Councillors Dig in with Effort to Curb Build-to-Rent Housing, Despite Warning from Planning Regulator

Dublin city councillors voted last week to press ahead with their own measures to curb the development of build-to-rent housing in the city, setting them on a possible collision course with the Office of the Planning Regulator and the Minister for Housing.

The measures include changes to zoning to restrict build-to-rent, banning build-to-rent schemes of fewer than 100 homes, and requiring that in each new development, at least 60 percent of the apartments should be of a higher design standard.

Councillors voted through the new rules as part of the process of drawing up the new city development plan, the council’s planning rulebook, which lays out what can be built where in the city between 2022 and 2028.

The next development plan is still a draft, which has to go out again to public consultation, before councillors vote a final time.

Allowing build-to-rent apartments is a way to get large numbers of new homes – suitable for people not looking to buy – built relatively fast, according to a 2020 Department of Housing report.

It’s “not the only solution but is a legitimate form of tenure, with secure long-term professional landlords that will provide a proportion of much needed accommodation for those who wish to rent,” Fine Gael TD Peter Burke, minister of state for housing, said in the Dáil in March this year.

Dublin city councillors, on the other hand, argue that build-to-rent schemes are designed to lower standards than other kinds of apartments, and can’t be sold to individuals – which locks out homeowners.

The spread of these big blocks has also crowded out other forms of new housing, they, and the council’s CEO Owen Keegan, has said.

In Feburary, the Office of the Planning Regulator had said that the council’s proposed policy to curb build-to-rent by requiring that 40 percent of homes in large developments be “standard build-to-sell apartments” clashed with national legislation.

The planning regulator can recommend to the Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien to use his powers to override the parts of the plan that they see as conflicting.

A Mix of Standards

One issue that critics of build-to-rent have had with the model is that the apartments in such schemes have lower standards. They can be smaller, for example, and offer tenants less private outdoor space.

On 5 July, at a special council meeting to discuss the next development plan, most councillors agreed that large developments of more than 100 build-to-rent apartments in the city should contain 60 percent of the higher, standard-design apartments.

That was an update to what had been in the draft until then.

The draft development plan had said that, while there should be a general presumption against large-scale residential developments which are solely build-to-rent, “to ensure a sustainable mix of tenure and long term sustainable communities, a minimum of 40 percent of standard build to sell apartments will be required in such instances”.

At the 5 July meeting, independent Councillor Nial Ring suggested switching the percentages. There needs to be a mix, but it should be 60 percent standard-design apartments and 40 percent build-to-rent, he said.

Very large build-to-rent developments with a high proportion of one-bedroom homes won’t create sustainable neighbourhoods, Ring said. “Let’s send out a signal that we don’t want build-to-rent.”

Labour Party Councillor Alison Gilliland asked the council’s city planner, John O’Hara, to confirm that the council can only prescribe the standards the developer should use, but cannot control the tenure.

In other words, it can’t say whether a building should be full of rentals or for homeowners, or what mix of those tenures should be, as it had through the wording in the earlier draft of the plan.

O’Hara said that was correct. The council cannot force the developer to sell homes to owner-occupiers, but it can influence the standards to which the homes are designed, he said.

“The policy throughout the plan is to create neighbourhoods where you have mixed, intergeneration life,” said O’Hara “You can go from your 20s, 30s 40s, into old age and you can live in the same neighbourhood.”

And the homes should be of a high standard, he said.

A majority of councillors agreed that the next plan should stipulate that all new big developments of build-to-rent contain 60 percent-standard design apartments.

The Office of the Planning Regulator has alreadysaidthat it considers this to clash with national legislation, which allows for 100 percent build-to-rent developments.

“There is no national policy grounding in the Minister’s guidelines (December 2020) on apartment developments for specifying that 40% of BTR developments are to be of a different set of internal design standards,” said the Office of the Planning Regulator.

The Sustainable Urban Housing: Design Standards for New Apartments (2020) “specifically states that the requirements otherwise set out in these guidelines do not apply to BTR development, “ it says.

