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A Battle for the Heart of Dublin

Despite the Republic suffering a homeless crisis, on a scale not seen since the late 1960s, there remains a refusal by government, at national or local level, to tackle the emergency through public housing programmes, reports Siobhan Mitchell.

During the summer of 2016 it seemed that Dublin City Councillors had broken with the neo-liberal approach to home provision for the first time in a generation when they endorsed a large-scale public intervention in the housing market.

The reason for this was the passing of a motion calling for one of the city’s most valuable land sites, the public housing scheme at O’Devaney Gardens, adjacent to Phoenix Park on Dublin’s northside, to be developed by the Council for mixed income public housing.

If implemented, the proposal would have represented a major blow to the Fine Gael government’s insistence on delivering social and affordable housing solely through the private sector. However, within weeks, following a denunciation of the plan by Council planners and the Fine Gael Minister for Housing, Simon Coveney, which was followed by a sharp U-turn by Sinn Féin and Labour Party councillors, the future of housing in Dublin was returned to the firm grasp of private property developers.

O’Devaney Gardens

O’Devaney Gardens is a site of 16 hectares, located on the corner of the North Circular Road and Phoenix Park in Dublin 7. In 1956, after a failed private development on the site, the then Dublin Corporation built 278 units of housing across 13 blocks of flats.

While it was affected by the same social problems as many similar estates in the following decades the close knit working class community of O’Devaney Gardens’ residents did not believe its full demolition and rebuilding was necessary. However, in 2003 Dublin Corporation announced plans for a full regeneration through a so-called Public Private Partnership (PPP).

The private property developer selected for the site was former Fianna Fáilcounty councillor Bernard McNamara. With his companies ravished by the economic collapse of 2008 he pulled out of the project citing lack of economic viability leaving most of the flats empty and awaiting demolition. In response, the Council began developing a less ambitious plan for the area’s redevelopment, which was never finalised. Eventually, in 2013, it was announced that the Council would not be proceeding with the PPP development of the site, and began to seek alternative methods to develop it.

The Council planners and Department of Environment’s preferred method for the site’s development is now to sell or lease it to a developer in its totality with a commitment that in return a percentage of social housing units will be provided.

Dilapidate, divide and conquer

In early 2008, when plans for the original PPP redevelopment of O’Devaney Gardens were signed off, residents successfully campaigned for the same number of social housing units to be rebuilt, and significant investment in community

infrastructure. A full regeneration board was put in place with statutory authority and rights regarding how the site was to be developed.

But since the economic crash, these gains for the community have been cast into doubt. A decade of dilapidation, and the scattering of former O’Devaney Gardens tenants across the city, weakened the resilience of the community, and their ability to negotiate a deal. This left the handful of families still living in the flats keen to see any deal possible proceed.

The Workers’ Party Dublin City Councillor Éílis Ryan who proposed the July motion for 100% public housing in O’Devaney Gardens, said the fate of the area was one that was all too familiar.

It was never going to take long before they came for our land

“O’Devaney Gardens is the same story we always see with privatising valuable public assets. Run down a public asset, in this case land, government or local government then state it has no money to build it back up, and use that as an excuse to privatise it. We’ve seen similar giveaways of our our telecoms infrastructure, our bin services and our national airline. It was never going to take long before they came for our land.”

Some former O’Devaney Gardens residents are intent on resisting the privatisation of the site of their former community. Rose Fleming, who was born in O’Devaney Gardens and now lives in the adjacent Montpelier Park, said her main fear is that any proposal led by a private developer will mean the Council can give no guarantees about what the outcome will be.

“I don’t want to see a developer given control of the site in any way. The priority needs to be that the new homes are affordable to those who need them, not to the highest bidder, and only Dublin City Council control can deliver this.

“As it currently stands, it looks like a private developer will be able to sell units to who it wants meaning the homes are at risk of being bought up by landlords. The Council will end up paying high rents to landlords for tenants on the social housing list, instead of just building homes for them itself.”

She added: “The bottom line is that the Council is obliged to listen to the citizens of Dublin City. A developer is not. If a developer has control of this site we lose control of our community.”

Eyes on the Prize

Dublin City Council planners, with the acquiesce of a City Council with a majority of nominally left-wing politicians, are currently intent on pushing through a privatisation of public land which is unprecedented in its scale. As well as O’Devaney Gardens several other public land sites around the city are earmarked to be sold, if it proceeds, is likely to result in a significant demographic shift, with several working class communities removed from the city centre.

In 2014, Dublin City Council initiated a request for ‘expressions of interest’ from private developers and Approved Housing Bodies, to find out what level of interest there would be in developing the council-owned land.

The developers who responded to the call set out the criteria that would increase their interest in developing the sites. These included commitments that there would be a guaranteed income for developers and that the state would pick up the tab for infrastructural investment.

