Phibsboro and Cabra Fight Co-Living

Phibsboro and Cabra Fight Co-Living

In this blog, union members report on how CATU Phibsboro-Glasnevin and CATU Cabra have been exploring novel forms of community organising during lockdown as part of a battle to stop two co-living developments in the area.

Reports Of Co-Living’s Death Greatly Exaggerated

When the government raised the white flag on co-living last November, announcing a ban on further development, it was hard not to feel a degree of satisfaction.

In the three years since its introduction by Fine Gael this form of ‘housing’, had become the object of widespread revulsion and vilification – seen by many as the hard edge of an ever more exclusionary neoliberal turn in housing provision in Ireland.

Now remarkably it seemed the heat had got too much for the political establishment – they were capitulating to public opinion, doing a u-turn.

Or so it seemed.

It didn’t take long for this optimism to be dispelled. In early January, it was reported that two private developers – MM Capital and Western Way Developments – had lodged late planning applications for two large co-living developments at the Phibsboro Shopping Centre and Hendrons’ building in Broadstone respectively, within 0.5 kms of each other.

It soon became obvious that the length of time from the ban’s announcement in November to its enactment in December was designed to give developers ample time to slip in planning applications before the deadline.

And here was the result. Two co-living developments in Dublin 7.

In CATU we knew instantly we had a fight on our hands.

Unsustainable Model

The real-estate industry defines co-living as an ‘emerging asset class’ that markets temporary, short-term accommodation to ‘digital nomads’ –  young professionals who usually stay a few months, then move on.

So we had no illusions that this was going to be any sort of blueprint for sustainable community development.

Yet, when we finally laid eyes on the plans, we were taken aback. Bad enough they were being proposed for two of the most iconic sites in the area – Phibsboro Shopping Centre and Hendrons, a protected modernist landmark. But their sheer scale was breathtaking. Two monstrous, looming hulks, between them containing over 600 rooms.

From planning application for Phibsboro co-living development

The north inner city has suffered some of the worst effects of the housing crisis in recent years. Currently close to 3,000 people are on the council housing waiting list in this one small part of Dublin city [1]. Approximately half of these are families or couples. Yet social housing construction remains pitiably low. This year a total of 250 homes will be built. [2]

Thousands more who don’t qualify for social housing remain trapped in private rental paying sky-high rents, with some paying as much as 70% of their income for poor quality and overcrowded accommodation. Many are families. The government’s much-touted cost rental scheme – which could if done properly provide affordable homes for some of these people – will build a total of 0 homes this year. That’s right: zero. [3]

Factor into this the loss of income many have suffered during Covid, and the glaring need for affordable (i.e. not-for-profit) housing in the area becomes obvious.

And yet, with all this real need, what we’re being offered here in Dublin 7 are these two giant co-living developments.

Remember, these are elitist, niche ‘products’, designed to extract high rents from a narrow cash-rich demographic. The business model is premised on high unit turnover, which allows owners to frequently revise rents upwards. Co-living’s elitist dimension is reflected in the rents. Contrary to the marketing spin, co-living is not affordable. Starting rents are in the region of €1,000 per month for a single room, and are designed to provide short-term ‘leases’ – usually to a maximum of just six months – with minimal protection of tenants’ rights. [4] 

Developers’ impression of the Hendrons co-living building

Under no stretch of the imagination can these be described as ‘homes’ or as in any way meeting the real housing needs of people in this area.

The things ordinary renters need – affordability, adequate space, long term tenure, rent controls – all things that allow people to put down roots and build a life in an area – the co-living industry has no interest in providing.

This alone should be grounds for rejecting these twin developments. 

But what makes them even more objectionable is that they are part of a wider trend literally threatening the social fabric of this part of the city.

By way of illustration, at present in the north inner city (i.e. within a 1-mile radius of Phibsboro) a total of 1,491 co-living rooms are in the works [5]. An astounding 6,000 luxury student rooms have been recently built or are planned. Add to this thousands of high-end ‘Build-To-Rent’ studio apartments currently under construction, and you can see there’s a veritable gold rush underway – all chasing the same narrow, cash-rich section of society.

All the while, the needs of the vast majority in this area are being utterly ignored.

The Big Squeeze

Yet even when it comes to its own customers – the young professionals who may live as renters in co-living – developers’ greed knows no limit.

Despite all the marketing guff regarding co-living giving residents a community experience and fostering social connection, a look inside the two proposed D7 co-living developments reveals the grim reality of co-living’s drive for profit maximisation.

The rooms on offer are tiny.

In the Phibsboro development the standard room measures 18sq metres. In Hendrons, some rooms are as small as 16.4sq metres. Within this the actual amount of space that you can move around in (i.e. not taken up with furniture etc) is in the region of 5sq metres. By way of comparison, this is less than the Council of Europe’s recommended cell size for prisoners. [6]

One of planned bedrooms at the proposed Phibsboro Shopping Centre co-living Development

Of course there’s a crass logic to all of this. Smaller room size = more rooms per building = greater rent extraction. CityLiving, the company who plan to run the co-living development at Hendrons, are pre-emptively advertising rooms, which are expected to start at €1,000 per month.  

Co-living obviously works well for investors. However for those who may end up living here, there are serious issues with regard to room-size.

The mental health implications of forcing somebody to live in such a small space should be obvious. However less highlighted are the public health implications, particularly in this era of pandemics.

