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Minister tells councils to buy up properties as social housing target 'will not be achieved'

Minister Darragh O’Brien said Covid-related construction delays has seriously impacted on new build construction.

Minister Darragh O'Brien
Minister Darragh O'Brien
Image: Sam Boal

THE HOUSING MINISTER has written to all local authorities in Ireland this week, encouraging them to begin buying up vacant properties in their areas in a bid to offset the shortfall in new social housing units caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The letter circulated to the chief executives of local authorities last night follows a teleconference call between Minister Darragh O’Brien and the council managers last Thursday.

The letter states that the target of delivering 11,167 social housing units through new builds, acquisitions and leasing programmes will not be achieved following the suspension of construction activity at the height of the pandemic in April. 

“You’ll know that for 2020, the target was to deliver 11,167 social homes through the Build, Acquisitions and Leasing programmes combined,” O’Brien said. 

“Regrettably the impact of Covid-related construction delays have put the delivery of the 7,736 units trough the Build programme under real pressure. As I have emphasised in my contacts with all stakeholders to date, I want all possible measures taken to drive the Build programme in each of your local authorities.”

O’Brien added: “We need to maximise 2020 completions both by driving the earliest possible completion of projects on site – even if Covid-related delays have been encountered – and pursuing additional, new opportunities. 

“On the latter, Turnkey delivery is an area where additional delivery under the build programme could be possible so please pursue any such opportunities and follow up as early as possible with my Department.”

In recent years, the Department of Housing has put emphasis on the construction of new social and affordable housing, rather than seeking to acquire unused or vacant properties. 

A renewed effort is to be placed on acquisitions now to grow social housing stock through a nationwide ‘Call for Housing’ campaign, launched today, while the construction industry works to catch up on time lost over recent months. 

It calls for property owners and developers with vacant properties to make them available for use as social housing to help tackle the crisis caused by Covid-19. Minister O’Brien stressed that new builds were still the “appropriate” long-term strategy.

“Focus has shifted away from acquisitions and more onto the generation of additional supply through new build activity. I remain firmly of the view that this is the appropriate approach to long-term housing strategy,” O’Brien told local authority managers. 

“However, as I articulated to you in our meeting, I’m aware that the current climate has created opportunities for additional homes in 2020, and I am encouraging you all to work with the [Housing Agency] in this regard.”

Under the latest acquisition campaign, the Department of Housing will provide support as long as a number of conditions are met, with a focus placed on local authorities with longer waiting lists and higher demand. 

It also emphasises a quick turnaround to ensure new acquisitions can be “completed within 2020 and upgrade work should be kept to a minimum, completed quickly and property tenanted this year”. 

“There should be a focus on units for priority housing needs, such as one-beds as part of ‘housing first’ and larger units for particular families needing to exit homelessness,” the letter states.

“Other priorities can be responding to special needs, vacant/derelict properties that can be returned to use, and acquisitions to meet housing need in locations where there is no new build delivery underway/planned.”

Any new acquisitions should “ensure value for money and to achieve the best level of delivery from the available funding” with a focus on units “costing around the ‘average’ guide cost”.

The move comes against a backdrop of concerns for tenant security in the private rental market in recent weeks. 

The minister yesterday confirmed that the eviction ban and rent freeze which was due to lapse on 20 July would be extended by 11 days until 1 August. 

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However, TDs from opposition parties including Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin and People Before Profit’s Richard Boyd Barrett insisted that the rent freeze and eviction ban should be extended long-term following the economic recession caused by the pandemic. 

With reporting from Christina Finn

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