Sorting the housing crisis has become a little like solving the famous mathematical problem, Fermat’s Last Theorem: complex; complicated, and one that has proved nearly impossible to solve.
In November 2014, the then housing minister Alan Kelly announced a €3.8 billion plan to build 35,000 new social housing homes by the end of 2018. Less than two years later, Simon Coveney came up with an even more ambitious plan to provide 47,000 social housing units under his Rebuilding Ireland plan. It had a budget of €5.5 billion.
A year later, Eoghan Murphy took over and essentially tore up the plan, ditched the title, and came up with a series of less headline-catching initiatives, albeit with the same high ambitions.
What united all the three plans was that they failed (abysmally so, in some cases) to meet their targets. Homeless figures refused to fall, rents continued to head skywards, and the gap between supply and demand in the housing market remained yawning.
Now, almost eight-and-a-half years later, solutions seem as elusive as ever. A few of the schemes have worked; some have flopped, but have trod water, struggling to crank up to anywhere near scale.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been candid about the challenges in recent weeks, admitting to Fine Gael colleagues that the State is short of 250,000 homes and that it would take years to provide them.
Nor did he put a gloss on the situation during Leaders’ Question in the Dáil last week. “We have a lot of very good schemes at the moment such as buy and renew, repair and lease and Croí Cónaithe, but at the moment, it looks like those schemes are going to bring hundreds of homes back into use every year and it should be thousands.”
Every town and village and city across this country has vacant properties above shops – if we get the policy right, I think we can free up a lot of them
Where to start? The Government’s Housing for All plan, championed by Darragh O’Brien, is a high-stakes game both for him and for Fianna Fáil if it is to come out of its time in government in any way intact. He must appreciably ease the pressure.
Housing For All pledges 300,000 new homes by 2030, or 33,000 per annum backed by a €4 billion a year budget. Of the 33,000 annual production, 6,000 are to be affordable homes; 10,000 social homes, and 2,000 cost rental homes.
A myriad of agencies are involved: central Government, the 31 local authorities, Approved Housing Bodies, the Land Development Agencies, NGOs), with hundreds of planning, procurement and funding issues to be solved. In other words, it’s a bit like building a plane while you are flying it.
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A good example of that was the eviction ban. The Government opposed the measure until last autumn, when it was confronted by stark figures showing the number of small landlords selling up.
Eviction notices shot up 47 per cent between the first and second quarter of 2022 from 1,132 to 1,666. A Cabinet memo in October showed that 2,273 would be evicted during the winter if a ban was not put in place.
The Government has argued that the ban was always to be temporary, and that if it retained the ban, it would lead to a greater problem down the line. But, it had no choice other than to admit that ending the ban now will increase the number of homeless families.
The LDA is currently at hundreds (in planning), but not at the 2,000 per year we will need. I would like to see its output double
The number of homeless is now at an all-time high of 11,500. With the pressures caused by Ukrainian refugees and people seeking international protection, there is a lack of accommodation for anyone who becomes homeless when the eviction ban ends.
During the eviction ban, the focus turned on the tenant-in-situ house purchase programme, which has been in place for some time, albeit at a very modest level. Pushed by Fianna Fáil senator Mary Fitzpatrick, its annual target of 200 purchases was increased to 1,500.
These will be purchased by local authorities at market rates from landlords departing the rental business. It’s another lofty target – only time will tell if it can be achieved.
There are solutions which, on the face of it, seem attractive and compelling. At the tail end of 2014, Alan Kelly was talking about repurposing vacant homes. Nearly a decade later, policy-makers are still talking about it. There has been an eternal debate over how many vacant homes there actually are. The figures from the 2022 Census suggest 166,700 homes lying idle around the State.
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But Steven Matthews, chair of the Oireachtas Housing Committee and a Green Party TD, says it is “simplistic” to say they are all vacant. The CSO figures show that 13,000 or so are abandoned farmhouses, another 13,000 or so belong to people in nursing homes and hospitals, 27,000 were owned by people who have died, and 23,000 are being renovated. In other words, many of those would simply not be available.
“The local property tax records show 57,000 vacant properties,” says Matthews. “The real figure is probably in between that and the Census figures.”
