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FactCheck: The claims about Fine Gael's record on the housing crisis made during last night's debate

Several claims were made about housing supply and homelessness last night. We’ve looked at the main ones.

Factcheck

THE HOUSING CRISIS has been an ongoing saga for a number of years, so it was inevitable that the issue would be central to this year’s general election campaign.

Politicians from all parties and none have made various claims and counter-claims on the subject, encompassing things like house prices and the government’s record on building social housing.

The issue dominated the opening of last night’s seven-way Claire Byrne Live leaders’ debate, after a member of the audience asked how the next government would help her to afford her own home.

The ensuing response saw a number of claims about the housing crisis put forward, as well as suggestions by some party leaders that what others were saying wasn’t true.

Last night, we ran a live factcheck of the debate on Twitter and today we’ll look at some of the major claims and points of contention in a bit more detail.

Claim 1: How many people have been approved for Help-to-Buy?

The first claim in the debate was Leo Varadkar’s defence of the government’s Help-to-Buy scheme.

The initiative was introduced for first-time buyers in Budget 2017, and seeks to help people reach a level of savings required to afford a deposit for a house.

It entitles those buying new-build or self-build homes valued up to €500,000 to claim a tax rebate of up to 5% of the value of the home, worth up to €20,000.

But it has proven controversial amid suggestions – including by former Central Bank Governor Philip Lane – that it has contributed to an increase in the cost of house prices.

Launching a defence of the initiative last night, the Taoiseach said:

The Help-to-Buy scheme has already helped 15,000 to 16,000 people to buy their first home.

The Facts

We examined this claim last week after Varadkar cited the 15,000 figure in the first head-to-head debate with Micheál Martin.

Statistics published by Revenue at the start of the month show that it has received 35,225 Help-to-Buy applications.

As of 2 January, 16,409 of these applications have been approved – higher than the figure cited by the Taoiseach.

Verdict

Based on the number of people who have made a successful Help-to-Buy application, the claim is largely accurate, although the Taoiseach underestimated the actual figure. 

Therefore, our verdict for this is: TRUE 

As per our verdict guide, this means: the claim is accurate, and is not missing any significant details or context. 

Claim 2: Has housing supply really doubled since 2016?

The Taoiseach also defended his record on managing the housing crisis while he has led the Government.

In what has become a trend during this campaign, Varadkar sought to shield himself by comparing house-building figures from before and after he succeeded Enda Kenny.

He said:

In 2016, the year before I became Taoiseach, less than 10,000 new houses and apartments were built in this country. We now know that about 21,500 were built last year. We’ve already doubled supply of housing, and I can double it again over the next three years.

Later, he also claimed that Fine Gael was the only party that was overseeing the delivery of more housing to the private market. Said Varadkar:

Since I’ve become Taoiseach, 50,000 new homes have been built in Ireland. That means tonight there are 50,000 people sitting in a sitting room, watching a TV in a house that didn’t exist only three years ago.

The Facts

Firstly, it’s important to state that a number of methods to measure house completions are used in Ireland.

In a FactFind last year, we outlined two of the more common ones, but for the purposes of this FactCheck, we’ll look at ‘new dwelling completions‘ and Goodbody’s Building Energy Rating (BER) Housebuilding Tracker.

The former is the main data source used by the CSO. It’s based on new ESB connections, where the date that a house is energised determines the date it was finished.

The BER tracker by Goodbody counts the number of energy certificates registered in Ireland over a particular period.

Both have their problems, because a large number of vacant homes which have simply been re-energised or given BER ratings can end up being counted (although Goodbody’s claims to be more accurate).

So which method did the Taoiseach use to count house completions for his claim?

Asked to clarify his remarks, a Fine Gael spokeswoman told TheJournal.ie that Varadkar used both the CSO and the Goodbody BER Housebuilding Tracker as sources:

  • The ‘new dwelling completions’ database was used for the first half of his claim about 2016. This showed that 9,892 new homes were completed in 2016.
  • However, he used Goodbody’s tracker for the second half of the claim, which showed 21,500 house completions during 2019.

The use of two methods makes the Taoiseach’s claim murky, as the two different sources are based on two different things.

His second claim that 50,000 homes have been completed in the last three years is illustrative of this.

Using Goodbody’s method, 49,868 homes were built in Ireland from 2017 to 2019. By comparison, the CSO’s method counts 47,127 new builds over almost the same period, a difference of nearly 3,000 units.

While these figures might seem relatively close, there are significant divergences from year to year:

  • In 2017, Goodbody tracked 9,513 new BER ratings, whereas the CSO figures suggested there were 14,368 new builds;
  • In 2018, the stockbroker tracked 18,855 new ratings, whereas the CSO figures suggested were 17,995 new builds;
  • And last year Goodbody tracked 21,5000 BER ratings, while the CSO suggested there were 14,764 new builds.

New dwelling Source: Central Statistics Office

There’s no definitive answer as to which method is more accurate in showing house completions, but it’s clear that neither line up perfectly.

Whereas the Taoiseach’s figures aren’t wrong, he picked and chose two different statistics to make his point.

Verdict

Based on the different methods of counting house completions, Varadkar’s overall figures are accurate: the statistics are both accurate, depending on which method is used.

However, it’s misleading to present two figures which use different methodologies to count the number of completions in different years.

