Right policies robustly implemented can solve housing crisis

Measures to stop land hoarding, create a more efficient planning system, and greater access to information, would start addressing the issue, writes Kieran Rose

Right policies robustly implemented can solve housing crisis

Housing and homelessness have become a key issue in public discourse and in the recent election, and must from a core part of the negotiations of all parties and TDs for the next programme for government.

There are many solutions proposed to the crisis but real action from government moves at a snail’s pace. These problems are not inevitable — if we have the right policies and implement them robustly, we can sort out these issues as many other countries have.

One of the key ones is to stop land hoarding, thereby increasing the supply of development land on to the market, and so stabilising or reducing its price, and therefore housing prices to the end consumer.

It is astonishing that there are almost 60 hectares of vacant development land in the inner city of Dublin, land that should be developed for high-quality housing, close to all amenities, and where, in many cases, people could walk or cycle to work.

We have a vacant land levy but it’s only 3% of the market value of the site and not payable until 2019. It’s also very cumbersome for local authorities to operate, with multiple appeals and consequent delays. If you were cynical, you might think it was designed to fail.

Currently, vacant land owners pay no rates or taxes on their vacant properties. Legislation should be introduced based on the model of the Residential Property Tax, where the owners of vacant development land would have to put a value on the site and pay an increased levy of 8% immediately or sell the site. Vacant site owners are treated far more leniently than home owners and it seems very unfair as this land is a blight on its surroundings.

The great benefit of such a tax is that it would either pressure vacant site owners to get on with development, or sell on to those who will develop. The tax will also put people off buying development sites and hoarding them as a speculative ploy.

The government should prioritise measures to increase the supply of affordable quality housing and the development of social housing. A taskforce should be put in place and demand that the various agencies responsible move quickly and effectively, including the Department of Environment, the key local authorities, Nama, An Bord Pleanála and others. Housing associations and the construction industry must also be engaged with. A housing tsar would scythe through layers of unnecessary bureaucracy and delay.

There are too many vacant State lands and these must be brought into play for residential development and other uses. The OPW have a register of vacant State properties which should be made public online in the interests of transparency and accountability, good governance, and corporate social responsibility.

Nama should be pressured to move quickly on their residential sites and publish progress reports bi-monthly. There are many Nama sites which could provide significant numbers of homes but there is little evidence of progress. Priorities have changed since it was formed and now needs to be made fit for a new, much needed purpose. Legislation must be introduced to force Nama to put public good as a priority above profit.

There is evidence that owners renting properties via Airbnb has taken many apartments (1,000 according to a recent report) out of standard residential use and converted them to commercial use. Action should be taken to bring these units back into residential use (to be clear, there is no problem with the full-time resident letting out an apartment/house for short-term use).

Alan Kelly, the environment minister, at the Baile na Laochra cluster of modular homes on Balbutcher Lane, Ballymun, Dublin. Picture: Laura Hutton/Collins
Alan Kelly, the environment minister, at the Baile na Laochra cluster of modular homes on Balbutcher Lane, Ballymun, Dublin. Picture: Laura Hutton/Collins

There must be greater efficiencies and responsiveness in the planning system and much reduced time-frames. Bord Pleanála should prioritise appeals on large housing developments to get decisions out quickly, while still retaining proper planning standards.

The board should make progress reports publicly available. The same efficiencies should apply to local planning authorities. These could also look at council-owned land and see if should be developed for social housing or put to the market.

CPO legislation should be reformed to make process more effective and efficient.

There should be an examination of compensation regime for sites being compulsorily acquired to make sure that public are not paying over the odds, for example, by including ‘hope value’.

Currently, any vacant commercial premises pay 50% rates. This should go back up to 100% after one year — a reasonable period to let premises, while inhibiting premises being left vacant. This would also encourage property owners to convert upper floors to residential use, which are now vacant.

The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission needs to carry out an investigation into the development land market and the construction industry to see if there is evidence of monopolistic practices.

In a recent report, the National Economic and Social Council made the interesting and powerful statement: “Well before the crisis and current log jam, Ireland’s system of land allocation and housing supply was dysfunctional.

“Ownership of large amounts of building land in some areas was very concentrated, and these landowners co-operated rather than competed, contributing to poor land market performance.”

There is a range of other ways to make the development land market more efficient, operate in the interests of the common and facilitate the supply of housing, such as increasing the availability of public information on who owns what and where, and data on what development sites have been sold for, similar to the Residential Property Price Register.

These measure would be a solid start to driving the supply of affordable and quality housing, a critical part of tackling our housing crisis.

Kieran Rose is a senior planner. He instigated and drafted the 2013 lord mayor’s taskforce submission to Government for a vacant land levy. He is a commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. He is running for the Seanad as part of the NUI panel.

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