The enforced congregation of people that co-living promotes – in shared kitchens and communal spaces – raises serious issues regarding the potential for superspreader events. Likewise the tiny rooms – which in the Phibsboro development appear to have only one small openable window – raise doubts about the rooms’ capacity for cross-ventilation, something health experts flag as essential for making residential spaces covid-safe.

None of these concerns have in our view been adequately addressed by the developers of Broadstone and Phibsboro.

One of the planned bedrooms in Hendrons.

There is one further issue that relates to room-size. Many critics of co-living have flagged fears that these buildings could end up in the future being re-purposed for social housing. This is far from scare-mongering.

As tradable assets, co-living buildings can be bought and sold. New owners will assess market conditions, make profit-based decisions accordingly. That this could include turning to the state in parasitic leasing arrangements to provide ‘social housing’ is a real possibility, borne out by recent developments internationally e.g. in New York [7].

The prospect of Hendrons or Phibsboro co-living buildings – with their tiny, unsuitable rooms – being used to accommodate the city’s homeless, or single parents, and even larger families – is an appalling one that should give us serious pause for thought.

All of these factors inform our belief in CATU that these two developments are completely inappropriate for this community, are not wanted or needed by the vast majority of people, and should be stopped.

Alternative Visions

However, any hope that the planning system might protect us from such unsustainable, profit-maximising developments would seem to be vain.

The Broadstone and Phibsboro proposals will be decided upon by An Bord Pleanála (ABP) under new ‘fast track’ planning rules introduced by Fine Gael in 2017.

These rules – we now know – were drawn up by construction industry lobbyists before being grafted into legislation by the government [8]. The expressed aim of the whole operation was to limit democratic input into the planning process.

As a result of these ‘fast-track’ rules, when coming to a decision on Hendrons and Phibsboro, An Bord Pleanála no longer has to have regard to the democratically-agreed City Development Plan which lays down basic parameters and conditions to ensure balanced and sustainable urban development. 

Also, whereas in the past a final planning decision on a development could be appealed by individuals and communities, under the ‘fast-track’ rules we will no longer have such a right.

Given this anti-democratic turn within the planning system, in CATU we decided to see if we could find a way to give locals a voice regarding the proposed co-living developments.

Despite the obvious impediments to organising during a lockdown, we looked around for some way to bring people together, some way that people could break out of the political isolation that the necessary physical distancing has placed us all in.

We hit upon the idea of an online survey/petition that would ask people what they thought of the co-living plans at Hendrons and Phibsboro. The idea was that the petition could serve as a hub around which a community campaign could be built and alternatives proposed.

The results have been impressive. Within the space of a few weeks the petition has been completed by around 1,150 people. As well as giving those signing the opportunity to get involved with the campaign, the petition left space for people to give their thoughts on alternative uses for both sites. 

What is overwhelmingly clear from the responses is that co-living is NOT wanted in the community.

The responses show a real sense of frustration and grievance out there at the lack of adequate and affordable housing and other social resources – and co-living seems to be a sort of lightning rod for this.

As part of the survey, respondents were also asked to suggest what they’d like to see in place of the co-living. The answers cover a range of socially useful alternatives, ranging from affordable housing to providing cultural and community spaces at two of the most distinctive sites in the area. But the most pressing need identified by respondents was truly affordable rental and public housing. 

As well as giving the community a voice on co-living, the petition has been a game-changer in terms of campaign-building. Because CATU allowed respondents to indicate whether they would like to get involved in the campaign, we’ve been able to build a database of those who expressed a desire to stay in touch.

This has allowed us to reach out on an ongoing basis, using mail-outs and phone banking, which helps residents keep up to date with developments, suggest ways for them to take action etc. All this is helping maintain a sense of community involvement and momentum on the issue as the date for ABP’s decisions approaches in April, while allowing us to establish new networks with like-minded community groups and strengthening existing ones. 

Over the coming weeks CATU will be organising and ramping up pressure to make good on what we see as a community mandate to stop the twin developments.

Whatever the outcome of ABPs decision, one thing is certain… the fight for universal affordable housing in this part of Dublin has only just begun.

If you’d like to get involved in the anti co-living campaign in Dublin 7, email catuphibsnevin@gmail.com

You can also sign CATU Phibsboro/Glasnevin’s anti co-living petition, and follow updates from the campaign on Twitter

[FOOTNOTES]

[1] Sen. Marie Sherlock, ‘Planning Observation re proposed Hendrons Development’ (14th January 2021)

[2] Dublin City Council Housing Delivery Report – January 2021

[3] Dublin City Council Housing Delivery Report – January 2021

[4] ‘Co-living residents may fall outside rental protections’ – Irish Times – Aug 19th, 2019 https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/co-living-residents-may-fall-outside-rental-protections-1.3990143

[5] Sen. Marie Sherlock, ‘Planning Observation re proposed Hendrons Development’ (14th January 2021)

[6] Council of Europe, ‘Living space per prisoner in prison establishments’, (2015) https://rm.coe.int/16806cc449

[7] New York Times, ‘Co-Living Goes Affordable’ (Nov. 1, 2018) https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/01/realestate/co-living-goes-affordable.html

[8] Lennon, Mick; Waldron, Richard, ‘De-democratising the Irish planning system’ (2019) http://hdl.handle.net/10197/9683