A Time To Build

Symbolic occupation of city centre Presbytery stirs debate

Eoghan Dalton Reports

Supporters of the occupation of the Presbytery in the City Centre have demanded action from Waterford City & County Council to take action and lessen its reliance on the private sector for building houses. The activists are calling on the Council to build social housing on land banks at Carrickphierish and Kilbarry and to invoke Compulsory Purchase Orders on the thousands of vacant properties in the locality. They are also demanding rent caps be linked to inflation. The empty Presbytery on O’Connell St was occupied by activists from the ‘Take Back The City’ movement on Friday morning. The group, made up of regional housing activists, trade unionists and students, have taken inspiration from similar occupations carried out over recent weeks in Dublin.

Gardaí and Council staff arrived at the premises after noon and were able to gain entry to the building to meet with the occupants inside.
Following this, the activists were allowed to continue in the building until 11.30 the following morning (Saturday), but only the ground floor was deemed safe.
Mary Quigley, from the local authority’s property management section, said there are potential health and safety risks with the upper floors.
The building is leased from the Diocese of Waterford and Lismore to the Council and the ground floor has been used occasionally for arts and cultural workshops. A decision for the long-term use of the building is pending.

Activists, wearing masks of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, pictured at the Presbytery on George's Street, which they occupied on Friday last

Activists, wearing masks of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, pictured at the Presbytery on George's Street, which they occupied on Friday last

The building has a number of spacious rooms, a dilapidated conservatory and includes an installation designed in recent years that stretches from the ground floor to its fourth, reaching up through its centre along the staircases. Activists said on Friday they had a number of passers-by tell them they were unaware of the building before the occupation. Waterford People Before Profit representative, Una Dunphy lent her support to the protest. “Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy issued targets last year, he said Waterford would build 687 new social houses between now and 2021,” she said. “This is a ridiculously low number, but even so only 11 social houses were built last year. There are over 3,000 on the housing list in Waterford and there are over 110 people homeless in Waterford at present.”

She added that there are now over 10,000 people homeless in Ireland, including 3,800 children, while the Department of Housing puts it at just under 9,900. Homeless campaigner Father Peter McVerry said last week that the actual figure is closer to 15,000. “More are in mortgage difficulties and more again are struggling to pay huge rents or living in substandard accommodation. The government have ignored calls from every corner of society to declare a national emergency and address the crisis,” said Ms Dunphy. ‘Take Back The City’ disagreed with comments from Ivan Grimes, the Council’s Director of Housing, who had previously told the News and Star that “the challenge is to get the property market buoyant enough so that new builds will become attractive enough again for developers”. Responding to this, the activists said: “The market is not responding with builds because it is designed to continue to stream profits to the elite few.”

The location of the occupation, O’Connell Street, saw high footfall last weekend for the Harvest Festival, with several food and crafts stalls set up for the event.
Activists said this was a key tactical reason behind choosing the former presbytery building, as they want to raise awareness of a public meeting organised for next Thursday evening, 13th July in the Unite Union Hall, Keyser Street, where they will be joined by some of those who took part in the Dublin occupations.
They are also giving their support to the National Housing and Homeless Coalition’s demo outside the Dáil on October 3rd.

Union of Students of Ireland Vice President Michelle Byrne, who is from Waterford, said the lack of rent caps in Waterford was leading to skyrocketing costs for tenants. She added that her own rent had shot up by 15 percent in the past week. She continued:“Students are massively affected by this too. In the 2016 Census, there was 429 homeless students. Rents have risen since then, student numbers are growing and student accommodation is less available since then. The governments’ student accommodation strategy from July 2017, showed there was an excess demand for over 23,000 beds with 2019 looking at figures of 29,000 excess demand for beds. The situation is getting worse and we need to see more action.”

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