Dublin City Council’s plans for its depot sites scattered about the city have evolved over the past 18 months.

At first, the idea was to sell some of these sites that were zoned for housing to private developers.

Now, the proposal is to sell all depot sites zoned for housing – plots which, combined, have room for roughly 1,000 homes – to non-profit approved housing bodies (AHBs) to build social and affordable homes.

The latest version, though, has some councillors worried about long-term pitfalls that might arise from passing these sites over to AHBs, rather than keeping them in the council’s hands.

Among the big questions: whether the social homes will stay social homes over the long-term.

At the Meeting

Across the city, the council has 33 depots, which council workers mostly use as bases to run the city – whether overseeing road maintenance, waste management, public lighting, or other services that keep Dublin ticking.

At this month’s housing committee meeting, on 8 January, councillors told the council’s head of housing, Brendan Kenny, that they weren’t too happy with current plans for these lands.

The sites should be used for the new public housing model they are pushing for the city, they said – meaning mixed developments of social and affordable homes at scale developed by the council.

Sinn Féin Councillor Daithí Doolan asked whether Dublin City Council has the ability to build them out itself. “Why not use some of these sites to develop our public housing model?” he asked.

The problem, said Kenny, is that there is no such thing as “public housing” in Ireland at the moment. “We aspire to it but we have a long way to go.”

“We have social housing and the bones of an affordable-housing scheme, less bones of a cost-rental scheme,” he said.

Said Fianna Fáil Councillor Mary Fitzpatrick: “I think we fail as a city council every time we talk about giving away or selling land and not maximising it for the delivery of our core services.”

With so many plans to sell off land coming before them, independent Councillor Cieran Perry said he wondered whether Dublin City Council was to move away from the business of providing social housing altogether.

Not so, said Kenny. The council is certainly not stopping providing social homes, and it’s building more than any time since the 1990s, he said.

“It is part of our policy to work in partnership with AHBs,” Kenny said. “They have a great track record.”

The council nominates all the tenants who live in AHB-built social housing from the social-housing list, and the lands will always be used for social housing, Kenny said.

If the councillors are going to vote against all of these sales, “we need to know that now”, he said.

Why So Wary?

In Rebuilding Ireland, the current government’s plan for housing and homelessness, AHBs play a notable role.

In the last two years, Dublin City Council has built 356 new social homes, while AHBs have built 641, according toa council report.

With AHBs providing more homes, Perry, the independent councillor, said he is worried that the UK system could take hold, and working-class communities could be displaced.

In the UK, housing associations had to legally provide a certain number of social homes, but contracts didn’t say where, he says.

So “they began to move their social housing tenants out to the less desirable areas and refurbing the centrally located blocks for private housing”, he says.

Back in the 1980s in the UK, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, shifted responsibility for supplying social homes away from local authorities and over to housing associations.

Housing associations could borrow from banks for refurbishment. To fund badly needed regeneration works, they often demolished old council housing and built a mix of private and social homes in their place.

Today, housing associations in the UK remain heavily reliant on developing private housing to fund the building of social homes. As a result of market conditions, some of them have ended up building very few social and affordable homes in recent years.

Previously council-owned land has become privatised and lately private, for-profit, housing associations have alsoentered the market in the UK.

Not everyone sees Ireland treading this same path, though. “Are we going down the road of Britain? The answer is no, we are not,” says Sinn Féin housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin.

What happened in the UK was different, Ó Broin says. “There was a very deliberate shift to end local-authority-led social-housing development and to put all the responsibility onto approved housing bodies.”

Local authorities in Britain were starved of funding for regeneration and refurbishment and ended up with a lot of their housing stock in a bad state of disrepair, he says.

Since the housing associations were able to borrow, councils transferred lots of land and housing complexes over to housing associations, he says.

Neither the government here nor the AHBs want to follow the UK model, Ó Broin says, but that doesn’t mean it might not happen anyway.

AEurostat ruling in 2017 decided that AHBs’ debts should be registered as state borrowing – often called “on balance sheet” – in part because they weren’t “market operators”, says Ó Broin.

“In order to get the AHBs off-balance sheet, could increased levels of market dynamics be foisted on them? That is a risk,” he says.

But AHBs in Ireland don’t want to start down the road of British AHBs, Ó Broin says. But “in order to comply with the Eurostat ruling you might start out on a path that would lead you down that road anyway, that would fatally undermine your ethos”.

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said that AHBs play a central role in developing social housing.

The department is committed to using all mechanisms available to deliver 50,000 social homes under the government’s housing plan Rebuilding Ireland, they said.

The department is currently looking at the “options available to create the necessary conditions to allow the classification decision to be revisited in the future”, they said.

Those options need to be analysed to see how they might impact on the wider social-housing agenda, they said. “The Department is currently engaging with the relevant stakeholders in this regard.”

After 30 Years

Karen Murphy, the joint director of policy with the Irish Council for Social Housing (ICSH), which represents AHBs, says that if the properties are government-funded they must be rented out according to a contract with the local authority.

But if the charity owns the property fully, it is up to them to decide how to rent it – as long as that is within their ethos, Murphy says. So, for example, they might decide do affordable rental, instead of social housing.

Most properties are built using 30-year state loans, but once these loans are paid off, the AHB then fully owns the property. “After that they can only act within their constitution,” she says.

ICSH is currently working with Dublin City Council, looking at how it can ensure that, after 30 years, the homes stay as social homes, she said. “I understand where people’s concerns are,” Murphy says.

They’re looking at how to capture that in a memorandum of understanding, she said. “Obviously 30 years can go by very quickly and we would like to ensure that they would continue to be for social housing and for councillors to be reassured.”

Ó Broin said that it would be better if the state kept ownership of the land, perhaps through a covenant, he says.

At the moment, AHBs need the title to the land in order to borrow to build homes on it. But the central government could tweak that set-up if they wanted to, he says.

Murphy, of the ICSH, said that the new regulator – created to strengthen oversight of AHBs – will have very strong powers too, if they spot failings.

“If they think the best solution is to transfer the housing to another body, they will have the power to pursue that,” Murphy said.

AHBs don’t want to move into developing [market-rate] private housing, she says – but they do want to start providing cost-rental housing. “There has to be a social objective.”

Said Murphy: “We are not set up to be estate agents or property companies, we wouldn’t be doing the job we were set up to do, so it would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

Privatising Land?

Perry, the independent councillor, says he is also concerned that the proposed transfer of lands to AHBs could result in the land being privatised.

“If they were to get a loan from a bank, that bank clearly has a claim on that development,” he said, later.

A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said that it doesn’t matter whether an AHB gets funding from public or private sources.

“The site still has be developed and used into the future as social housing. It cannot be privatised,” they said.

Transferring lands to AHBs isn’t privatisation in his view, says Ó Broin, the Sinn Fein TD. That’s because AHBs are not-for-profits, and the land is still being used for the public good, he said.

That said, some AHBs do already rent out some property commercially, Ó Broin says.

Clúid have some private rental units bought through NAMA in Beacon South Quarter in Sandyford, Ó Broin says. “The bulk were for social use, but they also took some and charged a standard rent.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said that there are “no legal guarantees in place to prevent AHBs from borrowing and building privately”.

But under a new law, an AHB must “include in its constitution the provision or management of dwellings for the alleviation of housing need”, he says.

In short, that means providing social and affordable homes for households that can’t afford market rates.

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Laoise Neylon is a reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at lneylon@dublininquirer.com.

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