Joanne Lynch owns the building where she runs her hair salon on Thomas Street.
It’s a protected structure, she said, so when she went to do up the until-then vacant upper storeys about four years ago, she didn’t realise she wasn’t allowed to put in PVC Weatherglaze windows.
“We were made to take the windows back out and put in wood and single-pane,” she says. But apart from that, the renovation was pretty straightforward.
“A good bit of work had to be done around fire-safety stuff,” she recalls.
For years now, Dublin City Council has been trying to nudge those like Lynch who own vacant upper storeys in the city to bring them into use.
But still, there are thought to be thousands of apartments sitting vacant in upper storeys around the city. While obstacles discouraging their owners from opening them up and renting them out seem well understood, progress on smoothing the way has been slow.
A Long Project
Back in September 2015, Labour Councillor Andrew Montague said that he planned a push to highlight the under-use of upper storeys across the city.
Exactly how many he was talking about was unclear, though, and it still is.
It is unclear how many flats are sitting vacant above business premises in the city, says John O’Connor, chief executive of the Housing Agency.
But O’Connor would hazard a guess that “in the Dublin situation it would be may be 5,000 to 6,000 potentially”.
At a recent conference on empty homes organised by the Peter McVerry Trust, Dublin City Council Planner John O’Hara suggested a figure of around 4,000. (A figure he also used back in 2015.)
Montague said he’s done some research, though, and thinks there is less vacancy in upper stories than was previously thought.
Most of the upper storeys he surveyed were being used for something, be it storage for the downstairs shop, another business, or, in one instance, a mosque.
But the vacant upper storeys are a contributory factor in the surprising level of vacancy in some inner city areas, he says.
“According to the CSO figures in the north central city there is 17 percent vacancy,” he says. “It is an amazingly high level.”
And they top 20 percent in some parts of Dublin 2.
Some of the past efforts by the council to make it easier, and cheaper, for landlords to renovate their upper storeys are yet to bear fruit.
In the most recent monthly management report from Dublin City Council Chief Executive Owen Keegan to councillors, the prognosis for the Living City Initiative was the same as it has been for a while. “To date, take-up on the scheme has been lower than anticipated,” it reads.
At the conference last month, O’Hara said in his presentation that the scheme – which offers tax breaks for people to convert vacant upper storeys – is being reworked to tackle its short-comings.
Among them: that only owner-occupiers could avail of it, landlords could not; that flats had to be a certain size; and that the original use of the upper storey had to have been residential. All of these obstacles will be removed, O’Hara said.
Others – including O’Hara, in his presentation – say it’s time there was a one-stop shop to deal with the many planning complications that can come up during these conversions.
If you want to convert a commercial space to residential, it is difficult and expensive, says DIT housing lecturer Lorcan Sirr.
“Even if you do decide you want to do it, the architect has to do three sets of drawings: one for disability, one for fire, and one for conservation,” says Sirr. The process takes five months and if you fail one, you fail them all, he says.
Dublin City Council Press Office didn’t respond to queries about if or when such a one-stop shop for upper-storey conversions might be introduced.
Many of the other issues are also familiar by now. Some upper-storeys no longer have separate entrances, with access only through the ground-floor shops.
In protected structures, it can be costly to bring upper storeys in line with fire regulations, and other changes – adding extra bathrooms, for example – might not be allowed.
The approach to protected buildings might be too conservative, said O’Connor of the Housing Agency, in some cases leading to them just becoming derelict.
“We can be a little too precious on that. I would be in favour of looking after protected structures but we need to have them in use to do that,” he says.
Property owners need assistance and support from local authorities, he says, and the Housing Agency is looking to press that.
“We haven’t started yet, but we will be providing centralised advice to local authorities on how to engage with property owners and raising awareness about the levels of vacant property,” says O’Connor.
There’s also the recently introduced repair-and-lease scheme, he said, which offers property owners grants of up to €40,000 to do up their disused houses and apartments, if they then rent them to local authorities for use by social housing tenants.
With advice and grants and supports in place, O’Connor says he wants to see pressure put on owners to act. “Particularly where people have viable businesses, it is not acceptable to leave upper floors to go to rack and ruin,” he said.
Renovating can be expensive, but people who plan on improving such properties should aim to bring them back into use “without going overboard”, he says.
The increase in rental incomes available has motivated some owners to act, says O’Connor. “There has been an increase in the use of the upper floors, with the rising rentals,” he says.
Anecdotally, he says he has noticed it in places like Inchicore and Parnell Street, that upper storeys are being brought back into use.
Where the shops are less profitable, there is more of an incentive to do it, he says.