The Liberties neighbourhood

Oliver Bond flats in The Liberties of Dublin

In Dublin it was considered the case of a social housing estate in The Liberties, an inner-city area located in the city south-western section. Traditionally an industrial labour-intensive area characterized by a vibrant working class community, local social-support structures and a 30% concentration of social housing, The Liberties has been subjected to various waves of gentrification since the early 1990s. It has been one of the target of the city neoliberal and entrepreneurial urban policies that have instigated the redevelopment and repackaging of the district’s old-fashioned shops, abandoned buildings and lower-grade functions into a powerhouse for creative industries and cultural tourism, presenting the neighborhood as an innovative, exciting, and safe place to be and to invest in. This process has built up new forms of urban imaginaries to appeal to the “usual suspects”: middle-upper class people, particularly to professionals and international students. Such profound and dynamic social, economic and cultural transformations have put considerable displacement pressures on existing working-class households, particularly the most vulnerable that have lived all their lives in social housing or “flats” as they are commonly called in Ireland.

Flat communities in Ireland are usually characterized by:

  • framing narrative: flats as the cause and not the solution to process of socio-economic marginalization and segregation;
  • significant disrepair: due to underinvestment, low quality and building materials and poor
  • hardly any public funding available for new housing;
  • inner city areas where land values and house prices have increased dramatically.

Flats have become enclaves in high-value neighbourhoods, providing affordable housing to those who would otherwise no longer be able to live there. Social housing is becoming one of the last financialization “frontiers” in Dublin, making pressure on vulnerable urban communities in the face of the incumbent commodification of popular areas of the inner city.

City of care was conducted in The Liberties Oliver Bond flats (OB). Built in 1936, the OB complex is one of Ireland’s largest local authority housing estates consisting of sixteen separate blocks of flats and three houses- a total of 394 households built over 2.847 hectares with a current population of about 1,200 people. The establishment of such a large and distinctive city-centre flat complex was a response to the 1932 Irish Housing Act, which placed increased emphasis on slum clearance and, paradoxically enough, with the serious housing and public health issues facing the city at the time. The buildings themselves are monuments to their architect, Herbert Simms, the man who designed them along with 17,000 other social housing units across Dublin between 1923 and 1931. The flat blocks designed by Simms and his team were not just of architectural importance. Their construction helped to retain population at the heart of the city, keeping communities intact and contributing to the continued vibrancy of urban life. This was facilitated by a policy of decanting residents from the slums to the new dwellings, then building further blocks as the remaining slum buildings were cleared. Simms himself preferred central block housing rather than suburban schemes as a solution to large-scale slum clearance.

However, OB has been in desperate need of work for years. The size of households- an average two bedroom flat in the complex is 48sqm compared to a new build standard of 70sqm for a two bed flat- means that a majority of families in the complex are ‘under housed’. The age of the flats and corresponding issues such as dampness and non-dependable services cause fissures in the day to day functionality of households and impact on the physical and mental health, as well as the dignity, of residents. In addition to these OB is chronically underserved by appropriate recreation areas for children and young adults and by appropriate parking, rubbish disposal facilities and shared spaces. The social profiling of the complex is indeed readily evident in the search results that ‘Oliver Bond House’ will return compared to a similar online searches for other housing developments in Dublin. An ongoing cycle of anti-social behaviour, stigmatisation, lowering of morale, and sense of despondency are other key contributory factors to the representation of ‘an estate in decline’ for the OB community, as one of my research participants clearly states:

Because again, as an inner-city social housing complex, they are always described in the media, and scapegoated, and stereotyped, and defined by really negative stories. That's probably one of the many reasons why they are left behind.

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