St Mary's Mansions. Photo by Zuzia Whelan.

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If Dublin City Council goes ahead with plans to pull down and rebuild, or refurbish, thousands of apartments across the city, it will need somewhere to put residents.

In the past, that was done through “decanting” – moving tenants from their homes to other council complexes in the city.

Given the acute housing shortage and lengthy social-housing list, though, “decanting [entire estates] is no longer an option”, said Darach O’Connor, an official in the council’s housing and community department.

“We have to come up with innovative solutions, especially – and this is another benefit – that keep the community intact,” he said, at a recent meeting of the council’s housing committee.

Because of the scale of the programme, it’s expected to take fifteen years for the regeneration and renewal of the 6,000 apartments.

“[N]ew innovative building sequencing solutions are available to ensure community stability is maintained during the building programme”, according to a March report from council management to the councillors on the Housing Strategic Policy Committee.

In the Past

Its too early to speculate what the options might be, says a council spokesperson. The council’s first port of call should be to consult with residents, they said.

“The decision around each flat complex will not be a one size fits all,” they said. Complexes may have a mix of construction work: retro-fit, demolition, or conservation.

“It may be the case that we would build at a location close to but not within the complex,” they said. They will also “work towards building first followed by decanting on a rolling basis”.

It might mean “regenerating one block at a time, renting temporary accommodation for families”, says Workers’ Party Councillor Éilis Ryan. Or deep retro-fitting while tenants are in situ, which she says would be a “huge job”.

Green Party Councillor Ciarán Cuffe says he thinks decanting still “can and should be an option”.

It’s not rocket science to divide a redevelopment site into phases and build housing on one side, and move people from the old building into the new one, he says. “Most sites from the council would allow additions of new buildings.”

Liz O’Connor still remembers when the complex on Oliver Bond Street was refurbished in the 1990s.

“We were living in a building site. There were signs up everywhere that hard hats must be worn,” says O’Connor, who has lived in the complex all her life.

At that time, she says, there was a housing shortage too, so people had to wait in their flats – while they were being renovated – until a new one was empty.

She lobbied the council to move her uncle while his flat was being refurbished. “They were building around him,” she says.

The council is going to have “a huge problem in relocating people while it’s being done”, says Andrew O’Connell, who is O’Connor’s nephew and a former Sinn Féin councillor.

He has lived in St Teresa’s Gardens complex nearly his whole life, he says. “You can’t have people living in a building site.”

Already Emptied

Some of the flat complexes that the council is looking to redevelop are emptier than others.

“They started de-tenanting in O’Devaney Gardens and Dominick Street 10 years ago,” says Mary Fitzpatrick, local representative for Fianna Fáil.

In the past, the council could have made a strategic decision to de-tenant during a regeneration, but now, “there’s nowhere to de-tenant to”, she says. “There’s no place for anybody to move to.”

In any case, Fitzpatrick says she thinks leaving public homes vacant, without re-leasing them, is not the best use of public funds. The council has “sufficient vacant properties and land. They don’t need to be decanting, they need to be developing what’s there,” she says.

A lot of homes in the Charlemont apartment complex “became empty over time”, says Dermot Lacey, the Labour councillor.

People were moving out and the council didn’t re-let the apartments, which left a small group of residents who were “consolidated together”, grouped together in one section, he says. “The old flats were boarded up while the new flats were being built, and the eventual transition was smooth,” says Lacey.

“Throughout the building programme, there was a series of events that brought people back to Charlemont Street,” says Lacey. There were history projects, time capsules buried, and memories recorded, to help people stay in touch with each other and the area.

Most residents returned after “decanting”, Lacey says, and from his own dealings with them, he thinks people were relatively happy with how it all went. “People were just looking forward to it being finished,” he says.

“A lot of people who have never lived in a flat don’t understand the attachment, and the sense of community,” Lacey said.

Protecting Community

“I’d borrow a teabag from her, or some milk from her,” says Veronica O’Neill, pointing towards two other women not far from where she is sat near the playground in the Dominick Street apartment complex.

There’s community spirit and it’s safe, says O’Neill, who has lived there since she was 14 years old. “You’re never lonely.”

Liz Fitzpatrick says that those who still live in the complex, about 50 of them, want to be moved as a group into the new apartments when they’re built as planned over the road. “We look after each other, we all stick together,” she says.

They’ve been waiting 12 years, as the complex was gradually emptied. Before the Granby blocks were knocked across the street in 2012, there were 198 apartments on Dominick Street.

The older people living here have said they want to be put beside each other when they move, says Gloria Conway, part of the group.

O’Connell says the practice of de-tenanting buildings over time doesn’t work well, because tenants left living in near-empty blocks might experience anti-social behaviour, and regeneration might end up stalled while the council works to find homes for the last few people left.

In recent years in St Teresa’s Gardens, there were two or three people left in one block of flats, while the rest of the homes were “boarded up with steel”.

Keeping communities together during regeneration is  important, O’Connell says. What worked in the past was “when you had good communication on the ground”.

Says his aunt, O’Connor: “When you refurbish, you take one block, you seal it off and refurbish. Then you move people back in. It’s the only viable way to go.”.

“Keeping all the tenants in a block together” is the best way of keeping the community together, she says.

Zuzia Whelan

Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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