrassing height: it’s not so long ago that bubble apartments were selling for more than €400,000 in the Gas Works development near Google’s South Dublin headquarters, and bicycles had to be stored on balconies – evoking in one image our inattention to ‘liveability’.

Ronan Lyons makes the ostensibly persuasive case that Dublin City Council’s policy of trying to maintain elevated standards for apartments undermines the beleaguered first-time buyer and those on below average pay. John O’Connor, chief executive of the agency set up to advise the Government on housing policy and help local authorities provide housing, is urging Dublin City Council to reduce permitted sizes of one-, two- and three- bedroom apartments to restart construction and make homes more affordable.

He is also seeking the introduction of a category of ‘studio’ rental apartments that could be 40sq m – more than 27 per cent smaller than the smallest one-bed apartments allowed by the council, and similar to the lowest sizes allowed in the late 1990s – the average floor area of an apartment granted permission in the first quarter of this year was 96.9sq m. The smaller units would suit a “young mobile workforce”, Mr O’Connor has said. A study commissioned in 2007 when the dust was settling from the first shocks of the crash after a decade of boom, ‘The Changing Face of Dublin’s Inner City’, belies the wisdom of the standards-reducers for it suggests low standards create social ghettos and risk leaving a legacy of slums: “The repopulation of Dublin’s inner city since the onset of urban renewal policies in the early 1990s was as swift as its previous decline. Between 1991 and 2006, its population grew by exactly half. A survey undertaken by the Society of Chartered Surveyors in conjunction with Trinity College Dublin found that the residents of the new inner city dwellings are largely single persons, childless couples or students (92%), a mere two per cent of residents surveyed had children and the residents were generally young (average age 27 years) and well-educated (74% have achieved a degree or professional qualification).

Serious questions have to be asked about the long-term sustainability and particularly about the prospects of these complexes developing into stable communities. By virtue of the high proportion of one-bedroom apartments in most of the new developments, the accommodation that has been created is inherently unsuitable for accommodating families. The physical constraints of the vast majority of recent developments effectively imposes the perpetuation of an ever transient population, making it impossible for community relationships to develop. There is a distinct danger that at least some of these developments will become the slums of tomorrow, especially if there should be a serious downturn in Ireland’s economic fortune.

What has emerged from this period of rapid expansion is an inner city residential community that is now clearly divided between those traditionally living in public housing and the new residents located in private apartments, with limited interaction between the communities and more apparent differences in wealth and poverty at a neighbourhood level”.

Another survey suggested very few of the ‘blow-ins’ in new apartment developments had any loyalty to the area, or expected still to be living there in two years. Lyons betrays his market-orientation in his assumption that builders must add their standard rate of profit to the price enhanced by the heightened standards. Builders, many of whom were bailed out by the state or went bankrupt owing money to the state or others, made supra-normal
profits during the boom. Let’s bring down the profits to sustainable
levels. Alternatively the lessons of twenty years of tax incentives, for anyone prepared to listen – to take the public rather than a private interest – is that incentives of any sort, and the government is mooting a range of incentives, must be linked to a clear message of quality standards for developers.

Build housing with sustainable materials, adequate green and public space, appropriate aspects, appropriate mix of retail, commercial and residential, and an appropriate percentage of social housing and get a generous tax benefit. Or … Build the sort of housing which creates ghettos – of class or family type – and get fiscally hammered. Ireland has a dysfunctional development ethos with most local authorities facilitating over 70% of their developments as one-off housing in the middle of the countryside, an anti social antipathy to high-density (high rise is another matter) in our towns and cities, unwanted sprawl into Counties Meath, Wicklow and Kildare; and the death of rural towns and villages. This should not blind official voices who know the virtues of high density, high-quality development served by excellent infrastructure and public transport, to the imperative to keep standards high and developments socially-balanced and integrated into the community, in our towns and cities.

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