Land Development Agency Started to Plan Co-Living for Dublin 8 Site, Suggest Minutes

The Land Development Agency (LDA) considered developing co-living on a plot of public land in Dublin 8.

“The topic of co-living was raised in the context of the Meath Hospital,” say minutes from an LDA board meeting in June 2019.

“Members emphasised the importance of differentiating this scheme from other co-living schemes which have received negative media attention,” the minutes say.

“This can be achieved by making the scheme more affordable to tenants, through good design and through a well-managed public relations process,” they say.

The site, which is owned by the HSE, covers about 0.76 acres at the hospital campus near Heytesbury Street and Long Lane in Portobello.

It takes in the old Meath Hospital, a four-storey building built in 1822, two disused buildings and a car park.

The board meeting was almost two years ago – well before Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien restricted future co-living complexes in December 2020 – and the proposal has since been dropped.

A spokesperson for the LDA said the Meath Hospital was one of the first sites the LDA was asked to consider for housing.

“At an earlier stage, a number of options were considered, including co-living,” they said. “The site was not deemed to be suitable for that form of development and this option was discounted.”

“Co-living is not being considered for any LDA site,” said the spokesperson. “Further options for the Meath Hospital are being examined and in the coming months the LDA will determine the potential of this site.”

What’s the Plan Been?

When the LDA was set up in September 2018, it was given a first tranche of nine public sites around the country with “near-term” delivery potential to develop. One was the old Meath Hospital plot.

Labour Senator and housing spokesperson Rebecca Moynihan said she had heard last summer that the agency maybe had plans for co-living on the land. “We kind of got a sense that that might be what is being proposed.”

The idea that co-living could have been developed on any LDA site is “absolutely outrageous”, said Moynihan.

“Not least, the fact that the standards of them are so low, and that’s not providing the type of affordable housing that people need,” she said.

Last year, Moynihan asked three parliamentary questions about the site through her party colleague TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.

“Based on information provided by the LDA, there are currently no plans to include a co-living project on any sites currently under development,” said one response in July 2020 from Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien.

The hospital site would hold an estimated 100 units and was “pre-planning” with a “design team to be appointed”, said the response – which listed the project as being at an earlier stage to most other sites.

The LDA said at that time it didn’t have plans for co-living, says Moynihan, but “I do think it was the plan”.

The Focus

In early March, the chief executive of the LDA, John Coleman, told the Oireachtas’ joint committee on housing that “the LDA’s focus is squarely on the provision of social and affordable housing”.

“Every time we look at a particular site or opportunity, we are working out how we make it more affordable, make sure we deliver in a cost-efficient way,” he said.

“And make sure the housing is affordable for the people and households we are trying to target by looking at their incomes and trying to understand what they can afford to pay,” said Coleman.

Sinn Féin TD and housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin said the fact that there was ever the idea for co-living suggests a commercial mindset among those leading the LDA.

“Co-living is purely commercial,” he says. In other words, it’s driven by what developers want rather than tenants.

Ó Broin says he has heard people say they want shared living or co-operative living. “But none say they want an apartment the size of a car-parking space.”

“It’s outrageous that they even thought about co-living,” he says, and that “a purely commercial venture would be considered for public land that should be used for social and affordable housing”.

Also the board of the LDA, which currently has a mix of expertise, may change over time, says Ó Broin.

“Does the commercial mindset not only prevail but become more entrenched and how will that affect the work that it does?” he said.

Mary Fitzpatrick, the Fianna Fáil senator and a spokesperson on housing, said that the LDA and its mission is completely different now. “It’s night and day from how it was conceived under the previous government.”

The LDA bill in its current draft says the homes it develops on public land should be made up of 10 percent social homes under the rule known as Part V, which applies to all big developments, and 50 percent affordable homes “or such other percentage as the minister may prescribe”.

“What the minister has said repeatedly on the record […] is in areas of high demand, like Dublin, for example, it would, where it’s public lands, be most likely 100 percent social and affordable,” said Fitzpatrick.

The bill gives flexibility as there may be some instances where it doesn’t make sense to have exclusively social and affordable housing, she says. “Now, I think those instances will be very few and far between.”

Ó Broin, the Sinn Féin TD, says that “there’s a lack of clarity over what the LDA really intends to do after the passing of the bill”.

The LDA often points to Shanganagh near Shankill in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council area – where the plan is for all of the 597 homes to be social or affordable – as an example of what it will do once fully set up.

But that’s an unusual project, says O’Broin. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown councillors had agreed what would go on that site and drawn up plans, he says.

The LDA has been more circumspect about the detail of its plans for the site of the Dundrum Central Mental Hospital or the site of the former St Kevin’s Hospital in Cork, he said.

At the joint housing committee earlier this month, Coleman said the LDA would be driven by the LDA bill, when it comes to how much will be social and affordable on different plots.

He has to talk to the Department of Housing and the Minister of Housing to determine the breakdowns on each site, he said.

And “all of the discussions that we have are about maximising social and affordable delivery on these sites”, said Coleman.

The Bill

Labour supports the idea of a national state agency to develop affordable and public housing and take a long-term view on the development of state lands, says Moynihan, the Labour senator.

But the draft LDA bill needs to be changed so that the agency can’t act as a for-profit developer, says Moynihan. “To ensure that those kind of for-profit things or, you know, following-the-market things can’t be incorporated.”

Her party plans to put forward amendments to the bill to scrap the idea that the LDA can pay dividends to the minister, and to make sure all housing is affordable and public, she says.

Sinn Féin’s position is that local authorities should be empowered to build on public lands, rather than a national body. “The housing system is regional not national,” says Ó Broin.

“We believe the best way of doing this is through councils, as long as they are properly funded and staffed,” he says. “It’s more responsive to local needs, local dynamics, local interests.”

Ó Broin said that if public bodies that own land want to get a high value out of it, to get money to put into other things, then they’re going to push for more private commercial developments.

Also, the €1.25 billion that is earmarked for the LDA from the Irish Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF) will run out quickly, he says. “The idea of the LDA is that the bulk of financing will be private sector.”

Fitzpatrick, the Fianna Fáil senator, said that after the initial funding pot the state could access low-interest borrowings.

“This is the whole purpose of doing this,” she said, so “the state can access very competitive borrowing to capitalize and fund the provision of social and affordable housing”.

At the March joint committee on housing meeting, Coleman said that the agency is more focused on the “deployment” of its own capital “rather than investment at this point”.

But “it is probably desirable over the longer term to attract that very cheap ethical-type finance, including pension funds”, he said.

“These are the type of investors we want to see that are not fly-by-nights and will stay for 25 years or longer. As a medium-term objective, that is desirable,” he said.

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Lois Kapila: Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's editor and general assignment reporter. She covers housing and land, too. Want to share a comment or a tip? You can reach her at [email protected]

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