Mick Clifford: When homes are not ‘as safe as houses’

When Ciara Holland learned that her home was in a dangerous condition, she thought about her children. She and her husband bought their apartment in the Galloping Green Complex on Dublin's Stillorgan Road in 2006, at the height of the Celtic Tiger illusion.

Mick Clifford: When homes are not ‘as safe as houses’

When Ciara Holland learned that her home was in a dangerous condition, she thought about her children. She and her husband bought their apartment in the Galloping Green Complex on Dublin's Stillorgan Road in 2006, at the height of the Celtic Tiger illusion.

Twelve years later, the couple, and hundreds of others in her block, were told that they’d been living in apartments that were not built properly.

“Since finding out about the fire defects, I have gone through a lot of emotions, including guilt,” Ms Holland wrote in a speech that was read on her behalf at an event last Tuesday. “I felt guilty that I put my two little girls to bed in a fire-defective home all of their little lives. They should be at their safest at home in their beds, but, unbeknownst to me, they weren’t. They were exposed to risk I knew nothing about.”

Ms Holland is among a growing army of people who are coming to terms with having been conned in one of the most important decisions of their lives. Last November, an Oireachtas Committee was told that an estimated 90,000 homes built during the Tiger years are defective.

A large proportion of these are also dangerous, as they contravene fire-safety regulations.

These homes were built when the construction industry was self-regulated. For some builders, this equated to no regulation at all. The State, which was supposed to perform spot checks on self-regulating builders, was asleep at the wheel. At one stage during those halcyon days, there were more dog wardens than building inspectors.

Corners were cut. Approved designs and plans were ignored where it was expedient to do so. The driving force was money. Projects were thrown up in jig time in a rush to move onto the next one, the next loan, the next buck. All this to keep pace with banks that were shovelling it out like there was no tomorrow.

Citizens are entitled to assume that in buying a home, the state will protect them from dangerous practices. To that extent, homebuyers during the Tiger years were conned.

So far, nobody has died directly as a result of a defective building. One man, who was among those evacuated from Priory Hall in 2011 — the first development where major fire-safety defects were uncovered — took his own life. But nobody has died in a fire, or other accident, in a home that was not properly built. So far. In 2015, a fire took half an hour to raze a terrace of six houses in an estate in Newbridge that was highly defective.

Thankfully, it happened in the afternoon and not the middle of the night.

After Priory Hall, the next major development where dangerous defects were uncovered was Longboat Quay, on Dublin’s docklands in 2014, first reported in the Irish Examiner.

Since then, a pattern has emerged.

A defect is discovered in a development built in the years between 2000 and 2008. Further exploration uncovers bigger problems. The local fire officer is contacted and instructs that remedial action be taken to avoid evacuation, as happened in Priory Hall. Often, there is a requirement to employ fire wardens — whose brief is to alert and evacuate residents in the event of fire — at considerable cost, until the remedial work is complete.

Just picture that. Imagine on the street or road where you live, all day, everyday, men and women in hi-vis jackets are patrolling, their presence reminding you that your home is a dangerous place to live.

That is the reality in dozens of apartment complexes around the country. And then there is the cost of redress, with homeowners expected to fork out anything up to €50,000 to make their homes safe to live in.

In a functioning democracy, the very least is that homeowners should be able to take legal action against the errant builder. Ms Holland recalled that a solicitor representing homeowners in her complex contacted both the developer and the architect. The architect didn’t respond.

The developer did to say that it wasn’t his problem, because it was beyond the statute of limitations. Seven years from the date of completion of construction, the developer can walk away.

“We were also told that we should not discuss this issue publicly, because it would negatively affect the price of our properties,” Ms Holland said.

“And, also, that if the fire officer found out, we could, potentially, be told to vacate the apartment block. I assume this warning or advice is being given to lots of apartment owners across the country and this is only feeding into the problem and protecting the developers and government from taking action.

We, the owners, are the victims here.

In reality, the consumer who purchases a fridge, or even a hair dryer, has more enforceable rights than somebody buying a home.

The legacy of defective homes was investigated by the Oireachtas committee on housing in 2017. Last Tuesday’s event was a seminar organised by Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin to mark the second anniversary of the committee’s report, ‘Safe As Houses’. It recommended, among other things, that some avenue of redress be opened up for owners of defective apartments.

The Government didn’t want to know. Mr Ó Broin and the Green Party’s Catherine Martin have been lonely voices in the body politic attempting to have a major injustice put right.

There has at least been some organised resistance to the indifference. A group of homeowners from up to 70 developments are part of a group called Construction Defects Alliance. On Tuesday, Mr Ó Broin urged everybody present to make their voices heard.

Over the last few weeks, as the election campaign has heated up, various groups who carry lingering pain from the economic collapse have been in the news: Pensioners who can’t get their pensions, teachers who want pay equality, people forced to pay extortionate amounts for rent, and those who have no homes.

Most of these issues can be traced back to the times of illusory plenty, which ended in economic chaos. So, too, can the plight of homeowners conned into believing the state would protect them. It’s high time their concerns were addressed in some form.

Their plight takes on an added dimension if, as seems likely, Fianna Fáil makes it back in power. The party’s leading lights have professed contrition about all the mistakes made during the years of excess.

Here’s a chance to do something practical about a mistake that has led to so much misery.

This story was amended on Monday, January 27

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