Cork City Council delivered just one social housing unit in 2014. Now they are up to circa 600 per annum.

Local Authority plays catch-up after years of little provision writes Catherine Shanahan
Cork City Council delivered just one social housing unit in 2014. Now they are up to circa 600 per annum.

Brian Geaney, Assistant Chief Executive, Cork City Council

THE Meadows, Knocknacullen, Hollyhill. What’s significant about this address? It’s the location for the one and only social housing unit delivered by Cork City Council in 2014 and it’s the example Brian Geaney draws on to demonstrate just how much the Council has upped its game since then.

“We’ve come an awful long way in a very short space of time. There’s incredible commitment from all stakeholders now and we are increasing our overall delivery every year. But there is substantial demand in a growing city, so it will take time,” the Assistant Chief Executive says.

With just over 5,000 people on the city’s social housing waiting list, there is indeed considerable demand. Of these, Brian Geaney says on average 3,400 engage with their Choice-Based Letting system - where the City Council advertises available units on its website and those on the waiting list can register an interest. Selection primarily depends on the length of time the applicant has been waiting.

There are many challenges he says, but provision has improved steadily over the past five years, albeit the arrival of Covid-19 last March meant less was achieved this year than last.

In 2019, 697 homes were delivered jointly by the local authority and approved housing bodies (not-for-profit organisations). This year, because of the pandemic, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage didn’t set any individual Local Authority targets, but the City Council still delivered 436 units, despite a 7- week hiatus in construction work. In addition to new builds, the Council continued its delivery programme, bringing to about 600 the number of units delivered for 2020.

Former derelict site High St, Cork city
Former derelict site High St, Cork city

White St, Cork city
White St, Cork city

Deanrock, Cork city
Deanrock, Cork city

The typical timeframe for delivering a housing scheme is 20 months at a minimum depending on design, planning and other considerations, Mr Geaney says, but if it’s a turnkey acquisition, “things may happen a lot quicker”.

The acquisition of turnkey properties bought directly from private developers for social housing has been described as key to solving the housing crisis by the head of AHB Co- operative Housing Ireland. Launching a new development of 69 affordable family homes at Brookhill in Carrigaline, Co Cork recently, Kieron Brennan said there was no way the Government’s commitment to building 50,000 social housing units over the next five years could be achieved without the acquisition of turnkey housing. He also said the attraction for a private developer working with an AHB “is the security of having an agreed price and certainty of sales”. Some would say this makes things more difficult for first time buyers, that if a developer has one guaranteed purchaser (an AHB/local authority) all he has to do is build and hand over the keys.

“So, what about all those who don’t qualify for social housing but who can’t afford to buy new homes,” one market observer said.

“The housing associations (AHBs) are so well funded that they are nearly overpaying the market price and creating problems elsewhere for first time buyers.” Brian Geaney says help is at hand for FTBs with the Cabinet rubber-stamping a Bill governing a new Affordable Housing Scheme just before Christmas.

Under the proposed scheme, which is expected to come before the Dáil shortly, the State takes an equity loan share of up to 30% in a home while the owner takes out a mortgage on the remainder. It would be open to all new build homes subject to price caps and targeted at FTBs. The Department says the scheme will save potential owners up to €11,000 per year in rent. It is looking to the UK model where the borrower doesn’t have to pay an equity loan fee for the first five years. In the sixth year, they’ll be charged a fee that will increase over the years.

There would be no obligation to repay the loan after a certain point until the house is sold.

Mr Geaney says at present the government has made funding available for the provision of affordable homes through the Serviced Sites Fund, where key infrastructure is funded on public lands to keep house prices down. The first scheme in the country to benefit from this is in Cork City, at Boherboy Road in Lotamore, where 116 affordable homes are currently under construction and 37 social housing units In fact, the total number of social/affordable housing units under construction in the city is 1,145, of which 250 are completed and of which 325 are turnkeys or Part V (where developers set aside 10% of the development for social housing, (e.g., Denis O’Brien, Crawford Gate, Blackrock and Ballinglanna, Glanmire, O’Flynn Group, Ruden Homes, Farm Lawn, Togher).

Another 636 are in the course of planning, among these the recently approved 64-unit scheme at Poulavone, Ballincollig (traditional City Council construction route), 64 units at Hawkes Road, Bishopstown (OBR Ltd, Dan O’Brien); 43 units at Denroches Cross, Magazine Road (Cetti Ltd,), and 54 units at the site of St Dominic’s Ennismore Retreat Centre on the Middle Glanmire Road, (Murnane & O’ Shea). Mr Geaney says some of these schemes were initially for social housing only, but having engaged with local communities through the planning consultation process, some were modified to mixed tenure, social and affordable, depending on viability.

The City Council’s total housing stock amounts to 10,473 homes.

The overall cost per housing unit depending on size, design and location and whether it is a house or an apartment unit can range anywhere from between €200,000 to €300,000. Construction of apartment units in city centre locations is very sustainable but unit costs are on the high side. The figures mentioned include land and construction.

The local authority has a four-step EU approved public procurement process to facilitate delivery of these projects. It also works with a number of housing bodies to deliver units and the “big four” in the city are Respond, Clúid, Tuath and Co-operative Housing Ireland.

Clúid recently announced that it has teamed up with UK insurance giant Legal and General to invest €54m in social housing projects in Ireland. It is already delivered a 62- unit apartment complex at Park Avenue South Douglas Road recently and construction has commenced on 112 homes at Green Lane, Blackpool Village.

There are other elements to the City Council’s housing programme including the delivery of downsizing/right-sizing schemes such as the award-winning 30-unit Árus Mhuire gated complex for older people in Mahon, managed by Tuath on behalf of the City Council, with similar plans for Springville House on Blackrock Road (35 homes, construction started, MMD Construction) and at Sunview, South Douglas Road (25 homes, planning recently approved by Council, Lyonshall Limited ).

Award-winning Arus Mhuire sheltered housing development in Skehard Road, Cork
Award-winning Arus Mhuire sheltered housing development in Skehard Road, Cork

Kay Keating and her daughter Deirdre Marriott, tenants at Arus Mhuire
Kay Keating and her daughter Deirdre Marriott, tenants at Arus Mhuire

All in all, it has been a very busy year for Cork City Council, despite Covid, with plenty in the pipeline for 2021.

“If you build very little for a few years, then obviously, there’s a pent - up demand. We are addressing that, and we will continue to do so in the future,” Mr Geaney says.

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