Alan Maguire and Carol Anne Kennedy live, with two dogs, on a small housing estate just outside Waterford city.
The estate, just over the Co Kilkenny border, contains 12 semi-detached houses that were completed in 2010 and 10 others with black hoarding over the windows and doors. In front of the houses there is wasteground overgrown with weeds. This complex is surrounded by a big metal fence with an ominous warning sign.
When Alan and Carol Anne bought their house in 2010 it seemed like a bargain, though they were hurried along by “rumours” that the builder was in trouble. Three months later he went bankrupt. “We never heard from him again,” says Maguire. “The phone number wasn’t working.”
They were the second last people to buy in the estate. A number of things on their snag list were unfinished – most notably the piping for a natural spring in the garden – but in the scheme of things these were minor.
In the early days the unfinished houses were exposed to the elements. It was dangerous for children. Teenagers would go there to drink. Taxi drivers couldn’t find the place. At one point the residents discovered their sewage tanks were in a temporary scheme that hadn’t been connected to the main system. “I think that was probably the worst point,” says Kennedy, “The smell.”
The couple were, initially, exempt from the household charge, but over time the council boarded up exposed doors and windows, removed debris, fenced off the unfinished area, built a proper road and placed functioning lights at the estate’s entrance.
“We think that was done just in time to make us eligible to pay the property tax,” says Maguire, laughing. He isn’t sure they should have been eligible, however, because the street lights inside the estate don’t work. They keep getting passed from the council to the electricity supplier when they complain.
Earlier in the year a businessman met the residents to explain he was hoping to buy and finish the remaining 10 houses. “Structurally they’re fine,” says Kennedy. “[They just need] doors and windows.”
They haven’t heard from him since.
Alan and Carol Anne know they’re relatively lucky. “We’re probably still in negative equity,” says Maguire, though he hasn’t checked recently. “As ghost estates go, it’s not terrible,” he adds, and they both laugh.
Down the road there are estates in much worse condition, where terraces of houses lie unloved in scrubby fields surrounded by railings, across from abandoned retail units.
Ghost estates are the symbol of recessionary Ireland, strange monuments to our boomy hubris. David McWilliams coined the term back in 2006, and since then people have named poetry collections and bands after them and even suggested some be kept as artworks commemorating the folly of the boom.
"Ghost estates became the visible manifestation of the crash," says Prof Rob Kitchin of the National Institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis at NUI Maynooth. "People don't necessarily know the ins and outs of how the economy works but you can look out of the car window as you're driving and you can see these things."
The first bit of official action taken on the unfinished housing estate problem was a survey in 2010, which identified 2,846 unfinished estates. Within those, 78,195 units were complete and occupied, 23,250 were complete and vacant, 19,830 were being built, and there was planning for 58,025 more.
There were plenty of suggestions about what could be done with these estates – they could be bulldozed, turned into social housing, or even serve as venues for paintball games or artistic events. The complex ownership issues arising from defunct developers, receivers, banks, Nama and local councils meant there was never going to be a simple solution.
In 2011, the then minister of state Willie Penrose proposed a “site resolution” plan, encouraging local authorities to work with developers, banks and local residents to resolve issues in estates.
“There were a number of issues with this. The first was that it was voluntary, so there was no legal mechanism to force builders or developers into cooperating,” Kitchin says.It was also largely restricted to issues of health and safety. “The aim was to try and mothball things really until the economy picked back up again,” he says.
In 2012, the Department of the Environment changed its definition of an unfinished estate to exclude those with just vacancy and oversupply issues but needed no outstanding development work. Budget 2014 allocated €10 million to a “special resolution fund” (a further €3.35 million was allocated for 2015) and in the 2014 National Housing survey the number of unfinished developments had fallen to 992, 766 containing residents.
Development work is expensive, but vacancy issues can be harder to tackle. Nine counties estimate they need no more housing development until 2021 or 2022, due to oversupply. Where the sites are unsalvageable, some have been destroyed but this has happened rarely.
Many of the unfinished housing estates are in areas where there is no demand for social housing and, often, those that are in the right places are in a poor state of repair.
Housing association Respond has bought two developments: in Tullow, Co Carlow, and Kill, Co Waterford. Its chief executive, Ned Brennan, estimates he has seen more than 40 unsuitable developments.
“In the last six months I looked at two estates and our surveyors and engineers went in and just from a visual examination they could see they were badly built,” he says. “There was no fire division in the attic between the houses so [other things] were probably poorly constructed as well. You’d be a fool to take on something like that . . . I think the Government is taking the view – turn a blind eye to it and hopefully market forces will come to the fore and rescue them.”
New developers are also beginning to buy unfinished and unused sites in order to finish and sell them. Maeve Whooley from property consultants Allsop provided examples of job lots of houses they have recently sold in Monaghan, Westmeath and Wexford. "We have observed that there has been a great deal of interest in purchasing these types of residential properties in the last 12 months and [they are] selling strongly at our auctions," she says.
This was essentially the Government’s plan all along: render the sites safe and hope the market eventually solves the problem. But making residents wait for a market solution is cruel. “We’re kind of eight odd years into this,” says Prof Kitchin. “People have been living on some of these estates for a really long time. It’s a long protracted process for them. ”
More recently unfinished developments have been knocked out of the headlines by a housing shortage and a mini-boom in Dublin, but much of the rest of the country still struggles with oversupply.
So even with 271 developments “resolved” in 2014, Kitchin thinks ghost estates will be with us for a while yet. “If they carried on at that pace it would still take another three to four years to complete out the remaining 992,” he says. “And I suspect the easy ones to resolve have been resolved . . . You know those old deserted famine villages? It will almost be like that.”