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What is Nama doing to help Cork's housing crisis?

We look at how Nama does (and doesn’t) provide social housing in Cork.

With the occupation of Apollo House came loud calls for Nama to step up and focus its attention on solving Ireland’s current (and growing) housing and homelessness crisis. In the final installment of a special investigation, TheJournal.ie visits some of the most affected areas to examine if the so-called bad bank has been playing its part in providing social housing.

DC 09/04/2015  Lesleyanne Condron, Woodfield, Blarney. Pic: Diane Cusack Woodfield in Blarney. Source: Tuath housing

SARAH* HAD GIVEN up on getting housed through Cork County Council when the letter came that an apartment was available for her family to move into.

She had been on the waiting list for eight years with nothing coming up for her and her two young children.

One day, “out of the blue”, she was told that a three-bedroom apartment had become available at the Woodfield estate in Blarney.

The apartment was available through Túath Housing – one of the largest Approved Housing Bodies (AHBs) in the country.

AHBs are licensed to provide and manage social housing. Their use has grown significantly in recent years as local councils significantly cut back on building social housing in the years following the economic collapse.

“From getting the letter, I had an interview and was in the house within the two weeks,” Sarah tells TheJournal.ie from her home in Blarney.

It’s a really nice place, I feel completely at home here.

Túath acquired the 12 new apartments in the estate of Woodfield in Blarney through a leasing arrangement with Nama.

Nama and social housing in Cork 

The occupiers of Apollo House in Dublin – who formed under the banner of the Home Sweet Home campaign – argued last month that buildings under Nama control should be repurposed as accommodation for homeless people and those in need.

Nama has to date identified 6,941 properties under its control to be potentially used as social housing across the country. Demand was confirmed by local councils for 2,748 of these (meaning 4,193 are no longer being considered).

The reasons for a council not taking up Nama property offers are varied. In many cases the demand for housing in a particular area just isn’t there. Nama also withdraws a number of the units it offers to be sold on the private market.

In other instances, a too-large grouping of social housing in a particular area goes against guidelines for sustainable communities – that is, ensuring that too many social housing units don’t get built-in the same area in order to avoid social exclusion.

The Housing Department defines it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

This is a key part of the government’s Housing Action Plan, which states that sustainability is important in order to “avoid repeating the mistakes of the past”.

download (10) Housing Minister Simon Coveney who launched the plan last year. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

Cork is divided into two local authorities – Cork County Council and Cork City Council.

There are currently 4,241 people on the social housing waiting list for Cork County Council.

The council has to date been offered 806 units by Nama for use as social housing. Of these, demand has been confirmed for 322, with 307 being completed as of the end of last year.

In total, 106 units were rejected by the council (only seven for the sustainable community reason), while 371 of the potential homes were withdrawn by Nama.

At Woodfield in Blarney, the 12 units operated by Túath sit at the end of an estate made up of a mix of private and rented houses – the sought after sustainable community.

The units are made up of two and three-bedroom homes, mostly for young families. There is also a large garden around the back of the complex.

CSC_0295 A bike shed set up at Woodfield House. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

Túath places a lot of importance in the sustainable community model.

Lisa says that her children fit right into the area. They play with the other children from the building, as well as the other children from the wider estate.

“I could see us staying here long-term. It’s a lovely place – homely,” she says.

The kids especially – they really enjoy it here.

20150529_154628_resized (1) Children playing during the summer in Woodfield. Source: Tuath Housing

To date, Túath has acquired 446 homes through Nama. Of these, 316 homes (including the Blarney development) were acquired through the special purpose National Asset Residential Property Services (NARPS).

Under this scheme, Nama takes direct ownership of properties and then leases them out to a local authority or housing body.

In most of the cases (like in Blarney) the properties Nama takes control of are the incomplete units in unfinished housing estates (like ghost estates). With the collapse of the housing market in the late-2000s, many developments were left unfinished across the country.

As well as Blarney, Túath has acquired houses across Cork county from Nama – in Mallow, Macroom, Passage West, Midleton and Douglas.

CSC_0293 The Túath Housing offices in Cork city. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

Cork city 

In Cork city, the number of units offered to the council by Nama is lower than in the county – with the number of units accepted being lower again.

