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At Dublin City Council’s monthly meeting on Monday, councillors agreed to delay a vote on whether to push ahead with a proposal to develop council land at O’Devaney Gardens with private developer Bartra.
The proposal at issue is for Bartra to build 768 homes on the site in Stoneybatter, next to 56 recently built social homes – and that the combined development would be 50 percent private, market-rate homes; 20 percent private, “affordable” homes; and 30 percent social homes. Many councillors had said they planned to vote against it.
After a last-minute exchange of letters and phone calls, councillors are now planning to meet with Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy some time in the next month. What exactly they’ll talk about, though, is unclear.
Constrained by the procurement process, there’s little scope for changes that could bring in some more yes votes for the project, beyond small bits of tinkering – some of which had already been happening behind the scenes.
“Anyone that’s looked at the legal advice, it’s quite clear that within the procurement process, nothing much can change,” says Gary Gannon, of the Social Democrats, who’ve come out against the proposed development agreement with Bartra.
Neasa Hourigan of the Green Party says similar – that she and party colleagues pored over procurement rules, and schemes, seeing what was possible to rejig without being subject to legal action.
“We went through a million and one versions of how it could work,” she said. It seemed to be a straight case of voting down the deal, or voting for the proposal as is – as tweaking could open the council up to legal cases, which she absolutely doesn’t want, she said.
Hourigan said, though, that she’s keeping an open mind and doesn’t want to preempt any discussion with Minister Eoghan Murphy too much with concrete proposals of what alternatives she’d be happy with, she says. “I don’t want to put a whole lot of shape on it before we meet the minister.”
One of councillors’ objections was the high prices of the “affordable” homes. But while earlier estimates of the costs of the “affordable” homes have dipped a little in more recent council reports, many councillors still have fundamental objections to the plans.
Some say they still believe that including any private homes on the site is a bad use of a valuable state asset, and others that those who are most at need in the city of support – renters – would gain nothing from what is on offer.
Meanwhile, in a last-minute letter to councillors ahead of Monday’s scheduled vote, Minister Murphy warned of delays, and loss of funding from his department, that would come from any attempts to change direction.
A council report in early September gave the range of prices of the affordable homes, after discount, as between €237,000 and €420,000 – depending on whether the home was a house or apartment, how many bedrooms it had, how big it was, and so on.
Last week, a council spokesperson said it had narrowed the ranges from the initial report. “The four most expensive units have been swapped with four lesser priced units from the social element,” they said.
That meant the prices – after state subsidies of land, and €50,000 per home through a serviced-site fund – would range from €260,000 to €300,000 for a two-bedroom house, and from €300,000 to €320,000 for a three-bedroom house, a new breakdown says.
It would also mean from €240,000 to €250,000 for a one-bedroom apartment, and from €300,000 to €320,000 for a two-bedroom apartment, it says.
There’s no scope to renegotiate prices tendered as part of the competitive-dialogue European procurement process, said a council spokesperson. “The tendered prices are one element of determining the Most Economically Advantageous Tender.”
“The prices were assessed by the National Treasury Management Agency and the City Council’s Quantity Surveyors Department and were deemed to be in line with expectations,” they said.
A spokesperson for Bartra Capital said that the prices set for the affordable homes were solely a matter for Dublin City Council. “Bartra have no input whatsoever in the prices set for affordable units in the O’Devaney Gardens redevelopment,” they said.
“Bartra has a tendered price under the competition for the delivery of affordable units,” they said. “The tendered price does not limit DCC’s ability to reduce the price at which units are made available to purchasers but does fix the price at which Bartra must provide the units”.
But Not Enough?
On Tuesday, a day after the full council meeting, Sinn Féin Councillor Janice Boylan said she and Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald were due to hold a public meeting on Prussia Street to sound out what might come next.
“We’re taking the lead from local people,” Boylan said.
Rather than slight changes though, she said that they were looking at whether, allying with other councillors, they could come up with a better deal – something along the lines of 33 percent social homes, 33 percent affordable purchase along the model of Ó Cualann, and 33 percent cost-rental.
Suggestions in Minister Murphy’s letter that it would take five years to put together a new plan were untrue, she said. If finance were approved by the Department of Housing, the council could get something going within 12 to 24 months, she said.
“That all relies on the Minister, we’ll be telling people and stressing that to people,” she said.
Mary Fitzpatrick of Fianna Fáil had a similar line – that the project should be state-funded, with a split of social housing, affordable rental, and affordable purchase.
“I think it’s unambitious, it’s demonstrating a complete lack of ambition,” she said, of the current plans.
Before Monday’s council meeting, the Labour Party – which has 8 members on the 63-member council – had put out a statement, saying they wouldn’t be voting for the deal.
While they had voted for the breakdown of 30 percent social, 20 percent affordable, and 50 percent private back in 2016, the landscape has changed in their view, says Labour Councillor Alison Gilliland.
The party couldn’t justify backing a plan that doesn’t do enough to help those most at risk of homelessness: renters, said Gilliland. “We know the main reason for homelessness is that people can’t afford rent.”
