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Cian O'Callaghan Owners of vacant properties should either use it, rent it or sell it

The Social Democrats’ housing spokesperson says there can be no justification for leaving thousands of homes lying empty.

IT IS CLEAR that Ireland’s housing crisis has now become a housing emergency. Tackling it now requires a level of political courage and speed that has not been seen in this country for some time. What we’re witnessing today with the chronic housing shortages is the result of persistent political tinkering around the edges for years. This simply does not work.

With that in mind, today, we at the Social Democrats will be bringing a Private Members’ Motion before the Dáil calling for the introduction of a Vacant Homes Tax with teeth. We are proposing an increased tax of 10% on vacant properties instead of the derisory 0.3% rate set by the Government in Budget 2023.

This is not a revenue-raising exercise – it is designed to promote behavioural change. We want the owners of a vacant property to either use it, rent it or sell it. The tax should be enforced in such a way that will unlock the potential of vacant homes in Ireland, with heavy penalties for non-compliance and fair exemptions to deal with genuine reasons for the vacancy.

Across the country, there are at least 100,000 empty homes. This figure does not include holiday homes. GeoDirectory, using reports from An Post delivery staff and Ordnance Survey Ireland, has identified 83,662 vacant homes and 21,481 derelict residential properties nationwide.

With the Government consistently failing to meet its targets for the delivery of social and affordable homes, vacant houses and apartments could – if the political will existed – be brought back into use within a reasonably short period.

This is one of the quickest and most sustainable ways to increase the supply of desperately needed homes. While not a panacea to the housing crisis, it should be part of the solution.

 Where is the urgency?

While issues relating to housing continue to have a devastating impact on people’s lives and their life choices, there is no sense of urgency from this Government. After years of pressure, the Minister for Finance finally introduced a Vacant Homes Tax in the last budget. However, set at just over 0.3%, it is ineffective and designed to fail. It creates the illusion of action but is simply virtue signalling. The tax is all about optics.

Key to the introduction of a strong and effective tax also means having reasonable exemptions in place.

The tax we’re proposing would be framed in such a way that people who own vacant homes, for reasons beyond their control, are not unfairly penalised. Such exemptions would include homes going through probate and properties left empty as a result of its owner having a long-term illness or receiving hospital care.

Our motion encourages property owners to act in the public interest. There can be no tolerance for such high vacancy levels in a housing crisis – a crisis that will be compounded by the Government’s refusal to extend the no-fault eviction ban. This is against the backdrop of a dysfunctional rental market, with a dwindling supply of properties and sky-high rents.

There are now hundreds of thousands of people in their 20s and 30s still living in the childhood bedrooms they grew up in. As more and more people emigrate in search of somewhere affordable to live, we are losing a generation with skills that we desperately need. This is having knock-on effects across our society, especially in areas like healthcare and education.

Broken system

Last year, it was more expensive to buy a house than it was at the peak of the Celtic Tiger in 2007. There are now almost 12,000 people living in emergency homeless accommodation, more than 3,000 of them children.

At a minimum, the State needs to build at least 20,000 affordable purchase, affordable rental and social homes a year, but the Government has missed its delivery targets for three years running. Since taking office, the Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien has left a billion euro of his department’s budget unspent – funding that could have and should have been used to build more homes.

Repurposing existing properties can also help us meet our climate change targets. The most sustainable building is an existing one. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, construction and demolition created 8.2 million tonnes of waste in Ireland in 2020. The Irish Green Building Council also revealed that the construction process accounted for 11% of our nation’s annual carbon emissions.

Bringing up to 100,000 empty homes back into use could have a transformative effect on the housing supply and would take pressure off the many families and individuals struggling to find somewhere affordable to live. If this measure is combined with an increased supply of homes that are genuinely affordable, it could have a real and lasting impact.

Doing nothing is not an option. The Government needs to stop rewarding speculators who leave habitable homes vacant and drop the pretence that it has taken action on the issue. It is time to get serious about property vacancy in Ireland.

Cian O’Callaghan is a Social Democrats TD for Dublin Bay North and is the party’s housing spokesperson.

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