O'Devaney Gardens being pulled down in 2016. Photo by Conal Thomas.

The machines rend and clatter and another concrete slab of an old flat at O’Devaney Gardens crashes to the ground. For the 1950s social housing complex, after a nearly decade-long delay, the end has begun – again.

The homes that replace it will be 30-percent social housing, 20-percent affordable and 50-percent private residential, Dublin city councillors decided last month.

And yet, it was only in late July this year that councillors approved a motion, put forward by Workers’ Party Councillor Éilis Ryan, that the redeveloped site consist of 100-percent public, mixed-income housing.

For many, the sudden U-turn left questions as to what had happened in the interim, and whether the plan for 100-percent public housing was ever realistic.

Through the Motions

To recap: the plan to redevelop O’Devaney Gardens stretches back to 2008. Developer Bernard McNamara and Dublin City Council were due to tear it down and build a shiny new complex under a public-private partnership.

But the deal fell through that year. In 2012, the council said it could no longer afford it. Several blocks were demolished, but nothing new was built.

In July 2015, the council tried to revive the redevelopment, including the site, in its housing land initiative to sniff out if developers might again get on board.

When councillors voted three months back, in July of this year, for the redevelopment to consist of 100-percent public, mixed-income housing, some may not have realised the consequences, according to Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey.

“When the motion was passed, in the following few days, people realised that, those who voted for it, realised perhaps they shouldn’t have voted for it and that it wasn’t appropriate to have single-tenure building,” he says.

“I’d say I got calls within a couple of days from councillors saying, ‘How do you rescind a motion?’” That doesn’t happen that often, he said.

The Workers’ Party’s Ryan says that since her motion passed in July, and was rescinded by councillors in September, there has been a considerable misrepresentation of the aim.

Some criticised it as “purely social housing” that will lead to “ghettoisation”, she said. “The thing is, if that was the case I don’t see why councillors would have voted for it in the first place. They voted for it because they knew that that’s not what it was.”

As Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan tells it, the motion passed because of a lack of communication.

“We got no indication from the manager or the law agent that there was trouble with that motion,” says Doolan, who is head of the council’s Housing Strategic Policy Committee. “When a motion comes to the floor the mayor will indicate to the manager or the law agent to see if there’s an issue with this. That didn’t happen.”

The main thrust of the argument for the 100 percent, according to Workers’ Party Councillor Ryan, was to shift the focus from looking at whether or not there is a mix of renters and owners, to how much people earn.

“The main thing is to change the conversation away from focusing on mixed tenure towards the actual objective, which is mixed income,” she says. “We don’t believe that mixed tenure is actually delivering at all.”

Some people believe having a mix of tenures – a mix of renters and owners – is important, and not just because they often have different incomes. The argument is that those who own have more of a stake in their communities, and are around for longer – which is more stable.

Others argue that income is the key indicator to pay attention to, that mixed-income communities can support a greater variety of services, and that home ownership isn’t always a marker of a mixed-income community.

After the vote, the walls started to close in on Ryan’s 100-percent public, mixed-income housing vision.

Simply Too Costly?

On 1 August, the council’s executive housing manager, Anthony Flynn, told the Irish Times that Ryan’s proposal was “incompatible with planning permission”. Were it to proceed, the whole process would be delayed. It would also cost an extra €6.5 million, he said.

Flynn’s argument about planning permission was challenged by the Workers’ Party, says Ryan. They submitted their own draft legal advice, which said that the 100-percent proposal did not conflict with planning permission.

“The frustration is that we put that forward and we didn’t get any response to it,” she says. “We didn’t get any contradictory advice from the council and Anthony Flynn mentioned that it wasn’t the primary concern anymore, the primary concern was the financing aspect.”

On 26 August, Brendan Kenny – who was acting chief executive at the time – expressed his concern that the council could not financially support a cost-rental scheme.

Ryan’s original proposal catered for 50 percent of homes rented to the council’s housing list applicants and 50 percent for those with a “demonstrated housing need”. In other words, those who are above the social housing threshold, but struggling in the private-rented sector.

As Ryan sees it, the arguments against her plan were changing all the time.

In early September, councillors sitting on the corporate policy sub-group met with Fine Gael Minister for Housing Simon Coveney to reach something of a compromise – or as Labour’s Dermot Lacey puts it, “a broad consensus”.

A new plan came out of the meeting: 30-percent social housing, 20-percent affordable and 50-percent private residential.

On 22 September, most councillors voted to rescind Ryan’s motion and adopted the new strategy. (Councillors from People Before Profit, Independents4Change, and Anti-Austerity Alliance voted against, along with a handful of independents.)

Sinn Féin’s Doolan argues that the current housing allocation was the best possible outcome. He says the 100-percent motion was “aspirational” but unrealistic under a Fine Gael minister.

Mistakes of the Past

It also wouldn’t be sustainable for the council to press ahead with Ryan’s 100-percent proposal for the O’Devaney site, says Doolan.

“One-hundred-percent public housing doesn’t lead to mixed tenure. We want mixed tenure to create a sustainable community,” says Doolan. (Mixed tenure means some homes are owned, and others are rented.)

“I don’t have a crystal ball but what I can say is that mistakes were made in the past. Mixed tenure ensures good services. It also ensures that there’s mixed income coming into an area and we want to ensure that happens,” said Doolan.

But Ryan argues that there needs to be a shift in the council’s policy. “It’s a shift away from assuming that it always has to be the private sector that delivers housing,” she says.

“What I feel is that if we’re going to shift the policy of delivering housing away from Fine Gael’s policy, we’re going to have to take some time to develop those proposals,” she says.

“I don’t think that one meeting with Minister Coveney was sufficient to definitively say that there’s absolutely no way we can do any of these things.”

As Ryan sees it, the vast majority of people are earning an average wage far lower than what’s necessary to afford the average Dublin house price. (The average house price is more than €320,000, according to Daft.ie)

“You need a household income of above €80,000 to qualify for a mortgage for that and that’s only 20 percent of the population,” she says.

“So, you’re allocating 50 percent of the housing [at O’Devaney] to the top 20 percent of the population,” she says.

Sinn Fein’s Doolan says those who voted for the new plan want to try to make sure that doesn’t happen. “We want to avoid the mistakes made in Ballymun whereby landlords bought up many, many, many of the units and they simply went to private accommodation,” he says.

“We’re looking at ways that we can ensure that, even within the provision of private [housing], that a number of them would be eligible for Dublin City Council mortgages, that they’re sold at more affordable than usual rates.”

Yet, could Sinn Féin not have pushed for less private development on the site?

Up against a Fine Gael minister, the 30 percent social housing was a solid outcome, says Doolan.

“We’ve a mandate to develop that site. He [the Minister] was coming from a very different position originally,” says Doolan. “We could have said, ‘That’s not enough’, and been left with a derelict site and the government would have developed it anyway and we’d only have 10 percent [social].”

“Was it a compromise? We want to achieve housing for the city. We don’t want to remain on the sidelines building no housing for those on the housing list,” says Doolan. “That’s not what Sinn Fein are about. Sometimes you go for broke, sometimes you go for the best deal possible.”

Cónal Thomas is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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