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Minister: 'We've had housing issues for 10 years, I'm not going to fix it overnight'

In a wide-ranging interview, O’Brien says short-term letting platforms will be regulated.

Options on how to clip the wings of so-called ‘cuckoo funds’ snapping up residential homes will not be ready to go to Cabinet tomorrow, according Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien.
Options on how to clip the wings of so-called ‘cuckoo funds’ snapping up residential homes will not be ready to go to Cabinet tomorrow, according Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien.
Image: The Journal

THE POLITICAL AGENDA shifted swiftly last week as a result of the fallout from Round Hill Capital buying 135 homes at a new development in Maynooth, Co Kildare. 

The issue of housing dominated the General Election of February 2020. Before Covid-19 landed on these shores. 

Although all eyes have been on the public health emergency for the past 15 months, the housing problems never went away – if anything, they have gotten worse.

The man tasked with finding solutions is Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien, who is under mounting pressure from the public to come up radical ideas to fix Ireland’s housing crisis. And under mounting pressure from his party that those ideas have an undeniable Fianna Fáil stamp on them, distinct from any of Fine Gael’s proposals.

It is no mean feat. 

The targeted anger towards investment funds – known as cuckoo funds – last week was no surprise.

It was yet another example of years of failed policy decisions benefiting only the already well off, while other hard-working people are left with scraps.

The level of anger and despondency was palpable. The Journal did a call out for housing stories, which resulted in 90 tales of disappointment, desperation and anger

Before sitting down with the minister for this interview, we also did a call out for questions you wanted to ask.

Over 200 emails were sent in, by far the biggest response for questions to be levelled at those in power in the halls of Leinster House.

A common line in the emails we received both times was ‘thank you’ – people were grateful to get their chance to tell their story and ask their questions. 

Image from iOS (17) A question from a reader that we posed to the minister.

Image from iOS (18) Another question from a concerned reader.

We put a number of those emails and questions to the minister yesterday morning. 

“I’m not surprised at all that you got hundreds of emails when you put out your request for questions, because I get hundreds of emails and phone calls every week,” says the housing minister.

“That’s why I’m so determined to make sure that we make a difference for them. Because there are people who are working, working hard, paying their taxes and saying, ‘Well,  what about me?’ I’m going to make sure they are not forgotten about.”

In a wide-ranging interview, O’Brien touches on some of the ideas that he hopes will mend the broken housing market. 

Affordable homes, renting, short-term lets 

These include his new Affordable Housing Bill and the Shared Equity Scheme, which is not without its critics.

He mentions how Ireland’s first national scheme to provide for the delivery of Cost Rental housing will make a big difference, and also how he has ruled “nothing out” when it comes to dealing with cuckoo funds. 

O’Brien also has his eyes on short-term letting platforms such as Airbnb. 

In an interview with The Journal before Christmas, the minister said discussions were under way between his department and the Department of Tourism (there had long been a spat about who might take the lead when Eoghan Murphy and Shane Ross were at loggerheads over it). 

O’Brien is minded to move on the matter before international travel resumes to some sort of normality, and Tourism Minister Catherine Martin appears to be on the same page. 

“I think we should be regulating the platforms… over the last number of months, we’ve been doing quite a lot of work,” he said.

“I think now is the time to do this when we don’t have a big influx of visitors from abroad. But that will change,” says O’Brien, who added that his department is engaging with some of the bigger short-term letting agencies, including Airbnb. 

“We’ve looked at what’s done in other countries. And I hope to be able to talk to you in a matter of months, if not weeks, about this,” he says.

The minister says work is “well advanced” on bringing in robust regulation for the short-term lending sector although he would not elaborate further on any details. 

Extending the Help-to-Buy

While that might go some way to increase rental options across the country, many of the emails sent in to us related to the difficulties first-time buyers faced. Solutions for renters and buyers need to be introduced simultaneously. 

One scheme introduced by his predecessor was the first-time buyers’ grant – known as the Help to Buy (HTB) scheme – which helps first-time buyers to purchase a new-build house or apartment costing €500,000 or less.

Buyers can claim tax relief on sums of up to €30,000, with the scheme due to end in December 2021.

While the extension of the scheme hasn’t been decided upon yet, O’Brien says he is in favour of it rolling over into 2022.

“In a very short space of time, I think we’ll be able to give a clear message on that as to when or whether it will be extended. I hope it will. But that decision hasn’t been made quite yet. That’s generally made at budget time, but I know that that’s something that is a really important support for a lot of first-time buyers,” he says.

Over 22,500 buyers have availed of the grant which helps people particularly towards their deposits. 

“I’d like to see it extended, quite frankly,” says O’Brien.

You can watch the full interview below:

Another issue raised a lot, as one TheJournal reader put it, is the “lost generation” of 30- and 40-somethings who are second-time buyers but stuck in unsuitable properties and can’t get a 20% deposit together.

Could the Help-To-Buy grant ever be extended to those people?

The minister says he gets that query a lot from people as well.

Such a provision is decided by the Department of Finance, says O’Brien, who adds that the provision is to bolster the supply side through new builds.

“I think there’s an argument as well for some second-hand homes, particularly if you look at vacant homes that are there…We’ve done some work on that, where potentially someone might be given a grant to bring an older home back into back into use if they’re going to go and live in it themselves. It’s really a fair point,” he says.

“Any changes to that aspect would only be done at budget time,” adds the minister.

While much of the coverage on housing focuses on young couples, single people with one income wishing to stop renting, got in touch to state that their situation is particularly hopeless.

