The suggestion by Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien that unwanted or under-utilised office blocks be converted into residential accommodation seems like a simple solution to a complex problem; the shortage of homes in Dublin and other urban areas The obverse is probably closer to the truth, although there is little simple about the housing crisis.
What is clear is that there is an oversupply of office space in Dublin with vacancy rates at between 12 and 15 per cent depending on which report you choose to believe. A cursory glance at the capital’s skyline, still dotted with cranes, indicates that there is plenty more on the way.
Several factors are at play in the office market, some transitory such as the downturn in the tech sector and others more permanent, like the shift towards blended and home working. How many of these vacant buildings are suitable candidates for conversion is an open question, as is the issue of whether it could be done at an economic cost.
In a letter to the Minister for Enterprise,Simon Coveney, seeking to recruit him to his cause, O’Brien suggested that some of the red tape that would hamper conversions could be removed. A working group looking at how this could be done is to report back by the end of the summer.
However, planning exemptions would only solve part of the problem. Modern office buildings tend to have large open plan floor spaces with services such as lifts, stairs and toilets concentrated at their core. Providing kitchens, toilets,windows and balconies would require gutting buildings and possibly replacing their external facades.
It may work in some cases, though it is likely to be costly and not always in the right locations. It might be a more fruitful prospect to repurpose some of the office developments currently under construction. Another lower cost option would be to focus on converting office space into co-living developments or buy-to-let accommodation which might not require the same level of facilities and services as apartments that are intended for long term habitation by families.
But even these options will require both time and money to bring them to the market. The building’s owners and the financial institutions that lend to them may not fancy the idea, or want to foot the bill.
With less than two years to go before the next election it is hard to see Minister O’Brien’s idea having a meaningful impact on the shortage of housing. His proposal smacks of desperation as the Government knows that its Housing For All plan may not be enough to persuade the electorate that it is on top of the housing crisis. But it will take more than eye-catching proposals to convince them otherwise. Housing is now all about delivery - showing voters that homes are being completed and many more are on the way,