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Opinion Turn empty houses into homes - there is no more time for excuses

Leigh Brosnan of Uplift’s Gaffs4All campaign highlights what more can be done to utilise the many derelict buildings around the country.

WE ALL NEED and deserve a safe and secure place to live. No matter who we are; what we look like; or where we come from, this human need connects us all. There’s not one of us who isn’t affected in some way, be it ourselves, our children, friends or family.

Whatever set of statistics we want to use, what’s clear is that the country is awash with empty houses — more than all the people who need a home. On Census night in June 2022, 163,433 homes were empty. Geodirectory identified 86,708 places as empty. While according to electricity usage, the CSO estimates, that there are 90,000 dwellings unused — 4.3% of the number of dwellings in the country. Seven in every 10 homes is too big for its occupants in Ireland — reflecting one of the highest levels of ‘underused’ homes in Europe.

Political agendas

Huge numbers of people are priced out of the housing market. More people than ever are living week to week on couches, in hotel rooms, cars, tents, overcrowded houses, paying extortionate rents, stuck in a cycle of despair and upheaval. Despite all the promises and having more than enough money, this government has systematically failed to provide homes for us all.

home 1

With a week to go to local and European elections, a handful of politicians are relishing any chance to turn communities against each other. They have nothing in terms of policy to offer voters who are struggling and who need a secure home. Instead, they spread hate and misinformation regarding others, based on what people look like or where they come from, to distract voters, escalate tensions and gain attention.

These agitators, buoyed by the new ‘crackdown on immigration’ narrative from this government are fuelling a scarcity psyche, that makes easy headlines and is a fast-track path to stirring up divisions, tension, stress and anger.

Even the term “housing crisis” disguises the inhuman reality of what is happening and implies a sense of helplessness — a convenient way to avoid the reality that there are real solutions, real political choices, concrete actions and a path to ensuring that everyone has a secure home, no exceptions.

‘Liveable communities’

For Uplift’s 331,000 members — approximately 6.5% of the population in Ireland, creating liveable communities is our top priority. Being able to put down roots, have a secure roof over our heads and grow up feeling safe is fundamental to being able to live a full and thriving life.

Frustration is palpable as people struggle to find a secure home; keep their children in schools; stay in college; pay their bills; make life decisions, and pass empty houses every day, knowing that it could be their dream home.

home 3 A derelict home in Ireland. Uplift Uplift

Recently, members shared their experiences on a community call. We heard from a woman named Ellie who received an eviction notice while undergoing chemotherapy at the same time as she cared for her disabled husband. Now she lives in a temporary home, too much of a distance from the medical care she so badly needs.

Last week, the Housing Commission exposed just how far behind we are in meeting the basic housing needs of people in Ireland. The good news is that they clearly laid out a roadmap. The question is, will these newly elected councils and near-future government respond and implement what we know needs to be done?

Our own research at Uplift, compiled on our behalf by Paul Umfreville of TU Dublin, lays bare the barriers to tackling the turnaround of empty houses into homes. What is clear is that many of the policies needed to fix the problem exist — but are not being implemented.

Councils are not properly counting the number of empty houses, applicants trying to get grants can’t access them in a way that works for them, and business owners are facing an uphill battle to convert overshop spaces into dwellings.

These are solutions that are in front of councils and this government:

Repair and Leasing Scheme: Increase the funding that is made available for each project (from the current €80,000).

Accurate information: Local authorities should report quarterly on vacant house numbers, including the percentage relative to total housing stock. Every local authority should report on second homes subject to the Vacant Homes Tax annually.

Reporting vacancy: Make it easier to report potentially vacant or empty homes to the local Vacant Homes Officer.

Vacant property refurbishment grant: Increase this to €80,000, same as the Repair and Leasing Scheme.

Local Authority Home Loan: Allow people who are purchasing and renovating a derelict or vacant unit to access local authority loans.

Rent-a-Room: Extend the rent-a-room scheme for local authority tenants to include any possible tenant, not just students.

Living City Initiative: Extend the scheme for converting shops’ upper floors, and broaden the criteria. Extend The Repair and Leasing Scheme or the Vacant Property Refurbishment Programme to above shop accommodation refurbishment.

home 2

Empty homes are a political choice. Reams and reams of policies, schemes, grants and initiatives exist — but to work they need to help, not hinder people on the ground struggling to put a secure roof over their heads. This should be the measure of success for every politician seeking to represent local communities.

Leigh Brosnan is a campaigner with Uplift, Ireland’s largest people powered campaigning organisation. Uplift is politically independent of all political parties. She has previously worked as a parliamentary assistant to a Sinn Féin candidate but is no longer in that role. 

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