Monday, October 19, 2009

State-Planned Ghettoes

October 18, 2009

By Jennifer O’Connell

With their cream sash windows, clipped box hedges and neatly paved drives, the houses in the glossy brochure looked like they were auditioning for the part of ‘village tearooms’ in a BBC adaptation of a Jane Austen novel.

It wasn’t exactly what you had in mind when the bank said you could borrow half a million euro: the rooms all felt slightly too small, the walls slightly too thin, and it wasn’t quite the advertised ‘stone’s throw’ out of town, unless you were planning to compete in the shot put in London 2010.

But the other couples at the viewing seemed like decent people. And hey – you were on the property ladder.

The estate – let’s call it Tiffany Oaks - was a mixed development of houses and apartments set amidst acres of what the brochure promised would be ‘a unique landscaped environment’. Twenty per cent of the units were designated social and affordable housing. Most of them seemed to be lumped together in one apartment block opposite your new home.

You asked the auctioneer about this, but he assured you that people buying under the affordable housing scheme generally make excellent neighbours. They are owner-occupiers with a vested interest in looking after their homes, and – like you – they’d be working hard to pay off a mortgage.

So you signed on the dotted line.

Three years on, your house is worth slightly more than half what you paid for it. The estate is still unfinished – there are vast, undulating doldrums of grey earth where the unique landscaping should be; an abandoned digger where you’d imagined pushing your little ones on the swings after school or engaging in the ‘equestrian pursuits’ the brochure promised.

The closest school is still eight miles away, so pony trekking has had to take second place to the school run in any case.

The block of apartments across the road stands almost empty. When property prices went into freefall, it didn’t make sense for buyers to go through all the red tape involved in the affordable housing scheme in order to save maybe 10,000 on the market price – and still face a ‘clawback’ of a proportion of this if they wanted to sell in the first 20 years.

You’ve just heard that the council has been given permission to let these apartments out to people on the social housing lists. You’re betraying every one of your liberal credentials, but this feels like the final straw.

And who could blame you?

On the surface, the solution offered by Housing Minister Michael Finneran last week in respect of 12 local authorities, seems like the neatest one under the circumstances.

There are 56,000 families on waiting lists for homes.

County councils, meanwhile, are saddled with millions of euro worth of unwanted properties, thanks to a shopping spree engaged in during the boom. Figures released under Freedom of Information to RTE recently showed that Fingal County Council spent €252 million on roughly 1,500 houses during the boom, and Cork County Council spent €60 million on housing in 2007 alone.

On top of this, Part V of the 2000 Planning Act obliged developers to set aside 20 per cent of the properties in every new development for social and affordable housing. This was designed as a clever way of eliminating the housing waiting lists, while ensuring that those earning less than €55,000 a year could get a foot on the property ladder.

But that was before house prices went into freefall.

Now, the affordable housing scheme is about as useful as a Mongolian phrase book in rural Galway. There are about 3,700 homes originally designated for the scheme lying empty around the country.

So the solution seems obvious: ditch the affordable housing scheme, turn the surplus stock over to social housing, and everyone’s a winner.

Everyone, of course, except the already-overburdened homeowners, who are destined to watch their dream of living on the set of a Jane Austen adaptation evaporate on a cloud of mutual suspicion.

This is not about stereotyping people living in disadvantaged areas, or those on the social housing lists, who are as entitled to a decent place to live as anyone else.

But historically - whether because of a lack of proper management, woeful infrastructure, or simple the sense of being ‘ghettoised’ into an area in which no-one else wanted to live - local authority estates have served as petri-dishes for breeding social problems.

In theory, Part V offered a sensible and inclusive way to tackle precisely this problem. Rather than being shoved together into poorly serviced, marginal areas, local authority tenants could have been integrated into nice, new estates, alongside owner-occupiers and private tenants.

But as with so many aspects of Irish planning, theory and reality were two very different things.

When times were good, developers across the country bought and negotiated their way out of these obligations – with the collusion of local authorities. A get-out clause meant that, rather than give over 20 per cent of the units in their posh new estates to social and affordable houses, developers could swap land, build on alternative sites or simply write a cheque to the local authority instead.

In contravention with the spirit of the Act, the ‘better’ the area, the more likely the local authority was to let developers off the hook. So in Dublin, the developments for which so-called ‘off-site compliance’ was accepted by Dublin City Council included such illustrious addresses as Sandford Rd in Dublin 6 and Morehampton Rd in Dublin 4.

Between 2003 and 2006, city and county councils collected more than €60 million from developers in lieu of propery. Meanwhile, the housing waiting lists continued to stretch.

So now we’re left more or less back where we started.

When the idea of temporarily letting some unsold affordable houses out to people on the housing lists was first mooted back in April, Finneran said he wanted to avoid “swamping” particular estates with local welfare tenants. The choice of language might not be very edifying, but now – like it or not– that’s exactly what will happen.

Fine Gael TD Olivia Mitchell inspired the wrath of some commentators last week when she was quoted as saying the decision would be a “slap in the face for home owners who bought their house or apartment in the expectation that their neighbours would be owner occupiers."

But Mitchell was merely pointing out what everyone already knows: herding socially disadvantaged people together in large groups in poorly serviced new estates is a social experiment that has been proven not to work. Just ask the people living in Moyross or Ballymun.

Put them into estates already occupied by a small number of overstretched and disgruntled private homeowners, and it could make for a very potent cocktail indeed.

It’s all beginning to sound depressingly familiar. Opportunities wasted; positive aspirations stymied by greed and poor planning – and yet again, the rest of us forced to live with the consequences of politicians’ mistakes.



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