Vacant properties ‘not silver bullet’ to housing crisis, expert warns

Preliminary data from Census 2022 shows number of vacant dwellings in State stands at 166,752

While census enumerators captured some of the reasons for properties being vacant, mostly through local information, the data cannot be relied on to give a meaningful insight into the scale of unused homes, argues Dr Cian O’Callaghan Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Vacant properties are not the “silver bullet or low hanging fruit” much vaunted as a solution to the housing crisis, despite official figures showing almost 170,000 of them in Ireland, a leading expert has warned.

Using preliminary data from Census 2022, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) has put the number of vacant dwellings, excluding holiday homes, at 166,752 — almost 8 per cent of all houses in the State.

Dr Cian O’Callaghan, assistant professor of urban geography at Trinity College Dublin, cautioned that the figures only disclose a property being vacant on the night the census was taken — April 3rd.

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Properties may be newly-built, between short-term lets, tied up in probate legalities or awaiting planning permission.

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Historically owners who go to live in nursing homes under the Fair Deal scheme were also disincentivised to sell or rent their house, although changes have been made to the system.

While census enumerators captured some of the reasons for properties being vacant, mostly through local information, the data cannot be relied on to give a meaningful insight into the scale of unused homes, argues Dr O’Callaghan.

However, a breakdown showing 48,387 of the total were also vacant in 2016 and 23,483 empty in 2011, may give an indication of what long-term unoccupied houses may be suitable to help resolve the housing crisis, he said.

Even then, suggestions that they could be a panacea for homelessness “have not been borne out” over recent years.

“In reality, where local authorities have tried to identify houses that could be quickly turned around for reuse, they have come up against a number of challenges,” he said.

“The vacancy may not be what they think it is, in terms of its condition, or refurbishment costs could end up more than the cost of a new-build.

“That is not to suggest there hasn’t been some success. The likes of the Peter McVerry Trust have been quite successful. But overall the level of units brought back into use has not matched expectations of a silver bullet or low hanging fruit.”

‘Role to play’

While a proportion of even long-term vacant houses could be used to alleviate the housing crisis there are “a number of ways in which it might not be as simple a solution as people often make out,” said Dr O’Callaghan.

“Geographical variations is one. Areas where there are the highest numbers are also where there is less housing demand. They are skewed towards the midlands and the west. The numbers are lower in major cities.”

Starting out his extensive research into Ireland’s housing crisis several years ago, the academic said his “sense going into it was the amount of vacancies would make quite a dent and difference” if brought back into residential use.

“I’ve probably changed my mind over the last couple of years,” he said.

“Vacancy has a role to play. But just in terms of the scale of our housing needs, the demand coming down the line is just too high. A bigger set of policy shifts is required to address the problem.”

Nonetheless, Dr O’Callaghan believes regulations and tax disincentives for people holding on to properties would be helpful.

Better data and categorisation of vacant properties would also assist authorities. Short-term lets, for example, would need to be targeted in a different way to a house that was suitable for being compulsorily purchased by a local authority.

“It is notoriously hard to capture the scale of vacant houses, and whether they are empty short-term or long-term” he said.

“Dublin City Council carried out a study in 2016 and they found properties they assumed were vacant but which were occupied and vice versa. There needs to be more integrated and more useful data.”

One suggestion is linking information from utility companies — which show properties not using water or power — with the Eircode system to identify individual houses which are not being used. But even then, it would take people on the ground to determine the reasons they are empty.

Housing policy analyst Dr Lorcan Sirr of Technological University Dublin also pointed out that not all of the houses identified as vacant in the census would “be available necessarily on a long-term basis”. However, he believed “a large amount of them will”.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland, he described the Government’s vacant property policy as “a blind spot” and pointed out that only three local authorities in the country had full time officers dealing with vacant properties.

Brian Hutton

Brian Hutton is a freelance journalist and Irish Times contributor