Vacant office blocks set to be repurposed for housing to ease accommodation crisis

Minister indicates he would consider making planning exemptions to rules which would apply to repurposing office space as housing


Empty office blocks would be converted into apartments under a Government plan to tackle the housing shortfall as political pressure over the crisis intensifies.

Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien has lobbied his Cabinet colleague Simon Coveney, the Minister for Enterprise, on the issue – seeking his support for a plan that would convert offices built during the recent construction boom but are now underutilised.

In a letter to Mr Coveney last week, seen by The Irish Times, Mr O’Brien said that a “surge in office construction” has surpassed Celtic Tiger levels of output and combined with post-pandemic working practices in a way that “may result in an oversupply of office space”.

“Given the strategic, central location of many office sites and the high demand for housing in these areas I believe there is an opportunity for the conversion of some of that underutilised office space into residential units,” he wrote, arguing that empty offices “could become vibrant apartment blocks in the heart of our cities”.


The plan could raise concerns among employers and business groups. However, the scale of the housing crisis means it has shifted to the forefront of the debate about employment and investment. The IDA has warned about capacity deficits – including in housing – in the economy damaging Ireland’s competitiveness, while the Taoiseach last year admitted the crisis was a drag on investment.

Meanwhile, with less than two years to the next general election pressure is growing on the Government to make progress tackling the housing crisis. Long lead-in times and delays to housing projects mean the capacity to add new-build homes before then is limited.

The letter outlines the need to “do more” to build on the Government’s Housing For All plan, arguing that “maximising the usage of existing buildings is a key part of the plan and can help us meet our housing need”.

“This has to be balanced against the overall demand for such capacity in our thriving economy with unprecedented levels of employment,” Mr O’Brien noted.

In his letter Mr O’Brien indicated he would consider making planning exemptions to onerous “material change of use” rules which would normally apply to a project such as repurposing office space as housing, pointing out he has already put into effect several exemptions to these rules, including to bring vacant units back into use. “To respond to this opportunity in a timely manner our planning system needs to be flexible and inexpensive,” he wrote.

“Expanding the reach of these exemptions to encompass other suitable buildings may be an appropriate response to bring underoccupied spaces into residential usage.”

Mr O’Brien wants to set up a working group to assess the “overall and specific geographic” need and develop exemptions that “recognise commercial requirements, sound spatial planning and housing need”. The group, he said, should report back with recommendations and draft regulations “by the summer”.

The Government hit its overall housing targets for last year, while falling short on social housing, but there is an expectation that these targets may be adjusted upwards amid suggestions from the Housing Commission and others that they underestimate the scale of Ireland’s housing need.

Dr Lorcan Sirr, housing policy lecturer in TU Dublin, warned that the conversion of office space is often seen as a “quick win” but that experience in the US has shown it can be expensive and not deliver as much housing as hoped for. “The physical size of office floor plates and challenges with services such as water and fire generally mean that a lot of subsidies are needed to make such conversions feasible.”

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times