System needed to track vacant properties to increase housing supply, conference hears

‘There are owners that for some reason just aren’t motivated to bring properties back into use’

22/10/2013 NEWS/ FEATURES Begging story
A young woman  with a paper cup waiting for  spare change in Dublin.
Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

A reliable system to track the exact number of properties lying vacant across the State is required to help increase housing supply, a conference has heard.

With ever-mounting pressures on services and a lack of private rented accommodation, the Simon Community’s Ending Homelessness conference heard efforts to make use of empty buildings are falling short.

The 2022 Census recorded 166,752 vacant homes, down 9 per cent on 2016, while the number of unoccupied holiday homes has increased from 62,148 to 66,135.

Revenue data shows 57,206 self-reported vacant properties, and the GeoDirectory for the second quarter of 2022 classified 86,708 as being vacant throughout Ireland.

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“They can’t all be wrong but we do need to know [precise numbers],” said Tom Gilligan, founder of Vacant Homes Ireland, a crowd-sourcing website that allows members of the public to log unused real estate.

“It’s not like they are hidden away, they are there in plain view. We need to agree a methodology around this ... a national robust database that does give us a definitive figure.”

Mr Gilligan, who is also director of services at Mayo County Council, criticised an apparent lack of ambition in the Government’s repair and leasing scheme, noting targets of just 120 units in 2022.

“There are owners that for some reason just aren’t motivated to bring properties back into use,” he said. “At a time when we have such a substantial housing crisis, it’s wrong and it’s immoral.”

Ali Harvey, a planning and development officer at the Heritage Council who has been working on a system to evaluate and develop town centres, said vacancy rates in the Republic were often far higher than elsewhere in Europe.

In the Netherlands and Denmark, she said, action was taken when urban vacancy reached levels of about 12 per cent.

“Alarm bells didn’t go off in Ireland when we hit 11 per cent, 12 per cent. Hence why I’m working with towns that are [now] at 24 per cent, 31 per cent,” she said.

“The Danish knew and the Dutch know what the figure is meant to be. So why isn’t there a discussion at a policy level in this country that we should have never got above 11 per cent?”

Economic factors

The discussion around the need to closely monitor and address vacancy rates was set against a backdrop of homeless services attempting to cope with demand in the depth of a housing crisis, exacerbated by inflation and other economic factors.

Noel Daly, chief executive of the NorthWest Simon Community, covering a population of more than 271,000 people, said in some cases people are left with no choice but to remain in accommodation where abuse may be taking place.

“The local authorities’ best offer at the moment is go back to where you came from because we don’t have a bed [available],” he said.

“There is a rationality about it because the number of hostel beds in the region is very small so they don’t want to put a woman with three children into a hostel that might have five single men with addiction problems.”

In the northwest, the official weekly average of 43.3 homeless people in 2016 had risen to 88 by 2021.

Warning conference attendees of a “very grim, depressing” picture, Sharon Keogh, a senior manager at Dublin Simon, set out data that showed a 28 per cent increase in homelessness in the capital in the last 12 months.

It is increasingly a problem faced by less typical victims — in the first half of 2022, 13 per cent of those seeking emergency accommodation were in employment, compared to 4 per cent last year.

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times