Policymakers regularly espouse the value of creating socially mixed communities, which usually means trying to build up private homes in areas with a high density of social housing.

A report launched last week looks at ways to increase social and affordable housing in advantaged areas.

“I don’t believe certain areas should be the echelon of the privileged,” said Fiona Cormican, director of new business at Clúid Housing, the housing charity, or approved housing body (AHB).

Clúid had commissioned the report, which focused on the workings of Part V of the Planning and Development Act, whereby developers sell on some of the homes they build, for use as social or affordable housing.

“People should be able to live close to family, friends, work and where their children go to schools, says Cormican, and not be priced out.

But it’s not that easy to build social or affordable housing in some areas. Clúid has plans for cost-rental housing – a kind of affordable rental – but in affluent areas it isn’t viable because land prices are too high, says Cormican.

Orla Hegarty, assistant professor of architecture at UCD and one of the authors of the report, says one possible solution is to zone patches of land specifically for social and affordable housing.

Councils could purchase land in industrial estates before rezoning, she says. “You don’t inflate the land value in the first place.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing says that zoning doesn’t specify tenure types but councils will be doing needs assessments to ensure that “long-term strategic housing needs are met”.

The Obvious Thing to Do

“I think we should all be able to live wherever we need to live, especially if you have family connections there,” says Cormican.

Construction costs are high at the moment, she says. But in many areas of Dublin, it is the cost of land that keeps affordable-housing schemes from being viable, she says.

Says Hegarty: “The problem is, at the moment, if you take a site on the Naas Road that is industrial and you rezone it, the site value just skyrockets overnight.”

Dublin City Council is working at the moment on a plan for how swathes of land around Naas Road in the west of the city should be developed and densified. The City Edge project, as it’s being called, draws in three industrial estates among other areas.

Zoning land for social and affordable homes would help to control escalating land prices, says Hegarty. “You don’t inflate the land value in the first place.”

Says Cormican: “If it is zoned for social and affordable then obviously it is not going to sell for as much as land with no restrictions on it.”

The current system throws up other problems too, says Hegarty.

As soon as an industrial estate is rezoned for residential development, each owner wants to maximise the density of housing on their piece of land, she says.

That’s a concern that cropped up ahead of a recent rezoning by councillors of industrial land at the Jamestown Park in Finglas. It was also a concern last year, when the council rezoned 16 industrial estates across the city to allow for housing.

That results in a lack of planning for transport, green space and amenities as well as affordable homes, she says. “You are stuck with roads that were designed for an industrial estate in the 1960s.”

“You have effectively got people developing an industrial estate piecemeal instead of planning a whole new neighbourhood,” she says.

Instead, councils should be negotiating with business owners based in industrial estates, offering to help relocate their businesses and buy them out, she says.

They could also look at compulsory purchase where necessary. “The obvious thing to do is to get control of these blocks of land,” says Hegarty.

Then the council could develop a master plan and create a managed neighbourhood with community infrastructure and green space built in, she says.

Dublin City Council hasn’t responded to queries sent on 21 September as to whether it has bought up any industrial lands in the last couple of years, whether it is considering acquiring more and what the issues might be around that.

A Department of Housing spokesperson said: “There are existing funding mechanisms and systems in place to facilitate local authority purchase of lands where appropriate, with enhanced funding arrangements set out in Housing for All.”

How Would It Work?

As well as buying up industrial estates, councils could zone public or institutional lands, like those owned by religious orders, for social and affordable homes, says Hegarty.

Authorities in Vienna recently introduced a zoning category for “subsidised housing”, says Hegarty.

In those zones, two-thirds of all floor space in developments with more than 50 homes must be used for subsidised housing, says the report.

“This approach to zoning should be examined, especially as preliminary evidence from Vienna suggests that land values are falling in these zones,” it says.

“There is nothing to stop the council, when they are rezoning institutional lands, saying that they will be residential/social and affordable,” she says.

If a five-acre site is currently industrial land and set to be rezoned, the council could decide that one acre of that land should be zoned for cost-rental housing, says Cormican.

It is not about stopping private development either, says Cormican. The other four acres could be rezoned for general housing.

“If you interfere too much in the market you suppress supply,” she says. “There has to be a reasonable balance met.”

The private housing built would also include the mandatory 10 percent social homes required under Part V rules, she says. That is set to increase to 20 percent social and affordable homes.

Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey says that the council doesn’t specify tenure types within zoning but can put designations on its own land.

The purpose of zoning is to decide which areas are broadly suitable for which activity, he says.

“That is the city development plan’s objective. You put housing where it should be, you put shops where it should be, you put agriculture where it should be,” he says.

The council can influence the mix of housing on private land when it negotiates Strategic Development Zones (SDZ), he says. “The SDZ process confers a certainty on planning,” says Lacey.

Since developers get fast track planning permission, as long as they comply with the rules of the SDZ, the council is able to stipulate the need for a proportion of affordable homes, he says.

For smaller areas like industrial estates, the national government could create a smaller version of an SDZ to allow more of the land to be designated for social and affordable homes, he says.

He would like to see affordable purchase homes included in the mix, he says.

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing says that there are plans for “Urban Development Zones” contained in the Housing For All strategy which will be based on the SDZ concept.

“The UDZ concept will involve a plan-led process that includes a key decision making role for the local planning authority and provides up-front certainty for both communities and the development sector,” he says.

Creating a special affordable zoning would not be unusual, says Cormican. Local authorities regularly stipulate requirements within the planning system. In some Gaeltacht areas, Irish-language skills are required to get planning permission.

Rezoning industrial land and setting some of it aside for social and affordable homes makes sense, she says.

In its new housing strategy document, Housing For All, the government committed to support local authorities to create land banks.

The government overpaid for land in the last boom and should only buy up land if it moves first to control the costs, says Cormican.

“I wouldn’t be in favour of land banking unless it was aligned with zoning of land for social and affordable,” she says.

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

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