herald

Monday 5 December 2016

Terry Prone: Don't knock prefab family home plan until we've tried it

Homeless crisis is deepening. Picture posed
Homeless crisis is deepening. Picture posed

Derelict sites and prefabs.

Say that sentence out loud and try to make it attractive. You can't. It sounds like the kind of grim temporary housing option some British cities faced after the Second World War. Back then Nissan huts were used to house some of the people whose family homes had been destroyed by falling bombs.

Nissan huts were ugly metal tubes nobody in their right mind would want to live in. They were icy in winter and roasting hot in summer. But they served a necessary purpose in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Now, it seems that Dublin City Council is going to update the Nissan hut notion by putting 400 prefabricated houses on derelict sites throughout the city as a way of housing homeless families.

Not only do we have huge numbers of such families, but these numbers are growing quickly. So the view is that 442 families, with 970 children between them, should be housed in these prefabs.

Just as holding an elderly patient on a trolley in a hospital seems outrageous, so does holding entire families in ready-made little boxes on derelict sites. At least at first glance.

But you know something? We're turning into a nation that's addicted to first-glance outrage, and in this particular case, that outrage just might be misplaced.

For starters it may be misplaced because many of those families and children, as you read this, are sitting in hotel rooms.

Going back to first-glance outrage, it wasn't so long ago that the hotel option seemed like a luxury. Sure wouldn't we all love to live in hotels? Short answer: No. Not if we're a married couple with five children ranging in age from a six-month-old baby to a ten-year-old.

nightmare

In that case, trying to manage a family and all their worldly goods, day after day, night after night, within the four walls of a hotel room sounds like a nightmare, and that's precisely what it is.

Yet that's the situation being experienced by the families it's now proposed to move into these prefabs.

Bluntly, the chances are that the new situation will be a hell of a lot better than their current situation. For a number of reasons.

First of all, we need to get over the idea that 'prefab' necessarily means a gerry-rigged box made of glorified cardboard.

Recent years have seen prefabricated dwellings come into fashion in several European countries, notably the Scandinavian nations.

A quantum leap has been made in the design of such homes, a leap greatly aided by new materials which are highly effective and efficient.

A house is not flawed simply because it is fabricated off-site and then transported to where it will be assembled and eventually lived in. These units comply with the new, tougher building regulations.

They can look good and be immeasurably better to live in than a hotel room.

Which is not to say that neighbouring communities will welcome the planting of prefabs on derelict sites close to them, any more than they welcome methadone clinics or halting sites. But now and again the common good requires that noses get put out of joint.

What Dublin City Council is doing is getting real and setting themselves real deadlines. They're not claiming that these houses are ideal. Or permanent. Or a complete solution to the capital's homeless problem.

Nor are they ignorant of the fact that temporary housing has a habit of turning permanent, over time.

They know that homelessness is a multi-faceted problem, wherever it surfaces, and that no city anywhere in the world with a high number of homeless people has come up with a complete solution.

The prefabs are part of wider planning, but - by their nature - they can go into place speedily.

In other words, a child who is just over a year old, and who has spent the first fourteen months of its life in a crowded chaotic hotel room, could very well be living in one of the new units before their second birthday comes along.

That's good news. Limited good news, but good news nonetheless.

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