When it comes to improving street life, having more eyes on the street, increasing footfall for local businesses and building thriving neighbourhoods, the integrity of the streetscape is key. In Dublin one of the reasons parts of the urban ecosystem are broken is due to an over-concentration of office and hotel development. Everyone knows this and yet it is ongoing. We need more people living in our city centres, we need more housing for city centre communities – new and old – and we need diverse kinds of housing, but specifically on streets, for the ecosystem to improve.
Squatting, which is hugely discouraged in Ireland, is a rational response to vacancy. But what is the data and research on vacancy telling us?
The number of vacant homes and holiday homes combined in Ireland fell in 2016-2022, according to Central Statistics Office data from the census. This, says the CSO, is “primarily driven by a fall in vacant homes”. The 11 per cent drop puts the total of vacant homes in Ireland at 163,433. The number of holiday homes unoccupied on census night increased since the previous census by 8 per cent, representing 66,956 homes.
The vacancy rate across different types of homes also varies. It is highest among flats in converted buildings and bedsits (18 per cent), and lowest in semidetached properties (5 per cent). Nine per cent of apartments in purpose-built blocks are vacant, down from 13 per cent in 2016. In total 130,469 houses were vacant on census night, and 32,964 flats and apartments (including bedsits). There has been a sizeable fall in the rate of vacancy of flats and apartments, representing a decline of 24 per cent.
A recent report, Urban Vacancy in Ireland: Assessing Recent Responses and Opportunities, studied Dublin, Cork and Waterford. The latter is especially relevant. In Waterford, under the Repair and Leasing Scheme (RLS), more than 140 units have been brought back into use or converted.
The report says there are gaps between policy objectives, implementation and outcomes, something the report authors say suggests “that urban vacancy has not been adequately understood or engaged with from a policy perspective to date”. That’s a pretty damning, but accurate, statement. We know vacancy is such an issue – and a broad one – so why is it that policy is not addressing it, or that the issue is not even correctly understood?
The figures for RLS in terms of units delivered by local authorities between 2017 and the first quarter of 2022 are not reassuring: the national average is a paltry 13. Dublin city, where the housing and rental crisis is acute, falls far short with only a handful of units delivered. But there’s Waterford again, with its 140-plus units delivered.
One senior housing charity officer said the thresholds for funding for the RLS “aren’t viable and that’s a big reason as well that particular scheme hasn’t worked ... I think you could see more buildings being brought back into use through repair and lease if there was greater amounts of money set aside to reflect the cost of construction works”. Funding limits have increased from €40,000 to €60,000 and now to €80,000, but considering the most sustainable building is one that already exists, shouldn’t it be more?
“What is missing then is the regeneration at street and neighbourhood level. And there is huge potential for that,” a local government official quoted in the report said. “Why not take it up a level and talk about streets and neighbourhood and apply a tax initiative through the local authority to try and incentivise or address vacancy and incentivise living over the shop?”
The report says that among interviewees, Waterford was repeatedly upheld as a relative success story in terms of the local authority responses to vacancy. Waterford City and County Council operates under the same policies as every other local authority, so what’s the difference? “Widespread RLS uptake has been attributed in a large part to a proactive effort on the part of the council’s housing department, who have taken steps to ensure that property owners and developers alike are aware of the scheme,” the report says. Isn’t there a lesson there?
I hope that someone in Government is taking this report’s recommendations seriously. They include: create integrated regional units tasked with implementing “ambitions strategies for the wide scale reactivation of vacant land and properties”. Provide sufficient financing that makes this practical and easy, because we all know how people look at a vacant building – especially protected buildings – and often conclude “money pit”. Place communities at the heart of policy, and empower them to tackle vacancy.
Key to the broader vacancy issue is understanding that it is a systemic one. “While vacancy is often viewed as the failure of the planning and development system,” the report states, “it is more usefully viewed as the outcome of particular failures of this system.” Our system is actually producing this problem.