Photo by Caroline Brady

The most serious problem with housing in Dublin – rented, social or purchased – is this: at the state level, housing policy is dominated by an inappropriate and politically motivated rural ideology, in a country where 70 percent of the population will live in an urban area by 2019.

This manifests itself in many ways, but most obviously in the constant drive for home-ownership (something initiated by the Catholic Church c.1913, more for reasons of morality than societal welfare), the withdrawal of the state as much as possible from anything to do with housing (particularly social), and most recently in the lowering of standards through the removal of building-inspection requirements for one-off houses.

This latter move in particular highlights the dominant rural influence on housing in Ireland: the vast majority of –often sadly design-illiterate – one-off houses are built in rural areas.

When the one-off lobby group had a hissy fit about the costs of inspection, the ministers gave them a free pass on one of the most important aspects of construction: the need for inspection to meet basic requirements, for safety reasons if nothing else. You’ll never hear the one-off lobby mention the huge costs that one-off living accrues to the state though.

Multi-unit developments, mostly in urban areas, get no such free pass, and the costs of inspections will be borne by their purchasers. Of course, with both Ministers Kelly and Coffey relying on the votes of rural dwellers, the creation of a two-tier system that now discriminates against urban housing is hardly surprising.

So, even though the greatest focus should be on housing in urban areas, and especially in Dublin, where around 35,000 housing units are needed over the next three years, the greatest influence on housing policy emanates from rural areas.

It was ever thus though: one hundred years ago, as Dubliners languished in fetid slums, rural Ireland was one of the best-housed regions in Europe.

A Narrow Discussion

Policy-wise then, housing is regarded as being about three things only: planning, selling price and construction cost. Broader, equally important, issues concerning housing, like its impact on societal well-being, mental health, childcare, education and even road safety are never discussed because politicians don’t know anything about these aspects of housing, and nor do they want to, as they’re very much outside the comfort zones of road frontage and planning permissions.

Nor do you hear much discussion of tenure options other than ownership. Despite about one household in five renting in the private-rented sector (many by choice), renting is still the embarrassing relation. And of intermediate tenures like temporal ownership or shared ownership? Nada.

Sure who wouldn’t want to own their own house? And in a way they’re right. The entire welfare system in Ireland is based around having a mortgage-free property or asset at 65; with that asset under your belt you can look after yourself (see Fair Deal for example).

Indeed, the state withdrawal from many aspects of Irish life has been endemic in housing for many decades now, again stemming from a Catholic Church influence against collective provision – hence their disapproval of the 1969 Buchanan Plan for Dublin.

Whereas in other countries the provision and management of state housing is a well-regarded career, in many local authorities in Ireland the housing section is the Angola that health is to government ministers.

For many local authority engineers and administrative staff (and I’m never quite sure why engineers are the dominant profession), the housing section is a purgatory to be endured for some past sins.

And just when outside agencies such as housing associations have become used to dealing with particular staff in the housing section, they are inevitably moved on to drainage or roads or whatever.

So, at a state level, housing is not seen as a serious function, which is ironic given its role in the economic chaos and the fact that there are some brilliant housing people in local authorities.

The withdrawal of the state from housing provision has also led to a system of patrimony where the family provides either money for property purchase or land on which to build. And with Ireland having pretty much a free-for-all build-what-you-want-where-you-want planning attitude – despite the various planning policies that may advise otherwise – the possession of land equates to a site to build on.

This system of patrimony has advantaged the wealthy and landed over those who may not have parents with adequate resources to help them fund their house purchases.

Although housing should be regarded as a holistic entity, the focus is almost always on capital – but not social – costs, and sadly this has percolated to Dublin’s local authority too.

Four Reasons to Reject

Dublin City Council (DCC) recently floated a proposal to reduce the minimum size of a studio apartment to 45 square metres as developers moaned that DCC’s size requirements were too onerous.

This is a backwards proposal from politicians who would never themselves live in such a small space. (But it’s okay as it’s just for rental properties – again the poor relation, and they’ve obviously never heard of the government’s ‘equity across tenures’ policy).

This should be rejected outright for four reasons. Firstly, research which purports to demonstrate the extra costs caused by DCC’s standards varies wildly and is therefore dubious.

Secondly, there is no official verified figure for construction per square metre, and no builder will give you one as that’d give the game away. So we have no clue what the true cost of construction is; there are industry-supplied figures, but these don’t stand up to any decent scrutiny, especially as the price on any tender doesn’t really relate to the price on site (as evidenced by the GAMA workers’ past and present legal actions).

Thirdly, a 20-percent reduction in the size of an apartment does not equate to a 20-percent reduction in construction costs and especially not to a guaranteed 20-percent reduction in any proposed selling price.

Finally, we should be looking at development costs rather than construction costs. Construction is only one element in the process of building housing; costs can be reduced elsewhere without lowering standards. A house, or apartment, is not a crop – it will outlast its first, second and most likely third owner.

Quality is therefore important for many reasons, but for providing decent homes and improving the reputation of Dublin as a place to come to live, work and contribute it is vital, particularly when it accounts for about half of Ireland’s tax take (and half the property-tax take too).

It’s hard to know where housing is going in Dublin. As developers hang on until profit margins reach the creaming-it levels they’ve been accustomed to and our two ministers for building (but none really for housing) let the Construction Industry Federation and self-build lobby effectively write policy for them, very few new units are appearing on the ground.

To add even more complexity, the types of housing Dublin needs aren’t necessarily what developers and builders want to build.

At the government level, housing and housing policy are beset by a lack of creativity, although the Housing Agency is an exception. Whereas normally that wouldn’t be a serious issue, right now it is resulting in high rents, low supply, and an inability to think beyond the old methods of housing delivery – and doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting different results was Einstein’s classic definition of stupidity.

Lorcan Sirr’s recent talk on housing policy at the MacGill Summer School is available online at: What Is and What Will Never Be

Lorcan Sirr is a lecturer in housing at Dublin Institute of Technology and Visiting Professor of Housing at the Universitat Rovira I VIrgili, Tarragona, Spain.

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