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FactCheck: Did the State build more social housing in the 1980s than in 2015?

In short, yes – but many were sold off at a discount to their tenants and so passed from the public housing stock.

PETER McVERRY Trust, a charity that works on housing and homelessness, has sent the
government suggestions on how to deal with those issues in a pre-Budget submission.

At an event launching the 12-point document, founder and Jesuit priest Peter McVerry drew attention to the low levels of social housing built by county and city councils. The statistics he used to illustrate the point were stark.

What was said

“We have to go back to the days when we were providing social housing under the control of local authorities. In 1985 this country built 6,900 social houses. In 2015, this country built 75 social houses.”

(As reported by the Irish Times on 29 August.)

The facts

This claim draws out an important issue in the social housing debate. The number of
people who have government help with housing is not the same as the number of social
houses built by the State. (We’ve picked ministers up on this a couple of times before.)

Compare what Fr McVerry says with the government’s report on social housing in 2015. It says that “over 13,000 social housing units were delivered” that year.

Let’s break these down. Of those 13,400 units “delivered”, it’s correct that just 75 were built directly by councils. Charities and co-operatives built or acquired from developers another 400 – so call it 500 homes newly in existence for social housing that year.

Councils bought another 1,100 from the private sector. The people on the social housing waiting list who got to live in those homes may not care who they’re built by. But it’s worth making the distinction between publicly and privately built because, as retired professor PJ Drudy says, in purchasing homes from the private market “the State is in competition with lots of young people who want to buy”. He and others would argue that this mechanism helps social housing but pushes up the price of private housing, as it’s not adding to the total stock of homes available.

You’ve then got another 2,800 houses that were vacant but have been refurbished and brought back into service. Again, this doesn’t increase the number of physical buildings around the place, although it does increase the number that are available to live in.

Then there are 1,500 houses that are rented by councils or non-profits, on leases of 10-20 years. This does take property off the private rented market into the social housing sector, but it goes back into private hands when the lease expires. We’ve previously covered a dispute over housing figures that mostly turned on whether you consider long council leases to be new social housing or not.

Finally, the lion’s share (7,500) of new social housing “delivery” in 2015 was under two programmes where councils cover some or all of the rent due to private landlords. These are the Residential Accommodation Scheme (RAS) and Housing Assistance Payment (HAP). In both cases, the person benefitting still has a tenancy agreement with the landlord. So there’s no transfer of housing stock into the public sector here, even temporarily.

The point of all this? There are so many ways that social housing can be “provided” or “delivered”, you can end up with very different numbers depending on what you consider real social housing (or what way you’re trying to spin things).

Here’s the government’s own breakdown of social housing provided last year (up to now we’ve been talking about 2015). Again, you can see that the overall number for 2016 looks impressive but the number newly built by the state is low.


Fr McVerry says that there were 6,900 social homes built by councils in 1985, compared to 75 in 2015. Official statistics give a figure of 6,500 for the former year.

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A spokesperson for Peter McVerry Trust told FactCheck that this doesn’t include houses built by non-profits, which weren’t collected at the time, so “the combined figure is likely to be in and around 6,900”. Assuming that’s true, the appropriate basis for comparison is with the combined figure for 2015, which as mentioned above is about 500 (rounding up).

But either way, whether it’s 6,900 vs 500 or 6,500 vs 75, the basic point is obviously correct – the State is building far fewer houses than it used to. The shift to greater reliance on the private sector came about in the mid-1980s as a result of economic difficulties around that time, according to a paper by Michelle Norris and Tony Fahey of UCD.


Be wary of making too much of these historical comparisons. In the past, those authors point out, social housing was a stepping stone to home ownership. In other words, many social homes were sold off at a discount to their tenants. So just because a lot of social housing was built doesn’t mean that the net supply was increasing hugely compared with today.

Nevertheless, Fr McVerry’s figures check out, give or take – so we rate the claim TRUE.

  • Tune in to TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck slot on The Pat Kenny Show tomorrow night, Wednesday, 13 September, on TV3 at 10pm for more on the claims, facts and figures around social housing.

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