When it finds such clashes, it refers them to the minister. It is then up to the minister for housing, Fianna Fáil TD, Darragh O’Brien to decide if he will issue a direction to overrule the council plan.

Out of Favour

On 6 July, councillors continued to debate changes to the development plan.

One Green Party motion at that meeting called for a change in the Z5 zoning, used for much of the land in the city centre, so that build-to-rent would no longer be a “permissable use”. (Another, also passed, called for similar on Z14 lands.)

Build-to-rent blocks would still be “open for consideration”, meaning that planners could still allow them if they were satisfied they match overall objectives for an area and would not have “undesirable effects”.

“Built to Rent does not foster the development of sustainable residential communities and there is already overconcentration of build to rent in the City,” says the Green Party motion.

It could squeeze out all other uses, community childcare facilities, civic offices, craft shops and cultural, creative and artistic uses, the motion says.

And the current dominance of build-to-rent “will have long term implications for the provision of adequate housing supply to meet the needs of the citizens of Dublin”, says the motion.

Said Green Party Councillor Donna Cooney at the meeting: “You could end up with just build-to-rent.”

The head council planner, John O’Hara, said the reason build-to-rent is a “permissible use” is that Z5 is the city centre and the model is most suitable for urban areas with employment and transport links.

“It is the most accessible part of the city and indeed the country,” he said.

Build-to-rent is suitable for the city centre and should be allowed subject to the existing safeguards, said O’Hara. “It should be permissible.”

But councillors didn’t think so. They agreed the motion to make build-to-rent housing no longer a “permissible use” in Z5-zoned areas – in other words, in the city centre.

That change will now be included in the draft plan, set to go out for a final stage of consultation before a final vote.

Only the Big Schemes

Councillors also agreed to a motion tabled by Social Democrats Councillor Catherine Stocker that build-to-rent developments of fewer than 100 homes should not be permitted.

Otherwise they’re too small, she said at the meeting. “They are unable, at that scale, to provide the kind of accompanying facilities that are needed.”

“We should be doing everything in our power to limit the amount of build-to-rent going into the city,” said Stocker.

Stocker said the views of council planners have shifted since they first drafted the development plan. Perhaps, because of input from the Office of the Planning Regulator, she said.

Before the meeting, the draft development plan had said that build-to-rent isn’t generally suitable for smaller sites, with fewer than 100 homes.

Although “It was not the intent of the policy to preclude schemes of less than 100 units in their entirety, rather that they should not be the norm,” said a report by chief executive Owen Keegan, that lays out council officials’ thinking on councillor motions.

Green Party Councillors Donna Cooney and Michael Pidgeon said that smaller build-to-rent developments are preferable to mammoth ones.

Cooney said she doesn’t support the build-to-rent housing model in general, but it could be useful for small sites that wouldn’t be developed otherwise.

Said Pidgeon: “I thought the issue of build-to-rent was where it is imposing a monoculture of tenure over a large number of units.”

O’Hara, the city planner, said that smaller build-to-rent developments could be appropriate for some infill sites as long as they provide communal facilities. Those should be decided on a case-by-case basis, he said.

Councillors overall voted in favour of putting a policy in the draft plan to ban all small sites from being developed for build-to-rent.

Other Advice

The Office of the Planning Regulator previously told the council that its change that developers of build-to-rent schemes had to provide a certain percentage of apartments designed to the different – councillors say higher – apartment standards clashes with national laws.

Instead, the council should focus on defining when an area has too many build-to-rent homes approved within a certain radius, the office said.

A councilreport says that council planners considered trying to define an over-concentration of build to rent but found “that providing a precise quantitative definition of what constitutes an overconcentration is overly prescriptive and a more nuanced approach is required that considers both qualitative and quantitative factors”.

Instead, it is best to assess all the different factors at the planning application stage of each proposed development, says the report.

“This is a complex area and will require regard to the site-specific circumstances, planning history, tenure mix and locational characteristics of the particular local area in the city to which the application pertains,” it says.

The next draft of the city development plan for 2022 to 2028 is due to go on display on 27 July for a third and final round of public consultation, said a council spokesperson. The council is scheduled to adopt the plan in the autumn, they said.

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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