Photo by Caroline Brady

In Ballymun, Dublin City Council’s plan to build modular housing for homeless families is back on track, for now.

A protest by a housing co-op that wants to build 40 of its own homes on the same site threatened to delay the council’s plan to have the modulars assembled before Christmas. But work recommenced on the council’s modulars at the Poppintree site last week.

Negotiations between the council and the O Cualann Co-Housing Alliance are still ongoing, says Hugh Brennan of the co-op. But the two sides hope to reach an agreement by Thursday.

Even if they are successful, it’s been a troubled start to the roll-out of Dublin City Council’s programme of providing modular homes for homeless families. And the trouble looks set to continue at another of the sites proposed for the programme: in Drimnagh.

A Holy Show

Back in October, the council announced its plans to install more than 150 modular homes for homeless families in the city.

Twenty-two of those homes were to be completed before Christmas at the Poppintree site in Ballymun. Another 131 were to be built on other sites before summer; of those, the council said it would put 29 at a site on Mourne Road in Crumlin.

But as it turns out, the site isn’t on Mourne Road. In fact, it’s not even in Crumlin.

The site is actually located on Curlew Road in Drimnagh – near Mourne Road – and it originally housed a Sisters of Mercy convent.

In 2007, the council bought the site from the sisterhood – at a cost of €3.5 million, according to Fianna Fáil councillor Daithí de Róiste.

But there was a 20-year covenant attached to the sale, which stated the site should only be used to build social housing for elderly persons, disabled persons and persons with mental disabilities.

Residents, upon hearing about the plan to use the site to house homeless families in modular homes, brought this covenant to the attention of their local councillors.

Pressing On

Lord Mayor Críona Ní Dhálaigh of Sinn Fein arranged a meeting on Monday between local residents, councillors and council management, to discuss the situation.

Independent councillor Paul Hand says no new information was brought forward at the meeting, but residents took the opportunity to raise their concerns.

“People are a bit wary, particularly because there is no guarantee of time,” he says. “But officials are very keen to see it go ahead.”

Peter Burke, the chairman of the Drimnagh Residents Association, said the meeting was “quite unsatisfactory to be honest”.

Still, he’s happy that a group has been picked to liaise with the council and that there will be more meetings. “At least it’s recognising that we exist,” he says.

Residents are concerned that if the council puts modular housing on the site, it will become a ghetto someday down the line, says Burke. “It’s a strong word, but it’s conveys the right idea,” he adds.

Despite the residents’ concerns, the council will be pressing on with modular houses at the Drimnagh site, says de Róiste. The covenant restricting how the site can be used has already been broken, and no longer applies, he says.

In February 2009, the council was in discussions with the HSE to build a health centre on the site, and the Sisters of Mercy agreed to let it go ahead. That’s why, de Róiste says, the council is unconcerned about changing the conditions of use now, as the original covenant was broken. Though Sinn Féin councillor Greg Kelly says the legal situation is still unclear and the council are continuing to look into it.

However, the Drimnagh Residents Association aren’t as quick to dismiss the covenant, and haven’t ruled out calling for a judicial inquiry. Burke says council management were shocked to hear this at the meeting.

So what do the Sisters of Mercy think of all this? Sister Peggy Collins says the council is working with them, and she believes they can come to an agreement, which won’t see the council breaking the law.

But if any homeless families were to move in, there would have to be plenty of supports for them, she says. “We want residents to be happy too,” she adds.

We queried Dublin City Council about the legal implications of building modular units on the site more than a week ago. We also asked if it was planning to use the site to house elderly or disabled homeless people. But the press office did not reply.

The Residents’ Proposal

Located right beside a school, near shops and a church and not far from many other key amenities, this grassy, vacant site might seem ideal for modular housing.

But facing an Alzheimer’s centre and the Mother McAuley Centre – which opened in 1975 to provide a space for elderly people to meet, chat and have meals – it might also be a perfect spot for senior-citizen accommodation.

If the council did opt to house the elderly here, it could fit 40 homes for them, says Burke. This would see a loss of 29 three-bedroom family homes planned under the modular housing scheme, but he argues that once senior citizens move onto the site, this would free up 40 units of permanent social housing.

“It’s an opportunity if they [the council] are prepared to take it,” he says. He sees it as the most logical option.

Councillor Paul Hand agrees. He would like to see the site accommodate both a library and homes for the elderly.

Hand has been continuously bringing motions to this effect in the council – most recently in September, as part of the Dublin City Development Plan.

But he was repeatedly told by management that a library would not be feasible, because of the covenant attached to the site, and a lack of funding, he says.

Is a Compromise Possible?

At the site in Poppintree, the council didn’t contact the housing co-op to let them know that it would be using the site the co-op had planning permission for as the first location for council modular housing.

Those involved had to find out on the evening news. Then, despite discussions and negotiations, a protest still ensued.

At the last housing committee meeting, councillors fumed at what they said was a lack of communication from council officials that had left them on the front-line without information on what was happening behind the scenes, ill-equipped to deal with questions from concerned or curious Dubliners.

Council officials said it was unintentional.

Are Drimnagh residents concerned by the way the council handled the situation in Poppintree? Would they consider protesting?

“I am extremely worried about how they handle situations in general,” says Burke. He hasn’t discussed it yet with the rest of the group, he says he hopes there won’t be a protest.

Burke is hoping for a compromise. “Protests are a bit pointless,” he says, especially since the site has been idle since 2006, and locals want to see it developed.

Councillor Daithí De Róiste is in favour of the council putting modular housing on the site, but would like to see residents’ concerns addressed first. As modular housing is a temporary solution, he says, he would also like to see the site used for senior-citizen accommodation in the future.

Councillor Greg Kelly says there’s plenty of time to resolve any outstanding issues as the houses aren’t expected to be in place until June or July. He’s confident future meetings will be more productive.

But realistically, Dublin City Council doesn’t have to listen to residents.

As with the site in Ballymun, it can bypass the normal planning process to fast-track the construction of the modular housing, and it does not have to put the plan out to public consultation.

However, the fate of 29 modular houses may come down to an eight-year-old covenant.

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