We’ve Made Progress on Housing, but What’s Next?

Kieran Rose

Kieran is a planner and drafted the 2007 apartment standards and the vacant land levy submission to Government. He is a member of the Board of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. He is Advisory Board Member of the New York-based Center for the Theory of Change. He is co-chair of GLEN and was on the executive committee of the recent success Yes Equality referendum campaign.


In the past decade or so, there are two projects that I have worked on closely that I’d like to tell you about. The first of these: the post-2005 Dublin City Council apartment standards. The second: the vacant land levy. They weren’t universally popular, but we got them in place.

And here’s why I’m bringing them up: I think we can learn from these achievements as we work out what to do next, to ensure that we are delivering good-quality affordable homes in an attractive city environment.

In the 1990s and into the 2000s, there was growing public concern that the apartments being built were too low-quality. Words like “shoebox” were used. They were going to be the slums of the future.

Around 2005, city councillors decided that we [Dublin City Council] would have to review the apartment standards in place at the time. I was assigned to work full-time researching and devising and winning support for new standards.

What we came up with was a radical increase in apartment housing standards. For example, the minimum size of a one-bedroom apartment went from 37 square metres in the 1990s to 45 square metres in the 2000s – and it has now risen to 55 square metres.

The minimum floor-to-ceiling height was increased to 2.7 metres. Balcony and terrace areas were also significantly increased, as was the requirement for dual-aspect apartments.

There was huge and dogged opposition to these new standards from the Construction Industry Federation (CIF), estate agents, some developers, and, most strangely, from sections of the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland.

I should say that quite a few architects strongly supported the new standards. Also, some developers were supportive, saying they just wanted a level playing pitch so that every developer had to build to these standards.

In any case, the new standards were supported by city council management and overwhelmingly adopted by the councillors in 2007.

The opposition resurfaced during the preparation of the current development plan around 2010. And now it has emerged once more as the current development plan is being reviewed.

In many ways, the opposition is cynical. One developer who was opposed to the current standards, made the amazing statement that they are too low, for middle- or upper-income areas of the city.

So what is being sought is lower housing standards for regeneration areas of the city. What is being sought is poorer quality housing for poor people in poor areas.

***

One of the real answers to increasing the supply of good-quality, affordable housing is increasing the supply of – and lowering the price of – development land.

There are 60 hectares of vacant development land in the inner city of Dublin. As Paul Kearns and Motti Ruimy have said in Redrawing Dublin, this is despite 15 years of unprecedented economic boom (up to 2008) and tax breaks in some cases.

How can we explain this paradox? Land hoarding.

In a recent report, the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) stated that landowners “cooperated” and did not “compete” with one another. One developer said recently in the Sunday Business Post that 80 percent of development land is owned by people who have no intention of developing.

Thinking about this, I came up with the idea of a levy on vacant development land and proposed it to Oisin Quinn, as he was about to become Lord Mayor in 2013. I drafted the detailed submission to the government, proposing the levy.

Again, there was huge opposition from the CIF and others, similar to the opposition to the improved apartment standards. There was also great support, with people saying, “This is so obvious”, “Why do we not have this?”

Two years later, the levy is now in the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015. This is strikingly rapid progress on a contentious issue relating to land ownership. It is one of the most powerful pieces of planning and development legislation introduced in recent years.

***

To conclude, these are two very simple ideas: to increase the minimum floor area of apartments, and to place a cost on those who hoard land.

There was strong opposition to both initiatives. And also strong support. Both are now implemented.

So what comes next? We now need to look at the next simple, easy-to-implement initiatives to significantly improve our city and its housing.


This is an edited transcript of a talk that Kieran Rose gave at the recent Big Housing Debate at Liberty Hall on 14 October.

Author:

Kieran Rose: Kieran is a planner and drafted the 2007 apartment standards and the vacant land levy submission to Government. He is a member of the Board of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. He is Advisory Board Member of the New York-based Center for the Theory of Change. He is co-chair of GLEN and was on the executive committee of the recent success Yes Equality referendum campaign.

