The pigeons let you know first. They have the slates marked white to signal their ownership. Squatters’ rights. Crossing the road you find a lot more signs. Black plywood behind windows – or what used to be windows. The tree growing out the chimney. Up the lane there’s the jungle that would once have been a lovely long garden. And three abandoned cars look like a science experiment for growing mould and fungus.
But no it’s not an abandoned cottage by a bog in Roscommon. It’s a terraced house fronting on to a busy street that is a main traffic route into Dublin City Centre. Fifteen minutes on foot from the front door will see you at O’Connell Bridge.
A recent chance encounter with a man in his fifties revealed that the pigeons’ house was his childhood home. He said it was twenty years since anyone had lived there. The current owner was a relative so I asked if anyone had been in touch with them about the dereliction. “No one,” he said, “no contact, ever.”
How come? Why does a prominent house on a busy city centre street lie obviously derelict for so many years with no one taking action? The house is a raw wound on the street. It looks ugly. It lowers the value of neighbouring houses. It deprives the street community of neighbours and it deprives a family of a place to live and call home. All because no one takes action.
a raw wound on the street
Now some properties aren’t registered with authorities and it’s hard to find an owner. Not this one. Ten minutes with the good folk in the nearby Registry of Deeds yields the owner’s name and address. €4 is the total cost of that piece of ace detective work. They don’t even ask your name or why you want to know. It’s public information.
Why does a house become vacant? There are all kinds of personal stories that can lead to that scenario. But why does a house become derelict and remain derelict for decades? Maybe because no one in authority has targeted dereliction as a significant problem. Dublin City Council has a register of derelict properties. The have a good clear description for what qualifies as derelict. The current list has a total of 62 properties – 18 of these are in the city centre area between the canals. 18? This is nonsense. The pigeons know better.
In January 2016 the Council announced it was going to get tough on owners of derelict properties. They have powers both to fine and to compulsorily acquire. A year and a half after the get tough warning the council issued compulsory acquisition orders on 8 of the 62 properties on their list. 4 of those are between the canals. The pigeons’ house is not one of them.
the pigeons know better
A derelict house is a wound on the city’s streetscape. It doesn’t make sense at any level. The council’s approach is the equivalent of a doctor leaving a patient’s wound untreated to see if it will get better. Doing nothing is doing harm.
Imagine a different storyline for this home. Neighbours start noticing signs of decay early on and contact the Council. They have an officer for this scenario who contacts the owner. This meeting leads to the owner receiving advice and an offer of assistance on how to sort the issue. If the owner refuses to act then the Council immediately begins acting moving through fines to eventual compulsory acquisition if need be. The one option that is never considered is leaving things as they are.
Taking a proactive approach creates a win-win situation. The house is vacant for less time and doesn’t decay. The street gets a new set of neighbours. A family gets a home and the owner has a financial gain.
The pigeons recognise what we don’t seem to. A house doesn’t just belong to a person; it belongs to a neighbourhood; it belongs to a city. The way we deal with dereliction should reflect that reality.