But even if there are 100,000 or more vacant units, returning them back to habitable homes can be problematic. A seemingly obvious solution would be to restore units located over shops throughout the country. Indeed, O’Brien himself was enthusiastic about the idea in 2021, while cognisant of the difficulties.
He said in an interview: “Every town and village and city across this country has vacant properties above shops – if we get the policy right, I think we can free up a lot of them. I’m looking at some quite radical measures in that space.
“As it currently stands, if someone wants to convert above a shop, they need a whole heap of money, and it becomes financially unviable. I would love to see more people living in our inner cities and in our towns.”
The local property tax records show 57,000 vacant properties. The real figure is probably in between that and the Census figures
And that’s why the take-up has been so low. It takes a “whole heap of money” to convert them for modern living. Fire regulations are tough in relation to access, egress and accessibility. Getting planning and works done is costly and time-consuming.
The other schemes to free up vacant homes have been a mixed bag. There has been strong take-up of the repair-and-lease scheme (worth €60,000 in grants) in Waterford particularly. Limerick and Louth have been to the fore in the buy-and-renew schemes. But many of the 31 local authorities have not been proactive in pushing those schemes. As experience has shown, establishing ownership of a house, waiting for probate to be completed, or carrying out a compulsory purchase order can be arduously slow processes and very costly.
Eoin Ó Broin, the Sinn Féin housing spokesman, has said that one of the problems was a one-size-fits-all solution was applied. He said repair-and-lease worked well in Waterford, where some of the city home prices were low and there were higher rates of vacancy. Vacancy rates in Dublin, are much lower.
Other initiatives take time. A new Bill is being drafted to oblige home owners to register short-term lets. It is being led by Minister for Tourism Catherine Martin, and the Government forecasts that some 12,000 properties could return to the traditional long-term rental market as a result. The difficulty is: when? Given the glacial pace of legislation, it could be the end of this year by the time the Bill is enacted, and 2024 by the time it is commenced.
O’Brien is definitely making progress on meeting the targets of new homes being constructed, after his predecessors were wide of the mark. The CSO reported that 29,851 new homes were constructed in 2022, a 45 per cent increase on 2021. A total of 38,000 first-time buyers availed of the Help to Buy grant (worth up to €30,000) from its inception in 2016 to December 2022.
However, the Government admitted that it did not meet its target of 9,000 social homes, and that it fell short of its targets for affordable homes and cost rental. Take-up has been low so far (because of lack of supply) for shared equity schemes, and for local authority affordable purchase schemes, where the authority can retain a stake of up to 30 per cent in the home.
There is a general sense that while the intention is admirable, the Draft Planning and Development Bill has been rushed through
The much-touted Land Development Agency (LDA) sold its first cost rental properties in Delgany, Co Wicklow last year. But, disappointingly, for a State agency which wants to build houses on State land, this batch of homes were bought from a private developer Cairns homes. The LDA has huge land banks, and its target is to build 15,000 homes by 2030. But the first development, in Shanganagh in south Co Dublin, won’t be ready until 2024.
Matthews feels the LDA has been slow to get off the ground. “It is currently at hundreds (in planning) but not at the 2,000 per year we will need. I would like to see its output double,” he said.
And for every solution, there’s a drawback. The Minister’s ambitious Draft Planning and Development Bill proposes what was envisaged as a new streamlined approach to judicial review, which would prevent large planning applications being bogged down in the courts for years. However, during pre-legislative scrutiny, some stakeholders told the committee the provisions would increase litigation rather than reducing it.
Matthews and Ó Broin, on both sides of the Government divide, agreed that it will have to go back to the drawing board. “There is a general sense that while the intention is admirable, it’s been rushed through,” said Ó Broin. “Those who came into the committee said we need to take more time and see it through.”
For his part, O’Brien has argued that it will be in the latter half of the government that the real progress will be seen. More than halfway through his term, the jury is still out, and the Labour Party has tabled a motion of no confidence in the Government over its housing policies.
The challenge is daunting, almost overwhelming. But not impossible. After all, some 350 years after being formulated in 1637, Fermat’s Last Theorem was finally solved in 1995.