Unreal estate

Might Dublin See its First Community Land Trust?

A couple of years ago, as community land trusts – a model that can be used to create affordable housing – began to make their mark in the UK, the architect Emer O’Siochru brought a few speakers over to explore how they work.

The event had good turnout and some signed up to keep the conversation going, she says.

They held a series of meetings with different groups, some working in housing, to see what obstacles they faced and whether the trust model might help.

“In many cases, it would,” she said. So, she and others made some efforts to get community land trusts taken into account at a central-government level, lobbying the housing minister.

At the time, she thought the logical way forward would be for local authorities to act as land trusts themselves – as they have elsewhere, in places such as Amsterdam. But that hasn’t happened.

So she has decided that it is time for a change of tack. “Only recently, I decided we have to do our own community land trust,” she said.

She, and others, are eyeing one patch in particular in Dublin for the first project.

The Model

The general idea of a community land trust is that the land is held in trust and never sold, says Geoff Corcoran, head of new business at Co-operative Housing Ireland, who wrote a thesis on whether land trusts could work in Ireland.

“So, effectively, if the land trust owns a plot of land and you go to build a house on it, you own the house, but you don’t own the land,” he says. “If you go to sell your house, you sell it without the price of the land.”

Since a home buyer doesn’t have to pay for the land, just the house, the purchase price is a lot cheaper.

As trusts own the land, they can set rules for the prices of the homes on that land going into the future, too. “There are different ways that land trusts do their price, which is really interesting,” he says.

That means that a home buyer can’t just buy low and turn around and sell high on the open market – and their children wouldn’t be able to either, decades down the road.

In London, the East London Community Land Trust has linked the price of its houses to average local incomes. Others have set up an upper-limit on what profit a homeowner can make from resale, as a fixed percentage, for example, of the open-market cost.

“Basically, what it means is the housing is always perpetually affordable,” says Corcoran. “Or perpetually cheaper than the market price.”

In the United Kingdom, there has been significant growth in the number of community land trusts in the last few years, says Catherine Harrington, director of the National Community Land Trust Network over there.

In 2010, there were about 30 community land trusts that they knew of. Now, there are 225 community land trusts. “We’ve seen a six-fold increase,” she said. They’ve developed 700 affordable homes to date and have a target of 3,000 more by 2020.

The model in the United Kingdom is a bit different to that in the United States, but the effect is the same: the community land trust keeps an equity stake in the homes, which means that they stay affordable, says Harrington.

The growth in the UK has been driven in part by a lack of affordability and a growth in vacant second homes in some areas. “Obviously, the worsening housing crisis has fueled people wanting to do something about it,” she says.

An interest from central government and local authorities, as well as the growth of a support umbrella network in different parts of the country, has helped the idea to spread.

“That has been really critical for the scaling-up that we’ve seen in the last few years in the sector,” she said.

Between 2011 and 2015, the National Community Land Trust Network lobbied successfully for €25 million of the government’s affordable-homes programme to be set aside for community-led housing, plus €14 million to get groups through to the planning stage.

Late last year, the UK’s government announced a fund for community-led housing, in general, of €300 million over a few years.

What About Here?

So far, there has been little pick-up here in Ireland, though.

One barrier to the development of community land trusts in Ireland is a general lack of understanding, says Corcoran, of Co-operative Housing Ireland.

“The acceptance of even models like co-operatives and stuff are quite challenging for local authorities or banks or anyone to get their heads around,” he said.

Community land trusts are not something that is on the council’s radar, said Brendan Kenny, deputy chief executive for housing and community. “We haven’t come across that,” he said.

“In the current climate, we won’t rule anything out, but it’s not something that’s under consideration at the moment,” he said.

Other issues are finance and land and construction costs, says Corcoran. “Even if you go down the country, in a lot of places where land is cheap, it would still cost more to build a house than it would to buy one,” he says.

Kenny said the council has limited land in the city, and there is a crisis in social housing. “So obviously, we have to use most of our land for social housing,” he said, rather than affordable housing which is targeted at those on slightly higher incomes.

That means that while the council is interested in affordable housing, it’s not the priority. “We’re interested in developing affordable housing, but it’s very limited because we have to make the best use of the land that we have,” he said.

Corcoran says that is one reason why community land trusts may have better luck getting land from somewhere other than local authorities: from religious institutions, or from schools moving their main campuses perhaps.

“I think to me that’s probably the best way to go, where a long-term lease from an institution like that that allows them to have an ongoing stake in the land and what’s going on there but actually frees up some of that land for housing as well,” says Corcoran.

At St Michael’s Estate

O’Siochru and those who are working with her have their eyes on a large site at St Michael’s Estate, which sits at the back of Goldenbridge Cemetery, and in front of the shiny Richmond Barracks.

On Tuesday, a man in a tracksuit jogs back and forth across the green. Fat crows caw and peck at the wet grass.

The council-owned site is due to be offered to the market to develop sometime in the near future, earmarked by Dublin City Council as part of its housing lands initiative.

Dublin City Councillors voted through a plan that would see 420 homes on the site, of which 30 percent should be social housing, 20 percent affordable rental, and 50 percent for private purchase.

There is resistance in the area, though, to the idea that any private player might end up owning any of the site.

In the bottom of the nearby flats, in the St Michael’s Family Resource Centre, they have their own plan for what they would like to see on the patch of land there.

