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‘I felt it didn’t make sense to pay more for a property in Ballina than in Rotterdam’

When architect Kevin Loftus returned to Mayo to work remotely, he was shocked by the high rents – a problem that is common in rural towns

It never dawned on Kevin Loftus that, when he returned to live in his native Co Mayo at the age of 30 in June 2021, he would have a problem finding somewhere to live. But the architect and co-founder of Ballina Green Town found himself, after 14 years studying and working around the world, part of the stuck-at-home generation.

“It was a good experience coming back,” insisted Loftus, who found himself part of a wave of contemporaries returning from Dublin and abroad, spurred on by the opportunities posed by remote working and a pandemic-related re-evaluation of their lifestyles.

“A lot of my friends were moving back as well,” said the founder of ACT (Accelerating Change Together), a group of interested parties whose professional focus is on making the built environment more sustainable.

Delighted at all the positive community initiatives in Ballina aimed at making the place more attractive and sustainable, he was taken aback at the lack of rental options available, especially for single people. He was also shocked at how high the rents were, having been used to paying €400 a month for a studio apartment in Rotterdam.


“I felt it didn’t make sense to pay more for a property in Ballina than in Rotterdam, a second city, and a very busy place.”

Any housing units for single people in Ballina cost from €600 to €700 but they were hard to find, and Loftus found himself back with his parents “falling back into the family dynamic of when I was 18″, but feeling lucky to have that option. Now he is living in a shared apartment, happy to have a rent reasonable by Ballina standards but considerably more than Rotterdam rates, and knowing that his chances of buying a home are almost zero, so limited is the available stock.

Many of the old schoolfriends who, like him, came home in the wake of lockdown have already left, driven out, he says, by the accommodation crisis.

Other people with no ties to the town who were attracted “during the Covid period” by rents, which were considerably cheaper than Dublin and other cities, have also packed their bags.

“They were working remotely and it made sense to be in the countryside, but because the rents here have jumped so much they cannot justify staying.”

A standard three-bedroom semi in the likes of Boyle has gone up to €230,000 or €240,000, where they were €160,000 or €165,000 18 months ago

—  Mike Smith - estate agent

At the moment, according to Loftus, a one-bed apartment is available to rent in the area for just under €900 a month. “It is scandalous,” he said.

Last week, estate agent Sherry FitzGerald published research highlighting once again the “severe shortage” of available housing nationally, but drawing particular attention to the dire situation in western rural counties. Housing stock has decreased by over 55 per cent over four years in counties like Roscommon, Mayo, Sligo, Kerry, and Westmeath, according to the latest analysis.

Estate agent Mike Smith, based in Boyle, Co Roscommon, wasn’t surprised at the figure.

“There is no building or very little going on at the moment. It is basic economics – supply is low and demand is high,” he said. This has translated into a sharp rise in prices.

“A standard three-bedroom semi in the likes of Boyle has gone up to €230,000 or €240,000, where they were €160,000 or €165,000 18 months ago,” said Smith.

He said standard bungalows in the countryside on an acre or half an acre “can go from €250,000 to €300,000 plus now, where they would have been €150,000 to €160,000″ a few years ago.

So few are the options for those wanting to rent or buy that his company now has about 100 people on the waiting list hoping for a call back, but most will be disappointed.

“If you put something online to rent you would have 50 to 60 replies overnight,” said Smith. “We get excited now when we get properties for sale, rather than when we sell.”

Brian Nerney, owner of the Spool Factory, a co-working hub in Boyle, has a bird’s-eye view of the lack of housing stock locally. Many of his clients are relatively new companies with attractive career options available, but who cannot find accommodation for potential employees.

“We would be of the view that there is not a housing problem in that there are a number of vacant properties which are not being utilised,” said Nerney.

“Yes we would love to see more three-bed semis and new apartments but there are a large number of vacant properties in the town centre which is frustrating.”

In 2018, Boyle was one of six towns nationwide awarded €100,000 under the town and village pilot residential occupancy scheme which was designed to encourage town centre living while addressing the issue of vacant properties.

“Nothing has happened since,” said Nerney, who estimates there are 30 empty buildings in Boyle.

In his analysis of “the housing catastrophe”, Dr Rory Hearne from Maynooth University last year told the British-Irish parliamentary assembly inquiry on rural housing that an increase in short-stay accommodation in rural counties was one factor in the crisis.

Kevin Loftus agrees. “There are 56 places in Ballina on Airbnb today and only two places for long-term rent. If you had 56 places available tomorrow morning for people to live in, that would have a huge impact in a town of 10,000. That would be a new housing estate,” he said.

He shares Brian Nerney’s frustration at the vacant properties issue, estimating that in Ballina, there are about 100 within walking distance of the town centre. “The amount of vacancy we have in Ballina, considering the demand, is shocking,” he said.

The architect, who is with other locals on a mission to make Ballina Ireland’s greenest town, said that some town centre houses are empty because long-term residents have moved into care homes while in other cases “there is a dispute about ownership”.

He also believes that, during the boom, many people with no ties to Ballina or Mayo bought up some of these properties as an investment and are happy to leave them sitting there as long as property prices keep rising.

“If your investment keeps rising you don’t cash it in,” he said. “They don’t have the interest, or maybe the time, to come and do them up to rent out. And the vacant home tax is so low it is laughable. It is toothless and as long as the value of property keeps rising it is not an incentive to owners to address this issue”.

He also points out that Mayo County Council is the owner of some properties on Pearse Street, Ballina’s main street, which were acquired under compulsory purchase orders for a planned extension to a car park that never went ahead. A spokeswoman for the council said it was examining its options for this part of Ballina, including the housing units on Pearse Street as part of a town regeneration plan.

Mayo GP and former Independent TD Jerry Cowley believes some positive things are happening.

As he drives around, he sees evidence of people taking up the Vacant Property Refurbishment Grant which is worth €70,000 for derelict buildings. “I do see evidence that houses are being done up,” he said.

Mr Cowley, who is the driving force behind St Brendan’s village in Mulranny which provides a range of accommodation options for older people, said a new development comprising 16 social housing units is under construction there by the county council.

And he has had talks to the local authority on plans for 24 more housing units for older people in his village.

“Mulranny is bucking the trend but it is because of co-operation and us all working together. That can move mountains. We need to be doing an awful lot more all over Mayo and all over Ireland”.

Mayo County Council said it was progressing multiple social housing schemes around the county with plans for a new 50-unit project in Westport as well as 22 units in Castlebar, 21 in Kiltimagh and 16 in Mulranny.

“All of these developments are either finished or well under way as part of the council’s commitment under Housing for All,” said the spokeswoman.

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