Lorcan Sirr is a researcher at the Dublin Institute Of Technology. He has a deep understanding of the ideologies that underpin our approach to cities and our over-reliance on the market to meet housing needs. Caitriona Devery got the super new Red Line Luas to Phibsboro to talk about housing, planning, and the long fingered tentacles of the Catholic Church.
There’s a quote I’ve heard you use, from De Valera: “we’ll have no Birminghams or Manchesters here”. Do you think we have an aversion to the business of city-making in this country?
This anti-city ethos has been engendered in Irish politics since before De Valera. Partly it’s because we skipped the industrial revolution, we skipped the industrialisation of the country. Now we’re catching up rapidly. Some people down the country have a kind of rural nativist idea that Dublin gets everything. Actually rural Ireland has always been incredibly well looked after compared to the cities. We were housing people left, right and centre in rural Ireland in 1910, 1920. We only tackled the slums here in Dublin in the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s.
What’s the relationship between planning and housing?
If you get the planning wrong, the housing is going to be more challenging to deliver a) where you want it and b) affordably. A lot of our problems in housing stem originally from planning. The solution is now put up as to change planning to make housing more affordable. Whereas planning isn’t the problem. The cost of land is the problem. It’s a very right-wing thing to come out and blame the planning system, to come out and blame the planning system for the problem of housing.
Arguments are often made for other models for housing, for instance in Germany where there’s a lot of co-ownership and long-term renting. Are they more viable?
What they don’t say about Berlin is that you might have to put down a 40% deposit if you want to buy a house. There’s a downside to it too. They have great tenant’s rights there, but when it comes to home ownership there are other issues there. There’s no market that’s perfect. They’ve had rocketing house prices there recently too, as we all follow this developer led model.
Why are we so attached to the developer-led model here?
Ideology. It’s not just even in the politicians. I think the civil service is highly ideological these days. A really good idea to look at is the restaurants closed down by the Food Safety Inspectors. They can go in and close down a business just like that.
Why don’t we have the same degree of regulation and enforcement as we do in the food industry in the building industry? And the answer is, in the food industry we export 90-odd percent of product. So our reputation is massively dependent on having a good, clean product. Houses, who are we selling houses to? One eejit to another.
How long has it been in this state of crisis?
I think the tipping point is probably the early 90’s, when the state changed the funding model for social housing, and essentially the provision of social housing dropped off a cliff. That created a huge reliance on the private sector. But going back even more, the rising prices things started with the advent of mortgages, in the mid 70’s. Prior to that you’d get your mortgage typically from your Council.
Councils were very strict who they gave it to, low interest rates, keep it affordable, but you had to be a good person to get it. Banks, the more banks can lend, they see it as an asset on the balance sheet. There’s a lot of people who have a vested interest in rising house prices, banks being one of them.
Do you think Airbnb is having a big impact on rental in Dublin?
There’s 3,100 units – apartments – for rent on AirBnB at the moment, plus another couple of thousand rooms. You’re looking for a flat to live in, you can’t do that, because they’re on AirBnB. The government are refusing to regulate that. They’re planning for a memorandum of understanding, a gentleman’s agreement with Airbnb and the department. That’s pointless. It’s part of that agenda of ‘don’t interfere in the market’. Light touch regulation.
Airbnb is a great invention, in the right place. We have thousands of over the shop accommodation – enough for 4,000 apartments. That’s where we should be directing AirBnB. Instead we have a situation where you have families living in hotels, and tourists living in apartments.
What do you make of the recent Rebuilding Ireland Home Loan scheme, the government-backed mortgage scheme?
The new mortgage deal is helping you borrow more, not making the house you’re going to buy more affordable. This idea that it will be affordable that it’s low interest rate, fixed for 20 or 30 years, sure, that sounds very attractive.
But the economy typically goes through cycles, and these are people who’ve been turned down by banks for mortgages twice already . So you’re probably not, say, a senior civil servant, and the chances are that during the next twenty years or the life of the mortgage, you could lose your job. How does affordability play out then?
What is going on with regulations around shared housing?
There was an improvement in standards in 2007, which made for decent accommodation that people could live in. They’ve been chipped away at to make them viable. And now they’re chipping away at them again. There’s hypocrisy and hollow words in the National Planning Framework, talking about creating viable sustainable communities that people want to live in, and at the same time reducing standards so ensure that no family’s going to live in 25 square metres. The big picture stuff is missing. If you want to create places for people to live in, they’ve got to be suitable.
How do these kinds of developments, often for students, affect the value of nearby sites?
The sites that come up in the city, around Dublin generally, house builders know how much it costs to build apartments or houses in the city. They know a site is worth 10 million. So they bid 10.1 million, just to cover it – and then they’re outbid by someone paying 13 million. The people paying 13 million, it’s basically “hope value” they’re paying for it. Expectation that the price will rise. And at the same time, they lobby the department to reduce standards to get more units on it, to drive up the value of the land.
What you have there, it’s very lucrative. I could get 4 or 5 student rooms into the space where I could build one apartment. The shared, student, co-living, whatever you want to call it. If I AirBnB it out over the summer. I could double the value of the site. So next thing, that site which would typically be worth 2 million is now worth 5 million. And the way the system works is if that site is worth 5 million, so is the one next door to it. Dublin City Council quite rightly came out and said, no student housing within 1km of each other. It sterilises the land, it becomes overpriced to build regular accommodation.
We certainly seem to be very attached in this country to owning our own homes, where do you think that comes from?
Well if you go back – there’s a saying when we got rid of the Brits, the Church took over. Herbert Simms was the brilliant English city architect for Dublin in the early twentieth century. He killed himself. He couldn’t deal with the stress or the pressure, building thousands of houses. Every application that they made from the architecture department had to be approved by John Charles McQuaid, the bishop.
They all had to have three bedrooms. One for ma and da, one for the boys, one for the girls. They were called really rural names, all the streets and estates, like Erris Road. Front garden, back garden, to bring rural values in. The church in the middle of the estate, school beside, and all the houses radiating. Look at Drimnagh, look at Crumlin, Cabra.
The more important thing in the influence of church on housing policy is it was all about turning people away from the state, you turned to your family or the church for help. You don’t turn to the state for housing. That’s socialism. Socialism is bad. The state will not help you as well as we will. But you have to play by our rules. And that’s influenced housing policy ever since.
About 100 years ago we had a lots of strikes, industrial unrest, a lot of that was about wages but it was also about the condition of housing. Slum housing. You own your own house, you’re a lot less likely to go on strike. You’ve got more to lose. That’s why there was a drive for home ownership.