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Since current plans for the council’s flagship housing project at St Michael’s Estate were announced in July 2018, councillors and local residents have understood that it would be entirely cost-rental and social homes.
That’s what council info sheets, the council website, and reports for the extensive public consultation have said.
But last week, Dublin City Council’s housing manager, Coilín O’Reilly, said that some of the homes built on the council-owned site could be private rentals.
That came out on 26 September at a meeting of the Inchicore Regeneration Consultative Forum, says Labour Councillor Darragh Moriarty.
O’Reilly, the housing manager, told the forum that the land for 91 of the new homes on the site – where at last count 578 homes are planned – could be sold to private parties to help fund the construction of community facilities.
The idea of the sell-off came out of the blue and at the end of a long consultation process, says Moriarty. “The news itself dropped like a bomb.”
Angela Rolfe, a member of the community forum and an architect, says that the problem isn’t just that it means fewer public homes on the site, but also that the layout splits the community between private and public blocks.
The community is at risk of losing faith in the council, she said. “Trust is important. It’s broken at the moment and it needs to be repaired urgently.”
At the monthly meeting of the full council on Monday night at City Hall, there were signs that the council could reconsider.
“This was an own goal on our behalf,” said O’Reilly. That a planning application is imminent should have been a good news story, he said.
There is no alternative plan as yet but he is searching for another way to plug the funding gap for the community facilities, he said. “We have heard what people have to say and we are going to do everything in our power to sort that.”
The community facilities will include a library and a community hub together in one building, says Rolfe.
Labour’s Moriarty says it may look like finger-pointing to look to Custom House, the headquarters of the Department of Housing, and say the money should come from there. But that is where the problem lies, he says.
The department’s focus is on building new homes and putting all its money into that but sustainable schemes also need creches and libraries and playing pitches, he says. “We’re blue in the face saying that.”
Moriarty says that, without changes to how developments are funded, the council is stuck in a cycle of flare-ups of conflict between council officials forced to pull last-minute strokes to push through schemes, and councillors infuriated at the pressure to sell off public lands and properties.
The Department of Housing didn’t respond to queries as to whether it should fund the community facilities at St Michael’s Estate to maximise the public homes.
Dublin City Council didn’t respond to questions about when it decided that some homes would be private and whether the move has the potential to erode trust in the council.
A Lengthy Lead In
In July 2018, then Minister for Housing, Fine Gael’s Eoghan Murphy, announced plans to pilot a new model of affordable homes at St Michael’s Estate in Inchicore.
Alongside standard social homes, the scheme would have cost-rental homes, meaning homes affordable for middle-income households, with the rent based on the cost of construction for housing, financing and maintenance. Community facilities were also promised.
In May 2020, the council appointed Bucholz McEvoy Architects to design the scheme. Since then, a major four-stage community consultation processhas been underway.
But those on the consultative forum say that it was still news to them that the commercial end of the scheme – where the supermarket and a few smaller shops are planned – could also have 91 private homes.
On 28 September, Eamon Devoy, the independent chairperson of the forum, wrote to O’Reilly, the council housing manager, to say that there was “disbelief” among forum members that they had only been told at the meeting a couple of days earlier.
“As Independent Chairperson, I can confirm that this information was never shared by [Dublin City Council] representatives at any previous Forum meeting,” wrote Devoy.
Delegates wanted an immediate meeting to get assurance that the development would be 70 percent cost-rental and 30 percent social, he said. “As had been unambiguously stated by [Dublin City Council] heretofore.”
In his response, O’Reilly wrote that the council couldn’t agree that this was the first time the forum had heard about this plan.
He pointed to a slide for a presentation in December 2020 which said that the council was considering options for delivering the commercial element of the development.
It said: “Separate contract-Development Agreement/Long Term Lease” followed by “Supermarket/retail/residential/parking/community facilities”.
At Monday’s full monthly council meeting, Sinn Féin Councillor Máire Devine said that detail had been buried deep in documents. “To say the least that we were gobsmacked is an understatement,” she said.
There is no mention of any private homes in a community consultation report issued earlier this year, or in the transcript of a webinar in March.
The homes would be social and cost-rental, said the council’s project manager, Sandra McAleer, at the webinar in response to a question about the housing mix.
“I suppose the idea of having the mixed tenure of the cost rental and the social is really about us optimising the site and it’s a publicly owned site,” she said. “So we are retaining our units and providing cost rental […].”
Moriarty said that councillors and residents on the community forum were aware that land would be leased or sold for a supermarket, but they never agreed to any reduction in the number of public homes.
How to Fund It?
According to a December 2020 presentation, the council’s plan has been to fund the scheme partly with a grant from the Department of Housing, and partly with a loan from the European Investment Bank.
The Department of Housing would fund the social homes but its funding doesn’t cover all community spaces and facilities as part of these housing schemes.
The council has said it plans to take out a loan for the cost-rental homes. But if it were to also borrow for all the community facilities, it would have to pay back more, leaving the possibility that the rents would have to be higher.
Dublin City Council didn’t respond in time for publication to questions about what other methods of funding it might be considering.
Rolfe, the architect who sits on the community forum, says the fundamental problem is that the central government doesn’t fund community facilities.
It’s a long-standing issue, she says. “People have been fighting about this since 1930s and 1940s.”
Back then, the flashpoint was that people wanted the state to provide funding for storage facilities for bikes and buggies at Dublin Corporation flat complexes, she says.
Rolfe says it doesn’t make sense for the Department of Housing to push Dublin City Council to sell off part of the site.
The council will likely end up renting the private homes back from the developer throughenhanced leasing, a scheme for councils to rent homes long-term, or helping people pay the rent in them via the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP), she says.
“It’s ridiculous. The mindset in the department is short-term,” Rolfe says.
They should be investing in top-quality housing schemes together with excellent community facilities to ensure that the development is successful in the long term, she says. “This project should be an exemplar.”
At Monday’s monthly council meeting, O’Reilly was conciliatory. “Apologies for how we have ended up in the situation we are in,” he said.
He will try to find another way to fund the community facilities, he said. He intends to crack on with the application for planning permission, he said, as issues around the tenure of the homes don’t need to be resolved for that.
“We have heard very clearly what the councillors and local residents have said through the forum,” said O’Reilly. The decision on whether or not to sell the land will ultimately be taken by the councillors, he said.