Life Home & Garden

Thursday 18 April 2019

Home truths: Mr Murphy’s brave new housing world

High-rise public housing in Hong Kong where the average apartment is similar in size (300 to 400 sq ft) to the types being considered
High-rise public housing in Hong Kong where the average apartment is similar in size (300 to 400 sq ft) to the types being considered
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

In Eoghan Murphy's brave new world, those who require city housing will henceforth likely be accommodated in higher rise blocks than we are accustomed to. The housing minister imagines them living in smaller one and two-bedroom apartments with fewer windows. These will be built more cheaply and to a general lower standard.

They will likely be constructed by 'super landlords' - private sector funds, often multinational. Likely among them will be some of those outfits popularly termed 'vulture funds, who will, in turn, rent the homes out en masse to their occupants.

That's it.

If we had any doubt about how a comfortably ensconced second-term Fine Gael-led Government plans to solve the housing crisis, it was all in there - in a speech that Eoghan Murphy delivered recently to the National Construction Summit held in Dublin.

To summarise: Minister Murphy stated that the State needs to build "tens of thousands" of apartments to resolve the current housing crisis.

He said the Government wants to help create market conditions in which build-to-let investors (they would have to be big 'super landlord' outfits to develop whole blocks) can build these apartments.

He stated that the key to unlocking infrastructural bottlenecks in transport and housing was "compact growth" and in this regard stated that arbitrary height caps in many locations now make no sense, along with car parking space stipulations and limits to how many apartments can be arrayed on each floor per lift and per staircase. In this regard he plans to help lower the cost of building high-rise blocks.

In cities, he said, we need to build up rather than out and he cited the popular development of predominantly three-bed semis and the resulting sprawl specifically as not working for Ireland. So thumbs down to these houses.

Mr Murphy said unlocking State and semi-State land would also be a key part of the Government's housing strategy, and a new regeneration agency is being planned to identify and prepare State land for development.

Mr Murphy said he will introduce new planning guidelines in July, which will help push these concepts through. He specifically cited the need to incentivise the private built-to-rent sector to provide these homes.

These measures should result "in more one- and two-bedroom homes to cater for the changed demographics we have in cities like Dublin".

Holy moly! Where do you start with this?

Because history has shown us that while this strategy does indeed get huge numbers off the housing lists in jig time, the mass deployment of huge high rise, cheap-as-chips towers containing higher numbers of smaller apartments, has always been a high road to disaster.

From the projects of New York where huge blocks of now infamous 'project' apartments dominate the skyline, to the eyesore no-go blocks of London, Birmingham and Glasgow, to the violent slums of Paris and the infinitely mind-boggling expanses of tiny public housing apartments in mega blocks Hong Kong.

This brutalist solution is the way to go if we place no value on people, their children and society as a whole.

What is remarkable in all this, is that the deployment of public housing slum blocks on a vast scale in our cities happens to be the one great big worldwide mass mistake of the 1960s and 1970s that Ireland had thus far somehow managed to avoid.

So are we seriously heading there in 2018?

Higher blocks of small apartments might indeed be part of a wider solution for housing students, singles and childless couples, but what about family-sized homes? Where are the family-sized indoor spaces and safe, private outdoor slivers that human beings need to retain basic sanity?

As it stands, one and two-bedroom apartments, larger than Murphy's imagined versions, with more windows than Murphy's vision; are already housing families with two and three children who can't afford anything larger.

Hotels are housing them in suites not much larger than those types proposed.

In the absence of affordable family-sized homes, using tiny apartments in high-rise blocks as the spearhead to solve the housing crisis will see larger families living in these sanity-reducing spaces anyhow, even if they are intentionally designed for single persons or couples only.

If Mr Murphy wants to look to the past, why not then to its triumphs?

Dublin City Council's excellent public housing on the corner of Bride Street and Golden Lane does it brilliantly without without going over five floors. In the UK architect Neave Brown who passed away in January received a RIBA lifetime achievement gold medal last year for his public housing - with most praise coming for the 'ziggurat' design of his 1976 Alexandra Road Estate in which everyone in his five-floor recessed blocks had a garden. High rise and small? The big benefits will be for those investment funds. And the vultures are already scrambling to feed.

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