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FACTCHECK

FactCheck: Are there 16 vacant homes for every homeless person in Ireland?

The claim was made by Cian O’Callaghan last week.

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THE PUBLICATION OF two sets of data relating to homes and homelessness last week led to a renewed focus on the efforts being made to solve the housing crisis.

First the Central Statistics Office released preliminary data from this year’s Census which showed that there were over 166,000 ‘vacant’ dwellings in Ireland at the end of April.

Then the Department of Housing published its monthly homelessness report, which showed that there were over 10,000 people in emergency accommodation during May.

The release of both sets of figures in quick succession prompted Cian O’Callaghan of the Social Democrats to call for a vacant property tax, saying that such a measure could bring the empty dwellings identified by the CSO back into use.

But could this really happen? Let’s take a closer look.

The Claim 

Social Democrats TD Cian O’Callaghan said that there are 16 empty homes for every homeless person in Ireland, and that these could potentially be brought back into use through a vacant property tax.

In a press release issued on 24 June following the publication of homelessness figures for May 2022, O’Callaghan said:

We now have more than 10,000 people who are homeless and over 160,000 homes that are vacant. That’s nearly 16 empty homes for every person who is homeless. The Government must fast-track a tax on vacant homes to bring these homes back into use and stop making excuses for their inaction.

The Evidence

Firstly, let’s look at the two sets of data that were published last week.

According to the Department of Housing’s homeless report for May 2022, a total of 10,325 people in Ireland were in emergency accommodation that month, comprising 7,297 adults and 3,028 children.

It should be noted that the Government’s official figures do not actually count everyone who is homeless in Ireland, and that there are more people who are technically homeless than the department’s monthly data states (you can read more about that here).

However, O’Callaghan’s claim was in a press release which was a direct response to the official figures and so we will accordingly use the Government’s definition of homeless for the purposes of this article.

The publication of the homelessness figures came just two days after the CSO released preliminary data from this year’s Census, which included statistics on housing and so-called vacant dwellings.

The agency revealed that there were 166,752 vacant dwellings across the country when the Census was taken this year.

Based on these two sets of data, O’Callaghan’s figure is correct: 166,752 properties could house 10,325 homeless people precisely 16.2 times.

Definition of ‘vacant’

But the reality is a little more complicated, because the CSO’s definition of a ‘vacant’ home is not straightforward.

“A dwelling is classed as vacant by census enumerators if it is unoccupied on Census Night, is not used as a seasonal holiday home and is not usually inhabited by occupants who are temporarily away from home on Census Night,” the statistics agency says.

“The Census definition of a vacant dwelling is a point in time indicator taken on Census Night as to whether the property was inhabited or not on Sunday 3 April 2022.”

Helpfully, the CSO explains how it identifies vacant homes and how it distinguishes between these and instances where the occupants of a dwelling were only away for a short period of time including Census night – for example, if they were on holiday.

For a home to be identified as ’vacant’, the door of a property must be unanswered despite repeated visits by an enumerator to collect a Census form from those inside.

If an enumerator calls one day and fails to make contact with those inside, they might drop off their contact number and ask the people in the house to call them.

They may then make subsequent visits at different times of the day, such as evenings and weekends, and look for things like a build-up of post, lights being left on at night, or overgrown gardens.

In such situations, the enumerator will then make an assessment based on CSO vacancy rules and record a reason for the house being vacant.

These could include things like the relevant house being on the market, the owner having recently deceased, the house being advertised as being for rent, or renovation works taking place at the time the Census was carried out.

According to the CSO, many of these houses could have been occupied again a few weeks after the Census was completed.

The most common reason for a house being considered vacant was because it was listed as a rental property – that is, it was advertised as being available to rent as a regular or short-term let, or was a property between lets but not advertised as such.

The CSO recorded 35,380 dwellings in this category this year.

The next most common stated reasons were that the property owner was recently deceased (27,489 homes), that the dwelling identified was being renovated (23,748 homes) and that the dwelling was up for sale on the market (17,826 homes).

Enumerators also identified 6,752 new builds yet to come on the market, 2,478 dwellings whose owners had emigrated, 5,138 instances where the owner was living with relatives, 11,130 instances where the owner was in a nursing home or in hospital, and 12,334 abandoned farmhouses.

‘Other’ was given as a reason in respect of 24,477 dwellings. 

CSOvacancy Central Statistics Office Central Statistics Office

In its release, the CSO repeatedly emphasised that many properties which were identified as being vacant may only be vacant for a short period of time. 

“Dwellings being vacant for census purposes does not necessarily entail that they are available for re-use or to house other persons,” the agency says.

“Census vacancy contains many dwellings that may be unoccupied for a relatively short period of time.”

Although no breakdown is given beyond the reasons list above, it is clear that dwellings such as new builds and houses listed as being for sale are not vacant in the sense that they could be brought back into use, because they are already in use (or about to be).

The same issue applies to houses that are listed as ‘vacant’ because they are available to rent.

And while the situation is more complicated, dwellings where the owner is in hospital or has recently deceased – whereby the property could be going through a lengthy legal process to get it back on the market – present a similar problem.

It is therefore a little misleading to suggest that all of these properties could be used to house those living in emergency accommodation, though no doubt many of them could be used to accommodate those who are homeless.

In light of this, The Journal contacted O’Callaghan to ask him to clarify his claim.

He said that it was “a statement of fact to say there are 16 vacant properties for every homeless person in Ireland” but that his party’s proposal for a vacant homes tax was to address long-term vacancy.

“The vacant homes tax is not intended to be a revenue raising measure,” he said.

“Its primary purpose is to help bring homes, that are left vacant for prolonged periods without a valid reason, back into use.”

The CSO usefully provides a snapshot of dwellings which have been vacant for a number of years, in contrast to those above which may only have been vacant for a number of weeks or months.

Data collected this year found that around 30% (48,387) of the dwellings vacant in 2022 were also vacant when the last Census was taken in 2016, and that nearly half of those dwellings (23,483) were also vacant in Census 2011.

These dwellings may present a more clear cut example of properties which could be used to house those in emergency accommodation, but again the specific reason for each home’s vacant status is not given and may be due to any number of complicated factors.

O’Callaghan explained that what the Social Democrats were proposing was to tax certain homes which could be brought back into use, rather than a blanket tax on all vacant properties.

“As in other jurisdictions where a vacant property tax has been brought in, there would need to be a number of exemptions,” he said.

“For example, someone should not be penalised if they are away from their home due to prolonged illness or for long periods due to work reasons.

“Likewise, natural periods of vacancy which occur when a dwelling becomes empty after a tenant leaves or a person dies need to be exempted from the tax.”

Verdict

The Social Democrats’ Cian O’Callaghan claimed that there are around 16 vacant homes for every homeless person in Ireland. He also called for a tax on vacant dwellings to be introduced in order to bring such properties back into use.

Latest figures from the Department of Housing and the CSO show that there are approximately 16.2 vacant homes for every person living in emergency accommodation in Ireland.

However, the CSO explains that not every home that was identified as ‘vacant’ in the recent Census is available to re-house other people.

The agency specifically says that some of those dwellings “may be unoccupied for a relatively short period” of time for a range of reasons – including new builds and properties advertised as being to let which could soon to be in use again.

Therefore, we rate the claim: MOSTLY TRUE.

As per our verdict guide, this means: “The claim is close to accurate, but is missing significant details or context. Or, the best available evidence weighs in favour of the claim.”

The Journal’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here. 

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