“That’s the cost-rental model,” says Rita Fagan, with the St Michael’s Estate Regeneration Team, who has worked there for 17 years. It’s the same model councillors voted for on O’Devaney Gardens, before they backtracked.

“We […] don’t agree that public land during a time of public crisis should be transferred to any developers,” she said. They want a fair amount of it to be left green too, for children to play.

Says Fagan: “There’s no future for young people. Because they’re not going to get €350,000,” she says.

Fagan was sceptical that a community land trust would be realistic, given in particular the speed at which the council was looking to move ahead with the project and – she stressed – she wants the land to remain in public ownership.

Nat O’Connor, who is working with O’Siochru on the land-trust bid, says they’re hoping to win more people over still, and are looking at putting on a meeting in the next few weeks in the local area.

“We’ll have that conversation, and I hope to persuade people of the merits of our model, particularly because ultimately, you retain control in the community,” says O’Connor, who is the former director of the Dublin-based think tank TASC, and a lecturer at Ulster University.

At the moment, the council is looking at two general approaches to affordable housing on the St Michael’s site, and other pockets across the city, says Daithí Doolan, the Sinn Féin councillor who is head of the council’s housing committee.

One is to tell a developer they can have the land for nothing and use the cost of the land to offset the price of the houses that the council buys from them – and then sell them on to people in Dublin city with council loans.

He said that they could set a clawback, he said. (That means that if the housing is sold within a certain period, then some of the profit goes back to the council. Most clawbacks taper over time, though.)

The other option as Doolan sees it is to put the money into the infrastructure for the land, and ask the developer what they can build for, say, €200,000 – and then they buy the homes for €200,000 and sell them on to people with council loans.

The buyers “have to meet that requirement of a council loan, otherwise they’ll put them up to private ownership for rent,” he said.

Doolan says he has nothing against land trusts, it’s just not an idea he has had a lot of time to dig into.

“I think it’s a good idea, it should be fully explored, similar to co-ops, similar to housing associations. My understanding is none of them are the magic wand,” he says.

A Detailed Plan

For Nat O’Connor, the community land trust model has the potential to make sure that the community still benefits from the land in the future.

“If the economic value is held in the land, how can we ensure that value remains in the community?” O’Connor said. If the community owns the land, you keep any created value.

His idea is that the local authorities should retain the land in permanent public ownership, build houses on it, and sell the houses. “That’s how you make things affordable,” he said.

Swapping land for social or affordable housing isn’t the best way, he says. “That is a short-term solution because ultimately the value of the land gets captured by the owner.”

Where local authorities haven’t wanted to do that, though, charitable organisations or others have stepped in.

That’s what he, O’Siochru and the rest of the group want to do, but as a multi-stakeholder co-op rather than a charity. “So it’s not like us and them, we the great and good have a charity on behalf of you the residents,” he says.

That means that the architects and builders, the owners and renters, others in the local area – they’re all part of it. It is a way of balancing interests into the future.

O’Siochru sets out a detailed plan for the steps they would take to oversee the development of the site.

At the moment, they are talking to the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society, she says. They have several people willing to be founder members, including architects for a no-foal, no-fee – and an estate agent. They’re working up a decent bid, and taking the steps to get incorporated. 

Says O’Connor: “Dublin City Council are looking for people to come to them and tell them, how are they going to make this affordable. So we think we’ve got a very good chance of saying, look, ‘We’re affordable, by retaining the land value.'”

The next phase, he says, is to spread the word about the plans.

“We would be looking for people to join the co-operative who would be interested. But they have to sign up to this principle, that we are a principle-based, that we’re trying to create affordable housing,” said O’Connor.

Back to the Land

O’Connor says that like others they will bid to buy the land at a discount – given the stipulations on the amount of social and affordable housing on the site.

“But we might not pay upfront, we might get the building built first, and have a revenue stream coming in and use that money to pay Dublin City Council over time,” he said.

If that wasn’t acceptable to the council, they’d look to raise private finance from places like the European Investment Bank and other sources, and pay the lenders back over time, instead, he says.

“Most developers are going to say, ‘Dublin City Council, give us a discount on the land and we’ll provide affordable rental,'” said O’Connor.

“Our problem with that analysis is that it is only short-term. Because once the developer has the full value of the land in their ownership, eventually they will make profit on that – and that will be private profit which they will retain,” says O’Connor.

“It’s only a short- to medium-term solution to selling off public land cheap in order to get more affordable, social housing. And it does nothing for the next generation, which is of course the problem of Irish social housing is that we sold it off to the first generation, or a great deal. So there was fewer left for the second and third generation.”

If the community land trust gets the land, it can keep it affordable long into the future, he says.

There is the question of whether the group will be excluded from bidding on the land at St Michael’s Estate, if Dublin City Council sets criteria in such as way that they don’t qualify.

“That’s one of the greatest obstacles, that we’ll be eliminated in the pre-qualification stage. It depends how open-minded they are,” said O’Connor.

O’Siochru says the same: “Usually, [Dublin City Council] will be looking for deep pockets and a couple of years. We need them to give us a chance.”

O’Connor says it’s time to try something new. “If we keep building housing in the same way that we did over the last 10 or 20 years, why would you expect it to be affordable?”

“It’s been done in the UK, it’s been done in the United States and other places,” he says. “So, it’s just a case of are we willing to give this a go in Ireland?”

Lois Kapila portrait
Lois Kapila

Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's managing editor and general-assignment reporter. Want to share a comment or a tip with her? Send an email to her at info@dublininquirer.com.

 

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