Saturday 19 October 2019

Paul McNeive: 'Co-living' off to rocky start through lack of education

The right moves

Paul McNeive
Paul McNeive

Paul McNeive

IRELAND has three forms of housing - the family home, the nursing home, and the funeral home - and the longevity of that culture is one of the reasons why the development of "co-living" homes is off to a rocky start here. That's according to John Downey, CEO of Downey Planning and Architecture, and Irish head of the European council of town planners. Mr Downey has been studying how this controversial sector works abroad, and I met him to hear more:

Co-living is a relatively new concept where occupiers of single- and double-bedroom apartments share common kitchen and living facilities, in buildings where other communal facilities such as gyms, laundries and concierge facilities are also provided.

It was first provided for - as a planning category here - in the 2018 new apartment guidelines to local authorities, and Mr Downey was on the expert panel that advised on those guidelines.

Co-living, however, has proved to be a controversial topic, and the first handful of planning applications have been refused.

Applications have been made directly to An Bord Pleanála, under the Strategic Housing Development Act regulations, or "fast-track" process, and refusals have tended to be on design and density grounds. Other applications are in the system, and one advantage of the category is that it is exempt from the Part V requirements to make units on the scheme available for social housing.

However, Mr Downey believes that a crucial problem is a lack of education of the concept for architects, planners-and indeed, the objectors to the schemes.

"There is a misunderstanding about what co-living is," he told me. "That's not helped by the lack of detail in the guidelines, which extends to just three paragraphs."

The committee setting the guidelines, and the planners making the decisions, have never seen exemplar co-living developments built and working, he said. Mr Downey has been visiting schemes across Europe and told me that there is a group of Irish planners making site visits in Europe in September.

According to Mr Downey, co-living is a niche sector of the market, which plays a vital role in European cities. It is a way of living that appeals more to younger people, and to those who wish to share in a way of life, if only for a while. Indeed, even "downsizers" have become part of the European tenant mix, moving in for company and security, and to partake in organised social events like wine tastings and cookery classes.

Co-living schemes offer monthly leases, or for as long as required, are available immediately, and are ideal for cities like Dublin, with a high proportion of working people from overseas.

"It's important that people understand that these are not bedsits, and they are not sub-standard accommodation," Mr Downey told me.

"Co-living exists here already, in shared houses."

"The management of the schemes is crucial," Mr Downey said. It is intensive and highly specialised, and closer to managing a hotel than managing property. With no schemes operating here, by definition there is none of that management experience here, and he feels that the first schemes may have to bring in management expertise from abroad.

Answering concerns that local communities sometimes fear the transient nature of the tenancies, Mr Downey gave the example of The Collective, the UK specialist developer, which, he says, offers 10-20 units at schemes like Canary Wharf, London, at a 20pc discount, exclusively to locals, before going to the open market.

This not only kick-starts sales, but sees the schemes become instantly integrated in the community.

Mr Downey says that planning regulations here should require developers of offices to also provide a proportion of co-living space or build-to-rent apartments. "If the yield from offices is highest, then we will only get offices. Co-living provides an essential service," says Mr Downey, "and if we don't start to intensify development in cities, the next crisis will be congestion."

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