‘No idea too radical or too big’ in new minister’s attempt to solve housing crisis

‘We are not going to force people out of their homes,’ says Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy, whose plans to target ‘stranded assets’ may include tax write-offs or grant incentives, writes Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe

Newly promoted Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy skillfully managed Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael leadership campaign.

It was run with military precision and it closed down the contest in 48 hours.

“Murph”, as party colleagues call him, likes to say this was down to the candidate, not the campaign.

But now the ambitious south Dubliner, 35, has been handed by his newly crowned boss what is arguably the most challenging portfolio at Cabinet — that of housing.

The housing crisis has put an end to many young couples’ dreams of owning their own home and has seen record numbers of homeless families forced to live in hotels and B&Bs — if they are lucky enough to get off the street.

House prices, particularly in Dublin, are spiralling out of control again, with rises of 10% expected this year and exorbitant rents swallowing up any savings workers can put away for home deposits.

In recent months, homeless families were sent to stay the night in Garda stations. At the end of April, a record 7,000 people were homeless, a third of them children.

It is into this firmament of disappointments that Eoghan Murphy has been hurled, taking up where his predecessor Simon Coveney left off. With his in-tray undoubtedly overloaded, how does Mr Murphy hope to win this battle?

“It is exciting, but challenging, and the Taoiseach told me to hit the ground running. That’s what I hope I am doing.

“He said ‘no idea is too radical or too big, so think of everything’. That’s what I am doing.”

After receiving his seal of office at Áras an Uachtaráin last Wednesday week at 1am, he met his department secretary general the next morning at eight to discuss fire safety after the London tower block tragedy.

He has since met housing campaign groups such as the McVerry Trust and Focus Ireland and visited construction sites where builders speedily assemble units for homeless families.

He described workers at Agatha’s Court, a Dublin City development for homeless people, as being like Doozers from the puppet series Fraggle Rock.

“Eighteeen months of work is being done in 18 weeks, 165 guys on site. I went out there. They were everywhere. No one was stopping to say hi. The Pope could walk through and no one would notice,” he said.

Mr Murphy admits he was “surprised” to be offered the housing portfolio, but happy to take it on.

“This is a job that is going to consume me and already has. I’m a young guy, I don’t have kids. I’m looking for a new challenge.”

Increasing the supply of homes, particularly in Dublin, is the focus.

He will now assess the estimated 189,000 empty properties nationwide and see which could be targetted, ruling out those caught up in sales, probate, or other processes.

The minister calls these vacant units “stranded assets”.

“A stranded asset could be a room in a building that could be used for a bedroom or a house or a home.

“At the moment, everything is up for consideration. As Leo has said to me, don’t dismiss any idea off the bat.”

So could Ireland then bring in a “bedroom tax”, as introduced in Britain, where some tenants with spare rooms have their benefit payments cut?

Mr Murphy ruled this out, but he said that incentives, as well as a “stick” approach, will be needed to get people to use spare rooms, homes and lands to tackle the crisis.

“We’re not going to be forcing people out of their homes. Certainly if we can find new incentives to help people downsize we will do that, but we are not going to force people out of their homes.

“When I talk abut stranded assets, I’m talking about commercial buildings where potentially there is space that isn’t being let for housing purposes or people who may want to enter into the letting of property or part of their property.

“It might be a floor above a shop, it might be someone who has space in their own home, who has not thought about entering into being a landlord because maybe it isn’t attractive enough for them.”

While the minister won’t commit to specific ideas or targets now, as he is still getting his feet under the desk, the Irish Examiner

understands that ideas being considered by his department include encouraging the use of vacant housing stock by giving owners a set period to make a property or part of a residence available for occupancy through incentives, such as a tax write-off or a grant. Failing this, a penalty or stick approach would then apply. But these are only ideas being considered.

“All of this needs to be explored with the Attorney General and all of this needs to be explored with property rights,” Mr Murphy said.

The help-to-buy-scheme, currently under review, could also be in the firing line amid concerns that the grant (up to €20,000) is inflating prices.

Certainly, the minister believes that not enough properties for first-time buyers are actually being constructed.

“What’s concerning is you see the number of mortgage applications and the supply that is becoming available, you see the incredible competition.”

Managing the campaign which got Mr Varadkar elected as the new Fine Gael leader was about precision planning, as well as success in the first 48 hours.

A key point was what Mr Murphy calls “D-Day for declaration”, where in the first 24 to 48 hours TDs, senators, and key figures backed Mr Varadkar as opposed to Simon Coveney.

“It had to go right from the start,” he says, adding that the final husting in Cork was a high point.

But the political honeymoon — if indeed there was one — has been short-lived and Eoghan Murphy will have his work cut out for him as he strives to get the housing crisis under control, in what will arguably be the Varadkar administration’s biggest battle.


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