Sunday 20 August 2017

'We need more homes - not stunts like Apollo House - to solve homeless crisis' - Owen Keegan

Owen Keegan, Chief Executive of Dublin City Council. Photo: Mark Condren
Owen Keegan, Chief Executive of Dublin City Council. Photo: Mark Condren
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

Owen Keegan is not impressed with the occupation of Nama-owned Apollo House for use as temporary homeless accommodation. He goes so far as to accuse some involved as being engaged in a "publicity stunt".

Chief executive of the country's biggest local authority, Dublin City Council, he says he has "genuine concerns" about the occupation of the disused office block, and warns that the homelessness problem will not be addressed until more homes come on stream.

In the first of an extensive two-part interview, Mr Keegan (below) defended the council's response to the crisis, saying it spent more than €100m a year tackling the problem and had used emergency planning powers to provide accommodation.

But he warned that until homes were built, the council would struggle to provide the required solutions.

"Unfortunately we stopped building social housing for a prolonged period during the austerity times," he said. "The State has responded, and we're back in business, but it does take time to gear up. Delivery has been slower than we would have liked.

"We have four or five rapid build schemes all of which are finished or on site at the moment, and we've used our emergency planning powers. I don't think the city council has been slow, once we got the go-ahead to re-enter the market.

"Of more fundamental concern is the fact that notwithstanding the recovery in the general economy, housing supply has been very slow and that's deeply worrying. I'm confident that will come right, but there will be a time lag. Until it does, we will continue to confront problems with homelessness."

He said addressing the problem was difficult as many people had "complex" problems ranging from addiction to mental illness. There were sufficient emergency beds in place across the city, but the "real solution" was providing homes with the necessary services and supports.

He rejected claims the city's response was inadequate, saying it had recently brought three homeless hostels into service. One, on Francis Street, was allowed to open despite residents mounting a legal challenge to use of emergency powers allowing the former community centre at Carman's Hall be converted. The case is listed for hearing in January.

Mr Keegan said some people did not wish to avail of emergency accommodation "and we have to respect their decision" but occupying buildings was not the answer.

"Our council passed a motion asking me to consider using emergency powers. I would prefer to go through a rigorous planning process, but I believe given the challenges we faced, it was an appropriate use of powers and we will defend it vigorously in the court.

"I have genuine concerns with Apollo House. I've no doubt that many involved are genuinely motivated, but for others it has all the appearance of a publicity stunt.

"It galls me that there are people out there who support that (Apollo House) and are advising residents in Francis Street how to get an injunction to stop a functioning hostel with proper fire regulations and a range of services.

"Appropriating a private or public property which is not fit for purpose is not the answer. A commercial building doesn't meet standards. I'm not impressed at all."

The numbers in need of a home was a "huge problem", and it was "particularly disappointing" that working families who could pay their rents and "never had a relationship with the local authority" were seeking help.

Latest figures show that just over 19,800 households qualify for social housing in the city, up 22.5pc from 2013. More than 4,400 are in employment, compared with 2,553 three years ago.

"We're not proud of the fact that we have had no choice but to rely on hotels. But it's better to be in a hotel than out on the street. We were getting about 60 new families a month. That has gone down, and there is a prospect that the (housing) minister's target to move people out of hotels by next summer will be met."

He also said the local authority would unveil plans to develop 2,000 homes on council lands early in the new year, and defended the imposition of levies on new homes.

"Our levies account for a small part of the cost of housing. We have reduced them by 25pc which we think is a reasonable contribution.

"Levies are fundamental to funding key social infrastructure.

"There is this notion that we drop the levies, which has a certain political traction, so we go back to building estates with no social infrastructure. I'd like to make some new mistakes rather than repeat old ones again."

Detailed proposals for some 2,000 units on council-owned lands at O'Devaney Gardens, St Michael's Estate and Oscar Traynor Road would be brought forward early in the new year. Some 30pc will be social units, 20pc affordable rental and the remainder will be private.

"We'll also go to formal consultation on the Poolbeg Strategic Development Zone which has potential for 3,000 houses. There's a lot in the pipeline but it clearly would have been better if this had happened two years ago," he added.

Irish Independent

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