Housing the City - Unpacking This is Where We Live


Dublin 'It's the only place where my bones will lie still' writes the poet Kerrie O'Brien about her native city.

Dublin is this mix of history and desire, centuries of buried past and a city with its seams bursting out again with new life.

It's growing out - literally - sprawling into its neighbouring counties, and home now to the glittering towers of a supposed Silicon Docks around the mouth of the River Liffey.

Moore Street, once a Dubliner's cliché, lined with fruit and veg sellers who offered wit with their bananas, is now a cosmopolitan mix of cultures and tongues. The city, like the country, is changing and evolving but once again it is grappling with a housing and homelessness crisis and the challenge of defining its future. 

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By Helen Shaw

Producer 'This is Where we Live'

When we started the series This is Where We Live, it came from that simple idea of shaping and sharing conversations around how we make great places to live, how we plan our towns and cities, and how we own the quest for affordable housing and answer the need for public housing. The news seemed focussed on the day to day headlines rather than the causes, how we got here, or the solutions, how we navigate a path that shifts from emergency to sustainable living.

Our resources were simple. A microphone and curiosity.  

As someone who studied history more than urban planning I knew that to understand the present, and how we got here, we needed to start in our shared roots. My grandmother Elizabeth O'Reilly had moved from the tenements in Charles St to Marino in the early 1930s, just as the new Irish State was emerging. So I knew Marino had its origins in the British Government’s pre 1916 plan to build what was called 'a garden city' that would offer a new beginning for the city's slums.

So in days post Halloween I took a walking tour with Dr Joe Brady, an urban geographer with an absolute passion for the story of the city and housing.

Marino is the first of Dublin Corporation's public housing projects, a tenant purchase scheme where folk like my grandparents, Elizabeth and Patrick O'Reilly saved and made their home. 'The approach in the 1920s' Joe Brady says 'was trickle down' so the more able of those renting in the tenements could become homeowners. From the beginning, public housing and housing policy created classes.

For Brady it was the multiplicity of approaches taken by the city and the new State that showed results. Local authorities took ownership, even pride, in housing. For him, until you get back to that level of ownership in urban planning things may not change.


“If you rely on the market you rely on the vagaries of the market and the market will do whatever is profitable for it.

It won't do whatever society requires”.

Joe Brady


Through the 1920s, 30s and 40s onwards, a major home building project continued in Dublin and after Marino I took time out to explore Drumcondra, just up the road, with Dr Ruth McManus of DCU, and we walked through the cul de sacs of social housing nestled under private (but often built through cooperative schemes) housing on Griffith Ave. 

For Ruth, places like Drumcondra show the vision city planners used to have when there was a will to shape solutions.


'We came from nothing to providing wonderful, quality housing for people in the past. If we did it then, coming out of a revolution, coming out of a time when people had nothing, and we did it to such a high standard, surely we can do it again today?.

We've got to think big. We've got to have that vision. We can't just be telling ourselves all the time all the reasons why we can't do it.'

Ruth McManus


So the story of the city shows these big scale projects from Marino to Cabra, from the iconic Herbert Simms city flat blocks, in the 1930s to the 1960s high-rise flawed vision of Ballymun. Flawed in the sense that, that community never got the facilities and transport to support the new community who moved from the inner city to the seven towers.

To understand the shift in public policy I sought out Dr Tony Fahey, a social scientist, and a respected expert on housing over many decades. Tony described a political and policy shift away from local authorities driving housing in the late 1980s, due to economic pressures, to effectively incentivising the market to take over.

'Housing is turning out to be a very good investment', says Fahey and outlined how across the western world there is a shift towards the financialisation of housing where it becomes an asset, a trading commodity, returning significant profits to international investors. 


“Real estate in general is one of the safest investments on a global level.... If you have a couple of million, what you do is buy shares in REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust).

Housing has become a commodity, in a way it wasn't in the days of homeownership...

Financialisation has really made it increasingly difficult for the potential homeowner on a modest income to buy into the system because they are competing with people with a bunch of money in their hand ready to walk in and buy a place outright from a builder.”

