A Closer Look at the Debate Around the Proposed Sale of a Council-Owned Site in Ballymun

Details outlined to local councillors at an area meeting last December were “very sketchy”, says Green Party Councillor Caroline Conroy.

Amid the confusion, she abstained from the vote that day. “I wasn’t happy with the lack of information,” Conroy says.

Along with her Green Party colleagues, she will oppose the plans when they come to the full council soon, she says. There are 10 Greens on the 63-member Dublin City Council.

Others, though, are still teasing out how they will vote on a proposal from council management to sell land at Sillogue Road in Ballymun to private developer Winterbrook Homes for €3 million.

The plan was set to come before the full council in January, but councillors decided to defer the decision until after the election. Now it’s due to come back before them all in April.

A closer look at the details reveals confusion around how much social housing would be included in Winterbrook’s plan. Councillors in the local area were told there would be more than was listed in a later council report.

Some councillors say it’s important to look at what’s going on the site within the context of wider plans for the neighbourhood, that it’s just one plot with some private housing, amid other plans.

Others have said they’re unhappy with backing a plan that could lead to apartments being bought up by so-called “cuckoo funds” and let out for higher rents, when they could have affordable housing on the public land.

How Many Social Homes?

One of the details that some councillors say they’re struggling to pin down is how many social homes there will be on the 3.38 acre site, which sits just behind the Centra in Ballymun.

Councillor Anthony Connaghan, of Sinn Féin, says the North West Area Committee was told at their December meeting that 130 of the 341 homes would be social homes.

Of those, 100 would be managed by an approved housing body, he says. AHBs are not-for-profit bodies that can provide social housing.

A report that Connaghan says was handed out to councillors at the meeting says just that.

A month later, though, the January council report to the full council simply says that there will be “301 apartments, 40 senior citizens homes, a crèche and community open space”.

It doesn’t mention 130 social homes.

Conroy says she asked if the 130 social homes included the 40 senior citizens homes or not, but didn’t get an answer.

Dublin City Council Press Office didn’t address questions about the number of social homes in the deal with Winterbrook Homes.

A proposal will be brought to councillors in April, a spokesperson said. “All the details of this proposal will be contained in the report that will be prepared for that meeting.”

According to the minutesof the December area committee meeting four councillors backed the deal, but Social Democrats Councillor Mary Callaghan voted against it.

Public land should be used for social housing and affordable homes, she says. “We should be using public land for the public good,” she says. “People need forever homes.”

Callaghan says she believes the other councillors in Ballymun are trying their best to get affordable housing delivered, too. “All are working in good faith,” she says.

But the council doesn’t have money to develop sites itself, Callaghan says. So councillors are constantly being advised that in order to get housing built, they should go along with plans to sell off council land.

A Neighbourhood View

Under the local area plan for Ballymun, councillors agreed what would go on each council-owned site in the area.

The Sillogue land is down for private housing, says Connaghan of Sinn Féin.

The list that councillors were given by officials, with a breakdown of what the council plans to build under the local area plan, shows that 637 social and affordable homes are also planned for the area, Connaghan says.

It’s in that context that he backed the plan to sell the site at Sillogue Road to Winterbrook, he says. “It is looking at the whole area.”

Key for him was that “over a third was going to an approved housing body, which is social housing”, he says.

Local councillors were also told that bringing investment into the area should assist in getting the shopping centre rebuilt, he says. “If you don’t do anything, nothing gets done,” Connaghan says.

Says Connaghan: “I’d love to see 100 percent public housing going in there with mixed-income, but there is nothing on the table at the minute that can guarantee us that.”

Bought by Who?

The advert for the Sillogue Road sale said that “build to rent” would be a suitable model as part of a mixed-use development.

“More innovative housing options such as student housing, care home or ‘stepped down’ or ‘assisted independent living’ could be considered with other innovative cultural or community uses,” it says.

Callaghan, the Social Democrats councillor, says Dublin City Council officials told local area councillors that for the developer’s finances to work, some of the apartments would have to be pre-sold.

“If a lot of private apartments are being pre-sold, it is most likely they are going to be sold to a REIT,” she says. “The price point would probably be quite high.”

Real estate investment trusts (REITs) – sometimes known as “cuckoo funds” – snapped up 95 percent of new apartments built in Ireland last year, according to an Irish Timesarticle based on data provided by the Construction Industry Federation.

Some commentators blame these investment trusts for the shortage of homes available to first-time buyers.

In recent years, says Callaghan, the council has sold sites to private developers – for the Lidl supermarket and student housing, for example. Meanwhile, families are homeless.

“People are watching all of these apartments being built for students when the hotels nearby are chock-a-block with families waiting for homes,” she says.

The council should prioritise and focus on delivering social and affordable homes, Callaghan says.

Connaghan, the Sinn Féin councillor who backed the plans, says the local councillors were not told that the homes were going to be sold to an institutional investor.

Conroy, of the Green Party, and Callaghan both suggest that the council will end up renting the homes back through the Housing Assistance Payment scheme – a government top-up for low-income renters – at inflated prices.

Says Callaghan: “It is not a good use of money.”

Dublin City Council did not respond to questions about whether the new homes will be affordable.

Other Bids

Hugh Brennan, CEO of Ó Cualann Cohousing Alliance, a housing co-op and social housing developer, says his team also bid for the site – and offered more than the guide price.

Their vision was for 240 affordable homes for sale and rent, and social housing for senior citizens.

Plans also included shop space and a social-enterprise cafe – which Third Space, a social enterprise that runs a café based in Smithfield, had said it would take on, he says.

Brennan said Ó Cualann is currently building 50 co-operative homes in Ballymun, and tendering for other council land.

They are keen to roll out affordable-rental homes but haven’t gotten land for that as yet, he says.

Brennan understands that they lost out on Sillogue Road because there was another, higher bid, he says.

“The Ó Cualann model is to pay €1,000 per plot but we were prepared to pay more for this one on the basis that it would be affordable-rental,” he says. “We felt we could make it work.”

Affordable rental is aimed at the same cohort of people as build-to-rent, but the rent is linked to the cost of building the home instead of the inflated “market rate”, he says.

Brennan says it’s fine that the land at Sillogue Road is for private housing, but to him, affordable housing is private housing. “Affordable purchasers are owner-occupiers.”

There was at least one other bid for the Sillogue land besides Ó Cualann and Winterbrook.

Robert Murphy, who owns the local Centra shop in the heart of Ballymun, says he was part of a group that proposed to build a nursing home, senior citizens’ housing and affordable housing on the site.

It was council management that chose the preferred bidder, Winterbrook, but now it’s up to councillors to decide whether to sell Winterbrook the land.

Councillors are scheduled to vote on whether to press ahead with the land sale to Winterbrook Homes in April.

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at laoiseneylon@gmail.com.

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