There are more vacant council houses in Limerick than there are people who are registered as homeless, according to latest figures.
However, more than half of the nearly 300 vacant properties belonging to Limerick City and County Council (LCCC) are in need of refurbishment before they can be occupied.
Out of the 297 properties registered as vacant at the end of March, 157 need work done before they can be allocated to tenants.
Out of that 80, 54 would be classed as derelict, meaning they require structural repairs such as work on the roof, or works to fix damage caused by fire or flooding, while 77 are in need of minor refurbishment.
However, Una Burns, policy officer with the housing charity Novas, says although these figures indicate that there is enough social housing to meet the demand of homeless people in Limerick, there are a number of critical points that these figures don’t reveal.
“What type of housing is available? How many of these units are one-bed properties?” Ms Burns asked.
She said February's figures, which show 221 people registered as homeless in Limerick, mostly include single adults and a small number of couples.
By in large, this group would only be entitled to a one-bed social housing unit, with a national deficit of these types of properties, Ms Burns said.
“Limerick is no exception. Even if all the social housing mentioned here was available today, the people who are recorded as homeless would be ineligible to access many of the units,” she added.
Ms Burns said this figure of 221 registered homeless does not include those who feature among the county’s "hidden homeless".
“These are people who have no secure or safe home, who sofa surf, and move from place to place from night to night. We can assume, with certainty, that the number of people in need of housing is much greater.
“And we know from recent European evidence that women comprise a large portion of people who are hidden homeless, the research particularly points to Ireland in this regard,” she added.
According to Ms Burns, Limerick is not unique in having a lack of sufficient one and two-bed accommodation units, describing it as a national problem and one, “the council is keenly aware of and seeking to address.”
"If you look at Daft.ie today, there are just two one-bed properties to rent in Limerick City and both far exceed the limits of HAP, even with a 20% uplift,” Ms Burns said.
She pointed to the Repair and Lease Scheme as a possible answer to the shortage of one and two-bed units in Limerick.
“Cities such as Waterford have done very well in using this scheme,” Ms Burns added.
As well as those registered as homeless, there are people who are waiting to be allocated a council house.
According to Limerick City and County Council chief executive’s Report for February 2021, there are also 2,374 on the housing waiting list.
“We have a housing crisis,” said Sinn Féin TD Maurice Quinlivan. “We have over 2,300 people on the social housing list, and obviously a lot more people than that are in need of a home."
Mr Quinlivan says the issue of vacant council-owned properties has been ongoing for years.
“We need to prioritise this stuff. It's not rocket science to get those houses delivered, and you're not spending the money on the cost of emergency accommodation,” he added.
Included in the 297 vacant properties, a total of 26 houses are available for letting and are waiting to be allocated to tenants. Another 34 are homes that have been refurbished and allocated to tenants but not yet accepted by them.
One house is classed as “mortgage to rent”, while 79 are classed as “other”, and “awaiting allocation of funding so works can begin.”
According to the council, between April and December 2020, 146 homes were brought back into use by LCCC, who prioritised these works when the coronavirus pandemic impacted the provision of services throughout the country.
“It’s simple, it’s practical, and right now, there is too much bureaucracy in the housing area anyway. That’s one of the problems with the state providing housing directly,” he said.
Not included in the 297 vacant houses are 60 properties earmarked for demolition.
This programme, the council said, has been curtailed due to the impact of Covid-19 and public health restrictions imposed by the Government.
A number of houses, which were knocked in March, were located in the St Mary’s Park area of Limerick City.
An Garda Síochána, along with LCCC, created a joint task force as part of Operation Copóg, which aimed at assisting the community in St Mary’s Park with a specific programme of works.
It comes as a number of vacant houses in the area had been reported by residents, as being hubs for anti-social activities.
Since then, eight of the planned 12 houses due for demolition have been completely demolished.
“The remaining four houses are attached to homes currently occupied so will take a little bit longer to demolish,” a council spokesperson said. An old takeaway structure in the estate has also been demolished.
“When a council-owned house becomes vacant, Limerick City and County Council ensures it cannot be occupied until refurbishment works are carried out. If illegal activities do take place, the gardaí are informed,” the spokesperson said.