Reader responses

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Ronan Lyons
at 21 October 2015 at 17:11

Unfortunately, while I agree with Kieran regarding both end goals, I believe the two issues above are not nearly as straightforward as Kieran presents them.

Firstly, while I strongly agree with taxing the value of land, currently any site that is in use or owned by Dublin City Council or another housing body is exempt. This of course means that the single largest owner of vacant and derelict sites (DCC) will not face the charge. Those who are faced with it will do as has been done in other cities where this charge has been levied: convert their empty sites into car parks (or allotments or something similar) and claim it is no longer empty.

Secondly, the issue of minimum size is presented in an entirely one-sided manner. Extra square metres cost money and thus we need to have a very good understanding of how the largely untried minimum sizes affect those outside the richest 10%-20%. Currently a family on €45,000 a year can only afford 60-65 square metres of newly built apartment space (excluding all land costs) but DCC will not allow someone to build them a home that is less than (roughly) 85m2 for a two-bedroom apartment. (God help them if they wanted to live in a three-bedroom apartment!)

It is also not clear why Dublin needs higher minimum sizes than, to my knowledge, any other city in Europe. Obviously, I do not want to see “shoe-boxes” built – but 65m2 is deemed to be adequate in most European cities, so I’m not sure why we are so different.

With relatively modest land costs in Dublin, the current DCC standards mean that you would need to be earning at least €90,000 a year to afford a newly built 2-bed apartment. In other words, the DCC standards mean that only the richest 15% of households can afford new homes – the rest of us will have to make do with an increasingly older stock of housing.

It is not obvious to me that we should be prioritising size over quality, when smaller but higher quality homes – common in most major European cities – are the best way to ensure we are not discriminating against those on lower incomes.

Jeremy Ryan
at 26 October 2015 at 18:40

Completely agree with Ronan Lyons. even though I am not in the real estate business. I lived with my partner in a 55m2 apartment for two years until our baby arrived. At the time we wouldn’t have been able to afford to rent a larger apartment in such a central location. We’d moved home from London and it was the right place for us at the time. It was easterly facing with a small balcony which sounds grim but actually wasn’t because it was well designed

Given the demand amongst 20 and 30 somethings as well as older people for central living, I believe we need lots more 1 or 2 bed apartments of telatively modest size to be built right now in the centre of Dublin. Also we need to build residential blocks higher than 6 or 7 stories so that we stop squandering scarce land. The dual aspect requirement on top of the overly generous floor space requirements is driving people to live in far flung suburbs where land is cheaper and where ironically housing standards are far less stringent.

Richie
at 28 October 2015 at 16:19

I’ve been trying to find out how the 2007 DCC standards compare with those around Europe.. Looking at the London City Housing Space Standards document from 2006 there is some information about minimum apartment size standards in Scandinavia. Based on this it looks like the 2007 DCC guidelines (55 square metres for a 1-bed unit, 80 for a 2-bed and 100 for a 3-bed unit) are a bit bigger than Norwegian standards and comparable or smaller than those of Sweden (65 square metres for a 1-bed unit, 80 for a 2-bed and 96 for a 3-bed unit) and Denmark (70 square metres for a 1-bed unit, 83 for a 2-bed and 96 for a 3-bed). The RIBA Homewise document ‘The Case for Space’ says that German apartment size standards are 60 square metres for a 1-bed unit, 70-88 for a 2-bed unit and 100 for a 3-bed unit – again, very similar or slightly in excess of the 2007 DCC standards.

Personally I think the proposed studio class 45 square metre unit should be permitted to fill the student housing need and the reduction of the dual aspect requirement down to 50% seems to mitigate an overly onerous restriction but I’m very suspicious of the motives of those who want to reduce the size of 1, 2 and 3 bed units.. The end goal should be to encourage families to be able to live in apartments for much longer periods (as is the norm in continental Europe) instead of deserting city centers for suburbs once the 1st or 2nd child arrives, and basic space requirements are an important factor in that.

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