25 November 2004 Edition
Anger as City Council moves to end role in housing provision
BY CAOILFHIONN Ní DHONNABHÁIN
Anger and opposition is growing as Dublin City Council leads the charge to fundamentally alter the role of local authorities in the delivery of social housing in the 26 Counties. Last year, Assistant City Manager Brendan Kenny expressed the desire of Council Management to get out of housing provision. It is now endeavouring to bring this about by pursuing a three-pronged approach of handing existing housing complexes over to housing associations, promoting tenant purchase of flats and delivering new or regenerated housing units through Public Private Partnerships (PPPs).
A conference, entitled Directions for Social Housing in Dublin City, held in Dublin on Tuesday 16 November, discussed Council proposals to extend the 'right to buy' to the 16,500 local authorities tenants living in flats.
A wide range of interested parties including elected representatives, housing associations, housing NGOs, residents and community groups, attended the conference. Sinn Féin Councillors Larry O'Toole, Daithí Doolan, Christy Burke and Tony Smithers were in attendance. Burke and Smithers are members of Dublin City Council's Housing Strategic Policy Committee.
Presentations by the Director of the Government's Housing Unit, Michelle Norris, and Assistant City Manager Brendan Kenny, were followed by presentations by tenants from St Michael's Estate, Fatima Regeneration Board and O'Deveney Gardens outlining their perspectives. The tenants groups emphasised the need for tenants to be at the centre of any re-development of flats complexes and expressed concern over the implications of redevelopment by way of PPPs.
The Assistant City Manager complained of the difficulties in managing 26,500 units of social housing and was at pains to point out that if tenants chose to buy their flats, the City Council would remain as complex managers. He did not, however, shed any light on how the City Council, if it is currently having difficulty managing its housing stock, would manage a much more complex situation whereby some flats were in private ownership while others remain in the ownership of the Council. In an exchange with tenants' representatives, Brendan Kenny was forced to acknowledge that residents were by and large opposed to transfer of stock to housing associations.
Although tenants often do wish to buy their own flats and while tenants in local authority houses already have such a right, serious concerns arise in relation to the proposed extension of the 'right to buy' in flats complexes. Central among these is how the flats complexes will be managed once some or all of the tenants have bought theirs flats. Although Dublin City Council says it will remain as the management body, tenants have no guarantee that this will remain the case. Will the Council eventually hand over the management of complexes where the majority or all tenants have bought the flats to private management?
Will tenants end up paying more in management charges after they buy the flat than they were paying in rent when they were Council tenants?
Tenants need to be made fully aware of the possible pitfalls. The other concern highlighted by the Sinn Féin councillors centres on the fact that unless there is a significant social housing building programme put in place, the proposals from Dublin City Council will result in a dramatic diminution in the level of local authority social housing rental stock.
Queried by tenants from Killarney Court (previously St Joseph's Mansions), now run by Cluid Housing Association, Brendan Kenny admitted there was no system of oversight in relation to excessive rules and regulations by housing associations and increasing costs of management charges.
Andrew McLaran from Trinity College asked Brendan Kenny if a valuation was carried out of the land at St Michael's Estate that is to be regenerated by way of a PPP. He pointed to the absurdity of the 50 units of social housing being delivered through a PPP on land, which had a value of between €60 and €80 million.
Karen Murphy of the Irish Council for Social Housing pointed out that Housing Associations were generally formed with the intention of providing additional social housing, not with the intention of taking over responsibility for the management of existing stock. She further pointed out that housing associations were not adequately consulted on the matter and were unclear on what they were being asked to do. In response, Brendan Kenny admitted there are issues around the capacity of existing housing associations to manage housing stock if it is transferred to them.
Councillor Tony Smithers spoke of the fact that no new social housing is to be included in plans for a large development at Cherry Orchard, while Daithí Doolan emphasised the necessity for real consultation with all interested parties before any moves by City Council in relation to its proposals.
During a presentation entitled Does Tenant Purchase Promote Social Inclusion? Tony Fahey of the ESRI cast doubts on the claims by city management that rights to buy promotes social inclusion. Fahey was deeply critical of the government's failure to properly regulate the private sector, particularly in relation to the cost of rents in the private rented sector and the management of private apartment complexes.
Implications for other areas
It was clear from the conference that the Council Management's efforts to abandon its role in housing provision are opposed by tenants, city councillors and housing NGOs.
If Dublin City Council succeeds in abandoning its role in the provision of social housing, the other councils in the 26 Counties will follow and the state will cease to have a direct role in the provision of housing. This will be left to housing associations — in others words left to charity and the private sector.
Sinn Féin committed itself, in its manifesto for last June's local elections, to "stopping all attempts by local authorities to abandon their responsibilities with regard to housing". That fight has started on Dublin City Council.