‘It’s almost impossible to build homes at scale’
By Louise Byrne
Prime Time Reporter
Updated / Friday, 9 Dec 2022 11:35
When construction work began at a new housing estate on Cork’s Sarsfield Road in 2020, Iwona Siencka thought her search for a house to buy was over.
Along with her husband and two children, Ms Siencka, 37, has rented her home in the adjacent Eagle Valley estate for 15 years.
They have a €25,000 deposit and are approved for both a mortgage and the Government’s Help-to-Buy scheme, which is limited to new homes.
But Ms Siencka has since concluded that she will have to continue her search: All 69 houses and apartments in Sarsfield Heights, the new estate, have already been funded and purchased by housing charity Respond, for the purposes of social housing.
“My hope of being able to buy a house over there was gone,” Ms Siencka told Prime Time.
The Eagle Valley Association of Residents and Homeowners has raised concerns over how the development has proceeded, particularly because the original planning application, made in 2017, suggested the homes would be made available to private buyers.
The application outlined how many units would be offered to the local authority for social housing.
“There was a map, even, with the specific six units,” Denise Kennedy, the association’s public relations officer, told Prime Time.
The association said that an estate consisting of 100% social homes is not in line with Government policy, which encourages so-called mixed-tenure developments.
They also believe it is a missed opportunity to increase the number of owner-occupiers in the area.
Only a third of the homes in their own estate are lived in by owner occupiers, according to the residents association. The rest are rented or social homes.
Tweets sent last year by housing charity Respond and Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien – at the Sarsfield Heights construction site – was the first time many locals learned about the plans.
“That’s how I found out that everything is going to be social housing,” Ms Siencka said.
At a recent meeting of the residents’ association, William O’Brien, the group’s treasurer, said that locals had been kept in the dark.
It was a sentiment roundly supported by the associations’ other members.
“We’re not against social housing or the people who are now our new neighbours in Sarsfield Heights,” Ms Kennedy said.
“What we’re concerned about was that this was done behind closed doors without any public consultation or public visibility.”
Respond, the housing charity, told Prime Time that the suggestion it had purchased multiple new properties that would otherwise have been available to individual private buyers were “extremely misleading”.
In a statement, it said it had “facilitated the viability of [Sarsfield Heights] through land purchase and construction funding”, adding that viability was “the biggest challenge facing housing delivery at present”.
The estate’s developer, O’Brien and O’Flynn, confirmed that it had originally planned to sell the scheme “on an owner occupier basis”, noting it had commenced construction in September 2020 with its own resources.
It was approached by a number of other parties interested in purchasing the scheme – and ultimately agreed to sell Sarsfield Heights to Respond to help “expedite” its completion.
Asked about a perceived lack of transparency in the process, Respond told Prime Time that planning permissions are not required to state whether a scheme is for social, affordable or private housing.
“We are always keen to engage with local communities before and after tenants move into their lifetime homes,” it said.
“Respond’s strongly held view is that we need to make room for all people within our communities, regardless of tenure type, income or indeed any other differences. This will enable the growth of integrated communities.”
Architect Mel Reynolds said he believes one of the reasons that housing charities are buying private developments before and, sometimes, after they are built is because of the bureaucracy involved in building directly, which would see them developing their own sites and units.
“The State has managed to put in enough hurdles to make it almost impossible to build anything at any scale around the country,” he said.
Mr Reynolds noted that, in the first six months of 2022, no new social homes were built directly by Dublin’s four local authorities. The Government has pointed out that there are 2,000 social homes under construction in the capital by the councils and more than 3,700 others in the pipeline.
Other housing streams – homes for sale in the private market or those for affordable purchase – haven’t ramped up in parallel, Mr Reynolds said, noting there is likely to be “major public backlash” if it continues.
“You need to have a balanced stream of housing coming out,” he said.
The Eagle Valley residents’ association members concur.
“Respond is a great organisation and it’s altruistic in its motives, but it is still a corporate or institutional entity,” Ms Kennedy said.
“The net effect of this is exactly equivalent to institutional investors coming in and buying up entire estates.”
The Department of Housing said its funding schemes for approved housing bodies enable supply that would not otherwise have been built, adding that the sector “does not compete with private purchasers but seeks to increase supply across the board”.
It said support for such projects was required from the relevant local authority to confirm a need for social housing in the area, the appropriateness of the extent of the units and that an over-concentration of social housing does not result.
“Local authorities are also in a position to assess the impact of the local market of any particular development,” it added.
For its part, Cork City Council told Prime Time that it commissioned a Sustainable Community Report to determine that there was “sufficient demand and the necessary facilities in the locality” for the social housing at Sarsfield Heights.
The council said such a report would also look at the amenities in the locality to see if there are sufficient public transport, educational facilities, recreational facilities and medical facilities.
It noted that turnkey arrangements are “common as a means of enabling housing development on lands with the benefit of planning permission”.
The situation is especially tricky for Ms Siencka, because both the Help-to-Buy scheme and the newer First Home Scheme, which can boost a buyer’s spending power by tens of thousands of euro, are only for newly built homes.
“You need to have new houses developed, and they need to be available for sale to private buyers,” she said.
She hopes to stay in the area. Her sons attend school nearby and the family feels embedded in the community, she said.
The approved housing body sector has been set big targets by the Government.
Over the next few years, more than 40% of all new social homes will come through housing charities.
“We are trying to deliver for some of the most needy parts of the population,” Donal McManus, the CEO of the Irish Council for Social Housing, said.
Mr McManus agreed that the process by which housing bodies sought approval to directly build social homes needed to be reviewed.
“We look at other European members and they seem to be able to turn around schemes much quicker and deliver homes much quicker,” he said.
He also suggested the State should provide housing bodies with more land.
“Once we have sites and visibility of the sites to deliver new social homes, we think that will help us to have a balance between working with the private sector and our own schemes.”
The Department of Housing said that there is a four-stage approval process for the procurement of social housing and that “approval of each stage by the department is generally a matter of weeks”.
It said time taken between stages is then “dependent on progress by the local authority or approved housing bodies”.
It also noted that a new land fund overseen by the Housing Agency will work to supply land to approved housing bodies and local authorities for the purposes of social housing.
Mr McManus rejected the suggestion that, in the rush to meet Government targets, the ambition for mixed-tenure developments had has been sidelined.
“Not every estate will be totally suitable for mixed tenure,” he said.
“But, certainly, we have bigger schemes and mixed tenure is the centre part so I wouldn’t say one is knocking the other out.”
From a developer’s perspective, the arrangement solves the problem of trying to find the finance needed to build homes for private sale.
“The perception would be that ordinary buyers are being muscled out of the market which they may not be,” Mr Reynolds said.
“But the underlying problem is that there’s no development finance to actually let buyers into the market, which is an even bigger problem.”
He said that banks have been slower to lend money to developers following the 2008 crash.
“In some ways, from an industry point of view, that is more worrying.”
For the residents moving into Sarsfield Heights, it will be the end of years waiting on local authority housing lists.
But Ms Siencka is still waiting.
“The Government talks about housing for all,” she said. “But this is not housing for all.”