By Hannah Weir
The Republic of Ireland’s housing situation is the result of decades of overlapping policies acoss construction, land use, tax and infrastructure which was further poisoned by the financial crash of 2008. The North and the wider UK didn’t quite embed so much public and private investment into construction and the housing market, hence the crash fell harder south of the border. The scarring from this rears its head today in the form of rocketing rents, thousands of substandard and derelict properties, as well as an urban infrastructure that has long been highlighted as unfit for modern day living. The fear now, as students and families now struggle to find quality housing in Belfast, is these mistakes have duplicated. Belfast may be hurtling towards the same fate as renewal and regeneration efforts ramp up.
Increasingly in the UK and and Ireland, policymakers have relied on the private market to resolve housing issues. It is widely accepted now that in order to accommodate and acclimate Dublin’s new thriving multinational tech industry, glistening new apartments built in overhauled and renewed parts of the Dublin docklands were erected. It was a deliberate act in cultivating a particular archetype of globalised city which formulates the blueprint for urban renewal in most of the Western world. One prominent thought leader in this space in the last few decades is author Richard Florida. In his flagship book “The Rise of the Creative Class”, Florida argues that cities need to engineer their renewal strategies to cater to the so- called “creative class”- people who work in arts, education, design and technologically advanced sectors. Only in creating the perfect playground for the most educated, creative and high paid individuals in societies, Florida argues, can modern cities thrive.
It’s not difficult to see how the current last few governments of The Republic of Ireland have attempted to model urban regeneration in this highly Americanised fashion. The attempt at branding the docklands “Silicon Docks” after Silicon Valley in California springs to mind as a symbolic change from a marketing perspective and beyond. In terms of actual policy formulation and interpretation, the move away from the Europe wide emergence of a welfare state, the progression into the “third way” and now into what can only be seen as recodified neoliberal urban politics. The reimagining and rebranding of Belfast’s former ship-building district into the glistening new “Titanic Quarter” demonstrates how this copy-pasted global urban renewal strategy caters specifically to tech workers, tourists and international students paying top-level tuition fees. Some of the most expensive, venture capital owned apartments in Dublin have low rates of occupancy for a city with such sharp demands for roofs over heads. Whilst Belfast is yet to have the same level of this particular type of housing, building for a particular class, speculative property projects such Tribeca Belfast as would suggest this is the direction Belfast is already headed in other parts of the city.
Both Dublin and Belfast share a youthful growing population, home to major universities and multiple colleges of further education. The recent squeeze on housing and accommodation availability, has opened doors to alternatives from house-shares in the Holylands and traditional university halls. With plentiful student housing stock and affordable living once the major selling point for Belfast as a student destination for Northern Irish youth and beyond, the trend in ever growing “luxury” ultra convenient student living has made student living a gold mine for highly profitable property development. The same trend is emerging at an even faster rate here in Belfast, with the area surrounding the new Ulster University campus on York Street playing host to four different blocks of purpose-built for profit student accommodation blocks which saw unprecedented demand for this academic year. Queen’s own accommodation crisis where hundreds of students, thought to have been guaranteed accommodation for the year, were offered incentives to give up their spaces, or in other cases, told there was no room for them after all, shows an infrastructure unprepared for what’s to come.
Conditions such as this incredible high demand for accommodation across Belfast is fertile ground for the high-rent yield, low demand and low standard housing crisis Dublin continues to navigate. Purpose-built student accommodation in the south of Ireland goes for around 250 euros a week in high pressure locations, whilst companies such as Student Roost and Liv Student are yet to hit these heights, their prices are already 15-25% more expensive than Elms, for example, depending on location. The worry here stems from the horror stories in the Republic of Ireland of exponentially high rents pricing students from across the country out of the university places they’d worked hard for. Students working multiple jobs whilst studying, four-hour round trip commutes and an overall stunted student experience due to spiralling rents for what is now the fifth most expensive place to rent in Europe. The same patterns of profitability over practicality are creeping across the border.
Northern Ireland has long been overdue for an economic boost. We are a small region with an even smaller private sector, with growth being hindered by the conflicts of the past . With this in mind, it makes sense that a move to copy a city like Dublin and it’s fervent speed of development and investment would be desirable. The real question now, is how much of the fabric of Belfast are we willing to compromise in order to produce an urban centre on par with our neighbours. We can keep building Belfast bigger and brighter, but as ever, clarity is needed on who exactly we are building it for.