  • Tony Fahey


That shift, from a home being a place for home-making to one of maximising profits to an investor, returns us to the days of 19th Century profiteering landlords, behind the slums in cities across Europe, but now it is on a global financial scheme often enabled by tax breaks . Today’s investors are choosing housing over stocks because it delivers on wealth. But it sadly does not deliver secure homes.

To understand a little of these echoes from the past to the present I took a tour around 14 Henrietta Street - the new Dublin Tenement Museum run by Dublin City Council Culture Company with architectural historian Dr Ellen Rowley who worked as a curator on the development of the project.

In this Georgian mansion we trace the story of class and privilege from the the mid 18th century when the house was a single family home so its life as a rented shared accommodation for over 100 people. we


Images from 14 Henrietta St


“Rent was really really high, that was a problem, that continues today, from the census we can see that a family of six or eight would have boarders in their accommodation (often one big room) to help with the rent...

The gap in the market that enabled this private letting, with these house jobbers as they were know, these agents of agents, there's a lack of accountability and you've got this amazing laissez faire situation that continues right through the century.”

  • Ellen Rowley


A lack of accountability and laissez faire economics today sees Airbnb short term rentals taking rental homes out of residents’ reach and while new regulations are in the pipelines there is no visible impact yet on the thousands of properties in cities like Dublin displayed on sites like Airbnb while news headlines today show the availability of rental accommodation has fallen back to 2006 levels despite a significant increase in demand. The same statistics shows us that the cost of the average rental property in Dublin is now €2,000 a month.

While Tony Fahey's storytelling showed when and how things had shifted what was also interesting to explore was that Dublin (and Cork/Galway/Limerick) are not unique. Similar pressures are evident in European cities like London, Lisbon, Barcelona and even Berlin which had previously been a great example of affordable housing.

In Vienna I met up with Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing at a conference on Housing for All. Leilani's mission is affordable housing as a global human right and with her I explored that idea of housing as a human right which should be defined in domestic legislation - and some would even say in the constitution. 

Like Fahey she sees the market as an efficient mechanism for market interests but not for delivering core social and democratic values like human rights. Housing underscores every other right. You can not provide education nor safeguard the next generation’s potential if you do not first provide safe and affordable housing.


“You can’t divest from housing that is absolutely needed for most vulnerable populations - and expect the market to respond to that when the market is profit driven”.

Leilani Farha


Housing  and shelter as a human right rather than housing as an economic asset to play on the monopoly board are the twin forces at play, not just in Ireland but across the world. In Vienna I met up with the woman leading its Housing Agency, Karin Ramser to understand why Vienna is being showcased as a model for affordable and public housing.

What captured my imagination was not just that the majority of the city is housed in public and affordable housing but that the City makes this simple claim - that no one's social status or income can be deducted by their address. Karin says as a woman she feels safe walking throughout her city because the city is socially mixed.


‘We invest in housing because the cost of not doing so in terms of social unrest would be so much higher’

Karin Ramser


In Ireland that seems like a revolutionary idea. Dublin is scarred by its social lines and walls. If you come from Ballymun people make assumptions, if you come from Dundrum and someone gets stabbed people say 'that kind of thing is not meant to happen here'.

In Smithfield, once a horse trading market, now a plaza of private apartments (many hosting on Airbnb), cafes and an art cinema, I met up with UCD geographer Dr Eoin O'Mahony. Eoin's happy to wear his left wing politics on his sleeve, but his sense of a divided city, where increasingly the poorer communities are being pushed out, is hard to deny.


"Many people in this city can't afford to live within decent radius of the city centre where we are now. And that has social consequences for what we want for our city.

Do we want a city evacuated of all types of people or do we just want it as a playground for super wealthy people?”

- Eoin O’Mahony


This idea of the consequences of a commodified housing policy where money rules and the market delivers for what the market can profit from - not what society may need connected with a conversation I then had with artist Jeanette Lowe in one of the Herbert Simms blocks Pearse House off Pearse Street.


