By Kieran Rose
HOUSING minister Alan Kelly’s plans to make city apartments smaller – without any guarantee they will be cheaper – could see poorer quality housing, in disadvantaged areas – as he races for the polls and risks changing the city landscape way beyond his term.
Minister Kelly seems intent on forcing Dublin and Cork and city councils to reduce their housing standards.
For example a one-bed apartment would be reduced from 55 square metres to 45 square metres.
Apparently some developers, who want a reduction in current standards, believe that these current standards are not high enough for middle-income areas.
In other words they want a reduction in standards in regeneration areas, so poorer quality housing for poorer people in poor areas.
In the 1990s and 2000s there was serious public concern about the poor quality of apartment schemes being constructed.
Terms such as ‘shoe boxes’ were used, and people complained about the long dreary corridors.
Dublin City Council responded by moving to increase the minimum apartment standards in 2006 and 2007.
There was strong opposition then from powerful vested interests to Dublin City Council introduction of improved apartment standards.
However, the City Council and the city councillors held firm and passed a Variation to the Development Plan in 2007, entitled “Achieving Liveable Sustainable New Apartment Homes” – making the improved standards mandatory.
Minister Kelly has defended his decision to force Dublin and Cork to reduce their apartment standards, making a case that is so completely disingenuous, in so many ways.
He claims that reducing the floor areas of apartments will reduce their price.
There is no evidence for this. Apartment prices will not be reduced by lowering standards.
People will pay the same price or more for a lower quality apartment. The only result will be that site prices will rise; only site owners will benefit.
Opposition to larger apartment standards never went away and indeed increased in recent years.
Property Industry Ireland and the Urban Land Institute, joining with the long-established opposition of the Construction Industry Federation, remain powerful voices in the interests of property developers.
When I drafted the new standards for more spacious apartments in 2007, I wrote: “The key issue in relation to apartment housing quality/liveability is the size or floor area of individual units.
“This is the envelope within which all the other qualities and facilities can be delivered.
The needs of children must be incorporated from the outset and this includes play areas, storage, for example for a trike, bathrooms big enough to easily bathe a child, study areas, etc.
“Designers shall ask themselves the question and document the answer in the Housing Quality Assessment – In very practical terms how does the proposed development accommodate satisfactorily for a household of two adults and one or two children?”
The key case made by those opposed to the improved apartment standards is that it increases construction costs in a major way.
However, there is no independent and authoritative information on construction costs in Ireland.
Pat Davitt, CEO of the Institute of professional Auctioneers and Valuers, in a recent statement said that “the lack of clarity around house building costs was one of the ‘unknowns’ that needs to be addressed.
“We have written to the Minister for Finance urging the Government to undertake an independent study as a matter of urgency to establish the true cost of building.
“This is such a central issue, we need to have absolute clarity on it from an independent source,” he concluded.
Dr Lorcan Sirr, lecturer in housing studies and urban economics at Dublin Institute of Technology, effectively demolishes the construction costs case.
Dr Sirr told the Dublin Inquirer: “Firstly, research which purports to demonstrate the extra costs caused by Dublin City Council’s standards varies wildly and is therefore dubious.
“Secondly, there is no official verified figure for construction per square metre, and no builder will give you one as that would give the game away.
“So we have no clue what the true cost of construction is; there are industry-supplied figures, but these don’t stand up to any decent scrutiny …
“Thirdly, a 20 per cent reduction in the size of an apartment does not equate to a 20 per cent reduction in construction costs and especially not to a guaranteed 20 per cent reduction in any proposed selling price.”
In fairness, to Minister Kelly, it should be said that he introduced a vacant land levy via the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015 against great opposition from the Construction Industry Federation, Property Industry Ireland and others.
This levy at 3 per cent of the market value of the site will kick in 2018 and will apply to all public and privately owned vacant development sites.
The levy will tend to increase the supply of development on to the market so moderating the price of development land and the price of housing.
Kieran Rose is a planner and drafted the Dublin City Council submission to Government calling for a vacant land levy (2013).
He is a Board Member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and co-chair of GLEN (Fay and Lesbian Equality Network), Advisory Board Member of the New York-based Center for the Theory of Change http://www.theoryofchange.org/