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The Fine Gael-Labour government took ownership on Tuesday of a plan to bring in modular housing for homeless people in Dublin, announcing that it would fast-track planning and procurement.
The aim is to move families into the first batch of modular homes by Christmas.
The acceleration of this anti-homelessness effort was welcomed by Sinn Fein councillor Daithi Doolan, who is head of Dublin City Council’s housing committee, which has been working on this issue.
“It’s something that we’ve been looking for,” Doolan said on Tuesday night. “I haven’t seen the detail of this, but I’d give a conditional welcome in so far as we have asked for this.”
There had been hints at Monday’s meeting of Dublin City Council’s housing committee that something might happen soon with modular housing, also known as prefabs.
“The issues in relation to both of those [planning and procurement], we’re having a look at how best to move forward on both fronts,” the council’s housing chief, Dick Brady, had told councillors.
“We have entered into discussions with the department, preliminary discussions I would say, in an attempt to advance the proposal,” he said.
Doolan says that there was no way that the modular houses were going to be up and homely before next year, if they weren’t fast-tracked. It isn’t the planning that takes the most time, he said, but the procurement process.
“The procurement would take six or seven months. So the biggest challenge for us was procurement,” Doolan said. “If we can fast-track that, if we can keep that to a minimum, then we’ll be able to deliver housing much, much quicker.”
What about those who are worried about what fast-tracking procurement means?
“I’m sure some will be, and some of the concerns are very reasonable,” Doolan says. “But if we were to use the old traditional procurement, jeez, the houses wouldn’t be built before next year.”
The fact that one of the companies offering modular housing, Roankabin, is a subsidiary of Siteserv, has raised suspicions that the modular-housing scheme is just a way to give government money to Denis O’Brien.
Doolan says this kind of talk is not helpful. “I’ll be very clear,” he says. “First of all, the suppliers were asked to make a presentation. There is no guarantee any of them will get the contract.”
“Of the six units I saw, two of them I certainly wouldn’t support using. And one of the happened to be the company he is associated with.”
“I think some of that shouting is a bit of a red herring,” he said. “We need to focus on evidence on the solution. We need to focus on delivering housing. And I actually think, with all due respect to people, shouting about Denis O’Brien, that’s not providing any solution.”
What Will It Cost?
At the council meeting on Monday, Brady was reluctant to talk about costs, for fear of prejudicing the procurement process, he said. But he gave an estimate of about €100,000 per house, including site costs.
“You’re looking at the units themselves and a site cost of about €20,000 each, so you talking about the top-end of about €80 plus €20,” he said.
There’s still a question of whether the government will buy the modular homes or lease them, Doolan said on Tuesday night.
At the showcase of modular housing in mid-September, the representative for one of the companies, Portakabin, said it would cost between €300 and €320 per week to rent its homes. That’s less than many hotel rooms, which Dublin City Council now rents as emergency accommodation for homeless people.
Doolan says he doesn’t know what he prefers yet. “I don’t know, I’m open to it, for people with expertise to come back to me with their learned opinions.”
Where Will They Go?
Dublin City Council’s housing chief, Dick Brady, hasn’t yet said which sites the council has earmarked for the modular homes.
“The process of identifying sites has started,” Brady said on Monday. The council is honing in on land that has “the services, both water and sewage and that sort of thing. adjacent to it”. Ideally, they’ll be looking for spots that don’t require a lot of roads to be built.
Getting local communities on board will be key, said Labour councillor Alison Gilliland. City councillors are very conscious of the need to avoid concentrations of social housing, she said.
Gilliland said she hopes that the four local authorities in the Dublin area that are working on this will choose the sites for modular homes carefully, to ensure that they’re accessible, fully serviced, and within communities, with supports.
“I think if the councils do that part of it really well, and consider what possible objections they might receive, to minimise the potential objections, I think then they can justify a speeded up Part VIII,” she said. (Part VIII is the public consultation process that local authorities go through, when giving themselves permission to develop land.)
If there are objections, it could slow down the scheme.
But Gilliland thinks objections could be limited by public meetings in areas where the housing is planned, and by talking to local residents about the process. “I think perhaps there’ll be a natural sympathy among the public,” she said.
At Monday’s meeting, councillors once against stressed that these modular homes should be temporary.
“They’re not the answer to the crisis; they may be the temporary solution to the crisis,” said independent councillor Christy Burke.
What exactly “temporary” means, though, hasn’t been tackled.
“The reason it’s being glossed over is there is no permanent solution on the table,” said People Before Profit councillor Tina McVeigh. “We can’t really call something a temporary solution in the absence of a permanent solution.”
McVeigh agrees that something needs to be done to help families in hotels. But her concern is that the modular-homes plan is being fast-tracking with so many questions unanswered.
Councillors don’t know where the sites are, who is going to be responsible for maintaining the homes once they’re installed there, or what the exit strategy is, McVeigh says. “What comes after these temporary modular houses?” she asks.
Because addressing the acute homelessness crisis won’t alleviate the chronic housing problems in the city. “Fast-track it, or slow-track it, it is not going to solve the problem,” McVeigh said.
Right now, though, the focus is on the short-term.
“The notion of modular housing was never intended as a panacea for all housing issues or ills,” Brady said at Monday’s meeting.
“It was seen as support to the mainstream housing strategy,” he said. “It was also seen as a way in which you could deal with the humanitarian issues which arise as a result of the families living in hotels.”