It will be four years next month since Peter McVerry Trust announced it was backtracking on plans to use Avalon House, a big ornate building on Aungier Street, as a homeless hostel.
Since then, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive (DRHE) has paid around €2.35m a year for the building, according to DRHE financial reports for 2020, 2021 and 2022.
A spokesperson for the DRHE says the building is not currently used for anything, but that the Department of Housing has approved funding for renovations so it can be used again.
“The building in question requires remedial works and the integrated design team will focus on applying for a planning application and new fire certificate application, prior to the use of this facility,” said the spokesperson.
On Monday night, there were lights on on the ground floor of Avalon House, which runs along Whitefriar Place and is much bigger than the café on Aungier Street. There were no lights on on the upper floors.
Earlier this year, the Bean Box Coffee Co. opened a café on the ground floor. But, according to a council spokesperson, the rest of the building is not in use.
In 2019, the Peter McVerry Trust first announced plans to turn Avalon House from a tourist hostel into a homeless hostel for about 150 people.
Some local residents and businesses protested, saying there were already a lot of similar facilities around there.
Neither Dublin City Council nor Peter McVerry Trust applied for planning permission to change the use of the building from a tourist hostel to a homeless shelter.
Independent Councillor Mannix Flynn was granted permission by the High Court to seek to quash the council’s decision on that.
Flynn said this week that he dropped that case on the basis that the council accepted it needed planning permission, and an agreement that Avalon House would be used for homeless families – rather than single people.
How much and to who?
Avalon House is one of the most expensive hostels in Dublin, according to the DRHE’s financial reports – although the council says it is empty.
In successive reports to the Department of Housing, the DRHE lists the expenditure on Avalon House as “supported emergency accommodation for singles”.
The DRHE didn’t respond in time for publication to queries sent Tuesday asking whether Avalon House was operating as a hostel during any of that time.
DRHE also didn’t respond before publication to a query as to how it is possible to spend €2.4m a year on an empty building.
It also didn’t respond to a query as to whether the building is leased or owned – but planning and property records suggest it is currently leased from an investment fund.
In May 2022, the property was sold for €45.6 million, according to the Property Price Register. A planning document from June 2022 lists the owner as Irish Social Housing Fund 1, which is a sub fund of the Davy Platform ICAV.
Who owned it directly before that is unclear. A planning document from May 2017 lists a now-dissolved company called Loughlinvest Limited as the landlord at that time.
Flynn says that he is not opposed to accommodation for homeless people but that there needs to be transparency to how the deals are being done, that the facilities should be spread across the city and that going through the planning process would result in better standards in the hostels too.
Nailing down permission
While the DRHE had argued that turning a building into emergency homeless accommodation didn’t require planning permission, that was upended in February 2021.
That month, An Bord Pleanála ruled that it was a change of use, and wasn’t exempted development.
Peter McVerry Trust and the DRHE are also stuck with two buildings on Baggot Street that they have been unable to use for homeless accommodation, because they don’t have planning permission in place, according to the Irish Times.
On Tuesday, Flynn, the independent councillor, said that back in 2020 the DRHE accepted the legal argument that planning permission was needed to turn Avalon House from a tourist to a homeless hostel.
They also agreed, before the case got to court, that locals wouldn’t object if it were used for homeless accommodation for families subject to that planning permission, he said.
Flynn said he thinks the DRHE used the building for homeless accommodation after that.
It would be better if the council went through the planning permission process when opening emergency accommodation, said Flynn. “There is no oversight, there is no accountability.”
Dublin City Council’s planning database shows that the council has not yet applied for planning permission to use Avalon House for homeless accommodation.
It does plan to do that, though, according to spokespeople for the DRHE and for the Department of Housing.
Past responses to council queries show plans for the building have been moving along slowly.
In February last year, the council’s chief executive said the council had been reassigned the lease in June 2021. After that, architects had started to work on a design brief to turn the building into a hub for 20 homeless families, he said.
The council put in an application to the Department of Housing to get funding for surveys and a design team for the project in December 2021, and got that approved in March 2022, and the feasibility study was due to be done by July 2022, said another later response.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said that: “The Department recently approved an application for capital funding by DCC to bring Avalon House back into use.”
“An integrated design team will be appointed to prepare a planning and fire application for a family hub,” says a spokesperson for the DRHE.
“When a decision in relation to a planning application for a family hub is determined, a time frame for the proposed works will then be available,” they said.