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Killinarden experience suggests building at scale may be a challenge for affordable housing bodies such as Ó Cualann

The Foothills project is far more ambitious than anything the Approved Housing Body had worked on before, resulting in responsibility for delivering almost 400 affordable homes

In the autumn of 2021, South Dublin County Council trumpeted the signing of an agreement to deliver more than 620 new homes on council-owned lands at Killinarden.

It was to be a “crucial component” of the local authority’s plan to deliver more than 4,500 social and affordable homes over five years, with development being looked after by a joint venture including heavyweight builder Sisk and Ó Cualann Cohousing Alliance, an Approved Housing Body (AHB) and housing co-operative which has earned high praise for its record of delivering affordable homes below market rates.

The plan was to deliver 278 homes by 2024, but two and half years later Ó Cualann is seeking to sell up its stake before building it. The Land Development Agency (LDA) is considering a purchase.

The Killinarden project, known as The Foothills, is an order of magnitude more ambitious than anything Ó Cualann had worked on before – most of its projects are for homes of about 15-50 homes – but it was responsible for delivering almost 400 affordable homes on The Foothills.

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Unlike many AHBs, Ó Cualann concentrates almost entirely on affordable homes rather than social homes. Its unique model, which is often cited, involves accessing lands, usually from the State, at below market price, funding development, and then selling on at a discount to the market rate. Many other AHBs retain what they build and run it as social housing. However, it seems this model comes with significant compromises.

“We also struggle with finance,” Ó Cualann chief executive Hugh Brennan told The Irish Times. “We are an AHB and a registered charity, but we cannot avail of the same funding streams as other AHBs because we don’t own or manage any properties.”

Its corporate structure also means it cannot raise new funds from investors. It has tapped various parties for early-stage loans on other projects, but “when we get to this kind of scale we can’t depend on that kind of funding”.

Similarly, Brennan says there is a greater onus on them compared to social housing providers to absorb what are called “abnormal costs” in a project – for example, if there are levelling works on a site that has an unusual aspect. These costs can run into the millions – Brennan says that at a site in Ballymun, the cost is about €2 million, which it must absorb. “In some instances,” he says, “this means the affordable housing won’t be affordable.”

At The Foothills, the net effect is a cash squeeze for Ó Cualann, thought to be in the region of €2 million in near-term costs that will be needed to move forward with that project. With another €1.7 million in similar costs across its development pipeline, which covers about another 120 homes, there is a need to raise money and redistribute it to other schemes.

For more than five years, Ó Cualann has been the subject of glowing praise from the political system. In 2017, then Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy said one of their projects, which delivered 2-4 bedroom homes for between €140,000 and €220,000, “demonstrates what can be achieved when Approved Housing Bodies, local authorities, industry professionals and banks are prepared to work together in a co-ordinated, collaborative and proactive way”.

Praise came too from the opposition benches – Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin called for the production at scale of “the types of good quality, affordable homes being built by the Ó Cualann housing association”. The experience at Killinarden suggests that under current circumstances, building at scale may prove a challenge for bodies such as Ó Cualann.

As already outlined, Ó Cualann is an atypical AHB in some ways – different from the handful of large bodies that dominate output in the area. However, within the sector there is a huge amount of variation – some 445 groups operating at the last count by the regulator. Most local authority plans in Dublin envisage AHBs delivering about 45 per cent of social housing output in the years to come. The sector writ large will have to show it can scale and deliver to keep pace with ambitions.

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