Long pilloried as ‘bed-blockers’, the over-60s are now regarded in some quarters as the housing equivalent, i.e. ‘house-blockers’ — people living in their empty nests instead of freeing them up for younger families with children.
A few weeks ago, British housing minister Chris Pincher attacked older people for “rattling around” in houses that are too big for them.
Our own housing minister Darragh O’Brien has said that “senior citizens should not be treated as the problem just because they own a home which they have paid for over decades”.
Yes minister, that’s right, and despite what some politicians and analysts think, “incentivising” older people to downsize will not solve the housing crisis.
Even for those who might voluntarily trade down, demand for one and two-bed bungalows in the suburbs is so high, it pushes prices through the roof, and big funds have been buying apartments by the block.
Are older home-owners therefore supposed to up sticks and move to the country, leaving friends, family and GP practice behind?
Celebrity architect Dermot Bannon, for one, certainly doesn’t think so. What’s more, he’s backing his belief through his work with Ava Housing, a ground-breaking initiative that comes up with practical and sustainable solutions to keep older people in their homes.
“Why should anybody be expected to leave their home, the place where they’ve built a lifetime of memories, and move to a bungalow perhaps 30 or 40 miles away once they reach a certain age?” he says.
“I saw a fantastic development in Stockholm, Sweden, which had a mix of everything from studio apartments up to one, two, three, four, five and even six-bedroom homes.
“Residents can move within the same development, adapting to their changing needs at different stages of their lives without losing that connection with their sense of place. Ireland doesn’t facilitate that.”
In 2016, accountant Michelle Moore met Bannon to discuss an idea she’d been mulling over since an ESRI report had suggested incentivising older people to downsize to help deal with the housing crisis. What if, she said, instead of asking them to move, they could downsize within their own home?
“In London, I’d lived in a self-contained flat upstairs in a house owned by an older man who lived downstairs,” says Michelle. “It was a great arrangement. We each had our own independent living space, along with the security of knowing there was another person in the house.
“Why couldn’t we create a similar model here, by helping older people retrofit their homes so they could live downstairs, while reconfiguring the upstairs as a one-bed apartment that they could rent?
“It’s such a simple idea,” says Bannon. “Splitting and upgrading an older house into two self-contained units solves two problems — it keeps older people in an age-friendly and future-proof environment within their own homes and communities, while also creating affordable rental accommodation in areas where people need it.”
Bannon and another renowned architect, Ciarán Ferrie, came on board and the trio set up the Abhaile Project, since renamed Ava Housing. To prove the concept, they converted a three-bed semi with an adjoining garage in Clondalkin as a pilot house.
Downstairs, the garage was converted to a new kitchen/dining/living room, a former breakfast room became a bathroom, the living room remained as it was and another reception became a bedroom. Doors were widened and light switches lowered to make it more adaptable over time.
Upstairs, the bathroom and one bedroom remained unchanged, while a wall between two bedrooms was knocked to create a kitchen/diner with Velux windows installed to add light. Sound-proofing ensured privacy for both residents — the owner downstairs and a nurse working in nearby St James’s Hospital upstairs.
Since then, a second house in Beaumont was completed with energy upgrades, as well as a reconfigured layout. Now Ava has received funding from the Department of Housing to retrofit a further 20 homes in the coming year.
Homeowners can qualify for a grant of €50,000 towards the cost of the retrofit, typically €60,000-€70,000. Energy upgrades cost extra and while current grants are capped at €15,000, this could change when details of the national home retrofit programme are announced in January.
Long term, the Ava team hope to roll out the scheme nationwide, but for now, they’re trying to achieve economies of scale by concentrating on Beaumont and Artane in north Dublin, with the rental units being offered to frontline workers in nearby hospitals.
And while the home owners can earn a tax-free rental income of up to €14,000 a year, Bannon says the benefit is much more than that of financial support.
“It’s about company, community and friendship — human beings meeting human beings,” he says. “For the home-owner, there’s a friendly face upstairs. For the renter, there’s a well fit-out, affordable apartment close to where they work. It’s been a long, hard slog, but getting to this stage with Government backing is brilliant for Ava Housing. I’m so proud to be part of it.”
For more info, contact Ava Housing on (01) 485 1880 or at avahousing.ie.