Generation Rent and the battle to preserve Dublin’s soul

7 Aug 2018

Google’s new development under construction at the old Boland's Mill site fronting onto Grand Canal Dock. Image: Noel Bennett/Shutterstock

Dublin is building offices, not homes, and as people are pushed out the city risks sacrificing its tomorrow for the low-hanging fruit of today, writes John Kennedy.

There’s an old African proverb: it takes a village to raise a child.

Growing up in Ireland – whether it is a rural community, a village, a town, a suburb or the beating heart of a city – the community most of us emerge from is what shapes the person we become. In turn, it is the people who make a town or city what it is, and Dublin and her sister cities Cork, Limerick and Galway are shaped by their characters, not necessarily bricks.

These cities are indelibly marked and shaped by the spirit of those people who have passed through and will continue to pass through. We need to remember this if we want Dublin to be a true citadel of innovation.

On the last count, I read that there are about 80 cranes across Dublin’s skylines and every week hundreds of new jobs are being created, mostly in tech firms. This is progress and the kind of growth that Dublin has long craved as the city forges a reputation as the jewel in Europe’s tech crown.

Amazing things are happening too in the form of Trinity College’s new €1bn 5.5-acre campus and the Grand Canal Innovation Quarter for the docklands, which will be Dublin’s version of Boston’s Cambridge Square. Last week, planning permission was granted for a 7,000 sq ft  Harbour Innovation Campus in the former Ferry Passenger Terminal building in Dún Laoghaire Harbour.

These developments hold the potential to create thousands of new jobs and foster hundreds of new start-up ventures. Potentially.

Sadly, the growth coincides with a rent crisis, a growing homelessness problem, and the emergence of Generation Rent for whom it is unlikely they will ever be able to afford their own homes as things stand.

Hearts make cities, not bricks

The new jobs are great and very welcome. We should be celebrating. But most of those cranes are building office towers, not homes. And if we don’t strive for balance and ensure Dublin remains affordable for myriad workers of all ages, not just young tech workers, Dublin will over time lose a battle for its very soul – just like San Francisco has already. Worse still, those very companies creating the jobs will eventually ask: where did all the people go?

Dublin is still very much alive but it is no longer a city for young people, or anyone not earning a generous salary with benefits from an exceptional job. The cost in time will be its vibrancy and, critical for the companies that are coming, diverse talent.

It is paramount that the politicians and planners act decisively on controlling the rent crisis and make Dublin liveable again. Especially if they want to provide talent-hungry tech firms with the raw material they crave. But they also need to do it for basic, common human decency, because the rent problem is casting a veil of sadness over the city, hurting people just trying to get by, slowly but steadily sapping its spirit.

A diverse working community ranges from the shop workers to the teachers, nurses, police, gardeners, artists, engineers, postal workers, bus and taxi drivers, writers, bank clerks, lawyers, you name it. All of these people enrich a community through their expertise, their experiences and, crucially, their ability to simply be.

Last year I warned that Dublin is in danger of no longer being fun or fair and this is coming to pass faster than I imagined.

Musician David Kitt’s decision to leave Dublin because he can no longer afford the rent captured headlines last week. So too did the decision by Today FM DJ Kelly-Anne Byrne, who has opted to commute from Glasgow for work because she can afford an apartment there and has lots of choice, rather than Dublin where there is little choice and a one-bedroom apartment was costing her €1,250 a month.

These are the ones we are hearing about because they have a platform to speak from. But if celebrated, hard-working artists like Kitt and successful media people like Byrne cannot afford to live in Dublin, what message does that send out to the thousands of other young people doing more ordinary, less high-profile jobs and who are just trying to get by?

I know people with young families who, through no fault of their own, are now staring into the unknown because they have been given notice by a landlord selling up – the latest tawdry footnote in a tale of property madness that we Irish never seem to learn from.

But it is a global madness this time. Rental prices in Dublin have hit a record high of €1,875 per month, according to the latest figures from Daft, catching up on cities like San Francisco ($3,664), New York ($2,854), Paris ($2,483) and London ($2,410).

Last year, we reported how recruitment agencies like Prosperity are finding fewer overseas workers willing to relocate to Dublin because they are hearing about the cost of rent and living. In a recent report, Growing Great Teams in Ireland: The Role of the Residential Rental Sector, which was co-written with Ronan Lyons of Trinity College Dublin, the American Chamber of Commerce warned that the availability of quality and affordable accommodation is having a direct impact on the hiring of talent. Some companies like the Web Summit are giving workers extra cash so they can live closer to the office rather than commute.

The danger is that this could become a self-fulfilling prophecy down the line. We are sacrificing tomorrow’s growth for the low hanging fruit of today.

A city needs its people; all kinds of people. Start-ups need cities that are affordable, and entrepreneurs need to be able to make their dimes stretch. And tech giants need communities of start-ups to challenge them and forge their future leaders. Those tech firms creating jobs will be attracted to vibrant places where young people can start companies and afford to educate and upskill themselves, enabling businesses to acqui-hire technology and people.

The Government and Ireland’s planners need to get to work and ensure that our cities can grow in a balanced way without haemorrhaging or alienating good people. We need teachers and nurses as well as software engineers and computer scientists. We need to preserve, not destroy.

Without the people, all kinds of people, there will be no citadels of innovation. And people need a place to live.

Google’s new development under construction at the old Bolands Mill site fronting onto Grand Canal Dock. Image: Noel Bennett/Shutterstock

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years