On Berkeley Street in Phibsboro, a three-storey red-brick building is boarded up. “RHL – it is right to rebel – RHL”, is daubed just under the roof line in white paint.
The social-housing complex has been fully vacant since 2021.
In mid-May, it was occupied by the housing activist group the Revolutionary Housing League, which said it was accommodating homeless people there, including asylum seekers who had their tents burned out that month.
Last week, the Gardaí removed the last of the protestors – and four people were arrested, says a Garda spokesperson.
James McSweeney House is a social-housing complex for older people run by the housing charity Cabhrú, which was granted planning permission in August 2019, to demolish and rebuild it.
To get the funding for the project, the charity needs the council to transfer ownership of the land. But what is a common enough transaction between housing charities and the council has been complicated in the case of Cabhrú.
In 2021, an investigation by the charity regulator found other issues too.
Pat Doherty, the operations manager with Cabhrú, says that the charity regulator closed the investigation in January 2022 and that all governance issues have now been addressed.
The charity hopes to tender for a contractor to demolish the existing building within a month and to complete the redevelopment by the end of 2025, he says.
On Tuesday 11 July, after debate, a majority of the local area councillors agreed that Dublin City Council should now transfer the land to Cabhrú.
The Cabhrú controversy
Cabhrú, formerly called the Catholic Housing Aid Society (CHAS), has a 99-year lease on the land at James McSweeney House, which is owned by the council.
The charity has planning permission, granted in August 2019, to demolish the complex of 21 apartments – built in 1984 – and to replace it with a new building containing 35 homes and a common room.
To get funding for the redevelopment, Cabhrú needs full ownership of the site, says a council report from 2019. The council housing manager at the time, Brendan Kenny, pushed councillors to accept the plans.
But independent Councillor Mannix Flynn called a halt. “The way that this agency treated the elderly tenants was absolutely atrocious … ,” he said.
In October 2018, the Irish Times reported that CHAS had moved out elderly social housing tenants, paying €238 per month, and rented the flats to students for €800 per month. It did that to fill the flats short-term pending demolition and the rebuild, it said.
“Approved Housing Bodies cannot rent commercially,” said a spokesperson for Dublin City Council in December 2019.
“AHBs are established for the provision of housing to people in housing need,” said Ken Reid, communications officer with the Irish Council for Social Housing at the time.
Housing charities might occasionally rent a room to a community group for an activity, he says, such as bingo.
In 2021, an investigation by the Charities Regulator found there were other problems too with the way the charity conducted its business.
Over two and a half years, Cabhrú paid its CEO €265,435 without putting him on payroll or agreeing and signing a contract.
The lack of a signed contract and clarity around the CEO’s position “has created a potential financial liability for the charity”, says the report.
The then CEO, Miceal McGovern, had earlier been convicted of breaches of the Companies Act – for not keeping “proper books of account” for his private company Tenants First (Ireland) Ltd, and for acting as a director of it while bankrupt – and disqualified from being a director of a company for five years, from 2004 to 2009.
The regulator found that the charity didn’t separate out its commercial revenue from its charitable income.
As well as sometimes staying in the social homes himself, and using them as addresses for his private companies, the Charities Regulator also found that McGovern had allowed a family friend to stay over in James McSweeney House.
In August 2021, the chair of the board at the time, Liam Meagher, said that an organisational review was underway.
The board was meeting weekly to address governance gaps, he said. “The Board is committed to the highest standards of probity and transparency,” said Meagher.
The Revolutionary Housing League said on 12 May that it had occupied a building to shelter homeless people, including asylum seekers left to sleep rough after International Protection Accommodation Services had failed to provide them with shelter.
That included people whose tents were burned out on Sandwith Street, the previous night.
“The RHL has now found safe and secure accommodation for the homeless asylum seekers who had been camping at Sandwith Street,” says the activist group on Twitter.
“To do so, the RHL have opened a long-vacant building in Dublin City and moved these vulnerable people in.”
Cabhrú brought a court case to get them out of the building.
“Gardaí executed a high court order on Tuesday evening, 11th July 2023 at a premises on Berkeley Street in Dublin 7,” says a Garda spokesperson. “A total of four people, two women and two men, were arrested by Gardaí at the scene.”
At the council’s Central Area Committee meeting last week, independent Councillor Cieran Perry said that the occupation appeared to have helped motivate the charity to redevelop the site.
“It seems to have spurred Cabhrú into doing something,” he said. “Maybe we should have more occupations around the city and we might get something done.”
Pat Doherty, operations manager at Cabhrú, says that the redevelopment was held up at first by the Charities Regulator investigation and then by a review carried out by the Department of Housing.
“Following the inflationary effects of Covid, it was necessary to carry out a re-evaluation of the scheme,” he said.
Like other housing charities, Cabhrú had to wait for the Department of Housing to complete its review of its social housing funding model, the [capital advanced leasing facility. ](https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/7ea35-housing-for-all-review-of-the-capital-advanced-leasing-facility-calf-funding-model/ CALF funding mechanism, he said.)
At the meeting of the Central Area Committee on 11 July, councillors asked what happened to a previous plan for the council to take the site back and redevelop it itself.
The then housing manager with Dublin City Council, Brendan Kenny had said that the council would take over the project but the council didn’t have the capacity to do so, said Aisling Browne, a council administrative officer. “There is a number of other projects in the north inner-city that are being led out by our own architects.”
Council managers are satisfied that the governance issues have been resolved, she said.
Fine Gael Councillor Ray McAdam said that Cabhrú agreed to appoint two councillors to its board and to provide updates to the area committee on changes to its governance procedures. But it hasn’t done either of those things, he said.
“It’s my view that this should not be adopted by the area committee today,” said McAdam.
But independent Councillor Nial Ring said that Cabhrú already has a 99-year lease, which is similar to ownership. And they had voted through similar hundreds to time before, he said.
Independent Councillor Christy Burke and Sinn Féin Councillor Janice Boylan said that they too would approve the transfer of the site to Cabhrú.
The development is for much-needed social housing, said Boylan. “Some of these tenants were given letters of comfort to come back and I know some of them will want to come back.”
Independent Councillor Cieran Perry said he had reservations. But “I’m not willing to hold up this process”, he said.
The majority of local councillors agreed to transfer the land, and the issue is now set to go to the next monthly meeting of the full council, in September, for a final decision.
McAdam, the Fine Gael councillor, asked the meeting that his opposition be noted.