More powers needed to tackle housing crisis

Stronger CPO powers for local authorities could bring vacant properties, derelict sites, and underused spaces into use, writes Barry Cowen

IT’S been nine months since the Government launched its Rebuilding Ireland Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness to much fanfare. However, the publication of three recent reports — on the acceleration in house price inflation and continuing rental inflation in 2017 and on lack of progress being made on new social housing construction — demonstrates that the plan is failing the key litmus test of expanding new housing supply.

Housing Minister Simon Coveney continues to ignore areas which could deliver significant new housing while introducing pro-cyclical measures that are causing extreme house price and rent inflation and are creating the conditions for the next housing bubble.

It is acknowledged that building housing is a time-consuming and difficult undertaking. But the constant assertions that targets on new housing supply are being met — when patently the opposite is the case — are doing nothing to actually change policies that will impact the dysfunctional housing market.

Census 2016 revealed almost 260,000 homes — 15% of total housing stock — are vacant. This is shamefully wasteful. It also significantly under-counts vacant property as census enumerators only count properties that are currently in use as residential dwellings and are fit for someone to currently live in. Vacant properties that are zoned as industrial or commercial are not counted nor are spaces in need of significant conversion or refurbishment.

However, there are thousands of square feet of liveable space in such properties that have obvious potential for residential use with relatively limited refurbishment or redevelopment. This is especially the case for “above the shop” units.

For example, a vacant building study by planners at UCC last year revealed that in a typical city centre street, conversion of vacant sites and vacant upper floors could increase residential populations in urban centres by more than 260%. In Dublin, this could translate to more than 20,000 additional residential units in a short space of time.

While new builds will continue to be the main source of new housing, expanded supply in city and town centres, especially in pre-1963 buildings, could be significant if the policy priority is refocused on returning vacant spaces to use as accommodation.

The approach adopted thus far on getting vacant properties into use has been to use the carrot — but we also need a stick.

While the vacant property grant now being rolled out is welcome, it will be completely insufficient and fundamentally misunderstands why we have a chronic shortage of housing while so much of our property lies vacant.

Most vacant spaces that have potential for conversion to residential use are in older buildings, which makes it next to impossible to get sign-off on building regulations whose standards are designed for new builds. Building-control regulations make spaces in older or commercial buildings virtually impossible to convert for residential use and have to be changed if we are to make a dent in reducing building vacancies and dereliction.

Local authorities also need a greater stick to get vacant properties, derelict sites, and underused spaces into use as housing, in the form of enhanced compulsory purchase powers. Much of the vacant stock was bought on the cheap by investors during the crash and has been left vacant since, often as there are protracted disputes among parties. Backlogs in probate or conveyancing mean properties can be left sitting idle for years before they can be sold on.

While local authorities have powers under the Derelict Sites Act as well as the Housing Act to use CPOs in the area of housing, most are reluctant to use these as they require a significant outlay in the form of legal and administrative expenses, which is squandered if the CPO is not successful.

This is why renewed CPO powers should be given to local authorities to take over the management of a long-term vacant property, for a specified period and under certain strict criteria for the public good. Property owners would receive rent for the period of the order, minus the costs of refurbishing and managing the building.

Following similar problems with vacant properties in Britain, local authorities were given such enhanced CPO powers, revising down legal costs involved in undertaking orders for the purposes of housing. Simply having the powers to credibly threaten the owners of long-term vacant or derelict property with a CPO is enough to get significant levels of these buildings into productive use, without having to go through with the order.

Barry Cowen is Fianna Fáil spokesman on housing, planning, and local government

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