Monday 26 September 2016

Only more gardaí can help revive our cities' dead centres

Published 13/05/2015 | 02:30

'The homelesshousing crisis facing thousands of people is not just about being on the streets, it is having no alternative but to move miles away from work – if they can find a place to rent that is'
'The homelesshousing crisis facing thousands of people is not just about being on the streets, it is having no alternative but to move miles away from work – if they can find a place to rent that is'

After an article I wrote on the 'housing crisis' I received a letter from a tenant living in an apartment for six years. She was distraught. Her rent was fully paid up, but she had been given a month to vacate the property by the solicitors for the bank (AIB). Letters were sent to the 'occupiers' of the building. Another 'buy to let' was being repossessed, with no concern for the legitimate tenants.

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The housing crisis facing thousands of people is not just about being on the streets, it is having no alternative but to move miles away from work - if they can find a place to rent that is.

According to the latest Daft report, released this week, only 4,340 properties were listed for rent at the start of May - the smallest number since they started compiling figures almost a decade ago.

That compares to about 7,200 available at the same time last year and a peak of almost 24,000 in mid-2009. The shortage of available rental property has pushed up prices 8.2pc nationwide for the past year to an average of €960 a month, ranging from €634 in Waterford, €718 in Limerick, €889 in Galway, €911 in Cork to €1,358 in Dublin. That might only get you a two-bed apartment in Dublin.

Yet there is only talk of 'building more houses', which is not a solution for renters. There are many people who don't want to buy, who want to live close to the city and wisely have not been trapped in negative equity.

This anomaly coincides with the growth of migration to cities for employment opportunities. According to economist Ronan Lyons of Daft.ie, indicators show that Dublin's population may grow by as much as 100,000 families during the 2010s, but fewer than 10,000 homes have been built in the capital.

That still leaves all the empty period buildings within the capital, within Dún Laoghaire and other urban centres that are not attracting investment or owner occupiers.

Before we start building more housing estates, we must address a realistic use of empty properties. The obstacles to regenerating housing begin with safety on the streets and then there are the hurdles of planners and conservation interests. While we have thorough regulations to impose limitations on alterations to historic property they are blanket regulations, applying equally to a cottage or a castle.

Many people who set out to restore a warren of bedsits into a home feel punished by the restrictions placed upon them. And many city residential streets are a wasteland of decay, demonstrating a yawning, unnecessary gap between supply and demand that needs to be joined up. It is nothing new.

Off the main thoroughfares of Paris, London, Rome and New York, back-streets thrive in neighbourhood use, but in Ireland city centres have become no-go zones at night.

Last week, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan launched the Living City Initiative and said its "aim is to bring life back into the heart of these cities". The tax-relief scheme for Special Regeneration Areas (SRAs) in Cork, Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Kilkenny and Waterford will apply to capital expenditure on restoration of residential and commercial buildings built before 1915.

But who wants to walk over used syringes and exploded bin bags on their way to work? Or walk home in fear after dark? The insufficient visible Garda presence in the SRAs is a serious problem and the biggest obstacle to the scheme having any impact.

A more vigilant city patrol is needed if it is to become a reality and help sort out the housing crisis.

A little tax relief would go a long way if it was met with a target to clean up the streets. It is not the cost of property and the expense of renovation that deters people from living in the city. It's the obvious - crime, drugs, car theft, assault, general lack of safety, dereliction. If we really want to 'bring life back into the city' we need to make it safe.

There is little point in the economy 'turning around' if city centres remain ghettoised. The Department of Finance, the Revenue Commissioners and other key stakeholders need to consolidate this process with extra security, cleaner streets, and encourage investors to regenerate empty stock. Or the Living City will become a forgotten election promise in no time.

Deirdre Conroy is an urban conservation specialist

Irish Independent

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