On Sunday, about 15 protesters stood with banners outside a derelict site with a false ground-floor façade on Thomas Street.
The aim of the protest was twofold, Dublin City Councillor Tina McVeigh, of People Before Profit, explained to any passersby who were willing to listen.
Aim one: a general call to protest. Aim two: “To identify buildings across the country that potentially people could be living in or sites, just as the one we’re standing on here, that are lying empty.”
In the coming months, expect to hear more ideas from councillors on how to tap in to underused inner-city buildings.
In particular, Labour Councillor Andrew Montague has started to draw attention again to vacant upper floors above commercial spaces in Dublin, and try to come up with ways to get them online.
It’s about “getting the most of what we’ve got”, Montague said on Monday. Creating apartments on upper storeys could provide much-needed housing and make the city more sustainable, he said.
People who live above shops are near the goods and services they need, and businesses have more ready customers close by, he said.
After 9pm, the shopping area of Henry Street can feel like part of a ghost town. Add more residents to retail areas, and you get activity – or at least eyes in the upper-floor windows.
How Many Could We Get?
One of the big unanswered questions, though, is how many vacant upper-storey spaces there are.
As many as 10,000, estimates Montague.
But there’s been no survey and it’s difficult to tell at a glance. Talk to shop owners along Capel Street ‒ an area often pointed to as having vacant upper-storeys ‒ and they say all the floors are filled with offices and apartments. A couple of them said there was storage upstairs, which they needed.
It’s a similar story on Thomas Street.
But Montague feels that there’s enough unused or underused upper-storey space to warrant another push at dealing with the issue.
“We want to remove any of the barriers that are stopping them from doing it,” says Montague. Of the barriers, there are three big ones he thinks the council can do something about.
“You have to have a disability-access certificate, it has to be fire-safe and it also has to comply with any protected-structure regulations,” says Montague. Three discrete departments must be satisfied, and they don’t necessarily work together.
That’s something that Peter Stafford, director of Property Industry Ireland (PII), flags up too. One wing of the council will tell developers that they have to make modifications, and another wing will say they can’t because it’s an important protected building.
Montague wants the council to employ a more cooperative approach to help landlords meet regulations.
Instead of a department saying no to an application, with no follow-up, there’d be more help, he said. “We could say, ‘Here’s a fire plan that has worked in a similar building – we can help you design a fire plan that would work,’” says Montague.
Another action Montague thinks could lead to more upper floors being converted to apartments would be reducing the minimum floor area in these inner-city cases to 45 square metres.
“By changing our development plan standards to allow for 45 square metres, it will allow more buildings to be brought into use,” says Montague.
As he tells it, the floor plan of a single storey in some old buildings is less than 55 square metres. So, an apartment would require at least one and a half floors to meet current requirements.
It is in these old buildings that Montague believes there is potential for more apartments once size restrictions are loosened.
Stafford cites a few more challenges.
Upstairs apartments need an entrance. In many commercial buildings in Dublin, the only access to upper floors is through a shop. Giving up a slice of coveted storefront could be hard for shopkeepers to swallow, he said.
Then, there’s the perception that converting upper-floor apartments is costly – in money for sure, but also in time and hassle. Many old buildings with vacant upper floors are in a bad state, Stafford said.
When landlords see the price of making them habitable again, they may decide they are perfectly content with keeping them as storage space.
Not the First Time?
It’s not the first time that there’s been a push for greater incentives for living above shops in the inner city.
Until 2006, there was the Living Over the Shops (LOTS) scheme, which gave tax incentives to owners who use space over commercial properties for residential purposes. There were 52 people in 2011, 54 people in 2012, and 43 people in 2013 still availing of that tax incentive, according to statistics from Revenue.
Since May 2015, the Living City Initiative has been in place. It’s for owners who wish to convert pre-1915 buildings, if they fall within “special regeneration areas”.
“Since that date, there have been seven valid applications received in total,” said Deputy City Planning Officer John O’Hara to the Planning and International Relations SPC on 8 September.
“It’s fair to say, chair, that we are a wee bit disappointed at that return,” says O’Hara. “Our analysis of the Living City Initiative area showed there are about 4,000 properties in that area.”
A conference with stakeholders would go a long way towards making more people aware of the opportunities above their heads, said O’Hara, after the council meeting.
“The second aspect is to explore whether or not it needs to be widened to include investors, owners other than owner-occupiers,” says O’Hara. “If that’s the case, we would need to bring a considered report back to the Department of Finance with evidence.”
O’Hara said he thinks that if they have evidence as to why it’s not working, the Department of Finance will be receptive to recommendations on how to tweak it to make it work.
Several councillors, including Montague and Aine Clancy, also of Labour, criticised the owner-occupier limitation of the Living City incentive.
“I’d say the vast majority of above-the-shops space would be owned by a landlord that isn’t intending to live there,” says Montague. “If we really wanted to do something, we could expand that to include landlords, not just owner-occupiers.”
A Conference in the Autumn
It’s early days, but overcoming bureaucratic and logistical difficulties to creating upper-floor living space is exactly what will be on the agenda at a conference Montague and Stafford are organising for this autumn.
The aim of the conference is to bring city officials together with landlords, architects, and planners to discuss what barriers there are to converting upper floors into apartments and how to overcome them.
At the conference, Montague plans to present case studies of successfully converted upper floors on Mary Street, and show that it can be done – and it’s worth it.