Neither figure is above the 50,000 claimed by the Taoiseach, but both figures – particularly Goodbody’s – is close enough.

Therefore, our verdict for this is: MIXTURE

As per our verdict guide, this means that there are elements of truth in the claim, but also elements of falsehood, or the best available evidence is evenly weighted in support of, and against, the claim.

Claim 3: Are house prices falling?

In a similar exchange later on, Varadkar attacked Fianna Fáil for overseeing a dramatic rise in house prices during the Celtic Tiger.

He told Martin:

House prices have stopped rising. They’re still 20% lower than they were when they peaked under Fianna Fáil.

The Facts

According to the most recent house price report, released by from MyHome.ie at the start of this month, the average price of a house in Ireland is now €267,000, with the average price in Dublin at €374,000.

The same report found that the annual rate of inflation for prices has fallen to less than 1% – still a rise, but only a marginal one.

The most recent figures from the CSO shows that property prices increased by 1.4% nationally from November 2018 to November 2019.

That continued a downward trend in the rate inflation throughout last year, although house prices continued to rise year-on-year.

However, the same release reported a drop in residential property prices in Dublin by 0.7% in the year to November. That followed year-on-year decreases in the capital of 1.5% in October1.3% in September0.3% in August and 0.2% in July.

According to the CSO, house prices in November (109 on its Residential Property Price Index) were 16.8% lower than their highest level (131) in April 2007 – more than 3% lower than the figure cited by Varadkar.

Meanwhile, Dublin property prices in November (106.2) were 21.3% lower than their February 2007 peak (135), while residential property prices in the rest of Ireland in November (103.6) were 19.9% lower than their May 2007 peak (129.3).

CSO Source: CSO

Verdict

On average, house prices are still increasing across the country, despite falling marginally in Dublin. They are also around 16.8% lower than they were at their peak in 2007.

Therefore, our verdict for this claim is: Mostly FALSE.

As per our verdict guide, there is an element of truth in the claim, but it is missing critical details or context. Or, the best available evidence weighs against the claim.

Claim 4: How many units of social housing have been built?

Varadkar also pointed the construction of new social housing during his tenure as Taoiseach, once again comparing figures with those from the period before he led the government.

He said:

When we took over the housing brief almost three and a half years ago, almost no new council houses were being built in this country.
Last year, 6,500 – between local authorities and approved housing trusts like the Iveagh Trust for example, and Clúid – were built.

The Facts

According to figures from the Department of Housing, just 476 units of new social housing were built by local authorities and approved housing bodies (AHBs) in 2015.

The following year, the first full year that Rebuilding Ireland was introduced under the new Fine Gael minority government, that figure rose to 657.

Local Author Source: Department of Housing

It should be noted that the Rebuilding Ireland progress report for the same year claims that 2,965 new houses were built, but the difference is made up by so-called ‘voids’, meaning vacant houses brought back into use by the government.

In this sense, it’s not completely accurate for Varadkar to imply that no new social houses were being built, but the new build figures for 2015 and 2016 did represent historic lows.

But the latest Rebuilding Ireland progress report, released in December last year, shows that although the government set a target for 6,545 new social housing builds in 2019, just 2,229 were built by September (figures for final quarter are not available yet).

RI-Targets-and-Progress-Q3-2019 Source: Department of Housing

That figure includes 226 ‘voids’ returned to use, meaning just 2,003 new units of social housing were built by local authorities and AHBs – less than a third of the figure claimed by Varadkar.

It may be that the figure the Taoiseach cited related to the target, as opposed to actual rate of completions.

Verdict

On balance, Varadkar’s claim that “almost” no new social housing was being built three-and-a-half years ago is somewhat justified by the historically low number of units being constructed at the time.

However, his claim that 6,500 social housing units were built by local authorities and AHBs last year is incorrect (pending the publication of updated figures for the fourth quarter of 2019). 

Therefore, our verdict for this claim is: FALSE

As per our verdict guide, this means the claim is inaccurate.

Claim 5: How much has homelessness risen by?

Towards the end of the debate, Micheál Martin hit out at Fine Gael’s record on homelessness, claiming it had risen by almost two-thirds since the last government was formed.

He said:

Four years ago, we were told the homelessness problem would be solved. It’s gone up 60% now.

The Facts

Figures from the Department of Housing, there were 5,715 homeless adults and children in Ireland in January 2016.

However, it wasn’t until July that year – when Rebuilding Ireland was launched – that Tánaiste and then Housing Minister Simon Coveney pledged to effectively end the use of hotels and B&Bs for emergency accommodation.

Figures for that month show there were 6,525 people in emergency accommodation then.

The most recent monthly homeless figures available from the Department show there were 10,448 people in emergency accommodation in November 2019.

That represents a 60% increase on the number of people officially considered homeless since the launch of Rebuilding Ireland.

novem Source: Department of Housing

Verdict

Latest figures from the Department of Housing show there has been a 60% increase in homelessness since a pledge by Fine Gael to end the use hotels and B&Bs for emergency accommodation in July 2016.

Therefore, our verdict for this is: TRUE

As per our verdict guide, this means: The claim is accurate, and is not missing any significant details or context.

Contains reporting from Dominic McGrath.

TheJournal.ie’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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