Two local authorities did not build any social homes last year, expert says

Low level of direct builds explains lengthy waiting lists, Lorcan Sirr argues

Two local authorities, including Minister for Housing Darragh O'Brien's own Fingal County Council and Taoiseach Micheál Martin's Cork City Council, built no social homes last year despite having big social housing waiting lists, according to housing expert Lorcan Sirr.

At a housing webinar event hosted by homeless charity Simon on Thursday, Dr Sirr produced social housing output figures for 2021, which he and Dublin architect Mel Reynolds had obtained from the Department of Housing.

They show Fingal and Cork City – in terms of direct delivery – built no social homes in 2021, while South Dublin City Council built just two. Fingal, however, acquired 406 new units from approved housing bodies (AHBs), while Cork City and South Dublin acquired 41 and 244 from AHBs.

The figures show “actual new builds” by the four Dublin local authorities last year came to just 175, the lowest level in five years. When AHB builds and turnkeys, those bought from private developers, are added, the four authorities delivered 1,075 additional social units in 2021. The four authorities had a combined social housing waiting list of 25,597 in 2021.

Dr Sirr, a lecturer in housing studies at Technological University Dublin, said the very low level of direct builds by councils explained why waiting lists were so high. He also noted that local authorities were sitting on large tracts of public land, which were ripe for development.

“It’s never clear if it’s a lack of will on the councils’ behalf or if obstacles are in their way via the processes they have to go through with the Department of Housing,” he said.

Red tape

Councils have long complained that the red tape involved in direct delivery made the purchase of turnkey properties from the private sector more achievable.

Dr Sirr also spoke about the State’s housing output more generally and about the number of new homes that are actually sold on the open market.

He said of the 20,433 new homes built last year just 5,698 (28 per cent) made it on to the open market when those purchased by the State, those acquired by build-to-rent investment funds and single, one-off dwellings are removed. This compares with just over 7,000 in 2020.

“So as output [over the last five years] has gone up by close to 50 per cent, the amount of housing coming to the market has gone down by the same amount,” he said.

“This is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. The availability of stock for ordinary people on ordinary wages looking for a house to buy has plummeted,” Dr Sirr said.

He was speaking as Central Statistics Office figures showed housing output jumped to its highest level in a decade but that much of the new stock was apartments destined for the rental market.

Separate figures from the Banking and Payments Federation Ireland pointed to continued growth in mortgage activity, with approvals and drawdowns increasing March. A total of 9,910 new mortgages to the value of €2.5 billion were drawn down by borrowers during the first quarter of 2022, 9 per cent up in volume terms on the same period last year.