Not forgetting about single people 

What hope can government provide for single people?

“Things have changed in a number of years, there’s no question that people are older when they’re buying their first home, into their mid 30s now. They don’t get married as as young as they did, or don’t get married at all. We live in a different society now. 

“What I’d say to single people is I’m not forgetting about them,” he says stating that a number of the measures brought forward in the Affordable Housing Bill will help.

The Shared Equity Scheme whereby the government takes a 20% stake in the house, will not exclude single people, says the minister.

The State will come onboard and take a stake of an average of 20% in any new build home subject to regional price caps while a mortgage is taken out on the rest. The equity stake is free for the first five years followed by an interest rate thereafter.

Proposals under the government’s scheme will cap the cost of an ‘affordable home’ at €450,000 in Dublin City and Dún Laoghaire.

The Government is using a similar scheme in the UK as a guide. The majority of purchases in the UK scheme bought the equity stake out within five years. Opposition, and other groups have criticised some parts of the scheme. 

Sinn Féin claims the scheme “will not make homes more affordable”. 

The party’s housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin has said that the scheme risks “heaping unsustainable levels of debt” on prospective homeowners and will put “significant sums of money in the pockets of large developers”. 

As well as opposition TDs, concerns have also been raised about the scheme by the likes of the ESRI and the Central Bank amid fears it could drive up house prices. 

Patrick Costello and Neasa Hourigan – two Green Party TDs – have also expressed concerns.

The Cost Rental scheme, whereby tenants pay rent that covers the costs of delivering, managing, and maintaining the homes only, at a minimum of 25% below market value, though it could be up to 40% less, is going to be “really important” and a “real help for single renters”, says the minister.

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There will be eight cost rental schemes rolled out this year.

Due to single people only having one income, when lenders often look to two-income households for customers, “it can be much more difficult for them to reach the level that they need to be able to secure a home”, says O’Brien.

The minister says there will be a mix in the affordable schemes to make sure different family types, as well as single people, are catered for.

“What I would say to the hundreds of people that emailed you who are single, or were renting or living at home with folks, is they’re central to the work that I’m doing to try to fix the situation. We do need a little bit of time, I’ve only been minister for less than a year… but I think in that short space of time, people will have seen my bona fides in this regard, that that’s why affordability is absolutely central.”

O’Brien wants the Bill passed by the summer “because it’s urgent”.

Once the scheme is published people can get applying, he adds.

“I believe in home ownership. And I believe home ownership is an honest and just aspiration for people to have, and it’s one that should be supported by the State.”

Confident

The minister says he is confident that these measures will work, helping people that currently feel despondent.

“They feel that they’re working hard. They want a home to call their own. And I want to support that,” he said, adding: “I’m backing those first-time buyers with real solutions, because I want to help them.”

A number of people who got in touch with The Journal were in particularly difficult circumstances, finding themselves in negative equity, insolvent or divorced.

“I’m acutely aware of lots of people, particularly who bought in the mid 2000s would have smaller houses, and with their families having grown up, they have basically outgrown where they are,” said the minister.

The State-backed Affordable Purchase Scheme will have an exemption for that category of people who have outgrown their house but are finding it difficult to move, he explained. 

“I have taken into account also people who may have suffered through the last boom who have gone through personal insolvency – there will be exemptions there for them too. And for people who may have been married and first-time buyers before so strictly speaking wouldn’t be treated as a first-time buyer, so those people won’t be excluded,” he adds.

While the minister says he plans to bring a “suite of options” for dealing with investment funds, the minister says he wants to keep the individual landlord in the market.

About 86% of landlords in Ireland own only one or two properties, says the minister, adding that 13,000 have said they don’t want to be landlords anymore, for whatever reason. 

In autumn, the minister hopes to deal the treatment of the individual landlord, as well as bringing forward a plan for what will happen when Rent Pressure Zones expire at the end of this year.

On derelict buildings, the minister said: “I think lot more can be done, particularly when you go outside of the city of Dublin and Cork, and into our regional towns and villages.”

You’ll see a lot of homes that are on the main streets and towns and villages just empty. And we’ve got to be a little bit radical about what we do with that space… there’s some planning issues there as well to be dealt with, but we are looking at this in a very detailed way at the moment.

If supply is the problem, why not just build more?

As part of trying to keep Ireland’s finances on a steady footing, the government is somewhat constrained by EU rules (which were incorporated into Irish law in the 2012 Fiscal Responsibility Act) from increasing public spending from one year to the next, above the rate at which our economy is expected to grow in the medium term.

The spending restrictions essentially apply to all areas of potential public spending, which includes housing. When asked why we can’t say that the housing crisis is an emergency, and the rules can be broken because of this, the minister said “there’s certainly an argument for that”. 

While he said government is dealing with European colleagues on a regular basis about the matter, it didn’t appear to be a runner with the minister. 

All eyes will be on the government housing plan – called Housing for All – which will be launched in July. 

Fianna Fáil TDs believe housing is “make-or-break” for the survival of their party. Regardless of the political aspect, a nation holds its breath as to whether real, tangible progress can be made.

Is O’Brien confident he can make a difference?

“Housing is never going to be an easy job… these challenges are there, they’re real life issues that have to be dealt with.

“I’m very confident that we’re going to make real strides,” he says.

It won’t be done overnight, I’ve been a minister less than a year, we’ve had many of these issues that have been around for, eight, nine, 1o years or indeed more.

“So I’m not going to fix it overnight. But we’re very focused on bringing measures in that are going to work… and I’m very confident that at that we’re going in the right direction.”

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