A worthless asset
on 06/10/2012 00:00:00
Stephanie, a restaurant manager and mother-of-two, has grown used to intruders into what was, for four years, the home she shared with her partner, Fiachra Daly, and their son, Oisín. Eighteen months ago their daughter Cerys was born and came home to this place. Split over two floors and 1,100sq ft, it was bought with a mortgage taken out in 2007 worth €298,000, spread over 30 years. For Stephanie it was money well spent. "It was gorgeous," she says of her old home.
Now, it is very different. A year ago tomorrow a Dublin City Fire Brigade chief went to court to secure an order that the apartment complex near Donaghmede in north Dublin be evacuated. During that process the full horror of what lay behind the scenes was laid bare: the bad wiring, the lack of cavity filling, the poor workmanship, all contributing to the hair-raising claim that an entire apartment block could be consumed by flames in between three and five minutes were a serious fire to break out in just one apartment.
And so, everyone left, often leaving possessions, memories, and bits of their lives behind them. The complex has been manned by security staff for the past 12 months, at a cost of almost €640,000. There have been some break-ins, and even though the blocks have, apparently, been cleaned up, there are clear signs of decay and deterioration.
In Stephanie's block, the lift hasn't worked for a long time. On the fourth floor, a two-seater couch has been left in the hallway. Stephanie remembers: "I think what happened was when the electricity was powered off, that was my neighbour's couch and she probably tried to get it down [the stairs] but how was she going to get it down? She probably just said 'to hell with this'."
In the basement, water lies on much of the floor, apparently after coming in through the lifts. You can see walls with cracks and fissures, and an unfinished apartment on the ground floor is an essay in bad wiring and a lack of fire-proofing. It seems everyone who lived in one of the 20 blocks in Priory Hall had some degree of difficulty with their home.
Alison Doyle, a former resident of block 16, adored all 964sq ft of the three-bed duplex apartment she shared with her husband, John. "You should have seen our home. We loved it. We put so much money and time into this. What people forget is we were really happy there."
They bought in 2005 and moved in two years later, having taken out a mortgage of €288,000. Both locals to north Dublin - just like Stephanie and Fiachra - it was a starter home, but one where they fully expected to stay in for some time. "My husband proposed to me there, we brought my child home there," Alison says, referring to her son Seán, who turns two on Wednesday. It is the thought that Seán lived the first year of his life in a building that was unsafe from top to bottom that "horrifies" her.
"The fact that we were allowed to live there, to know we put him at risk," she says. The apartment was on the top two floors - she says "we would never have got out" in the event of a large fire.
Before everything went wrong, they experienced a few problems, such as leaks, "but never anything that bad".
Stephanie and Fiachra, a service engineer, did have some problems. Water leaked in from the window sills, a persistent issue which was never adequately addressed by the builders who'd drop by and dab it with a bit of Tec7. They had to take up the carpet in Oisín's room three times, they had to replace floorboards twice. Even before they had to move out Stephanie describes the chill of realising, again, that the lift wasn't working. She ended up running up the stairs to avoid the "eerie" stillness.
"But once we turned the key in our door we loved it. The views were priceless."
The joy of owning their home outweighed the little niggles.
Others had it worse.
Alison remembers a lady on the ground floor of her block whose windows came off the frames, but while life within her apartment was relatively untroubled, that all ended a year ago. The flight of the Priory Hall residents from their homes was a blur of confusion and upset. Some, such as Stephanie and her family, were put up in the Regency Hotel near Drumcondra. Her daughter Cerys was just six months old at the time, and Oisín thought the hotel-stay was a holiday. That quickly changed when due to a farcical clerical error by Dublin City Council, they had to move out when it transpired the room was doublebooked. They moved to Bewleys Hotel for another two weeks and ultimately to the apartment near Priory Hall where they have spent much of the last year.
Alison, John, and Seán didn't go to the Regency, instead staying with friends. She says the properties offered by the council "were not suitable", adding: "They really weren't very helpful at all."
Alison recalls ringing the local authority even before the matter went to court - "there were whispers" - and "a young lady said to me we could look at shelters or go on the housing list".
Priory Hall contained 187 apartments, 26 of which are owned by Dublin City Council and seven by St Michael's. A year ago the complex was evacuated of 256 residents, including 87 children.
However, in 2009 the local authority moved the residents out of its apartments - a situation unknown to some of those left behind and a source of anger today. According to Graham Usher, one of the main spokespeople for the Priory Hall residents group, the council did inform residents at the time, but those still living in the complex were led to believe the builder was working to remedy the defects. "The full scale of thedangers did not become apparent until Oct 14, 2011, when the chief fire officer, Donal Casey, stated in the High Court that a fire could spread throughout the entire development in minutes," he says.
"Up to that point the residents did not know the real extent of the dangers."
The growing problem Stephanie, Alison, and others face is the mortgage repayments. Stephanie and John had never been in arrears, and count themselves "lucky" they both work full-time. They stopped paying their monthly payments of €1,585 in January, but with added interest of €1,250 now on top for every month, they owe more than they borrowed. For Alison and John, the capital on the mortgage is now €500 a month more than it was when they bought it. They are renting whereas Stephanie's accommodation is paid for by the council under the terms of a previous High Court ruling, but neither can afford to pay a mortgage and rent in the future, although they may have to.
