Thursday 24 October 2019

Dr Ciara Kelly: 'Budget co-living only affordable to the rich'

Communal living: Housing minister Eoghan Murphy says it offers an exciting choice for young workers. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Communal living: Housing minister Eoghan Murphy says it offers an exciting choice for young workers. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Dr Ciara Kelly

Dr Ciara Kelly

I have to confess I am fascinated by these new plans afoot for co-living. Have you heard about them? These are plans to provide living accommodation in the style of an old-school boarding house.

So everyone has a bedroom of approximately 17sqm - about the same size as a disabled parking space for those of you who are more visual than numerical. And there will be a communal kitchen, laundry and social areas for those who live there, when they venture out of their bedrooms.

Although it's been suggested that these people might not use the kitchen much as they won't be cooking really - they're apparently more your eating-out, gadding-about-town types.

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It's expected there will be around 30 people in individual bedrooms - to each communal area. Housing minister Eoghan Murphy described this new version of co-living as an exciting choice for young workers. And as you may know, I am very pro-choice so that should sound good - however, at €1,300 a month per person, it will be a choice only open to young workers on significant salaries. Which is why I'm fascinated.

Yes, partly because if you had that much disposable income to throw around on rent, would you not find a better way to spend it than living in a cubicle with a pull-down bed? (Although maybe you wouldn't - the inner working of the minds of the young are now a mystery to the likes of me, and proper order.)

But more than the "why would you want to live like this?" angle, the "why is it only okay for the rich to have co-living?' is what really fascinates me.

We did away with bedsits in Ireland in 2013. Removing the lowest, cheapest rung of the rental ladder so that politicians in Foxrock and Ranelagh could say people in Ireland didn't live like that any more. Aren't we great, lads?

All the small basic units that existed - usually for poor people - were shut. So students, single unemployed people and people on low incomes were told they couldn't live in their homes any more; they had to live somewhere nicer - and dearer. But no additional income or indeed better accommodation was provided for that to happen.

Students went home and lived with mam and dad where they could - commuting longer and longer distances. I know of one DCU student who commutes by bus from Carlow daily as she can't afford to live anywhere in Dublin. But those single unemployed or low-paid workers had no such options available and many fell through the cracks. I don't believe it's a coincidence we closed down approximately 10,000 bedsits and the numbers in emergency accommodation are floating around 10,000 now.

We halved the number of sheltered units for the elderly at the same time as they could no longer live in the studio-type dwellings they'd inhabited previously - they now needed a two-room place. So half of those who lived there had to move out so those that remained could have their unit knocked through to the one next door.

The whole political spectrum was in favour of this. The Left said this is wonderful - we are raising standards! The Right said, Huzzah, the poor - who could barely afford the bedsits - will now magically afford non-existent two-bed apartments. In fact, many local authorities not only stopped providing studio accommodation, they stopped providing one-bedroom apartments as well - making two-bed dwellings the smallest available. This pushed single people into competition on housing lists for social houses, with families - with whom they simply couldn't compete.

"Two beds for all," we cried. Despite having no plan to provide them. It was the housing policy equivalent of "Let them eat cake".

Which brings me back to this. Why is it okay for the rich to live in a co-living setup that's not dissimilar in many ways to a posh direct provision centre? But we cannot provide large scale, small, cheap units for those on low incomes?

Why is okay to live in a development with 207 other people so long as it's expensive and cool? So long as it has rich tech company workers living there? Playing Xbox on giant TV screens and telling Alexa to turn out the lights and feed the cat. (Note: There will be no cats - pets are not allowed)

There is some kind of inverted property snobbery in this that I am struggling to identify the root of.

If living in a shoebox is unacceptable, then surely it is unacceptable for all - including hip young workers. If co-living in a development where 30 people queue for the washing machine is all right - well then why did we do away with it, for those who have no hope of living anywhere fancier? In some misguided move to improve the quality of people's accommodation but in reality merely pushing those who were struggling to survive in their basic bedsit out into homelessness.

I lived in a bedsit as a student. I moved up to a room in a house share after that. From there I shared a flat and then at 28 I bought my first house with my boyfriend. There used to be a natural progression through types of accommodation available to people. We pulled the bottom tier away, replaced it with nothing and no one is willing to admit we made a mistake.

Shared accommodation and co-living is possibly not ideal - but not only wealthy workers should have a choice about it. Do away with bedsits if and when there is a better option available - not when the alternative is couch surfing or the streets.

The law of unintended consequences meant politicians who brought this in didn't improve anyone's lot by doing so - they merely gained the semblance of improvement while actually making things worse.


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