Thursday 17 October 2019

Catherine O'Mahony: 'Dear minister, here's why most people think your remarks about co-living were a big load of Bull...'

Eoghan Murphy. Photo: Ciara Wilkinson
Eoghan Murphy. Photo: Ciara Wilkinson
Catherine O'Mahony

Catherine O'Mahony

Dear Eoghan Murphy, Suddenly all hell has broken loose around you, hasn't it.

Why? Because at the National Housing Conference this week, you said what you thought about something and nobody appreciated it.

You said that, in your view, young people should be "excited" to have the option of setting up home in one of the quirky new residential developments being planned for Dublin, where your private area amounts to a scant 16 square metres and the rest of the "living space" is communal.

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Well, why wouldn't they be excited, you likely reasoned. It's a relatively cheap (but not actually remotely cheap of course - this is Dublin, after all) housing option, you'd be living in a nice area and you're probably young and single, so what space do you need really? It's not like you need space for buggies and a trampoline!

Aren't you only grand? You'll be going to the local eatery for avocado toast for brekkie before you e-scooter to work anyhow, so who even needs a kitchen? And watching telly with your co-living mates? Well, bonus, right? They might end up being your lifelong friends.

Eoghan, I know that in many respects it all makes sense and that you are confounded by the response you got.

Isn't the Continent only teeming with teeny homes for young people to live in? Parisian apartments are sometimes so tiny their baths are half-sized (you have to scrunch down in them) - 16 square metres would be normal. Aren't New Yorkers practically living in closets? You don't hear the French or the Germans getting exercised about it.

And it's not just about them either. Didn't we all do just fine with poky housing in our day? Isn't it a life stage thing?

Didn't we sleep four to a room when we went on that summer work visa jaunt in the US? Didn't we do our time in crummy bedsits because we had no money and also just didn't care? What in hell is the problem?

The thing is, Eoghan, there is a problem. And my best advice for puzzling it out is to try watching - or possibly re-watching - the movie version of John B Keane's 'The Field'.

There is a law, Bull McCabe declares as he sets out his reason for demanding ownership of a scrap of land, beyond the common law - and that's the law of the land.

And here lies the issue. There's a bit of the Bull in most Irish people. Possibly not in you, Eoghan. You may have escaped that burning elemental urge to hoard property and land.

But many of us, when you scratch the surface, remain essentially on the side of the Bull. We want land and, if we can't have that, we at least want ownership of our own four walls and a roof. And not a small house (unless we are city folk and thus constrained by available plots), ideally we want our walls to enclose at least 4,000 decent square feet of rooms. And we don't want anyone telling us we are wrong.

Oh yes, we may have once squished into student flats - but that was then. This is now and we will have no truck with your notiony notions like co-living, with 40 people to a kitchen. At the very, very least we want our own kitchen tables, our own telly, our own personal front door.

And we reserve our right to get excited about nothing less, particularly when we are in a full-blown housing crisis. Let us not forget the latest homeless tally, more than 10,000 souls, of whom we all know precious few will be in the market for a co-living unit.

Personally, I agree with your own thesis that it all went badly wrong with the banning of the bedsits back in 2013.

Sure, there was extreme provocation. Many Irish bedsits were little better than slums, miserable mouldy rooms in rotting houses with unsafe electrics, decades-old carpets and shared access to Dickensian sanitary ware.

I once entered one in which the bath was in the kitchen (and not in any kind of architecturally cool way either).

Few among us would miss those dismal offerings whose primary function was to line the pockets of their uncaring owners and whose only virtue was that they were cheap.

And yet was not an opportunity missed back then to rebrand the smelly bedsit into its no more spacious but infinitely more appealing cousin, the studio?

What would it have taken, after all? A few proper rules on minimum standards. A mechanism to make sure those standards were shifted to? Was it really all so far beyond us?

If we'd done so, might we not now have a bank of small but affordable city homes that would very possibly have saved some of our citizens from the streets?

And they might also - as a handy side effect - have saved us all from the dubious delights of co-living?

Full disclosure: a part of me (the un-Bullish bit) slightly craves studio living. It has a simplicity about it that appeals and you can clean the whole house in an hour.

In my 20s I lived overseas for two years in a cheap 20-square-metre studio, whose high ceilings, parquet flooring and perfect location more than made up for its slightly restricted dimensions. Yes, the presence of a bed in the same room made the cooking facilities feel a bit rubbish - if you ever tried sleeping in your kitchen you could replicate the whole effect - but there were tons of eating-out options nearby.

It was grand, in short. It suited my life at the time in short, and yes, Eoghan, I reckon you are probably dead right to suspect that co-living - however unpalatable to some - will indeed probably suit some people at a particular stage of their existence.

But it's a different thing to assume that we, as a people, are ready to be reconciled to this more constrained mode of living, much less become cheerleaders for it.

As to telling people who are despairing and utterly exhausted by the hunt for overpriced and scarce property in modern Ireland what they should feel excited about? Well, it's just not a great idea.

Next time, Eoghan, look to the Bull.

Irish Independent

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