Donal Lynch: Cramped but content in my shoebox of an apartment
Published 27/12/2015 | 02:30
Alan Kelly's proposals may appal some, but Donal Lynch would take urban crowding over suburban sprawl any day.
As my grand-uncle's coffin was being brought out of the church a couple of years ago, my dad whispered in my ear what I assumed would be some suitably mournful piece of wisdom. "Look at that," he said, nodding sagely towards the coffin. "That reminds me of your place."
I was living in New York's East Village at the time in an apartment that barely measured 400 square feet. My bedroom was so cramped I all but hung upside down, like a bat. It was a bit like an O'Casey tenement at Rockefeller prices. But it felt like home. And despite its exorbitant price and coffin-like dimensions, I seldom felt so alive as the period in which I lived there. I'd take a shoebox at the crossroads of the known universe over a mansion on the outskirts any day.
I thought of that place last week as the furore about Alan Kelly's new guidelines on apartments kicked off. The new orders, issued by the Department of the Environment, will allow studio apartments that are 27pc smaller than the minimum size currently permitted in Dublin to be built. The apartments, with combined living and sleeping areas - currently not allowed under the city's planning rules - could account for half of new build-to-rent complexes in Dublin.
At 40 square metres, they would be only 2 square metres bigger than the smallest apartments built in Dublin in the mid-1990s, although Kelly says they won't be a return to "shoebox living". His defence of the new measures went back to supply and demand. "This year in Dublin we needed 8,000 residential units to be built, but only 2,700 were delivered," he said.
The proposals were called "an anti-urban and anti-city thing" by one planning expert. "You don't live in 50 square metres, you exist," said another planner, Lorcan Sirr, while Jim O'Callaghan, a Fianna Fail councillor and general election candidate, said he wants, "a city built for people, not battery hens".
More and more of us are single, prefer to live alone and prefer to live in urban centres. Yet the type of high-density units that facilitate these trends still seem synonymous with a kind of deprivation.
In Ireland, "bedsit" is a byword for exploitation. Most of the middle-income earners of Manhattan and many of those in London live in bedsits but call them studios. Their large, young, upwardly, mobile populations accept the trade-off that comes with living at the heart of it all.
Japan, Hong Kong and much of Europe have for years been allowing micro apartments far smaller than those in our new guidelines.
One of my grandmothers still can't get her head around the fact that I live in an apartment at all. Instinctively, we'd seem to prefer that people have no home at all than that they be cooped up like Americans or Europeans. My East Village pit and the pendulum wasn't even the smallest place I lived in. I had a little hutch - that's the only word - in Rathmines where I could all but open the oven from the bed.
"The continued propinquity of another human being cramps the style after a while, unless that person is someone you think you love," said Quentin Crisp, the ultimate urbanite. "Then the burden becomes intolerable at once."
I'm a city rat, and the outskirts of suburbia would have been more claustrophobic for me than where I eventually ended up buying - an apartment in Dublin's city centre which is only a hair over Alan Kelly's minimum size. I'm building in a loft this year, however. Even battery hens need a perch.