This Thursday, Dublin city councillors are due to discuss a report from city officials proposing that flat blocks across Dublin’s city centre should be taken off the list of protected structures, and demolished to make way for “regeneration”.
The proposal comes as part of a long-overdue strategic plan to upgrade all of Dublin City Council’s housing stock.
The economic assessment for how to upgrade each block has generally been limited to considering whether it is more economically feasible to renovate existing complexes, or knock them and rebuild.
But for a large number of complexes – specifically those which were designed by Dublin City Architect Herbert Simms in the first half of the last century – the issue is complicated by the fact that the complexes are on Dublin city’s list of protected structures. This has left officials with a conundrum.
The cost of renovating will exceed the norm – given obligations to retain the fabric of buildings which are protected – but knocking them down is not currently an option, again, because they are protected.
A History of Knocking – and Not Rebuilding
Knocking and rebuilding under the guise of “regeneration” has a long and troubled past in Dublin.
In Sheriff Street, families whose flats were knocked to “regenerate” the docklands still live outside the area because public-housing promises were never delivered.
Between 2006 and 2016, the population of the area around Sheriff Street (North Dock B and C electoral areas) grew from 7,869 to 11,909, an increase of more than 50 percent in just ten years – and there are many more new apartments in the pipeline.
But the amount of public housing in the area has not kept pace. According to figures released to me by Dublin City Council’s housing-management team last year, the overall amount of housing stock owned by the council in the Dublin Central Area (the north inner city and Cabra) has in fact declined since 2006.
Economic Crisis – an Opportunity for Profit?
During a period of extended economic and housing crisis then, we have seen a dramatic population increase in a traditionally working-class area of the city, a decline in the overall public-housing stock there, and a parallel expansion in luxury housing in the same area.
There is a well-established pattern of economic crises being used to force through an often drastic re-weaving of the city’s fabric.
The classic example is New Orleans, where property developers seized on the destruction of the city during Hurricane Katrina as an opportunity to rebuild for profit. The Housing Authority of New Orleans wrote extensively on how majority-black neighbourhoods became less affordable, and majority-white.
Closer to home, in London, the housing crisis has been used to justify widespread sell-offs of public housing by charitable housing providers, in high-end inner-city areas. These sell-offs are justified by the ability to use revenue to purchase greater numbers of units in less-expensive locations – but they effectively contribute to cleansing “desirable” areas of public housing.
Herbert Simms’s Utopian Vision for Public Housing
It’s nothing new, then, to see a crisis taken as an opportunity to open up more city space for profit-making, and hardly overly cynical to assume this is the case in Dublin today.
But the fact that the flats designed by Herbert Simms have been given conservation status creates a complication. The council cannot simply knock and rebuild – or even, as is the proposal in some complexes, add an additional floor of private housing, or an additional block of private housing on the same grounds.
The protected status of places like Oliver Bond House and Chancery House mean that the city council would have to protect the heritage and grain of the buildings, and certainly would not have an option of knocking them outright – ruling out an easy dilution of the public housing with private.
And so, not unpredictably, along comes a proposal to get around this obstacle – to remove Simms’s buildings from the register of protected structures entirely, doing away with any obligation to retain their character, or indeed, the buildings themselves.
This would, naturally, be a blow for those who fight for public housing generally in the city – another possible knock-without-sufficient-rebuild, like O’Devaney Gardens and Sheriff Street.
But it would also mark a symbolic victory for those who wish to rid our city of all traces of public housing and, with that, the working class.
For Simms did not simply design bricks-and-mortar buildings. He was a social innovator who believed that housing should be used to build and revive communities.
Decorative brickwork and window ledges, communal areas for socialising and hanging laundry, and green spaces for children are all hallmarks of his designs, which formed part of a utopian vision for the role public housing in the city could play in building strong communities.
Anecdotally, his orientation towards relatively high-density housing, with shared communal spaces, was strongly opposed by the Catholic hierarchy here, who believed this “European” model was inappropriate for maintaining Catholic morals among the working class.
Crisis Breeds Opportunity – for the Few, not the Many
The justification for the destruction of Simms’s legacy is, of course, a lack of funding – in this case, to renovate the buildings if they remain protected structures.
This is the same reason used to justify the use of public land for private housing elsewhere, and to justify reducing apartment standards in the city’s development plan. Crisis is always a good opportunity to force through what might otherwise be too unpalatable.
In this instance, the change being proposed is one that we should oppose strongly.
Herbert Simms’s vision for public housing in Dublin is one we need now, more than ever, if we are to stop the social cleansing of our city.
More and more of our public space is being privatised, and more and more of that private space – housing, leisure, shopping – is becoming unaffordable to all but the wealthy few.
Simms offers a reminder of what a city can do when it sets its mind – and its budget – to work. Let’s not let go of that yet.
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