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State has a role in 'de-risking' refurb of vacant homes for buyers, committee to be told

Housing committee to be told the costs of dereliction and vacancy in our cities, towns and villages “are very high in societal terms”.

THE STATE HAS an important role in stepping in to “de-risk” the development of vacant properties for buyers, according to Maria Graham, Assistant Secretary Planning Division of the Department of Housing.

Appearing before an Oireachtas committee today on the issue of vacant houses around the country, the secretary general will tell members that the costs of dereliction and vacancy in our cities, towns and villages “are very high in societal terms”. 

In her opening statement today, Graham will tell the committee that choosing to refurbish a vacant or derelict house can be seen as a risk to some buyers, as it can appear more expensive to a person to develop a vacant or derelict properties than greenfield development. 

  • Our colleagues at Noteworthy want to investigate the impact of dereliction on housing in Cork city. Support this project here.

“There is an important role for the State in seeking to de-risk many of these projects, to provide vision for towns, support pathfinder projects and provide encouragement and a one-stop shop approach to guide people through the development process,” she will say in her opening statement. 

Her comments come after Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien told reporters yesterday that he plans to bring in changes to planning law that will allow buyers purchase vacant properties that were once pubs and restaurants and convert them back into residential units without the need for planning permission. 

A grant scheme to help people refurbish a vacant house in a town or village is also due to be launched this year, Minister O’Brien told The Journal in an interview at the end of last year. 

He confirmed at the time that the government is also looking at grants to help people looking to buy in towns and cities, by targeting above-shop units, where people can make their home above commercial properties. 

Funding assistance

O’Brien told reporters funding assistance will be made available not just for the conversion of derelict units but also vacant houses, with first-time buyers or ‘fresh start’ applicants (people who have been through a divorce or personal insolvency) eligible to apply.

He said the government is initially targeting 2,500 units.

Graham will say today there is a common theme in some reports on the high levels of vacancy and dereliction in the North and West of the country. However, in general terms the level of vacancy at national level or in cities appears to be more aligned, or even below the normal levels of vacancy that would be anticipated in any functioning market.

“However, this belies the very real lived experiences of vacancy and dereliction in urban areas,” she says, adding that members will be aware themselves of clusters of vacancy and dereliction in cities and towns in all areas of the country.

“There is a very real need for location specific data that allows for action plans to be developed that are specific to the local need, but informed by best practice. This is why we are focused on improving the data and research on vacancy, including through the harvesting of information through local property tax returns,” she says. 

Regulation changes 

In terms of the government’s Housing for All plan, she will say there is a need for some regulatory change to increase the flow of vacant properties to the market.

This includes the reform of the fair deal scheme, the introduction of new regulations for short-term lettings, and the extension of planning exemptions to 2025 to complement the Town Centre First objectives.

She will say her department is also engaging with local authorities to see if improvements can be made to the Derelict Sites Act, while the Law Reform Commission is considering the Compulsory Purchase legislation which could see the buying up of hundreds of vacant and derelict properties.

Apart from funding and regulation, Graham said there are other challenges in getting vacant properties back into use. 

“It is often riskier, involving more time, to refurbish than to build a new property,” she said. 

In a bid to streamline the process for all, she says vacant homes officers are being made full time and are getting advisory support from agencies such as the Housing Agency.

“This enabling role, and the supports to be given to local authorities, are a feature of the forthcoming Town Centre First policy. As part of this process, we will be hosting a workshop for vacant homes officers later this week, which will assist us in finalising the terms and conditions of the new funding schemes,” she said. 

The Government’s Town Centre plan aims to revitalise 26 towns and make them desirable places to live, work, socialise and operate a business. Funding of €100,000 will be provided to each of 26 towns for the development of a town centre plan. 

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