Will building more student accommodation provide more city centre family housing?

'At a time when a great deal of building activity in Galway is concentrated into providing office accommodation, where are all their additional workers going to live?

For many decades, Galway city has been recognised as a place that is welcoming of its visiting tourists and to all those who come to secure work or to study. Over the past three decades, the NUIG student population has doubled from 9,000 in the early 1980s to more than 18,000 today.

Yet Insider is aware a perennial problem exists - the lack in growth of decent living space available within a short walk or bus ride of the university campus! This is in contrast to the GMIT, which has many purpose built accommodation units, such as in Gleann na Ri, Glasan, or Lurgan Park.

Historically, many NUIG students stayed in ‘digs’ provided in the homes of families, or in rented estates, mostly around the Westside area of the city. Over the past 20 years, new apartments, including some designed particularly for students, began to be built. Such areas included Dunaras, where the Rahoon flats once stood, and also on the Old Seamus Quirke Road. As student numbers grew, the focus then began to spread to locations east of the Corrib, just off the Headford Road (Gort Na Coiribe and Cuirt Na Coiribe ) and Sandy Road (Gort Na Glaise ).

The university developed its own purpose-built student accommodation at Corrib Village in late 1980s, with an additional 429 units opened last year. Another 700 are in planning via An Bord Pleanala under SID legislation, and yet to be built. Meanwhile work at the former Westwood Hotel is ongoing.

Developments in Galway

Government had also opened the flood gates for more ‘profit seeking’ private developers to get in on the act and to cash in. Section 50 of the Finance Act, 1999, provided a scheme of tax relief for rented residential accommodation for third level students. This means for the investor that there was a ready market for tenants of the certifying educational institution, especially in a city which also attracts so many tourist visitors who can then also use this accommodation in the summer months.

The investment company must retain ownership of the property for 10 years to avail fully of the tax reliefs. Should the property be sold within the 10-year period, it may result in a clawback of tax reliefs granted.

Insider has observed that in Galway, recent years have seen such developments move into the central mediaeval area of the city with new student developments above the coach station, at Mulvoy Road, and Eyre Square, while the Summix Development Company plans, proposed for the Queen Street area, have been granted planning permission.

Recent weeks have seen yet more units proposed for Cuirt na Coiribe in Coolagh, while at the former Donnellys Coal Yard, Summix is waiting to see what building heights are allowed at Ceannt Station before presenting plans for three tall blocks, backing on to Forthill Cemetery.

Land and building costs have pushed the price of apartments beyond the reach of most people on an average wage. In response to developer demand, Minister for Housing, Eoghan Murphy [pictured below], raised the height limit on apartments, and introduced a fast-track planning approach two years ago. It has not worked for middle or low income families seeking suitable family sized housing, and so the crisis grows.

Despite controversy, Insider is glad to see areas of the city that have become depopulated over recent years being regenerated! However, he wished there had been a structured local area plan process used, with public concerns aired and consultation allowed into the planning effort. The three most central district electoral divisions in the city have lost 1,058 residents between the census of 2011 and of 2016. Will any of this new construction mean 'community life' can return to the city as has often been suggested by city CEO Brendan McGrath? Or is all this leading us towards what the media call ‘gentrification,’ where workers and their families are frozen out by high rental or apartment purchase costs?

Is co-living really the answer?

At a time when a great deal of building activity in Galway is concentrated into providing office accommodation, and the IDA is encouraging greater inward investment into the city, Insider asks where are all their additional workers going to live? Will they be able to afford the rent? The answer we are told, is co-living! Co-living provides small en-suite rooms for rent, with large shared kitchens and other shared communal facilities. It is similar to student housing, but is aimed at young workers.

Of course we already know the answer which is, we are locked in to continued urban sprawl, where many working families are being forced into taking an unsustainable commute into gridlocked Galway from far off county areas where homes are cheaper - but what a heavy social/environmental price on family life is being paid.

If you read the Galway City Council's City Development Plan 2017-2023 you will notice the following comment: “New residential development in particular has contributed to the vibrancy of the city centre. The council will continue to encourage residential development by requiring a residential content of at least 20 per cent of new development in the city centre. Exceptions may be made on small scale redevelopment sites. On certain key sites in the city centre namely the Ceannt Station lands, Inner Harbour and the Headford Road LAP areas, a higher residential content of 30 per cent will be required.”

Residential zoning means that hotel and student accommodation is also allowable, which is ‘transitory residential’ but is not affordable family housing. The bigger picture now seen in Dublin, with Galway likely to follow, is continued rapidly increasing rents, and the transformation of a market in which ownership is fast diminishing in the face of global commodification of residential housing - housing as a big, no-borders, fund investment commodity, like the world trades in cereal or coffee.

We should observe the examples that are today being shown to us in many European cities and look at Dublin's Docklands regeneration areas that are not found to be working where, as Una Mullally wrote in The Irish Times on September 16:

“The focus is on tourism and transience, not building a smart, sustainable city that celebrates its best characteristics. The ironies abound, including the city being in thrall to tourism, yet erasing the very character in which tourists come here to steep themselves. There is no blueprint for the city, no plan. But if you thought 2019 was mad, bad and sad in Dublin, get ready for 2020."

Insider simply asks this question of our newly elected city council: Do we continue to follow Dublin, or is any of this new ‘investment’ likely to lead to Galway getting any new social or affordable family housing, that is more likely to promote a return of community life, as our city CEO portrays? Or, is a policy being promoted by our city planners to simply encourage greater investment opportunities for offshore financial interests - many of which pay little or no tax at all in Ireland?

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