Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Ireland's Dublin House program will give groups of residents great plots for cheap if they commit to developing them and living in what they build.
Boarded-up shops, unbuilt lots weeding over, buildings flaking and peeling—the ongoing economic slump in Europe has kicked its fair share of holes in many of the continent’s less prosperous city centers. But while the recession hasn’t really lifted yet, some crisis-hit European cities are experimenting with ways to revive their cores that don’t necessarily involve huge investment. Should two new experiments in Athens and Dublin work out, they could provide useful models for cities across the world trying to shake off similarly high vacancy rates and run-down real estate.
First up is Athens. Greece’s capital is currently struggling to find ways to restore an inner city that is now peppered with rundown or derelict historic buildings. Overall, the city has 1,200 abandoned buildings, a third of which have historical protection status. They include such properties as this fine neoclassical cinema and large old houses that are close to the point of no return, but also buildings on streets like this where surrounding houses are in good order. Aside from the economic pain they reflect, it would be a huge pity to let these buildings die, not least because their unique take on neoclassical architecture could make Athens tourism even more attractive in the future. Their presence is not a result of the economic crisis alone; buildings don’t go from pristine to tumbledown in just six years. Their decrepitude is mainly the product of the longstanding drift of money away from downtowns toward the suburbs that was typical of cities across the West in the late 20th century.
Athens started to reverse this trend a while back. It has the revamped warehouse districts and formerly dark streets packed with bars that you’d expect of any western metro core. Since 2008, however, the money powering this process has partly dried up. Downtown is anything but empty, but there’s not enough commercial demand to induce landlords to go out on a limb and renovate buildings whose rental income would struggle to recoup high restoration costs. Owners who actually want to renovate, meanwhile, are faced with a credit drought from wary banks. The greatest problem of all, however, is that the city just doesn’t always know who owns the buildings: As Ekathimerini notes, Athenians who emigrated during the 20th century often forgot properties that drew little or no income, and tracing an unoccupied building's multiple owners can be a real headache. Meanwhile, formerly elegant buildings continue to totter.
Athens’ solution to the problem is extremely simple: It will renovate the buildings itself. Once that choice is made, however, finding money to back it up is not so easy. With basic services are already feeling the pinch, Athens doesn’t have the spare cash for building restoration. The city’s way around this is to rake back any rental profits from restored buildings until a major chunk of its costs are recouped. Once it has its money back, the city will return the property to its owner, assuming one can be traced. In some cases, this might mean taking a tough line. If landlords are unwilling to hand over management, they will get a grace period to undertake repairs themselves before the city steps in and takes over.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Europe, Dublin is facing problems similar to those enmiring Athens. Ireland’s capital may have fewer derelict buildings than Greece’s, but it still has too many vacant plots. Readied for building during Ireland’s property boom, they stayed empty when it turned out that Ireland’s real estate market had, like a soufflé, been kept aloft mainly by hot air. Dublin also has another homegrown issue: a city center abandoned by families. Many of the city core’s older homes have been converted to office space, a role they fill indifferently at best, leaving some of Ireland’s most beautiful streets lifeless at night.
One possible answer to these twin problems comes in the form of a new project called Dublin House. As a pilot plan, the city is offering a vacant plot just south of the River Liffey for a mere €150,000, a rock-bottom price for a space big enough for a house of up to seven floors. The catch? Well, there are several. The city will consider selling the plot only to specially formed co-ops, a group of two to four households (who don’t have to be nuclear families per se). The co-op with the best plan gets the plot—on the condition that they live in what they build for at least 10 years. To discourage speculation, anyone leaving before then will have much of their sale profit creamed off by the city.
If it works, the Dublin House model will be rolled out across the whole city. While it will always be small—the city needs to own or buy the land—it could provide some extra affordable housing, fill up vacant plots, and boost local businesses in the process. Just as in Athens, a plan like this won’t alleviate the root problem of Dublin’s ills—that is, being the heart of a country knocked flat by huge bank bailouts. It’s still a step in the right direction for a town that wants to weatherproof its center after its recent battering by economic storm.