'I can afford to do things that I never dreamed I could' - First look at Dermot Bannon's pilot plan for older homes
Pilot home converted to suit senior owner and paying tenant, writes Celine Naughton
It isn't every day that government ministers find themselves in a tight spot when announcing a good news story. But it happened at a Budget press conference last year, when Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy found himself under pressure over the kiboshing of Shane Ross's proposed "granny flat grant" scheme.
Mr Murphy asserted that the Government had a pilot scheme of its own underway to test the plausibility of dividing homes in two. This would enable older people to stay in homes that were too large for them while providing an extra income for themselves through housing a tenant in the other half.
How many houses and people were involved in the pilot study? the minister was asked. "One house," he replied. "That of a grandmother in West Dublin." And so it seemed that a major solution to the housing crisis depended on the experience of one grandmother. who quickly became known as 'Eoghan Murphy's pilot granny'. How well would her converted house measure up? We'd have to wait and see she says when she's settled in, it was speculated..
Now Irish Independent Property can reveal that the minister's pilot granny is not, in fact, a granny at all. And while, thanks to Mr Murphy's statement, some media outlets conflated the scheme with that of the 'granny flat grant' concept (where homeowners accommodate a relative in a remodeled portion of a house) the Abhaile Project is something different entirelty. A collaboration between architects Ciarán Ferrie and Dermot Bannon and accountant Michelle Moore, its pilot plan set out to demonstrate how older family homes could be adapted to suit the needs of their ageing owners, while also generating income for them and providing much-needed rental accommodation.
When retired accounts clerk Ann Gilsenan heard Ciarán Ferrie talk about the scheme on radio, she applied to have her house considered for the pilot. Ann (69) who has no children, lived alone in the three-bed Clondalkin semi where she previously grew up with her two brothers, two sisters and their parents.
"I was very fortunate to have been left the house, but the burden of its upkeep was a real challenge," she says. "I insulated the walls, but a house this age needs a lot of work."
Ciarán designed a plan to convert Ann's garage and knock the wall between it and the kitchen to create a new kitchen/dining/living room. A former breakfast room is now a bathroom with level access shower, the front living room remains as is, and what was a reception is now a bedroom. Doors were widened and light switches lowered to make it more adaptable as Ann gets older.
Upstairs, the bathroom and one bedroom remain unchanged, while the wall between the other two bedrooms was knocked and Velux windows installed to create a bright living-kitchen-dining room. Sound-proofing ensures privacy for both residents.
The refit cost €62,000, most of which was paid for by Abhaile funds and some from Ann's savings. It was completed last November and in February a nurse working in nearby St James's Hospital moved in upstairs.
"It's a comfort knowing there's somebody else in the house," says Ann. "Rent was not my main motivation - it was being able to stay in my own home and have it adapted to suit my needs - but the rent is a big bonus. It means I no longer have to live on a day-to-day basis.
"I've always wanted to go on a safari, and now I can. I'm not an extravagant person - my idea of financial security is being able to turn on the heating without worrying about the bills - but now I can afford to do things that I never dreamed I could. It's given me a new lease of life."
And the project also gave Ann an experience many Irish women would give their right arm for. "I had tea with Dermot Bannon! And Damien English, the Minister of State for Housing, when they called to see the house."
The idea of splitting older homes came to Michelle Moore when she read the 2016 ESRI report on Housing and Ireland's Older Population. "It seemed to suggest that older people should downsize to alleviate the housing shortage, but noted the social isolation that would inevitably come with that," she says. "Having lived in London, I had seen how older homes had been split to provide independent living quarters for both the owner and a renter. DCU set up focus groups to investigate whether there would be a demand for it here and the feedback was very positive.
"I emailed Dermot Bannon with my idea and he arranged a meeting. Then Ciarán came on board and the three of us set up a not-for-profit agency, Abhaile, now renamed Ava Housing, to develop the project together.
"There was much talk in political circles about building new houses to tackle the homelessness crisis, but there is great untapped potential in the existing housing stock in Dublin's older suburbs," says Ciarán Ferrie.
The project beat off stiff competition from over 60 entries to win the 2017 Smart Ageing Universal Design competition.
"In a classic three-bed semi, we upgrade the ground floor with an accessible downstairs bathroom and bedroom," says Ciarán. "Upstairs we convert two bedrooms into a kitchen with a living/dining space and leave the bathroom and one bedroom as they are. It comes under the Rent a Room scheme, allowing homeowners to earn up to €14,000 a year tax-free. It's still a family home, and can easily revert back to a three-bed set-up."
Ava Housing is piloting five more homes in Dublin, to be completed this year, and hopes to scale up in the future.
"The current Housing Adaptation Grant is available only for people with a disability or special need," says Ciarán. "We'd like to see grants made available for pre-emptive works, not as a response to a crisis. We've been in talks with the Department of Housing about this and feel confident it will be addressed in the next Budget."