Delivery key to prospects for success of Coalition housing plan

Plan relies on private builders providing 170,000 of 300,000 new homes by 2030

About 2,000 affordable homes are “on the drawing board” across Dublin city, an official said. Photograph: Alan Betson

About 2,000 affordable homes are “on the drawing board” across Dublin city, an official said. Photograph: Alan Betson

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Ireland’s typical househunter is a person or a couple in their early 30s. They are either paying rent while struggling to save for a mortgage deposit, or still living under their parents’ roofs.

The Government’s landmark Housing for All plan is designed to give such people hope that some day – soon – they too will get on the State’s property ladder.

The plan, unveiled on Thursday by Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien, is full of targets and is billed as the “most ambitious housing plan” in the State’s history. But will it work?

Many critics raise serious doubts, citing a lack of detail or simply their experience of past attempts to do anything about a crisis that is daily affecting hundreds of thousands.

The numbers are well flagged by now: more than 300,000 new homes by 2030, 90,000 of them social housing; 36,000 designated as affordable; and 18,000 rented for no more than it cost to build them.

Affordable-purchase homes

So what’s not in the plan that prospective homeowners might like to know?

Much of the affordable housing measures have yet to be fully fleshed out. While there is an intention to deliver an average of 4,000 affordable-purchase homes per year, it’s by no means clear where these will be or exactly when they will be delivered. Nor does it say how the 90,000-odd social homes will be distributed around the country.

The plan says local authorities will prepare housing-delivery action plans by December for the provision of social and affordable homes.

For the shared-equity first-home scheme – to help people buy on the private market – the plan says prices for qualifying homes will be capped at between €225,000 and about €450,000 in the most expensive parts of the country. The scheme is likely to be open for applications in early January.

Anyone reading the plan would have to search previous media coverage of the intended price ceilings to learn that the €225,000 cap would apply to counties such as Cavan, Donegal or Leitrim and €450,000 would be in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and Dublin city.

Pat Davitt, chief executive of the Institute of Professional Auctioneers and Valuers, said his members, spread out in estate agents across the State, had not seen the details they need to see.

Information is “very scarce”, he said, citing the lack of a precise date for bringing in a vacant-property tax – one means of encouraging the return of empty homes back into use.

The Minister has indicated that it could be some time next year before that happens, saying that data needs to be collected on vacant properties first.

Equally, there is a vagueness about how much an affordable home will cost under the planned local authority-led scheme, with the text saying no more than that prices will depend on the type, size and location of homes.

Local authorities have indicated that they will aim to make homes available at average purchase prices of about €250,000 but, again, the plan does not explain how many houses will be built by each.

Dublin City Council deputy chief executive Brendan Kenny – who oversees housing at the country’s largest local authority – has fleshed out some of the details for those in the capital.

Though the council has limited land available, he said about 2,000 affordable homes are “on the drawing board” across the city, along with 8,000 social homes over the next five years.

The “big plus” in the Government’s plan for local authorities, he said, is the certainly offered to them on how they will be funded to build the houses that are so badly needed.

The plan “does indicate that there is a plentiful supply of funding available, which is good”, he said. “This allows us to come up with long-term plans and get on with things,” he added.

Market rates

For those hoping to live in cost-rental homes while they save for a deposit there is no information on what they will pay other than that rents will be at least 25 per cent below market rate.

However, the Minister has elsewhere pointed out that the first such homes in Balbriggan were offered at 50 per cent below the market rate, with two-beds there on offer for €935 per month, with three-beds available for €1,100.

Lorcan Sirr, a lecturer in housing studies at Technological University Dublin, said the term “market rate” should not even be used when talking about cost rentals, since the rates should be set only by the cost of building, managing and maintaining the homes.

A typical cost rental in Europe would be €700 per month but that figure would be about €1,100 to €1,200 in Ireland, said Sirr.

The Housing for All plan had little to say about reducing house prices, he said, adding that it was geared more towards helping people to afford the prices set by the market.

However, there is a radical proposal in the plan aimed at cracking down on property speculation, with suggestions beforehand that this could mean that up to half of all windfall gains could be claimed back by the State.

This money would then be used for infrastructure and social and affordable housing, but the plan goes no further than saying that an “appropriate level” of the increase of the windfall gain could be claimed back.

The Government says this will be complex legislation and the detail of the percentage uplift to be shared with the State will be worked out as part of the process of drafting the law.

‘Big gap’

Frank Crowley, a lecturer in economics at University College Cork, says the plan could make a difference, mentioning cost rentals, the land-value taxes and vacant-property taxes.

However, he said there was “very little clarity on these issues within the document” and argued there was a “big gap between what needs to be done on these issues and where we are currently are”.

Like others, Cian O’Callaghan, an expert in urban geography who is based in Trinity College Dublin, has doubts that private builders can build the 170,000 houses that have been marked down to them in the plan, saying the State had “very little control”.

So will it work?

Sirr suspects that many of the homes that will be built will be for rent: “This isn’t necessarily what your average 32-year-old living at home with mum and dad want or needs.”

Crowley is sceptical, too, suggesting there will be a housing crisis for at least the next decade “if not many more decades to come”, though the Minister insists that everything is designed to make homes affordable for all.

Davitt is more positive: “The intention is there to help young people get on the property ladder. There’s no doubt about that. The plan will work if the will is behind it.”

For now, the Minister will depend on people such as Kenny, who told the Minister this week that the council’s staff “will be breaking our backs over the next few years” to ensure it works.

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