Housing comments send out a deadening message to the needy

Owen Keegan. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA

Fergus Finlay thinks that Owen Keegan, Dublin City Council chief executive, appears to have stopped caring about the housing crisis.

FOR quite a while now, I’ve been chair of the Dolphin House Regeneration Board. It’s a job I’m proud of, because it brings me into contact with some of the best people I know. I guess I probably spend maybe a day a month dealing with different aspects of the job, and a bit more than that thinking about it and worrying about it.

Dolphin House is a housing estate built along the banks of the Grand Canal, just above Dolphin’s Barn. It has the canal on one side, and the South Circular Road on the other. It’s an old estate, with 400 families, and there’s a senior citizens complex in the heart of it.

For years, the housing stock has been deteriorating, and the community was among the first after Ballymun to be offered regeneration. That promise disappeared the day the recession started in 2008. The community was let down then, and it had to fight for years to get the kind of commitments from the Government that enabled regeneration to finally start a couple of years ago.

Dublin City Council is the landlord of the people who live in Dolphin, and it has been the architects and officials of the city council who have planned the regeneration. The role of the regeneration board, and my role as chair, is to try to offer an independent view of the best way to proceed when regeneration is underway. We’ve had endless rows over the years, because there’s an inbuilt tension between scarce resources, on the one hand, and the needs of a hard-pressed community on the other.

Regeneration is an aspect of the national homelessness crisis, although it’s not one that’s written about very often. People who live in communities where the housing stock is deteriorating around them, while they cope with all the things that are part of being in a disadvantaged community, are sometimes seen as being lucky, because they have a roof over their heads. But they live lives of struggle.

The great thing about Dolphin, despite the disadvantage, and despite the other things that disadvantaged communities have to bear — like antisocial behaviour, inbuilt family pressures, and the ever-present scourge of drugs —is that it’s a powerful community. People fight for each other and stand up for each other. They have stayed together through thick and thin during the long wait for progress, in a most remarkable way.

We’re making real progress now. We’ve completed phase 1 and families have taken possession of new apartments, built to a very high standard and on a remarkable value for money basis. The project came in on time and within budget — shows what can be done! A purpose-build senior citizens block is rapidly taking shape in another corner of that campus.

The work so far, once we got past the delays of the recession, is a decent tribute to a local authority whose officials on the ground, with their architects and planners, have put heart and soul into the project. And it’s a tribute to a community whose resilience has been matched by its determination. We all started off as enemies on this project, with all the tensions that you find between landlords and tenants, and I’ve watched a lot of mutual respect grow over the years as delivery and standards started to happen.

There’s a long way to go before it’s completed — the next phase has to be much bigger and faster. But there’s a really good community base, and a strong association to represent them. Dolphin is on the priority list now, and you can begin to see a much better future.

I’m telling you all this because it’s progress that deserves to be reported — good standards, decent value, proper project management. I’m also telling you because in a small way, my role as chair makes me an employee of the city council. I serve at the pleasure of the community and the council — if either side wants me to go, I’m gone.

So I suppose that means the Dublin city manager Owen Keegan is one of my bosses. Therefore, I guess, I should hang on his every word.

But here’s the thing. Owen Keegan runs Dublin City Council. Dublin City Council is Ireland’s biggest landlord, by far, and the organisation that has most to contribute to solving the housing crisis. It appears — and I hope I’m wrong — that Owen Keegan has stopped caring about the housing crisis.

He gave an interview to the Sunday Business Post at the weekend in which he offered a couple of tacky jokes about homelessness — “the best way to solve homelessness in Dublin would be to provide no beds” — alongside a series of sweeping assertions essentially to the effect that housing provision into the future had to be the preserve of the private sector.

And he also, apparently, believes that people who are homeless fall so in love with the emergency and temporary arrangements that Dublin City Council makes that they are reluctant to move on to whatever is offered to them next.

I don’t mind the jokes. We’re all guilty of gallows humour sometimes. But the slur on homeless families is actually unforgiveable. In his job, he must have met mothers trying to raise children in emergency accommodation. Unless he’s been utterly sheltered (which I suppose is possible) he must have seen their faces, felt their despair, been affected by the damage that is being done to children. Only someone utterly insensitive could seriously believe that emergency provision is so good that it’s a better choice.

But at the core of the interview is his belief that it’s not Dublin City Council’s job to build homes any more, but the job of the private sector.

Some of the greatest achievements in the history of that council have been its house-building programmes. And it has led the way precisely because it has had to. In the 1930s and 40s in Ireland, the private sector built the slums, Dublin City Council built the houses that enabled the slums to be cleared. Through every decade of the last century, Dublin City Council built houses — and villages, and towns — that stood the test of time and served generations.

TO READ a Dublin city manager saying, in the face of a record like that, that he is actually opposed to the idea that public housing should ever again be a significant contributor, is deeply depressing. That simplistic notion that the private sector should be the home builder of first and last resort is what got us into the mess in the first place.

I know what the council is capable of. I know just how good it can be. I’ve seen at first hand what its people can do.

When its leader and chief executive decides that he’s just not interested, that someone else is going to have to provide the social housing the city needs, you really wonder what kind of deadening message that is sending out.

There are people in the council at every level who are working hard at creating and delivering solutions. They must be feeling terribly let down — because they are when their boss talks such nonsense.

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