The Simms vision (Herbert Simms was city planner in Dublin in the 1930s) was for public housing to be of the highest quality and while Pearse House may  have dated, and needs  refurbishment, the proposal that it is demolished seems destined to ensure its space is filled by private developments and the urban residents of Pearse House displaced - as has already happened with many inner city communities.

In the so called Silicon Docklands area a 22 storey tower is being built by international developers Kennedy Wilson and while the developers have a Part 5 social housing obligation to provide some social housing the cost of the Hanover Quay project means the local authority, Dublin City Council, has shifted that housing allocation to Rialto so the social divisions within the city are reinforced and the once working class docklands community is being replaced by apartments with an average rent of €3,500 a month.   


“when we look at these apartments, if they were given to a developer to turn around and sell as luxury apartments, it could be done, so I think we need to keep that with us and preserve some of Herbert Simm’s heritage”

Jeanette Lowe with resident Catherine Kavanagh at pearse house

With some of those aspects in mind I sat down with Dr Dáithí Downey the Head of Housing Policy, Research and Development at Dublin City Council to talk about how the city is facing up to its challenges.

Downey is inspired by the Vienna Housing Model and has also shaped a new research initiative the Dublin Housing Observatory to try and connect research to city planning. For him 'cost rental' is a key to providing affordable housing in the city and working to shift the city's provision of housing from emergency to sustainable. 


“We need to get past the argument that the State’s form of housing, social housing, is only available for the poorest and most welfare dependent households”

Dr Daithí Downey


Someone who’s making affordable housing happen is Hugh Brennan. At the site where Ó Cualann Cohousing Alliance (with the support of Dublin City Council) is completing an estate in Poppintree, Ballymun there’s a banner that boasts “We Build Communities”.

Hugh makes the point that even a couple earning €90,000 a year cannot afford to buy a home in Dublin average house price is now 350,000). Affordable housing for him means no one should have to spend more than 30% of their income on their housing needs.

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“We’re not learning.

We’re still putting loads of people together who have to put up with all of these social issues that we have in life - without any supports.

So our model is fully integrated, cooperative and affordable.

And fully integrated is as important to us as affordable.

That’s mixed income, mixed ethnicity, mixed age, mixed ability, mixed mobility, mixed needs - mixed everything.”

Hugh Brennan


The difficulty for those waiting, sometimes for years, to access safe and secure housing is that a generation is being denied the ability to plan their lives - to live and flourish. We know we have over 10,000 homeless but many, many thousands more are stuck in a poverty trap of high rents and no security. Many, some 90,000, are on waiting lists. Many more are living in a hand to mouth existence - including couples back living in their parents’ box bedroom with a baby or two. It is a generational issue.

For people like Eoin Carroll - who works in social justice and housing research, there's no excuse, it takes commitment and will. It takes policy and action. Being homeless is a trauma, he says, and it is a trauma which is destroying families. Over a billion euro is being spent in the private market to provide housing solutions from rent supplements (HAP) to temporary accommodation without any security of tenure or any return to the public purse.

‘We need to building new towns, new villages,’ says Eoin. ‘That’s up to the State not private developers’.


“Homelessness is your niece and nephew not being able to get out of their parents’ home, homelessness is somebody being turfed out of their HAP accommodation because the landlord wants to redecorate - that’s homelessness.”

Eoin Carroll


Eoin, like many of our interviewers, says we need to have both a public and policy attitude change on housing and homelessness.In our own small way this project This is Where We Live is about assisting a public conversation on how we are shaping our towns and cities and how what's happening around us, with spiralling rents and insecure housing, is not casual or random but the outcome of choices and policy.

We are making this place around us; what it becomes is the consequences of our actions. The much praised Vienna Housing Model,which has inspired the cost rental model being adopted by Dublin City Council, goes far beyond anything currently on the table in Ireland. In Vienna the Mayor insists developers who get access to public land must deliver 70% affordable housing. 

A city, a great place to live, is not just bricks and roofs, wonderful as they are, it is a place where urban planners think about the quality of life and connect public transport, schools, playgrounds, shops, green space and leisure facilities. In the eye of this housing storm we have an opportunity to think differently and to think long-term. After all, as Ruth McManus says, we have done it before in the shadow of war and poverty.


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