Figures from the Housing Agency show that 502 units have been identified by Nama for use as social housing. Of these, demand was confirmed for 189 (with 138 being completed).

A total of 313 properties are no longer being considered:

  • 178 were rejected by the council for the reason of sustainable communities
  • 135 were withdrawn by Nama

A spokesperson for the council confirmed that it had initially sought to obtain the 135 units before Nama had later withdrawn them.

Local Anti-Austerity Alliance councillor Fiona Ryan has criticised the council for rejecting properties on the basis of sustainable communities.

She points to one example at Ashmount Mews estate on the eastern outskirts of the city.

Nama offered 71 properties to the council to be used as social housing here, with 34 being accepted and 37 being rejected on the basis of a sustainable community not being available.

The homes are managed by Respond – another Approved Housing Body. So far, 23 tenants have since moved into the area, with another 11 due to move in soon.

For Ryan – who is a member of the council’s Housing Strategic Policy Committee – the reason for rejecting properties on the basis of sustainable communities acts as a barrier to housing people in need.

CSC_0292 Fiona Ryan believes a sustainable community policy acts as a barrier to housing people. Source: Cormac Fitzgerald/TheJournal.ie

She argues that of the over 4,700 people currently on the Cork City Council housing waiting list, many would love the chance to live at Ashmount Mews.

“We’re in a housing emergency and I don’t think that it’s acceptable to be rejecting 37 houses or any suitable houses,” says Ryan.

“Just on the basis of unfounded fears that an over-concentration of social housing will inevitably lead to issues.”

Ryan says that investment in communities and proper services being offered were more important than “having a narrow look at income”.

The concept around mixed tenancies and sustainable communities are an insult to people who have grown up in social housing communities.

She states that she could easily draft a large list of people who would gladly move into the area.

A spokesperson for Cork City Council said that the remaining properties in Cork were not accepted as they “would have not been in line with the principles of sustainable communities”.

So, is Nama providing social housing?

Finance Minister Michael Noonan last week said in the Dáil that Nama had just 173 properties in its portfolio that were currently for sale. Noonan said that many of these were already at the sale agreed stage or between tenancies.

The Home Sweet Home campaign last month sought to highlight the issue of empty Nama buildings and how they could be used to address Ireland’s escalating homelessness crisis.

However, rather than look just at how Nama currently offered social housing units to councils, the campaign also focused on vacant office buildings by taking over Apollo House.

16/12/2016. Apollo House. Pictured Apollo House wh Source: SAM BOAL/RollingNews.ie

A large part of the campaign was calling for Minister Noonan to use his powers to compel Nama to make buildings under it its control available for homeless accommodation.

Under Section 14 of the Nama Act, the Finance Minister can give a direction to Nama to with carrying out its purposes that it must comply with.

This direction applies in particular to a certain function of Nama, which is laid out in Section 2 of the Act, namely to “contribute to the social and economic development of the State”.

This is what campaigners were calling on the minister to do. A letter delivered by campaigners to the Finance Department at the beginning of last month laid this demand out.

However, the department responded by pointing out the units Nama has already offered to councils as fulfilling its social remit requirements.

The department also pointed out that Nama plans to facilitate the delivery of 20,000 private units by 2020. Under Part V of planning laws, 10% of these will be required to be social.

Meanwhile, while the sustainable communities model for councils not accepting potential social housing has come under criticism, it is a key tenet of the Housing Action Plan and is likely to remain in force.

The Approved Housing Bodies, for their part, have welcomed Nama’s input putting forward properties to be acquired.

Respond, Tuath Housing and Clúid all expressed satisfaction with the role Nama had played in bringing more social housing properties on stream.

However, for campaigners, people on housing lists and those critical of the government’s Housing Action Plan – the problems with the State-run bad bank will remain.

The selling off of assets to foreign investment funds (so-called vulture funds) and the vast majority of properties under Nama’s control going towards private ownership will remain points of major contention.

*Sarah’s name has been changed

Read: ‘It’s soul-destroying, like going for a job interview once a week and every time you don’t get it’

Read: Nama offered a council 507 social housing units in Dublin – so why did it only take 65?

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About the author:

Cormac Fitzgerald

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