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Social housing under construction at Gort Fionnbarra housing development in Navan, Co Meath. PA

Dr Lorcan Sirr Ukrainian refugees can be housed quickly and easily if government acts now

The senior lecturer in housing says the urgent need to house Ukrainian refugees may be what Ireland’s housing crisis needs, with political will.

LAST UPDATE | 13 Apr 2022

IT IS HARD to visualise, but to put it in context, Ireland has so far seen the arrival of the population of Clonmel from Ukraine, around 21,000 people.

This is expected to increase to a population the size of Navan by Easter (30,000 people), and if government predictions are correct, the number of arrivals will then increase equivalent to a population the size of Galway city (80,000 people).

Should Ireland take in its two per cent share of Ukrainian refugees, then this will mean we have to house a population the size of Cork City from Blarney to Ballincollig, and Rochestown to Glanmire, some 200,000 people.

Logistical challenges

They all need to be housed, and even the current number is proving a significant challenge with hotels and B&Bs wanting their properties back and some families finding it difficult hosting refugee families. Several solutions have been proposed, including the use of vacant properties and the construction of ‘modular’ dwellings.

At the 2016 census over 182,000 vacant residential buildings were recorded, an average of 5,700 per local authority. More than 10,000 of them were within 1 kilometre of the nearest town or village. Even if the number of vacant dwellings has since reduced, this source is still worth using.

But refurbishing vacant dwellings takes time, and time is in short supply. There are also issues with identifying ownership of these vacant dwellings: each of the 31 local authorities in Ireland was due to have a full-time vacant homes officer by last year. Only three councils – Dublin City, Clare and Kerry – have them, with the rest on a part-time basis. Then they need access to the vacant properties, as well as the sourcing, financing and management of labour and materials.

None of these issues is insurmountable, however, all will take time – months, if not years – so this is a medium-term solution.

On the construction front, we have been told for over a decade by various ministers (each lasting an average of two years) that building housing, modular or otherwise, takes time. So, the construction solution to housing Ukrainian refugees is going to be a long-term (minimum 18-24 months) response. It will also be expensive, and Ireland will be competing with many other countries to source products and materials often in the same markets. Rushing construction will lead to costlier, poorer quality, and potentially dangerous housing being built, probably in the most inappropriate locations. We’ve been there before.

Relying on the goodwill of people to take in refugees or on solutions such as hotels, halls or army camps, with children and their mothers sleeping in their clothes on cots, is not sustainable, even in the short term. It is also pernicious, as often what starts off as temporary in housing quickly becomes permanent.

Five years ago, then housing minister Simon Coveney promised to end the use of hotels and B&Bs as emergency accommodation by July 2017. There are now more than 9,000 people in homeless emergency accommodation (including 2,548 children), three times more than when the announcement was made, with no sign of the use of hotels and B&Bs abating. Nor do we need camps of modular housing, where refugees can be temporarily housed and then permanently forgotten.

What can be done?

The immediate solution lies with mobilising existing streams of housing, most obviously ‘unoccupied holiday homes’ and build-to-rent apartments. Apart from providing housing, using these will also allow time to get other streams up and running.

In Census 2016, some 62,148 unoccupied holiday homes were recorded, averaging 2,000 per local authority. Donegal topped the list with over 10,000 (along with 11,000 other vacant homes), followed by Kerry (8,000), Cork County (7,200), Wexford (6,700), Mayo (5,000) and Clare (4,800).

Whilst a lot of these houses are in remote locations, a lot of them are also in congregated settings (e.g. holiday villages) in or beside towns and villages. They also have the advantage of being of good quality, needing no refurbishment, and many lie unused for most of the year.

Based on current immigration data, access to just 20 per cent of the 62,000 holiday homes in the country would house some 26,000 refugees. A flat rate, tax-free payment of €300-400 per month, based on a 12-month agreement, is fair and much cheaper than expensive hotel accommodation. This could come in the form of a lump sum or tax credit.

Policy-makers need to draw up a bespoke licence agreement (not a tenancy) between the owner and refugees to protect both parties. Neither would this prevent the owners from using their holiday homes if they can swap houses with the refugee family.

In 2021, over 430 build-to-rent apartments were completed on average per month. This apartment type now constitutes about one-quarter of all housing output each year, up from less than 11 per cent in 2017 (at the same time as housing built for sale has decreased from 48 per cent to less than 28 per cent of annual output). This average monthly number is likely to increase in 2022.

As with holiday homes, these apartments are in excellent condition with some available immediately and more coming on stream. Arguably, they are more advantageous than unoccupied holiday homes typically being in central urban locations, meaning access to support and integration services are easier.

Again, only a fraction of all units is needed and a flat-rate payment, not a market rate, similar to that for holiday homes is warranted if the owners require payment. IRES Reit, Ireland’s largest landlord with some 3,800 properties worth about €1.5 billion, made a profit of €67.5 million last year.

Achieving buy-in

If owners are unwilling to voluntarily pledge their holiday homes and build-to-rent apartments, then the use of emergency legislation is always a possibility. During World War II, Section 2.2(g) of the Emergency Powers Act 1939 (which lapsed in 1946) authorised and provided for ‘the acquisition, taking possession, control or use (either by agreement or compulsorily) by or on behalf of the State of any land or other property whatsoever.’ (It also made queuing for buses compulsory.)

Any government would be very reluctant to use such legislation, and a high bar would be needed to make it unchallengeable, but there is a war ongoing at the edges of Europe and it should be an option.

We require international expertise from the likes of the International Rescue Committee and others as a long-term strategy is needed to cope now, but also to develop future responses and surge capacity, as similar crises will happen again, whether from climate, the economy or war.

The Department of Housing’s policy, Housing for All, needs to be revised on several fronts (particularly as it is overseeing a rapid decline in home-ownership), but especially to take account of these new housing challenges and demands. Is it realistic not to add current refugee housing demand to the existing targets?

The refugee housing crisis is also an opportunity to re-think more broadly how we approach housing (why do we allow so much housing vacancy, for example); it is not an opportunity to throw the rule book out the window, though, and allow a blank cheque, gravy-train, development free-for-all under the guise of accommodating refugees.

Many Ukrainian refugees are vulnerable people who have seen the things of our nightmares. The State doesn’t have a good track record dealing with vulnerable people and there is an onus on us to do things properly.

That is not camp beds, shared rooms, parish halls and remote, uninspected hotels, but it is own-door decent quality housing where families can try to reconstruct their lives. The same applies to those in Direct Provision, the homeless and others seeking social housing.

From my perspective, Ukrainian refugees are all very welcome. Indeed, they might be the catalyst housing needs for systemic change. It is amazing how fast things can move on the housing front when the international community is looking over our shoulder – it just needs to move in the right direction.

Dr Lorcan Sirr is a Senior Lecturer in housing, planning and development at the Technological University Dublin.


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