They also couldn’t reconcile having 411 private homes at prices of more than €500,000 per home – as has been predicated based on the prices of new builds in the wider neighbourhood – when so many who are much worse off are struggling, she says.
Those would require an average income of €150,000 to buy, she says – well beyond the means of most. “We had to draw a line in the sand.”
When councillors agreed to pursue the O’Devaney Gardens plan in 2016, the report they agreed suggested that the affordable homes would be affordable rental – rather than affordable purchase.
But that was based on the idea that the central government would come up with an affordable-rental scheme, according to a council spokesperson. Which it never did.
The Department of Housing had been working on and trying to maneuver to keep it “off balance sheet”, basing the scheme on cash subsidies to private landlords. Officials couldn’t see eye to eye with those in the Department of Public Expenditure.
Gilliland said that one possible proposal to take to Minister Murphy at any meeting would be to see if he would fund the council buying 20 percent of the private homes from Bartra to use for affordable rental, she says. “That’s the angle that we’re trying to come from.”
They could try to get a cap any developer profit to well below the normal 15 percent, she says, so that the homes weren’t quite the outlandish market rate. “Obviously we can’t pay that.”
That would throw up questions, though, of whether that would be legally acceptable within the current procurement process – and whether that would be value for money for the state.
If that were in play, the councillors would have to weigh up delays created by putting the whole plan on hold, and spending extra money to buy the extra affordable homes, said Gilliland.
It’s unclear if other councillors would back spending that money.
Gannon of the Social Democrats said he wouldn’t support that, given it continues what is already “a fairly massive state subsidy” to developers. “It’s a fairly shocking way for the state to behave with an asset,” he said.
Boylan of Sinn Féin also said that would still mean subsidising a private developer. Would her party support it? “I don’t believe we would,” she says.
The Money Question
In a letter to Minister Murphy on 2 October, Lord Mayor Paul McAuliffe said he was writing in the context of “our recent discussion” on the department providing a national scheme that would allow a broader range of earners access to a public housing model in the city.
Many councillors want this on the O’Devaney Gardens site, said McAuliffe, a Fianna Fáil councillor. “However, it would appear that financing this model through city council borrowing or funding from national government is not currently approved by our department.”
There isn’t a cost-rental or public housing scheme for it either, he said. McAuliffe asked for such funding approval, and a department scheme “so that the city council is free to provide this wider definition of public housing on this site, and on those which we will consider in the coming months.”
In his response, Murphy wrote that any change in the plans for O’Devaney Gardens would mean a “significant deferral in the provision of much needed housing” of as long as five years. Both on O’Devaney Gardens, and on Oscar Traynor Road, too (more on that later).
Murphy also outlines where the department is at with developing a cost-rental model for housing, pointing to progress on its two “pathfinder” projects at Enniskerry Road and St Michael’s Estate in Inchicore.
It would be a “significant blow for the citizens of Dublin” if councillors voted against the plans and “will call into question the ability of Dublin City Council to deliver important housing projects”, Murphy’s letter said.
“Funding from my department to both reduce the cost of homes and help fund much-needed community facilities will also be lost if elected members decide not to proceed with this important project,” he says.
Gilliland says that if there are still underlying issues that stem from needing to keep any affordable housing “off-balance sheet”, that’s something that has to be tackled.
“I think that’s something the government is going to have to resolve,” said Gilliland, given the ongoing affordable-housing crisis.
Gilliland also said councillors have consistently been told that there’s no shortage of money for housing. “We’ve always been told the money wasn’t a problem.”
In the north-west of the city, Dublin City Council has also been working on similar plans to those to O’Devaney Gardens for its large plot of land at Oscar Traynor Road.
Council estimates back in 2016 were that there would be roughly 640 homes built there – again, the plan for 30 percent social, 20 percent affordable, and 50 percent private.
At the end of September, a council spokesperson sent a list of the work done to date to progress that project, following the same process as for O’Devaney Gardens – from appointing a project board, to deciding the procurement process, and the first two rounds of “dialogue”.
Steps still to take were: a third-round dialogue with interested parties, an invitation to submit a final tender, an assessment of the tenders, a decision on a preferred bidder, councillors’ approval, and the signing of a development agreement.
Going forward, Gilliland says she would like to see a different procurement process for developing council-owned sites, such as Oscar Traynor Road.
The council has learnt alot from the competitive procurement process it has been through with O’Devaney Gardens, she says.
The council interviewed interested parties, drilled down into the details and learnt alot to understand the market, and different approaches for design-and-build contracts. “I think that was a valuable exercise,” she says.
Now, with that knowledge, they should tender differently and contract for a developer to work for them on plans directly, she says. “Can we now go for a direct tender process, because we have this learning?”
“We would contract them to design and build it, but we would project manage and direct it,” she says.
The team with that accumulated knowledge should maybe split into a few other teams, which would then help grow the council’s capacity for building projects, she says.
The Department of Housing didn’t respond to queries sent Tuesday as to the minister’s position on funding other proposals for the land at O’Devaney Gardens.