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Living on Ryanair road: Would you really want your boss to be your landlord?

The company town is returning as a pragmatic response to the housing crisis. But does anyone love their job so much they want to move in with it?

A few years ago, when I was working for a tech company in California, a colleague and I contrived some wheeze that got us an invitation to spend the day at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters. In Silicon Valley speak we were there on an information-gathering mission to explore potential synergies. Decoded, we were on a lig.

Facebook’s headquarters is famous as a kind of Disneyland for grown-up tech nerds. Hacker Way, its version of Main Street, is home to a vintage gaming arcade, a vast woodworking shop and an old school ice cream parlour where they serve things like blackberry blueberry hibiscus compote. The Facebooker appointed to usher us around campus and make sure we didn’t steal anything pointed out the planned site for new co-worker apartments. Staff apartments, he repeated, before breaking character for a moment. “It’s all a bit ... The Circle,” he said of the darkly satirical Dave Eggers novel, set in a Silicon Valley tech company whose workers are encouraged to give their entire selves to the company and embrace “the ever-present daylight” of total transparency.

Standing there in the ever-present daylight of the Bay area, a place where work-life integration isn’t so much a corporate buzzphrase as a non-negotiable part of your contract, the notion that anyone would want to live in property owned by their employer was baffling.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have been: the first house I owned was in Iveagh Gardens, a picturesque estate of 136 houses in Crumlin, built by Edward Cecil Guinness between 1926 and 1936. By the time the estate was completed at a cost of £134,000 (around €12.3m today) 637 people lived there, paying rent of between up to 21 shillings per week (about €90 today). The Iveagh Trust also built sports grounds adjacent to the estate. It wasn’t just for Guinness workers, it was part of a utopian dream to create a philanthropic housing trust that would improve life in the inner city and create communities. For a while it does seem to have been a bit like that. By the 1970s, due to rent controls and the cost of upgrading its city centre flats, the Iveagh Trust was struggling financially, and the houses were sold off to the occupiers. But even by the early 2000s, when we moved in, there was still a close community feel. As a social experiment, it was a success.


Now, company towns are coming back. This time they’re not so much a utopian fantasy as a pragmatic response to a housing crisis which has become a staffing crisis.

This week the Business Post reported that Ryanair has bulk bought most of an estate – 25 houses out of a total of 28 – in Swords, Co Dublin, where it has now acquired a total of 40 homes. The airline said it planned to provide high quality, affordable rental homes to staff in their first year of employment.

Last year the Merrion Hotel announced that it would be building staff quarters around the corner from its Dublin 2 premises. Powerscourt Hotel is building 56-bedroom staff accommodation in Enniskerry. An unnamed Dublin professional services firm is reported to have bought 20 staff apartments in Cherrywood. Last summer Chambers Ireland told an Oireachtas committee that multinationals were considering buying out entire housing estates for workers.

This may be good news for the staff, but it shouldn’t be mistaken as good for society. “It may be the best option for many, just as a benevolent dictatorship can be okay for as long as the benevolence lasts,” Hardy Green, author of The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills hat Shaped the American Economy, told the New York Times.

It’s certainly not great news for the aspiring homeowners who could now find themselves having to compete with vulture funds, property investors and billion euro tech companies snapping up entire housing estates.

There are also questions about whether it’s wise for workers to so completely blur the lines between their work life and their home life. What happens if you don’t want to work there any more, or if your boss/landlord decides it’s not working out? Could you lose your home as well as your job?

If the US offers a glimpse of the future then corporate towns are coming. Elon Musk has said he wants to build one in Austin Texas for workers at his Space X and Boring companies. Google recently got permission to build 7,000 homes in Mountain View. Those apartments I heard about in Menlo Park have since morphed into Willow Village, a whole separate residential village of 1,730 units – 300 of which will be “affordable” with a hotel, supermarket and town square.

Here Google plans to open Bolands Mills later this year as a community hub, arts and retail space. The development includes 46 apartments which will, it has been reported, be offered at reduced rent to teachers and nurses rather than to Google’s own staff. This seems like a smart way for the tech giant to dip its toe into the housing market without the social media storm that followed Ryanair’s announcement.

Having Google as your landlord would be one thing; imagine renting from Ryanair. What would happen if you fell out with a company which takes a notoriously tough line on industrial disputes? Does “one bus stop from Dublin airport” actually mean your new pad is in “Dublin-Hahn, Co. Monaghan”?

Would you be charged extra for a seat on the sofa or woken up in the middle of the night by someone knocking loudly on your door, offering you the chance to buy scratch cards or discount perfume? And the biggest question of all: does anybody love their job so much they want to move in with it?