Some residents came under pressure from lenders, despite their plight, prompting Michael Dowling, an independent mortgage and financial adviser with Abacus Finance, to offer his services for free as conduit between lenders and borrowers. Of the 35 residents he is acting for, most have secured moratoriums on their payments. "What is the point in paying the mortgage?" he asks.
"The asset is worthless and the residents are extremely frustrated that nothing has been done by the city council, the Government, the developer, or the banks. I genuinely believe that there will be a settlement reached [on the mortgage repayments]. The situation was completely outside their control."
Alison also stopped making repayments, but it doesn't come easy. "I pay my credit card bill before it comes in. I'm that kind of person. It's so frightening. If my parents and my grandparents weren't still alive we probably would [emigrate]. We didn't take holidays, we saved so hard. It was meant to be our dream home. The stress is unbelievable."
Stephanie says: "We are being penalised. I hope people don't get the impression that we are just not paying it. The interest is accumulating." She even mentions the 'nuclear option' of declaring bankruptcy, but adds: "I don't want to be forever in debt."
Graham says: "As far as personal insolvency or bankruptcy goes, to be honest, it scares the life out of me. When I read articles about the banks expecting working families to live on the equivalent of the dole while going through insolvency it gives me sleepless nights. Then you've got comments like Alan Shatter's about people having to sell family jewellery to pay back their creditors. I'm just married over a year and the idea that myself and my wife could lose everything, her engagement and wedding ring included, seems an incredibly harsh price to pay for a situation we played no part in creating."
At the end of July, Tom McFeely, the developer behind Priory Hall, was declared a bankrupt, presenting him with a few problems of his own, not least eviction from his house on Ailesbury Rd in Dublin 4. In Stephanie's words McFeely had "previous", and Graham explains that Priory Hall itself was subject to High Court proceedings in Jun 2006, while it was still under construction, following complaints from the health and safety inspector.
However, the culpability for this mess extends beyond McFeely. Alison says: "I don't think much about him. I think he got away with what he was allowed to get away with." For her, the buck stops with Dublin City Council and the people who introduced self-certification.
"They [the council] had ample opportunity to inspect the place and they didn't. They failed at every single opportunity."
Stephanie believes others have questions to answer, including the Department of the Environment and the current and previous governments.
Graham says: "The residents have been completely failed by politicians. Priory Hall occurred because previous governments, who were in the pockets of developers, passed legislation (self-certification) which favoured the builders and offered no protection to home owners. Local authorities received huge sums in levies (€1.7m for Priory Hall) yet again provided no service to the home owner. Had Dublin City Council spent a fraction of that levy on inspections during construction we would not be in the position we're in today."
So what happens now? At a residents meeting this week the final touches were applied to plans for a demonstration next Saturday, Oct 13, to mark the first anniversary of the evacuation order. Beyond that there is only more uncertainty. On the one hand there is a 'resolution process' chaired by Supreme Court judge Justice Joseph Finnegan, the details of which are a closely guarded secret. According to Michael Dowling, "the banks have not participated in this process. There has been engagement from AIB and Permanent TSB but the rest have not". Everyone is also keeping an eye on an upcoming Supreme Court sitting at which Dublin City Council is hoping to overturn the earlier High Court order which made it responsible for rental subvention for the residents affected by the Priory Hall scandal. No one can say what will happen.
Graham says: "Obviously these court proceedings are hanging over the heads of all the residents and is causing significant distress. Dublin City Council's view, which they have made clear to the residents, and have stated numerous times in the High Court, is that they don't believe that they bear any responsibility for the residents, that they went to court as a fire authority and sought an evacuation under S23 of the Fire Safety Act and that evacuating the building was the extent of their responsibility.
"They [the council] had the statutory powers to inspect during construction and chose not to do so. They are the ones who brought the evacuation order and should have had some plan for what would happen next. They clearly didn't."
Stephanie has one possible solution but shoots it down as "dreamland" in the next breath - a vacant Nama property that would be "like for like".
Alison and John have been renting privately for much of the past year. She says: "We are just in a situation that everyone will be in if Dublin City Council win the case. Last year if you had asked me would I still be in this position, I would have cried but I wouldn't have believed you."
She has never returned, not once. "We are in this bubble with life going on around us, friends getting married and having babies and this still keeps coming up. There are very real people's lives caught up in the middle of this. We can't keep going with this level of stress. They have taken a year of my life and they are not going to take any more."
Stephanie has made a number of visits back to her apartment.
"The last time, the pigeons had moved in, and the stench of urine - that was heartbreaking.
"I still have a full day's clearing out to do," she admits, but there is another thing on her to-do list. "I know this sounds strange but I want to clean it. It was always really clean and I want it to be spotless. I don't know why. It's still my apartment, my home, my property. I want people to see it as that, not as a building site or a condemned building."
But that's what it is, home now to tenants - the pigeons and crows - who don't care about the mess.