Sunday 25 February 2018

Waste not, want not... Copenhagen's solution

Spacious living: Laurits Skov and David Connolly in Copenhagen.
Spacious living: Laurits Skov and David Connolly in Copenhagen.
John Meagher

John Meagher

I couldn't help but feel a pang of envy when I walked into Laurits Skov's apartment in Copenhagen. It looked like something out of a Scandinavian interiors bible, all exposed brick, cool furniture and lighting, tall windows and high ceilings. I wanted to move in straight away.

Luarits was 28 at the time I met him - early last year - and he had acquired this large, two-bedroom beauty in the cool Vesterbro part of the capital under a uniquely Danish system called Andelsbolig, which sits somewhere between having a mortgage and paying rent. The PhD student would not have been able to afford a conventional mortgage, but this programme allowed him to get his foot on the property ladder. It also meant he would have to respect the 'house rules' of the apartment building he lived in - otherwise, much like troublesome tenants, he ran the risk of losing his home.

It was an arrangement that seemed to suit him perfectly and as I accompanied him into his gorgeous kitchen, I could see why. Anyone who has been through the nightmare of seeking rental accommodation in Dublin - and witnessed the tiny, grotty properties commanding €1,000 or more - would dearly love a similar situation here, one where a magnificent apartment could be yours for a reasonable outlay while still in your 20s.

I went to Copenhagen to see how a city that's much the same size as Dublin managed to do housing so well and at every turn I could see the Danes were so much more progressive, fair-minded and, well, civilised than us. They had truly embraced urban living and some of the families with small children that I met were more than happy to live in apartments. The dream of three-bedroom semis with front and rear garden wasn't in their make-up. If they wanted that, they could find plenty of properties in the outer suburbs.

Instead, they wanted beautifully reconfigured old buildings where the emphasis was on a large, inviting living-rooms, where you could have several friends over; not for them en-suite bathrooms or dead-space hallways - the front doors often open into their living rooms, ensuring that every square metre was being used correctly.

They were happy to have small communal gardens and shared-sheds where they could store their cargo-bikes safely. Rather than the conformity of sprawling housing estates, they were bringing up children in a sophisticated urban environment were state-assisted crèches seemed to be everywhere.

I met a number of Irish ex-pats on my trip. Journalist John O'Doherty was living in one of the poshest districts of the city - an area that sounded like Copenhagen's answer to Ballsbridge: he was paying €1,300 a month for a 100 sqm apartment. Such a property would command double that in D4. At least.

And David Connolly, who was teaching in the of the city's university, was living in an equally spacious apartment, and content that the property was his to rent for as long as he wanted. Tenants have limited security of tenure here; it's a completely different story there. He quipped he could stay at this address for the rest of his life if the mood took him.

Danish housing expert and university professor Jens Lunde explained the situation to me when I met him: "If you sign a 'normal contract' - not a short-term one which is for a duration of less than two years - you can stay in that place for as long as you want. For life, if you so wish." Tenants had rights there we could only dream of in this country.

He looked aghast when I told him that some landlords in Ireland have hiked rents by 20 or 30pc in the space of a year. "That could never happen here," he told me. "As a tenant, you would have a good idea of the rent you would be paying, say, five years from now and it wouldn't be very different to what you're currently paying. There is a lot of regulation."

Prof Lunde pointed out two features of the Danish rental model that ensured that housing there couldn't go the way it had in Ireland: first, there is a large proportion of social housing - more than 20pc of the entire market - and there is little stigma surrounding such accommodation; second, a professional class of landlord, enjoying advantageous tax breaks, ensures that permanent rent arrangements can be put in place.

The Danes seemed to have it right, and it had been the product of decades of visionary thinking about housing. Renting, for instance, was not something that was a temporary stepping stone to owning a property, it could be a perfectly valid way to live your life - and nobody would look down on you for not owning your home. And the right of people to pay a fair rent took far greater precedence than pushing properties at wealthy investors, and to hell with those caught in the middle.

When I returned from Copenhagen 18 months ago, I was convinced that the only way the housing crisis could be helped would be through real vision from those we elected to the Dáil. Judging from the noises that have been made in Leinster House over the last few months, I wouldn't hold my breath.

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