Activists and experts have called on the Government to introduce measures to help lower the vacant property rate
Over the weekend, it was widely reported that an estimated 230,000 homes lie vacant across the country.
The figures were published in a Housing Agency report submitted to the Dáil’s ongoing Housing & Homelessness Committee. The Housing Agency estimates that €1.3 billion is needed over the next four years to fund a social housing programme with 13,500 new homes.
Separately, the latest figures on homelessness have shown that the number of homeless families passed 1,000 for the first time - with Fr Peter McVerry declaring the crisis a national emergency.
How exactly are vacant properties spread across the country - and could they be utilised to help alleviate the housing crisis?
The most detailed statistics available on vacant properties in Ireland are from the 2011 census, although more up-to-date figures will be available once the recent 2016 census data is compiled and published later this year.
The figures in the recent Housing Agency report are based on the 2011 numbers, but exclude holiday homes. They indicate that there are 230,056 unoccupied homes across the country: 73% of the homes are houses, while the remaining ones are flats.
The highest vacancy rate is in Leitrim, where nearly a quarter (24.3%) of homes were recorded as vacant. The Housing Agency highlights that the “issue of vacancy is particularly acute in the Upper Shannon area and the West”.
You can interact with the map below for a full breakdown of the vacancy rates and number of vacant properties around the country.
In their report, the Housing Agency notes: “A certain level of vacant properties is normal in a healthy housing market, with houses often vacant for short periods when being renovated, changing ownership or between tenancies. Long-term vacant housing, however, can have a negative impact on local communities”.
The agency says that as well as reducing the supply of homes in ‘areas of need’, long-term vacancies represent “a waste of the overall housing resource”.
Sinn Féin’s housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin points out that there are 5,000 homes vacant across South Dublin alone. Deputy Ó Broin observes: ‘The Housing Agency recommends a range of measures to incentivise and force owners to bring these units back into use. These include refurbishment grants, compulsory purchase orders and a vacant property tax. All of these options must be explored”.
Compulsory purchase orders or CPOs have been highlighted as one potential way for local authorities to buy up some of the long-term vacant properties in order to help alleviate the housing crisis.
Deputy Ó Broin points out: “South Dublin County Council is already using compulsory acquisition powers to bring some vacant sites back into use. However the Minister for Housing must make more funding available to the Council to allow them to acquire a greater number of these units.”
Edmund Honohan, Master of the High Court, told the special Dáil housing committee that a solution to the crisis could be the use of compulsory purchase orders for the immediate seizure of vacant properties.
A pilot scheme is already underway in Co Louth that gives an indication of how local authorities could implement CPOs on vacant dwellings, as well as the sort of costs involved.
The Dundalk Democrat reports that funding of €3.1 million has been allocated to be spent on 20 vacant properties around Dundalk. Louth County Council’s Joe McGuinness told the paper that the Council has also been granted funding to acquire 12 privately-owned dwellings in Drogheda for refurbishment and use as social housing, and that the process has already begun.
The pilot scheme highlights that the cost of buying the land or property is only one expense: vacant properties will often require significant refurbishment or maintenance before they become habitable again. In such cases, refurbishment grants rather than CPOs may encourage owners to improve their vacant properties in order to then lease them to local authorities for social housing purposes.
As well as incentives such as grants, it has also been proposed that property owners could be penalised for leaving homes empty. The Housing Agency cites France as an example of a country with a Vacant Property Tax to discourage owners from leaving dwellings unoccupied. The rate of tax is based on the rental value of the property - a rate of 12.5% for the first tax year and 25% for each following year. The tax applies to properties left vacant for more than a year, and in areas with more than 50,000 inhabitants.
The Government here has already announced plans to introduce a vacant site levy from 2018. Under the proposals, the levy will be 3% of the market value of the site as determined by local authorities, who will also maintain a register of vacant properties. It is hoped the levy will encourage owners to use their sites for housing purposes.
A portion of vacant properties are also located in so-called ‘ghost estates’ or unfinished developments. In a Housing Agency and Environment Department report published in December, the findings showed that 668 developments around the country were still considered ‘unfinished’ - although this number had decreased by 76.5% compared to 2011 figures.
19,118 dwellings are said to be ‘complete and occupied’ within those developments, with 2,542 dwellings ‘complete and vacant’.
However, any isolated or unfilled estates would require robust community and business resources nearby to support any people & families who move in, from shops to schools and public transport.
Making use of vacant properties would only be one part of any complex solution to the housing crisis. While costings are estimates at this stage, it could prove to be an expensive measure also, due to CPOs and refurbishment grants. Entire regions will need major investment to ensure people who move into any vacant properties will be able to get jobs, access services and enjoy a high quality of life.
However, with tens of thousands of vacant properties around the country likely available to help alleviate the crisis, potential solutions to the high vacancy rates will almost certainly be something addressed in the Government’s upcoming ‘action plan’ on housing.