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'Painstakingly slow, chronically underfunded': Why aren't these vacant home schemes delivering?

Just nine homes were tenanted in one of the schemes last year, after the department had said up to 800 could be delivered in that time.

AS THOUSANDS OF people protested in the capital over the housing crisis last week, there were repeated calls for the government to take action to address the high number of properties lying idle across the country. 

Two initiatives the government has tried in the last year-and-a-half to turn vacant properties into homes for families are not even close to meeting targets put in place.

The Repair and Leasing Scheme (RLS) was rolled out nationally in February last year. This scheme involves local authorities offering owners a loan up front to do necessary repairs on their property so that tenants can move in. The authority then takes this back in rent until the loan is paid back. 

In response to a recent parliamentary question from Sinn Féin TD Eoin O’Broin, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy said that at the end of last year a total of 820 applications had been received under the scheme and 31 agreements for lease had been signed.

Just nine homes had been delivered and tenanted in three authorities by the end of 2017.

Waterford county council had been part of the original pilot in 2016, though no dwellings were brought into use under the scheme that year.

When the scheme was rolled out by then Minister for Housing Simon Coveney in 2017, he said he was “confident” that the initiative could deliver up to 800 homes that year. 

In the first half of this year, 22 properties were at the rental stage, following 217 applications. Most of these are spread across Wexford, Limerick and Waterford – none of the properties were in Dublin.

The second initiative is the Buy and Renew Scheme, also launched in 2017. Through this scheme local authorities can buy a vacant property outright to add to the social housing stock in the area. The council then takes responsibility for repairs that are needed. 

This week Dublin City Council shared four properties it has purchased through this scheme:

Local authorities purchased 70 homes through the scheme last year, with more than €10.6 million provided by the Department of Housing. The full cost of the units, including repairs, is estimated to be €14 million, which puts the average cost per unit at €200,000.

“I expect that over the course of 2018, further progress will be made in this area as local authorities close sales on properties identified and put in place arrangements for their remediation to make them available for social housing use,” Minister Murphy told O’Broin.

‘We just need to build’

Dublin City councillor Noeleen Reilly said she did not believe the scheme would have a huge impact on the housing crisis “because there just aren’t enough properties available”. 

“My view is, I see it as just another measure within the Rebuilding Ireland programme, but we just need to build. 

Also Dublin City Council is buying on the open market and competing with people who are trying to buy those properties. I have heard of two people here last year, families, who said they lost out to the council on homes because they couldn’t go higher than them in the bids.

Councillor Daithí de Roiste said he believes these schemes are, in theory, a good idea, but in practice it is not working that well. 

“It’s a painstakingly slow process, it’s going too slow. In fairness to the council, I think they are working as fast as they can on this, but it’s tough going after the properties. 

He agrees with Reilly that the buy and renew scheme is “just a small part of what should be a larger mix” of solutions to the crisis. 

“Doing this kind of stuff is never going to solve the problem, the only thing that will solve it is bricks on top of bricks, and I don’t mean 20 houses, it needs to be thousands.”

‘Frighteningly low’

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Sinn Féin’s Eoin O’Broin described the number of units returned from both of these initiatives is “frighteningly low”. 

He agreed that they were good ideas but said they have been “chronically underfunded”. 

“There is no mechanism to proactively go after properties, the councils announced them on their local website and then they sat back and waited,” he said. “Most people with vacant properties aren’t waiting to see what the council is announcing every week.”

He said his party had given a detailed submission to the department suggesting each council put in place a dedicated vacant homes officer – and more than one in urban areas – to identify vacant properties and engage with homeowners. 

More than that, he said the council needs the government to give it the back-up of a vacant homes tax so it can take a “carrot and stick approach”. 

The carrot is that they can offer up-front payment for repairs, or buy the property from the person. The stick, then, is that if they don’t want to do this, they will have to pay a tax, say 3% of the market value or double the property tax, and treble it the following year.

O’Broin is supportive of compulsory purchase orders, but he said the threat of a harsh tax may work better and would cut down the time and expense for councils. 

‘Relatively new’

In response to a query from TheJournal.ie, the Department of Housing said the RLS scheme is “one small measure” and it “relatively new”.

“The operation of the scheme was reviewed, as part of the review of Rebuilding Ireland, and it was concluded that the scheme has significant potential but there are areas where it can be improved to make it more attractive and effective, the department said.

“Accordingly, from 1 February 2018, a number of key changes were being made to the scheme.” These include:

  • a reduction in the minimum lease term required from 10 to 5 years;
  • increasing the proportion of market rent available to property owners where they take on more responsibilities under the tenancy, meaning that up to 92% of market rent will be available; and
  • provision of additional funding for property owners, over and above the current €40,000 limit, where the dwelling is a bedsit type dwelling being brought into compliance with the Standards for Rented Houses Regulations and made available for social housing.

Data up to end Q2 2018 has shown an increase in the number of applications compared to the end of 2017 (although given the lead in time of at least six months for most applications, it is probable that the true impact of the recent changes to the scheme will not become apparent until later in the year).”

The department said local authorities have in recent weeks indicated that the changes have been “well received” by property owners.

Council 

This morning, Dublin City Council sent this response to queries sent by TheJournal.ie last week:

“Normally we end up paying full market value for these Houses, some of which have been vacant/derelict for many years, followed by very significant refurbishment costs (in most cases) however under the Buy and Renew Scheme we can recoup these costs from the Department of Housing. Unfortunately for commercial and sensitivity reasons we are not in a position to make public the detailed costs involved.

“Most of the Houses (20) involved were included in our Derelict Sites/Property Compulsory acquisition process, but some were successfully negotiated for without final reliance on this process, which is cumbersome, and very slow.

“The further 30 on our list are being processed at present but it is not possible to give a timescale because some are very complicated and the owners may well resolve the issue by developing the property themselves. We would expect that those that we have to acquire should be done in the early months of 2019.

“It is difficult to give a timescale for refurbishment because there can be such a big variation on the condition of Houses that we retrieve, some are literally shells and require virtual re-building others require fairly minimum repairs. Once we become owners of these properties we set about immediately to carry out the necessary design work and appoint a contractor under the Public Procurement Regulations. The outside target for those requiring major works is 12 months and 6 months for others but this vary upwards and downwards.

“The Government introduced the Buy and Renew Scheme in early 2017 and we have made good use of it since then. the aim being to acquire or purchase long term vacant, under utilised or derelict properties.

“Having acquired a property, the City Council will refurbish it to a standard for rented accommodation and then make available for social housing use.

“The houses DCC normally acquires are properties that are requiring substantial works by agreement with the property owner (purchase) or through Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO). Remediation works will be carried out by the City Council to a standard for rented accommodation.

It is also worth noting that each year Dublin City acquires 200 Houses throughout the city on the open market, many of these would be vacant for varying periods and most require fairly substantial refurbishment to bring them up to current building standards. These Houses are all used to house families on our waiting lists.

Note: This article was updated at 10.20am on Monday 8 October to include Dublin City Council’s statement. 

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