The piecemeal plan to fix the housing crisis: what have Darragh O’Brien’s schemes delivered?

The Fianna Fáil Minister for Housing’s political style faces a reckoning with the substance of delivery: his affordable housing initiatives create headlines but are not backed up by volume

Darragh O’Brien usually makes an impression on those who work with him at close quarters. “Do I need to ring people to make sure this actually happens?” he would say, according to one person who worked on policy with the Minister for Housing. He has, in the words of this same source, “extraordinary energy”.

It will be needed: under the Government’s Housing for All Plan, 62,450 housing units are targeted this year and next, before a general election must be held in March 2025, and an average of 33,000 per year to 2030. These figures are themselves likely to be a significant underestimate of the real level of need, but this will be the crudest measure of whether the government’s plan is working.

According to O’Brien, the State can ultimately play a direct role in supporting about half this output.

“You’ll potentially be looking at up to 50 per cent – certainly up to 40 per cent between the various schemes that we have,” he told The Irish Times.


A huge part of that will be social housing, but in the three years since he entered the department, O’Brien has launched a host of schemes aimed at expanding cost rental and affordable purchase.

The approach, a source in O’Brien’s camp says, “has been to let 1,000 flowers bloom”.

The pressure to deliver on these schemes – many of which are ramping up only in the second half of the life of the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael-Green Government Coalition – is growing.

“Darragh O’Brien is constantly in announcement mode, not delivery mode,” comes the charge from Sinn Féin housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin, who says the minister “lurches” from one announcement to the next, creating a “complex web of schemes” without detail or prior consultation.

O’Brien has plenty of supporters in politics and the building trade who are enthusiastic about his plans, saying they are encouraged to build more based on signals from the department. But some can be scathing in private.

“The whole thing is being f**king made up as we go along, no strategising, no business plan at all,” said one builder.

As O’Brien’s political style faces a reckoning with the substance of delivery, what will it all add up to? And what have the sum of the parts of his various cost rental and affordable housing initiatives actually delivered?

Project Tosaigh

Launched in 2021, Project Tosaigh’s aim is for 5,000 cost rental or affordable homes by 2026, targeting private-sector projects where an estimated 70,000 homes are permitted but development has stalled.

Cost rental will be administered through the Land Development Agency (LDA). It has agreed terms for the delivery of around 2,000 homes. However, agreements for forward funding – staged milestones through the construction period – require a separate process that will only commence this month.

Many of the announced homes are suburban or in the commuter belt, rather than central locations: 247 units in Clonsilla in northwest Dublin and 95 in Citywest in Dublin; 95 in Mallow, Co Cork; 92 in Kilbarry in Waterford, and 142 in Delgany, Co Wicklow. That amounts to 671 in all, with more announcements promised. Officials believe these units would not proceed without Project Tosaigh.

The Government has been slow to give a breakdown of how many homes will be delivered every year. The department said the LDA expects to deliver “between 1,000 to 1,250 each year”, but did not give an annualised breakdown. According to the agency, it now has a total pipeline, including those contracted, commercially agreed or under assessment, of 2,750 units.

Project Tosaigh 2.0

The second phase, O’Brien says, will aim to deliver between 4,000 to 5,000 by itself – so on those projections, exceeding the 5,000 targeted overall.

Funding is in place for this year and next, but the housing minister is already making a play for extra funding for this and similar schemes, targeting the State’s projected exchequer surplus.

“When we are looking at further expansion of the LDA in this space, and what one does with regard to the surpluses that are at hand, there’s a real argument to be made for recapitalisation of the LDA to enable it to expand these programmes further, particularly in the area of cost rental, and cost rental at scale,” he says.

It’s thought that the budget of the LDA – some €3.5 billion – could grow to between €7 billion to €8 billion under plans being examined.

The politics are important: delivering and growing cost rental is a key Government commitment, one which all parties have rallied around, while handing the LDA a portfolio of homes covers blushes over how long building on state land – its original mission – takes.

