Welcome to the tenements of tomorrow

Bartra Capital's impression of a kitchen in the proposed 'co-living' development in Rathmines

Co-living is no solution to Dublin’s affordability crisis but brings in a nice yield for landlords, writes Claire O’Connor.

History tells us that epidemics thrive in overcrowded tenements and slums. COVID-19 is no exception. It is no coincidence that Dublin Northside and Dublin West, the areas with the most overcrowded housing in the country, were identified by the HSE as having higher concentrations of COVID-19 clusters. The public health crisis triggered by this highly contagious coronavirus has laid bare serious public health risks posed to those forced into multiple occupancy housing. It has further exposed the systematic discrimination experienced by tenants, in a system divided along the class lines into landlords and renters, haves and have-nots.

While encouraging people to avoid overcrowding, the Government has continued to turn a blind eye to the inadequate, overcrowded housing conditions experienced by vast swathes of ordinary people. Remarkably, it has refused to ban co-living developments, despite the obvious public health risks these developments present.

Co-living companies squeeze tenants into overcrowded, communal living arrangements, making social distancing and self-isolation impossible. These companies have proliferated in cities such as New York, San Francisco and London, where owners have exploited a severe affordability crisis in accommodation. Criticisms of co-living have been raised by architectural and housing experts both in Ireland and in the UK, with some investors in the industry warning that reducing the size of dwellings has the potential to become a social disaster. Far from “very trendy boutique hotels”, these micro-flat developments are the tenements of tomorrow.

Here in Ireland, the arrival of co-living development has been made possible by changes made to planning law in 2015. These were introduced by the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Alan Kelly, through the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2015. This legislation granted unilateral powers to the Minister to introduce mandatory planning guidelines without the approval of the Houses of the Oireachtas, overriding the planning regulations democratically agreed by local city and county councils. 

This legislative change paved the way for a significant deterioration of build-to-rent apartment design standards, with former Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy using these powers in March 2018 to issue new planning regulations. Conveniently for co-living developers, these new guidelines permitted the construction of micro-apartments from only 12 metres squared. They provided for an increase in the number of build-to-rent studio apartments in a given development (irrespective of whether it is an appropriate use of the development space in a given geographical area) along with fewer requirements for dual aspects, such as car parking and storage space.

Developers have exploited these fast-track, strategic housing guidelines, circumventing Local Authorities to make applications to An Bord Planeála to build several co-living blocks in Dublin over coming years. This includes an application by Bartra Capital to build a 208-room co-living unit in Dun Laoghaire, with communal kitchens shared by up to 42 residents. London-based co-living company ‘The Collective’ have bought a site for development at Fumbally Lane, Dublin 8, while German group ‘Medici’ have planned applications for up to five co-living buildings in Dublin over the coming year.

An application to Dublin City Council by JSC Properties Ltd. to build a co-living development atop Jervis Street Shopping Centre has also sparked controversy. This proposal includes the demolition of part of the retail area and car park to make way for 127 co-living units, spread over six floors. Single rooms are planned at 12 square metres and double rooms at 18 square metres – leaving two people with just nine square metres each. (For context, 12 square metres is equivalent in size to an average disabled car parking space).

Such proposals for co-living schemes – where ventilation and wastewater systems are shared in communal kitchens and living rooms – contradict expert advice published by the Department of the Environment in 2015, which said a standard one-bedroom apartment should be at least 37 to 45 square metres in order to facilitate  good quality living. In normal circumstances, these proposed build-to-rent apartments represent a serious and shoddy degradation of Dublin’s housing standards. In the midst of a global pandemic, where the world has yet to find a COVID-19 vaccine – they are downright dangerous.

Proponents of co-living have argued that this accommodation type would only cater to a small segment of the private rental market, namely young, single, transient workers, particularly those working for multinational corporations in a country so reliant on foreign direct investment. The reality, however, is that co-living could become the only housing option for the many young workers whose wages do not permit them to procure decent accommodation. The current predicted price range for co-living units soon to come on the Dublin market is €1300 per month. Ciarán Nugent, researcher at the Nevin Economic Research Institute, has noted that a minimum wage worker earning €10.10 an hour would have to work 30 hours a week, just to cover this rent for a car-park-sized room. This is in a city where almost a fifth of all wage earners earn less than €1300 a month, according to EADS (Earnings Analysis using Administrative Data Sources) from the CSO. 

Why then is the new FF-FG-Green Government allowing applications for co-living developments to continue? Despite being an issue in Government formation talks, negotiators failed to commit to a ban on co-living in the Programme for Government. The new housing Minister, Darragh O’Brien – who, as an opposition TD,  previously described co-living proposals as “bonkers” – has been newly converted to the concept, blithely dismissing the health and safety concerns of community activists and housing experts with the less-than-consoling argument that “the market and people themselves will decide”. 

Despite the deadly public health risks posed by these developments, thus far the only political response has been the government promise of a milquetoast, non-committal ‘review’. Kicking it down the road in this way is a clear indictment of the cabinet’s quisling subservience to the interests of private developers and corporations; both stand to reap extraordinary profits if proposed co-living developments are allowed to go ahead.

There is potentially a very significant financial yield for those who develop substantial co-living operations, squeezing more tenants into smaller spaces for more profits. Space equivalent to a typical two-bedroom apartment could yield €6,000 for a co-living landlord; a dream return for investors in Dublin’s property market. Judged the sector with the best prospect for growth in Europe in 2019 by the Urban Land Institute and PricewaterhouseCooper, the co-living industry represents some of the worst ramifications of marketised housing provision.  Creating mansions as homes for the few and shoeboxes for the rest of us: the sector is neoliberalism on steroids.

There has been a clear attempt to spin co-living as a glitzy, contemporary alternative to conventional affordable housing. Former housing Minister Eoghan Murphy has defended it as an “exciting” housing choice for young workers. However, young people are not so easily fooled. It is clear that beneath the smarmy and patronising propaganda offensive there is a concerted effort to normalise gentrified tenements as a substitute for decent public housing.

We cannot allow this toxic nexus of housing and profit to create cracks for COVID and future infectious diseases to exploit. If we are moving increasingly towards apartment living in our urban centres, these must be decent and safe accommodations, where people can rent for life. It behoves all of us who are concerned about the future of Dublin’s housing to become active on this issue and to fashion a resistance. While housing activists have recently organised protests at Fumbally Lane and other locations, a number of opposition parties have called for the regulations facilitating co-living developments to be rescinded. Rest assured this campaign will continue until all plans for co-living developments are dropped.