Redevelopment and the right to remain

Gentrification has become something of a dirty word. It wasn’t always this way. Most cities worried about the opposite – what you might call “slumification” – until quite recently, as those with the money moved to the newer suburbs. But in the last 20 years or so, older areas – in particular city centres – have become fashionable again. There are lots of theories about why. Some people credit the TV show Friends with making cities cool again. But if you ask me, it’s about pollution.

Take Dublin. Up to the late 1980s, there was an obvious reason you moved outside the canals once you had the means: the city was dirty. Once the city made the move to smokeless fuels, though, it was no longer the no-brainer it had once been.

And since then, areas like Portobello from the 1990s, Stoneybatter from the 2000s and more recently Cabra and Newmarket have prospered. With higher-income households moving in, a variety of new amenities – shops, bars, cafes, restaurants and pubs – have followed suit.

But how then has gentrification become a dirty word? It’s because, with a fixed supply of housing, for higher-income households to move in, it means that lower-income households are priced out. And that is where opposition to gentrification – understandably – comes from.

It doesn’t have to be this at all, of course. Like so many cities across the high-income world, Dublin has boxed itself into a corner with land-use restrictions. By placing very strict limits on how much housing can be put everywhere within the city limits, and what kind of housing, Dublin has gone from being no more expensive than the rest of the country as recently as the 1980s to almost twice as expensive today.

The outlook for Dublin and other Irish cities is for very strong demand for apartments over coming decades. As household size declines, and as urbanization continues, the cities will need to accommodate these smaller households in more central locations. This means we have to get good at “brownfield” redevelopment – as opposed to new development on greenfield sites even further away from jobs.

A sure-fire way to lose political support for redevelopment is to create a cohort of people who lose out from the process. And the most obvious group that could lose out are existing residents of inner city areas, many of whom are on average or below-average incomes.

One potential solution is for city councils to offer permission for redevelopment but insist that existing residents have a right to remain. Not in their existing homes, obviously – other redevelopment could occur – but in a new home built in the same neighbourhood and no smaller than their existing home.

Take Clanbrassil Street, on Dublin’s south side. It is an ugly hotch-potch of a street, riddled with the scars of the 1980s, when planners sought to drive a highway through the heart of old Dublin. But it is in the middle of areas that are regenerating.

Given how wide it is, there have been developments of up to 8 storeys in recent years. These sit awkwardly opposite or beside two- and three-storey low-density social housing, built long after social housing won awards for design but before it was energy efficient.

In the grand scheme of things, it is easy to see what should happen. The City Council should want Clanbrassil Street to fully redevelop and take advantage of the opportunity it has to become an urban hub. But the grand scheme of things doesn’t take into account how individuals’ lives will be affected.

So, rather than sell off the social housing and wish its existing residents the best for the future, the Council should instead put out a call for expressions of interest, where parties can propose what they would do with the site. But every proposal for the site would have to include accommodation for all existing residents.

Why would this be in the interests of a for-profit developer? Suppose in the ordinary scheme of things, a developer was allowed to build to a height of eight storeys in the area. Under a “right-of-residency”, with two storeys already there, the developer would be given permission to build to 10 storeys.

This way, everyone wins: the Council gets some of the redevelopment it (hopefully) wants to see, its tenants get far nicer accommodation, and new residents get to live where they want, instead of being pushed further down the motorway network.

There is, of course, nothing to stop a brave Council extending such a scheme beyond its own housing stock. In principle, a developer could woo the owners and residents of ten existing houses to sell up, knowing that they would find a new home in the new accommodation.

Gentrification has become a dirty word because it creates losers as well as winners. But it doesn’t have to. A smart policy system can ensure win-win. Tying redevelopment with a right to remain is one way of doing that.

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An edited version of this post was originally published in my column in the Sunday Independent.

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