Croí Cónaithe (Cities)

Croí Cónaithe (Cities) targets unactivated planning permissions within cities. The key difference is it aims exclusively to enable purchase by owner-occupiers, offering a subsidy of up to €144,000, designed to bridge the gap between what middle income earners can pay, and what an apartment costs to develop.

There’s a cold political reality underpinning this: “Social housing – they’re not registered and they don’t f**king vote and if they did, they wouldn’t be for Fianna Fáil,” says one backbencher.

The scheme has been criticised by builders, who say the funding for it should be front-loaded during construction instead of when a purchase is made.

Again, the key question is when homes will materialise. Following appraisal of projects submitted by developers, “letters of intent” have issued to 12 builders covering 1,583 apartments. None are on site. O’Brien told The Irish Times that three schemes would be approved by the end of the month and says construction could start “pretty much straight away”.

But the department estimates that apartments under the scheme will be completed in 2025 and 2026, suggesting that if any come on stream pre-election, it won’t be many.

A second phase, which O’Brien says will be open on a rolling basis with no closure date, will open shortly.

First Home Scheme

There were pitched battles between O’Brien and mandarins in early Coalition budget-making over this shared equity scheme. This weekend O’Brien was bullish about the scheme, claiming it will go on longer than the three years for which it was approved.

According to the Department of Housing, 3,556 potential buyers registered their interest in the scheme between last July and the end of March; 1,336 buyers had been approved, and 257 buyers had purchased their home using the scheme. As with many of the other schemes, officials are optimistic but ultimately it remains to be seen how broad take-up will be.

Help to Buy

This is the workhorse scheme addressing the affordable housing gap. The scheme has its critics but the Government loves it, and sees Sinn Féin’s opposition to it as a weak point, telling people on the doorsteps that Sinn Féin wants to axe the €30,000 tax refund. This is likely to land with voters. Almost 40,000 claims have been approved since it was established in 2017.

Local Authority Home Loans

In the first nine months of its operation, 76 loans were paid out totalling €13.5 million, although payments were still being made under the old Rebuilding Ireland Home Loan which preceded it, totalling 368 loans and just under €60 million.

Croí Cónaithe Vacant and Derelict Scheme

There is a second Croí Cónaithe scheme, launched last July and aimed at vacant and derelict property, offering grants of up to €70,000 for bringing a property back into use.

At the end of March, 459 applications had been approved and €24 million is budgeted for the scheme this year, but only a single grant, which, under the scheme, is paid over when work on the property is completed, had been issued at the end of March. The department expects that number to increase.

All told, the above is just a subset of a dizzying array of schemes.

“He’s introduced so many schemes, and lots of them are really good, but the average Joe Soap doesn’t know about them because there’s too many of them and they’re too confusing,” says a Fianna Fáil backbencher.

Such is the scale that officials in the Department of Housing have been told to develop an online portal for users of consumer-facing programmes, due to be rolled out in September, to help them navigate what they might be eligible for.

The Coalition will publicly insist that these are long-term plans, but there will be pressure to deliver a tangible difference before the next election looms into view.

The same backbencher says: “They make great headlines but they’re simply not backed up by volume.”

Officials argue that the state’s stance inspires a general confidence among developers, encouraging them to build. But schemes focused on building will inevitably take longer, with units only becoming available towards the election.

Meanwhile, the Government continues to struggle to spend the money it has allocated to the Department of Housing. Figures shared with the Cabinet this week show the department spent 30 per cent more than last year, but this is still falling short of its own assessment of what needs to be done.

By the end of the first quarter of the year, it had spent €83 million less on capital projects than was budgeted. The department failed to spend more than €1 billion earmarked for housing over the past three years.

O’Brien, for his part, insists there has been a “step change in housing delivery” and a “step change in housing policy”.

“The State is the main actor now and that, in my view, will increase over the next couple of years as long as I’m there,” he says.

But the pressure from the opposition shows no sign of relenting, anchored on the argument that housing policy is spin, not substance.

“If Minister O’Brien focused more on delivery in tackling social and affordable housing need and less on his press profile, we would be in a better position that we are after his three years in office,” says Ó Broin.