Una Mullally: housing policy built upon flawed data

Murphy’s main problem is the Government’s abdication from building social housing

The most fundamental aspect of housing policy is asking how many houses we need. In order to figure that out we have to ask how many houses we have. That most fundamental of questions is being asked and answered incorrectly

The most fundamental aspect of housing policy is asking how many houses we need. In order to figure that out we have to ask how many houses we have. That most fundamental of questions is being asked and answered incorrectly

 

How do you think the Government counts how many houses are built in a year? It’s probably not how you think because it’s based on ESB connections and how many homes are connected to the grid. Already you’re probably seeing how problematic that is. How do you account for homes that were built a few years ago yet are just being connected now? How do you account for vacant properties that were refurbished and connected? The answer is you don’t, you just deal with bad figures. 

Government says 14,932 homes were completed in 2016. Now, that doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s better than a kick in the face, and would seem to indicate that we’re on our way to building again and alleviating part of the housing crisis.

The problem is the figures are wrong. If you go by the Goodbody BER house-building tracker, which instead uses Building Energy Ratings certificates for data, 5,377 houses were completed last year. That’s a big drop, right? In fact it shows that the “official” figures coming from Government based on ESB connections are complete nonsense.

But hold on a minute, because that’s not a perfect set of data either, right? Judging how many houses are built based on BER certificates? 

The Building Control Management System is part of local government, and allows property owners, buildings and so on to submit notifications and applications related to building online. It sounds like a better place for the Government to be getting its figures from. Indeed, it is recognised as the most reliable source of data.

Unfortunately for the Government, the Building Control Management System shows that just 2,076 homes were built in 2016.

Estate houses 

Eoin Burke-Kennedy wrote about that last April in this newspaper. Based on figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, when you excluded one-off homes from that 2,076 figure, just 848 estate houses and apartments were built in 2016. The Department of Housing estimated this figure to be 8,729 – 10 times as much. In Dublin city, Burke-Kennedy wrote, 68 scheme homes and apartments were completed in 2016. Just 68. 

The Government’s most basic dataset is a fiction, and yet it is what it is basing its housing policy on.

The most fundamental aspect of housing policy is asking how many houses we need. In order to figure that out we have to ask how many houses we have. That most fundamental of questions is being asked and answered incorrectly.

There are toddlers out there more accurately counting their toys than the Government is able to count homes. 

These 14,932 homes Government insists were built in 2016 – where are they?

Did anyone noticed huge estates being built in their neighbourhoods last year?

Have there been big media events for the launch of massive housing developments, with thousands and thousands of homes for sale, and Morning Ireland pitching up to the queues to voxpop people ready with their deposits?

Have you seen giant apartment blocks open up recently with hundreds of homes in them? No? Strange, right? Because you’d think that with nearly 15,000 homes built last year we’d notice that kind of construction and completion impact at least somewhere.

Switched on the light

Maybe, just maybe, the vast majority of them already existed as homes, and someone just switched on the light, as it were.

These faulty figures make the aspirations for the numbers of homes needed to be built even more ludicrous.

In February of this year David Silk, the policy director of the Housing Agency, said because the number of homes built last year increased by nearly 20 per cent based on the (incorrect) figure of nearly 15,000, we were “going in the right direction”. But what we actually needed was 20,000 to 25,000 new homes each year until 2020. That seems achievable if you’re already building 15,000 a year. Slightly less so if you’re building 2,076, and fewer still if you’ve managed 848 estate houses and apartments. 

One of the main problems for Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy is the continued abdication by Government from building social housing, the most pressing type of housing stock needed.

We also need to assess whether “affordable” plans such as student accommodation, bedsits and communal living developments really are affordable.

Student accommodation developments are delegated to the likes of Global Student Accommodation, charging €1,000 a month or more. Yes, the stock gets built, but it’s completely unaffordable for most people, not surprising when a giant international company is just trying to do what it does – maximise profit.

Murphy’s enthusiasm for talking about various ideas to tackle our multifaceted housing crisis is giving his department a bit of a Willy Wonka reputation, spurting out new ideas and innovations with remarkable regularity.

Policy announcements

It feels as though not a day goes by without some new policy announcement – the return of bedsits, high-rise buildings, communal-living developments, and so on.

But there is no social housing requirement for student accommodation developments. Will it also be the case for the Minister’s communal-living plans, once again relegating those who need housing most to the bottom of the pile?

While policy announcements might sound great we are still lacking a “real” housing plan in this country, especially considering how many of the actions and goals outlined in Rebuilding Ireland are embarrassingly unrealistic, and when the Government’s most basic datasets about housing stock are remarkably flawed.

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