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Co-living, the 'reductio ad absurdum' of housing

Posted on August 28, 2019: by Frank McDonald

Frank McDonald_blog contributor

Nearly three decades ago, I was writing in the Irish Times about the “shoebox flats” then being churned out by Zoe Developments in places like Arran Quay, Bridge Street and Bachelors Walk. Usually no more than 35 square metres in floor area with mechanically-ventilated kitchens and bathrooms, and laid out on either side of long artificially-lit corridors, I warned that what we were witnessing was the construction of “tenements for the 21st century”.

Everything seemed to be moving in the right direction for sustainable urban living

 Public outcry led to planning standards being improved, with an emphasis on the need for “dual-aspect” units, a mix of apartment sizes clustered around lift and stair cores, balconies that could be used for sitting out, more storage space, landscaped courtyards rather than mere car parking areas, and idealistic notions about making apartment living attractive to families with children. Everything seemed to be moving in the right direction for sustainable urban living.

 

 Then the property bubble burst under the weight of unsustainable bank debt and the construction industry collapsed, leaving Ireland with hundreds of “ghost housing estates”, usually in the wrong places. Virtually nothing was being built, so the main agenda for the Government was to kick-start  construction once again by making it more profitable for developers. And this led, almost inevitably, to idealistic planning standards being eroded by successive ministers.

 

 Labour’s Alan Kelly was the first to do so, followed by Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney and Eoghan Murphy; in a series of diktats from the Custom House, they dumbed down the standards set by local authorities such as Dublin City Council. Responding to pressure from developers and the construction industry, fast-track planning procedures were introduced, not just for apartment blocks but also for student housing and so-called co-living schemes — to satisfy “the market”.

 

 I never expected to live to see the day that standards would be driven so far downwards. Whatever about student housing schemes, which are probably needed to meet current demand, “co-living” is surely the reductio ad absurdum of housing in Ireland. The idea that anyone would be prepared to pay €1,300 a month for 16.5 square metres of living space (including a bathroom), sharing kitchen and dining facilities with up to 40 others, seems almost incomprehensible.

 

 Yet it’s all about to happen. Recently, An Bord Pleanála granted planning permission to Bartra Capital for a 208-unit “co-living” scheme on Eblana Avenue in Dún Laoghaire, and there are many more in the pipeline. What’s driving this depressing trend is pure greed, because it is immensely more profitable for developers to build “co-living” units rather than standard two-bedroom apartments of 65 square metres that could be shared by young professionals - the target market.

 

 The economics are simple. A developer can provide four “co-living” units in the same space as a 65 square metre apartment. If each of these units can be rented out for €1,300 per month, the return works out at €5,200 per month, roughly double the return on a self-contained two-bedroom apartment. The developer can either retain ownership of such a scheme or sell it on to an institutional investor, more than likely from abroad, for whom the profits would continue to flow.

 

 Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Eoghan Murphy rather unwisely characterised “co-living” developments as “very trendy boutique hotels”, a description he quickly retracted. Hostels would a more accurate description, especially as those living in them will not even be tenants, but rather “guests”, “club members” or “licensees”. In other words, their living arrangements will not come within the purview or protection of the State’s Residential Tenancies Board.

 

 Thus, in every way, “co-living” is nothing more than sub-standard housing, a reversion to the “bed-sits” of the past that were officially outlawed precisely for that reason. The “shoebox flats” built by Zoe Developments were better, and I never thought I would be writing that.