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'In Dublin, there are 13 empty homes for every adult in homelessness'

Empty homes provide an unprecedented opportunity for the Government to effectively end homelessness in Ireland, writes Pat Doyle.

Pat Doyle

THE MOST COMPREHENSIVE figure available at the moment tells us that there are almost 200,000 empty homes across the country. This compares with 7,148 experiencing homelessness, a figure made up of individuals, couples and families with children.

To house every single person in homelessness today, we would need in the region of 4,500 to 5,000 homes.

Peter McVerry Trust believes that the Government has the ability to house every person who is homeless in Ireland today within the next 12 months. To achieve this the Government needs to create a high intensity response to the thousands of empty homes spread across our cities, towns and villages.

Vacant homes

The number of vacant homes, based on the CSO’s figures, is simply staggering particularly when you break it down by local authority and compare the number of empty homes with the number of adults in homelessness. Such a comparison shows that, in some counties, there are hundreds of empty homes per one adult experiencing homelessness.

In Mayo, there are over 11,000 empty properties, which means 930 empty homes for each of the 12 homeless adults in the county. In Roscommon, it’s even higher at 940 empty homes for every adult who is homeless.

Making these homes liveable

Even in our cities, where the vast majority of people in homelessness are found, there are almost 50,000 empty homes. In Dublin, the epicentre of the homeless emergency, there are 13 empty homes for every adult in homelessness. In Cork, the ratio shows 85 empty homes for each adult who is homeless in the city and county.

The challenge, of course, is turning these empty buildings into quality, liveable homes within the next 12 months. Peter McVerry Trust knows, from our own direct experiences of turning empty buildings across Dublin into homes for people exiting homelessness, this can be done quickly and cheaply.

Peter McVerry Trust believes there are 5 key actions that the Government must now introduce to allow empty homes to end homelessness.

Ring-fence empty homes for people in homelessness

Peter McVerry Trust believes that empty homes can offer solutions right across the housing spectre creating more rental properties and more homes to buy. On the housing needs of people in homelessness each local authority should be required to ring-fence 50% of all empty homes brought back into use for people in homelessness today until all of them are housed.

In the vast majority of counties, returning 200 homes and allocating 50% of them to people who are homeless will reduce homelessness to zero in that county.

A constant supply of empty homes coming back into the system together with Part V, HAP, and new build programmes by housing associations would mean we could rapidly re-house new cases of homelessness. This would eliminate the need for long term shelter placements.

Building regulations

Unfortunately, existing building regulations can make the renovation or upgrading of older empty properties unnecessarily expensive and time consuming. Over the shop accommodation, in particular, is hamstrung by costly and cumbersome building control processes.

The Government has been advised that it does not need to bring in new legislation. The Minister could simply use existing powers to improve the system making it cheaper, quicker and operating with a common sense approach to getting empty homes back into use.

Empty homes officers

There needs to be boots on the ground and local authorities also need the resources to hire these teams of Empty Homes Officers. These officers would get out there to identify empty homes, engage with the property owners and make them aware of Government grant schemes like the repair and leasing initiative.

Empty Homes Officers would also serve as a one stop shop for information and advice for empty home owners.

Matchmaker scheme

A matchmaker scheme is important because it would match empty home owners with organisations that want to lease or buy these properties.

The matchmaker scheme, coordinated by Empty Homes Officers, would match social housing associations and homeless charities with property owners in order to rent or purchase their properties. This scheme would need Government funding and fast track approval processes to do this and to get the buildings back into use as quickly as possible.

Vacant property tax

The final critical element is a vacant property tax that would be applied to houses not used as a person’s main home. Peter McVerry Trust believes that any property empty for more than 1 year should be subject to an additional tax or levy that would increase each year the property lies empty up until year 5 then a compulsory purchase order would be issued.

It is clear that empty homes, if targeted properly, carry the single best opportunity to end homelessness in Ireland. We know what the problems are and we also know what the solutions are. Now we must move quickly with decisive action. If we do that, we can effectively end homelessness by March 2018.

Pat Doyle is CEO of Peter McVerry Trust. Peter McVerry Trust is hosting an Empty Homes Conference on March 9th in Croke Park Conference Centre. For further details see www.pmvtrust.ie/emptyhomes.

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Pat Doyle

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