James McSweeney House, a block of 22 social-housing apartments in Phibsboro, is empty right now.
What’s the timeline for redeveloping it? asked Fine Gael Councillor Ray McAdam at Dublin City Council’s September monthly meeting on Monday night.
It seems to be dragging on, he says. “Somewhat indefinitely.”
Progress on plans to knock and rebuild the complex with more apartments stalled after governance issues at the council’s chosen partner for the project, the charity Cabhrú Housing Association Services (CHAS).
Now, councillors face a choice on how to proceed.
In short, whether they should press ahead with an earlier plan of taking the site back into council ownership and rebuild the complex itself or to, as the charity’s new chief has asked, give the reformed Cabhrú another chance.
For some councillors, the key question is who can do it fastest.
The Back Story
In December 2019, council managers had asked councillors to hand over the land on which James McSweeney House is built to Cabhrú, an approved housing body so that it could get finance to rebuild it with more homes.
James McSweeney House has 22 apartments. Cabhrú has planning permission to build 35 new homes there instead.
Plans stalled in February 2020 after the council decided – instead of handing over the land to Cabhrú – to keep the land and ask the Cabhrú to “surrender” its lease so the council could redevelop the site itself.
Now though, the charity has a new chairperson and a new head of operations.
The new chair, Liam Meagher, wants councillors to reverse again and allow Cabhrú to proceed with the development, he wrote in a letter to them, outlining the changes the board has made to its governance.
It has a new constitution and mission, vision and values statements and new policies on governance and conflicts of interest, the letter says.
“The Board is committed to the highest standards of probity and transparency and it looks forward to working closely with the Charities Regulator to ensure that all matters raised in the report are resolved to the satisfaction of the regulator,” says Meagher in the letter.
The charity’s board will continue to meet weekly until all identified governance gaps have been addressed, he says.
“This is the fastest way to get it done,” says independent Councillor Mannix Flynn, of the idea of letting Cabhrú stick with the project.
Otherwise, if the council has to start from scratch it could take years to get approval for the funding, says Flynn, who raised the issues with the charity in the first place.
Approved housing bodies often borrow money to build social homes from the Housing Finance Agency. According to the agency’s website, they can get funding approved within weeks.
When councils try to draw down funds from the Department of Housing to build social homes, they go through a four-stage approval process that often takes years.
Meagher says in his letter that Cabhrú will deliver housing quickly. It already has planning permission and was about to tender for builders, he says.
Now he wants to meet with councillors, together with Cabhrú’s new operations manager, to outline the progress made and “outline plans for a fast track approach to the McSweeney House redevelopment”.
At the council meeting on Monday, Brendan Kenny, the council’s head of housing, said that it is up to the councillors to decide how the council should proceed.
McAdam, by phone on Tuesday, said that the council needed to get its hands on James McSweeney House as soon as possible. “To get the redevelopment moving forward as quickly as possible.”
Issues at the charity have caused too many delays already, he says, and he has lost confidence in it as a result.
“The city council, in my mind, is always best placed in terms of the delivery of public housing,” says McAdam.
Labour Councillor Joe Costello says that he too wants to see the site developed quickly.
But he would prefer if the council took it back or gave it to a different approved housing body, he says.
It might be quicker to allow Cabhrú to proceed, he says, but “nevertheless once you have problems in a particular development it’s nearly always better to have a fresh engagement there”.
Flynn, the independent councillor, says the charity has made changes and the CEO who was in charge is no longer employed there.
“The company did accept there were errors here of governance and said that they will be very diligent into the future,” he says.
If Cabhrú is willing to appoint two councillors to its board, he would support them redeveloping the site, he says.
“I want to see this built out so those that are elderly and homeless can be housed in an appropriate way,” he says, and not redeveloping would be detrimental for the area.