In Ruined Apartments, a Symbol of Ireland's Fall

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DUBLIN -- To visit Graham Usher's dream apartment in Priory Hall, the most notorious of Ireland's ruined ghost developments, is to see what Ireland aspired to be, and what it became instead.

The apartment, bought for $315,000 in early 2006, is now covered by a brick facade that looks as if some giant creature had raked it with its claws before getting bored and wandering off. There is a half-drunk bottle of wine in the kitchen, abandoned last October when officials abruptly declared the complex a fire hazard and gave its inhabitants -- 256 people in 187 apartments -- 48 hours to leave.

Those residents, unable to move back into houses they still have to pay for, have spent nearly a year in legal limbo, high-profile casualties of the corruption and recklessness of the Irish boom in the 2000s.

"Priory Hall embodies the craziness of the decade, where cheap credit led to houses and apartments being thrown up virtually overnight, often in entirely unsuitable areas and, in many cases, without regard to the quality of the housing," said Dearbhail McDonald, legal editor of The Irish Independent and the author of "Bust: How the Courts Exposed the Rotten Heart of the Irish Economy."

If Ireland's rise was one of the most spectacular in Europe, its fall was one of the most precipitous, with a boom in the 1990s leading to a housing bubble in the 2000s that burst spectacularly when the banks fueling it threatened to collapse. In 2008, the government made an emergency decision to guarantee the banks' debts, thus condemning the country to brutal austerity that has left it impoverished and weighed down by debt of its own.

Priory Hall is only the worst example. More than 2,000 developments begun during that period have turned into "ghost estates," unfinished or vacant housing projects with 10 or more units that were meant to create communities but are now quietly rotting. Others, built under a system that allowed developers to "self-certify" -- meaning that they could unilaterally declare, with only minimal government oversight, that their properties complied with building codes -- are now falling apart, even while residents live there.

But Priory Hall stands apart because of the outrageousness of its inhabitants' plight. Temporarily staying in housing provided by the Dublin City Council, its residents are still required to keep up mortgage payments on their deteriorating apartments. Meanwhile, the council, which was ordered by a court to take responsibility for the tenants and has already spent more than $2 million housing them, has gone back to court to avoid paying any more.

A spokesman for the council said he could not comment on a pending court case.

Meanwhile, Priory Hall's developer, Tom McFeely, a former Irish Republican Army hunger striker from Northern Ireland who became a real estate mogul, recently had his $12 million house in Dublin seized after he defaulted on his mortgage. He has been declared bankrupt (against his will), given suspended sentences, fined and repeatedly ordered by a judge to make repairs to Priory Hall, to little avail.

Mr. McFeely has referred to his tenants as "begrudges" and "jumped-up Hitlers." They do not like him much, either: in a confrontation outside court one day this spring, one resident snarled that Mr. McFeely could not even "build a snowman."

Neither Mr. McFeely nor his lawyers responded to e-mail and telephone requests for interviews. But in previous interviews, he has presented himself as a victim of anti-Northern Ireland snobbery and declared that what he did was no different from what every other Irish developer did.

"A lot of the other developers are bad-mouthing me because they think I'm bringing the heat on them," he told The Guardian. Using Northern Irish slang for "informant," he added, "But I'm no tout."

The one thing that no one disputes is how bad things are now at Priory Hall, about as forlorn a place as you could imagine. Waist-high weeds sprout from cracks in the sidewalks. Holes seem to be punched into walls randomly. Ripped-up tarpaulins covering unfinished repair work flap in the breeze. A skittish security guard barks something into a walkie-talkie before warning visitors to beware of the rats.

Back in 2005, his head turned by a glossy brochure and an attractive showroom apartment, Mr. Usher, an accountant who is now 33, put down a deposit before the complex was even built. "That was kind of standard practice back then," he said, leading the way into his apartment, now eerily empty and dank (there is no electricity), with rubble on the porch, a ripped-up bathtub and a large hole over the front door.

In 2007, he moved in, with the complex still under construction and rife with problems. "It was an absolute eyesore," Mr. Usher said, "and we had problems with the plumbing, the heating, the boiler that you wouldn't expect to happen in a new home."

One morning, the family living below woke him up, frantic: water was pouring through the ceiling in their toddler's room. Another resident, Stephanie Meehan, found that all the windows in her duplex apartment had been installed incorrectly and that whenever it rained, the apartment flooded.

Though the place was full of workers, they seemed to be the sort of workers who placed blame for the problems on work done by other people. "The talk about taking shortcuts -- this was one big shortcut," Mr. Usher said. "But we had a large mortgage on the house and nowhere to go."

In 2009, the City Council, which owned 26 of the apartments for low-income tenants, moved its tenants out, saying it had concerns about fire safety. In 2011, the company that had been insuring Priory Hall said it was withdrawing its policy. "There were so many problems -- fire defects, problems with the roof materials, fungus growth -- that nobody would insure us," Mr. Usher said.

That October, the council ordered everyone to evacuate, saying that Mr. McFeely had failed to adhere to fire codes and that Priory Hall was a fire waiting to happen. "It was a Dunkirk-type situation," Mr. Usher said.

In a written response to questions, a spokesman said it was not the council's responsibility to ensure that the complex conformed to fire and building codes.

"The responsibility in Ireland for the safety of new buildings rests with the builder/developer," the spokesman wrote, explaining that developers receive "fire safety certificates" and adding that "if the building is built in accordance with the information filed in the application, then the building will conform with the regulations."

Mr. Usher's bank has not been sympathetic to the fact that he can neither live in nor sell his house, and he is required by law to make good on his mortgage. He does not know what to do.

"We planned to start a family here, and our life's been put on hold," Mr. Usher said. He got back in his car, and the security guard locked the gates behind him. "To be honest, I despise the place at this stage," he said. "It's more a noose around my neck than a home."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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