Coalition and Oireachtas housing group at odds over vacant units

Committee indicates tax could be applied to as many as 137,000 properties countrywide

Sharp divisions have arisen between the Government and influential Oireachtas housing committee on the extent of vacant properties in the Republic.

The introduction of a vacant homes tax in the next budget is a key recommendation of the committee’s report on urban regeneration which will be published on Tuesday.

The committee, chaired by Green Party TD Stephen Matthews, has said the tax could be applied to as many as 137,000 units across the country.

However, while the Government has said that it is committed to introducing such a tax, senior figures, including Taoiseach Micheál Martin, questioned that figure for vacant units, saying it is too high.

“The indications are that the vacancy is not as high as some are saying it is in real terms,” said the Taoiseach on Monday.

“For example in Dublin there are recent reports again indicating that vacancy levels are very . . . with occupancy as high as 96 per cent. That issue needs to be subject to detailed professional analysis before decisions are taken,” he said.

The figure of 137,000 vacant units is predicated on evidence given to the committee by architect Mel Reynolds, in turn based on Central Statistics Office (CSO) data. Mr Reynolds told the committee this suggested about 40,000 units could be brought back into the housing stock relatively quickly. The figures did not include accommodation located above shops.

Separately, data on vacant property has been collected by the Revenue Commissioners through Local Property Tax (LPT) returns. The Department of Finance is using this information, and other sources, to assess the merits and impact of introducing a vacant property tax. “That analysis is now under way for consideration by the Government,” said a spokesman.

Government sources on Monday said the data from LPT and other sources suggests a much lower level of vacancy than figures based on the CSO data. Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien told Newstalk on Monday while a vacant property tax is needed there would be situations where good reasons exist as to why homes are vacant, such as the resident being absent due to a long-term illness.

“I don’t think people will want to be taxing people who are in that situation. The tax will not be intended as a revenue-raising tax, rather a disincentive to leaving homes vacant without reason,” said Mr O’Brien.

The report acknowledges the vacancy data is “more nuanced than the statistics show”. It has cited a pilot study conducted by Dublin City Council on 213 potentially vacant homes. Only 49 were confirmed as vacant, of which 16 were vacant long term which was less than 10 per cent of the vacant properties.

Collecting the money owed

It noted the council “advised that this dispels the assumption that there are over 30,000 vacant units in the city as per CSO data”.

In all there are 39 recommendations in the report, some of which deal with the deficits and shortfalls in data collection. A key recommendation is for a single national platform for data on vacancy and dereliction.

The report will also recommend that Revenue be asked to collect the money raised from the derelict site levy and the vacant site tax in light of evidence that only a small fraction of that owed is being collected.

According to the report, only €378,000 has been collectedfrom €5.45 million imposed as levies on derelict sites. In all, the outstanding unpaid charges for the derelict sites levy have risen to €12.5 million. The figure is even worse for the vacant site tax. Of €21.5 million owed to local authorities only €21,000 has been collected, which amounts to 1 percent of what is owed.

In recommending the Revenue be brought in to collect the levies and taxes, the committee has concluded that “it is difficult to suggest the [taxes are] being implemented successfully. There should be a renewed effort to address this.”