Donna Collins clips a green oximeter on her son’s index finger.
When her son, 6, speaks, the words are raspy and inaudible – his chest tight from the asthma that has kept him home from school today.
On her sofa, Collins holds in her lap a yellow nylon bag with inhalers, antihistamines and other tablets. Her son looks up at her with his big brown eyes.
The oximeter beeps. A blood oxygen level of 95–100 percent is ideal. His level is first at 91, but drifts up to 93.
“He’s flashing now at the minute because it’s telling me he’s very low,” she says. “It’s gonna go up in a minute. It can’t be that low.”
Collins regularly checks her son’s blood oxygen levels, she says. “I think last year he must have been in hospital 25 times on nebulisers, on breathing machines.”
Since his asthma surfaced three years ago, he’s missed many days of school, she says.
Collins has lived for nine years on the third floor of a block of council flats called Glovers Court, on York Street near St Stephen’s Green.
Residents have complained several times, over at least three years, about conditions in the two blocks of 38 council flats, which were built in 1976.
They complain of the cold, of mould, and of dampness.
“He was never sick, ever,” she says. “Then the last three years when we started seeing the mould, it’s getting worse and worse.
“But,” Collins says later. “I can’t prove his illness is coming from the flat.”
In response to a query about the mould, damp and water issues in the flats, a Dublin City Council spokesperson said the council “is aware of condensation issues at some of our units in the Glover Court Complex” and is “looking at short-term solutions [for] the problems”.
Cold and Damp
“My daughter is asthmatic,” says Val Moore, a neighbour, sitting on the couch with Collins.
“There are at least three people sick at the one time in this complex every week,” she says.
The water pressure is low too, says Carol McCullagh Sylla, who lives in the blocks too.
Sometimes, when residents turn on taps in the sink or bath, brown water pours out. McCullagh Sylla has a photo of her bathtub full of the stuff.
The winters are “freezing” says Collins.
“Sure, look at the gaps under the doors and all,” says Moore, pointing to Collins’ front door. A line of light runs between the floor and the door.
Collins keeps the heating on all day during the winter, which makes the asthma worse. “But you have no option,” she says. “You’re too cold.”
Later, McCullagh Sylla shows the bedroom her four children share in her apartment next door. Black dots of mould grow on the window sill.
“I’ve painted over it so many times, I don’t know,” she says.
Collins says the same – she’ll paint over mould, but the small black dots always come back.
Residents frequently complain about respiratory problems and mould, independent Councillor Mannix Flynn said Thursday. “The building has become very dilapidated.”
A council spokesperson said that the complexes were constructed in an earlier time, to those standards. “However, the living environment has changed considerably since then,” they said.
Upgrades like glazed windows, central heating and “some insulation” have “contributed to an increase in condensation”, they said.
At least two studies have detailed issues with heating and energy efficiency in Glovers Court.
A council feasibility study in 2008 looked at how to externally insulate the flats. The pilot project did not go ahead.
An assessment in 2011 by architect Joseph Little of Building Life Consultancy looked at how the building’s structure allowed heat to escape.
The issue, the report found, was with the vertical frames on the outside of the flats and the decks of the walkways, made of concrete.
“These concrete elements clearly bridge the thermal envelope allowing an easy path for heat to escape,” the report said.
It noted the difficulties in insulating the flats: “As the budget was limited and the rear of the building could have little done to it for a variety of reasons, the best possible upgrade was simply impossible.”
Interior surface temperatures were “shocklingly” lower than the target number, causing risk of condensation, it said. Warm moist air condenses on cooler surfaces and this can cause mould to grow.
The aim of insulating the flat would have been to raise the building energy rating (BER), which measures energy efficiency, to B3.
Glover Court had a BER rating of D2 back in 2012.
Building Life Consultancy recommended enclosing the existing back and front balconies and building new ones. But this would have cost €3.6 million – which the council deemed too expensive.
Another option was to externally insulate the walls, but not inside the balconies, the council said in a presentation about the plans.
