Freeing up land is the first step in solving our housing crisis

Take a walk down Abbey Street past the Jervis Center — itself a converted hospital — towards Heuston Station in Dublin.

Once at Heuston circle back on yourself and come back up the quays, the north quays in particular.

I have been travelling this route, along that axis, since the late 1990s when we moved from leafy south Dublin to ineffably leafier north Kildare.

What strikes me is the sheer amount of vacant land. In some cases these plots have become overrun with mature shrubs, city gardens of buddleia and willow and hazel.

A particularly large plot is, with irony that would make Myles na gCoppaleen bilious with envy, right beside the land registry.

Google Maps tells me that this plot alone is some 4,645 sq m. Another plot, derelict also, is beside the pubic appointments commission, some 3715 sq m. Smaller plots abound, such as a 1,860 sq m plot on Usher’s Island.

So these three together have 9,290 sq m of land; right in the city centre, serviced, accessed and ready to go. They have lain idle for years.

At 116 sq m per apartment and allowing 15% for overage (curtain walls, entry, etc) there’s room for 70-80 apartments per each storey. At 10 storeys, well the maths aren’t hard to do.

The same is true of Cork, Limerick, Galway, Sligo, Tralee and just about every large and medium sized town. We have land lying idle.

At the same time, we have managed a feat unique to world history. We have simultaneously a housing shortage and a massive amount, numbering in the hundreds of thousands at the upper end of estimates, of empty houses.

Rents are at a level never before seen even at the height of the madness, and that is with some degree of quasi-rent slowdown or control in place. Pity the renters when the brakes come off.

House supply has all but collapsed. Local Authority housing, which up to the early 1990s had accounted for about 30% of the new builds, and from then to about 2010, 10%, has dwindled to almost nothing.

We have, willy nilly and after an economic calamity caused by an overenthusiastic worship of the private housing sector, decided to place all our housing eggs in that selfsame basket.

Words are not adequate, and libel laws too loose, to speak of the folly of this action. Private housing markets in Ireland do not deliver a socially optimal mix of houses.

There is a massive market failure. In the face of market failure, governments — no matter how much they worship free markets — intervene.

We have a supply problem. Everybody is aware of this. We are 20,000 housing units short per annum with little evidence that these will be built anytime soon.

The leaked draft report from the Oireachtas committee on housing and homelessness seems to suggest that the politicians only partially grasp this.

The headline issue is one of decrying the Central Bank macroprudential actions, the loan-to-value and loan-income-ratios.

These, let’s recall, were they in place the last boom, would have gone a long way to cooling it down.

So, the Central Bank has taken appropriate and sensible action to clamp down on any demand-led house price boom.

That is their job, and to critique them for so doing is perverse, given they did not do it in the last boom. Thankfully, in Philip Lane they have a governor who is, I suspect, mostly impervious to the bleatings of politicians.

Right now we don’t have an issue with house affordability per se. We have an issue with house availability.

We have known for decades we have an issue with land hoarding. We need to intervene in the market at the source of failure — one main such source is the hoarding, the non-use, of land.

It is seen as more potentially profitable to hold onto land in the hope of its value rising than to build homes. Let’s have a sensible and savage land value tax.

Planning permission for homes on a plot should result in rapid movement towards utilisation.

If after a year there is no building on the land, a 10% value tax is applied, with another 10% every six months, and so on.

At the very least we would eliminate that element of supply failure from the housing value chain. We can then move to examine the other elements.

If, as is claimed, it is still not profitable with freed up land to build, then we need to move to social provision, as we did for decades, as an integral part of the mix.

The Government has been like a deer in the headlights for years, facing the oncoming train. If they are overwhelmed that’s one thing.

If they refuse to move as they are in thrall to ideology, that’s quite another.


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