Last August, Glengarriff businessman Finn McSweeney teamed up with local estate agent John O’Neill and set about converting a half-empty holiday home development into a fully occupied community hub. Mountain View is an estate of 23 holiday homes built at the height of the boom by a Limerick partnership that had hoped to sell them for around €300,000 each.
Cut to two years later. The partnership is in receivership and most of the houses are empty. The receiver is looking for buyers but no matter how well-finished the houses, or how low the price, no one wants to live in a ghost estate. Mr McSweeney realises the only way out is for a consortium to get together and purchase a large group of houses. And this is what happens.
“We targeted areas,” Mr O’Neill explains. “We looked at people who were members of local golf clubs, we targeted people who had an affinity with the area, that were known to pubs and restaurants, we talked to retired people and, of course, we talked to local people.”
Within two weeks, the pair had found 14 buyers, together with a waiting list of six more. The consortium then went to the receiver and was able to secure the kind of bargain that a single house purchaser could never have achieved. Each paid €85,000 for the three-bed, four-star, rental quality properties; less than a third of the original asking price. “Putting it bluntly,” says John O’Neill, “a receiver could have got more if he could have sold them individually but it wasn’t just practical... It’s extremely difficult to sell one-off housing in this type of situation.”
The buyers, who range in age from 30 to 70, include regular holidaymakers, golfers, families, and retired civil servants. All moved together on contracts and each contributed to a pool of €200,000 to get all the houses (averaging 1,200 sq ft) to the same finished standard.
Mr O’Neill is convinced that this model could be applied elsewhere. “It does take a lot of legwork, and in all these things, there’s an element of luck,” he says. “The ball must bounce in your direction. Amidst this doom and gloom there is positively out there, and maybe that co-operative spirit is coming back a bit more.”
This is, of course, only one solution, and can only succeed in very specific circumstances. Cash buyers are few and far between, even at such knockdown prices, while the vast majority of the empty housing stock lacks the amenity location which was so crucial to the success of the Mountain View story.
So then what? Should we start knocking them down?
“I think that’s absolutely the last resort,” says Professor Rob Kitchin at NUI Maynooth.
He points to the experience of Westmeath County Council, which demolished three half-built houses in a ghost estate for safety reasons last year, at a reported cost of €40,000.
“We know, over the long term, that the population is going to go up, so there will be demand for housing in the future, that’s absolutely certain.”
While we’re waiting, he would like to see some element of regulation introduced to both planning and banking to ensure that future developments are a little more sustainable. None of which is to deny that the horse has bolted. We also need to implement policy to address the steaming mess that he left behind. Prior to his resignation last November, then-housing minister Willie Penrose raised the possibility of using ghost estates to meet social housing needs.
Two years before that, the Department of the Environment established a €5m fund to tackle health and safety issues on the worst of the unfinished estates. The department also launched an initiative to begin drafting individual site resolution plans (SRPs) which would tackle issues on an estate-by-estate basis. Rob Kitchin believes this approach is not working.
“The fund is too small and SRPs are a limited effort, minimal cost approach to unfinished estates that tries to use existing legislation to resolve issues... In the meantime, estates wither on the vine and residents live with the consequences of the worst features of the housing bust.”
One group that has decided not to sit and curse the darkness is Nama to Nature. This group has been sneaking onto abandoned estates around the country and planting trees. At the village of Keshcarrigan in Co. Leitrim — the county worst effected by the vacant house problem — volunteers have planted over 1,000 willow, alder, birch and ash trees. They won’t solve the problem, but by the time the population rises to meet the housing stock, the residents will probably look back on the efforts of a gang of guerrilla gardeners as one of the most worthwhile initiatives of the crisis.