The scheme that emerged from this consultation proposed a mixture of social, affordable, private cost rental and privately owned housing in O’Devaney Gardens. Affordable housing, priced at around €€300,000, would in reality be affordable only to high income households, while the cost rental scheme proposed for the site was to be private sector, resulting, through the provision of rent subsidies, in effect another massive windfall from the State to the private landlords.

So not only did the housing land initiative radically reduce the amount of social housing on the site, it also failed to propose badly needed housing for households earning average incomes.

Attempting to break the privatisation steam roller

The motion tabled by Ryan to reverse this privatisation of O’Devaney Gardens, called for 100% cost rental, mixed income public housing on the site, which would target 50% of the units to those above social housing thresholds, and under which all the revenue, and the land, would remain in public hands. The motion was passed with cross party support from the Left parties and councillors, Sinn Féin and a handful of others.

Almost immediately, Dublin City Council planners warned that the proposal was unimplementable. Councillors who originally backed the plan called for an opportunity to reverse their support for the motion. Two meetings between some councillors, city and government officials about the matter followed, including one with Minister Simon Coveney. The Workers’ Party – the proposer of the motion in question – was not invited or even notified about these meetings.

An effort to bypass councillor objections to the giveaway of council owned lands

Independent Councillor Cieran Perry, who supported the Workers’ Party motion, condemned these meetings as “an effort to bypass councillor objections to the giveaway of council owned lands” which could only “be described as undemocratic and unrepresentative.”

He added: “No residents or councillors representing those who propose a public house building program on the council owned lands were invited to the meeting.”

In early September, a motion to reverse the decision to keep O’Devaney Gardens land public was hastily added to the agenda of a Special Meeting of the Council whose sole purpose was to discuss the Local Property Tax. The motion to reverse the decision to keep O’Devaney Gardens in public ownership was successful due to support form Sinn Féin and the Labour Party.

The Council’s main arguments against the Solidarity Housing proposal was that it didn’t comply with national and local policies to encourage ‘mixed tenure’ communities. Sinn Féin welcomed the reversal of the Workers’ Party motion saying that the new deal would ensure that there was enough private funding to proceed with the development, along with a commitment from Minister Coveney that his Department would fully fund 30% social housing on the site.

Councillors and officials also claimed the policy of 100% public housing risked ‘ghettoisation,’ an accusation Ryan was quick to dismiss.

She said: “On the night when the reversal was debated, a number of claims from Sinn Féin and Labour were made that our proposal constitutes ‘ghettoisation’ by not achieving a social mix. But our proposal specifically states that the public housing must be mixed income. This is precisely why councillors supported it in the first place.”

Indeed, the wording of the development plan only goes so far as to talk about mixed income ‘neighbourhoods,’ and that, setting aside arguments around whether mixed private and public housing is desirable, it’s clear that the neighbourhood of Stoneybatter, in which O’Devaney Gardens is situated, is not currently overburdened with excessive amounts of public – or indeed affordable – housing options.

“The problem is in fact the opposite,” said Ryan, “The rental price of a two bedroomed house has increased by 13% between 2015 and 2016 in Dublin 7. With the demolition of O’Devaney Gardens, 280 units of public housing were removed from the area. If there is in fact a need for diversity of tenure in Stoneybatter, the need is to increase social and affordable housing.”

Market Rule

A financial analysis of the total cost of the Workers’ Party proposals for O’Devaney Gardens, over a 25 year period found that the scheme would effectively pay for itself.

However, the proposal would seem to have come up against hardened opposition from government and among Dublin City Council bureaucrats to building public housing as a solution to the housing crisis for those on low incomes – and to extending public housing to those on middle incomes who require it.

This is further evidenced by the fact that, of the 21,000 households which the Government aims to house under it’s plans for 2017, 15,000 will have their “housing needs met” through the Housing Assistance Payment, this means leasing properties from private landlords at market rents.

The refusal by local government to defend the public housing model married to Dublin’s very own version of the ‘shock therapy’, whereby the economic crisis is used to further the privatisation agenda, may also result in major demographical change in the city.

The use of valuable land for public housing, such as city centre sites, has long been contested by adherents to liberal economics, the contention being that it is an ineffective underutilisation of a valuable asset. But previously it has never been quite possible to simply evict the working class communities from the centre city and privaitise previously publicly owned land.

Ryan concluded: “In that context, it’s worth examining what, for O’Devaney Gardens, was considered feasible before the economic crisis, and what has become politically possible now, post-crisis. It would seem that the Right are getting away with successfully using an economic crisis of its making to further its own failed privatisation agenda, with the approval of parties who claim to be on the Left such as Sinn Féin.”

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