This would have raised the BER rating to C1 and would cost €1 million. However, they found that insulating the access decks on the courtyard side would be a fire-safety risk.
Collins, who moved into Glovers Court nine years ago, remembers one of the proposed insulation schemes.
“The builder wanted to wrap it from the outside and he wouldn’t agree to do it with us living here,” she says.
This was about seven years ago, she says. Residents were brought to a nearby community centre and shown plans for the complex.
People came out to survey the flats, she says. “That was the end of it.”
Since at least 2016, councillors for the area have submitted questions to the council about the maintenance of the building almost every two months.
In April 2017, Collins says, tenants drew up a list of the issues at the request of Councillor Flynn – to pass on to council officials.
Collins went to all 38 apartments, she says.
They wanted windows and doors replaced, and the slippery steel plates on the edges of the stairs removed (these were taken off). Drainage is also an issue, Collins says. When it rains, the balconies flood.
Collins presented the list to council officials in person, she says. But she never heard back from them herself.
At an area committee meeting in May 2017, the council’s area maintenance officer responded to the residents’ list of complaints, saying that the windows were double glazed. The water pressure was checked and found to be fine, it said.
The flats were “built to the required standard and regulations at [the] time of build”, and the drains were cleared by council workers, the reply said.
At the February monthly council meeting this year, Councillor Claire Byrne of the Green Party put forward a motion to “take immediate action to address the on-going problem of damp and mould in Glovers Court”.
The council had begun a pilot under its “condensation subgroup”, painting and ventilating flats to deal with mould issues, a response said.
Glovers Court would be included in this programme, it said. The programme would start at the end of the second half of the year.
The council has made various upgrades, a spokesperson said this week.
These include new ventilation systems, and filterless fans, anti-mould paint, infra-red heating, and some “sealant and thermal insulation products”.
Responding to Complaints
Collins says she thinks the council isn’t responding to complaints from residents quickly enough.
She had to take the lock off her door after someone put glue in it and the council hasn’t replaced it yet, she says.
She’s sent several emails about a tree behind her balcony, which blocks out the natural light, she says.
“It’s constantly dark says,” says Moore. “The trees are blocking the light.”
Collins says she feels like most of her complaints go nowhere.
Currently, social housing tenants can complain to their local authorities and to the Ombudsman.
However, Ombudsman decisions are not legally binding or enforceable, according to the Community Action Network (CAN), a “social justice NGO” based in Dublin 2.
A survey by CAN, published in 2019, found that 76 percent of social housing tenants in 13 estates reported mould in their homes and 70 percent said their homes were cold and hard to heat.
CAN has called for the creation of an independent complaints body for social-housing tenants.
There should be binding time-limits for getting works done, Collins says. “If someone reports a problem they should have a solution by a certain amount of time. Not on their own watch.”
Dublin City Council does have plans to redevelop Glovers Court.
It’s one of the 109 complexes listed on Dublin City Council’s “renewal and development programme” – which the council has said will take at least 15 years to carry out.
The cost of retrofitting some of the complexes was as high as demolishing them and rebuilding, the report said.
Rebuilding Glovers Court would cost roughly €10 million, Dublin City Council said when it was considering the retrofit project.
When might that start? asked Flynn, the independent councillor, at this month’s meeting of the council’s South East Area Committee.
In his response, Senior Housing Executive Officer Darach O’Connor didn’t give an exact time frame.
But the council will present their audit of flats to regenerate to local councillors and recommend the plan for Glovers Court gets underway, O’Connor wrote, in his response to Flynn.
“The flats are no longer fit for purpose,” Flynn said, on Thursday. “There’s no merit in them.”
Any regeneration scheme should be dictated by the residents, he said. “Rather than a regeneration board, which can be cumbersome, that you would actually set up a residents board.”
Collins sees pulling them down as the only solution: “[The flats] need to be bulldozed.”
What if this turned into a lengthy process? Collins says: “You know what, you have no choice. If you want your child to live in a healthy home.”