The Government, together with state agencies, NGOs and the public have responded in a hugely positive way to the needs of people impacted by the horrific war in Ukraine. The initial outpouring of support has quickly transitioned into an enormous logistical effort to provide the best response possible to the needs of tens of thousands of people arriving into Ireland from Ukraine.
To date, Peter McVerry Trust has supported around 2,000 people from Ukraine and is working closely with the Department of Children and IPAS as well as the Department of Housing, the Housing Agency and local authorities to play our part in the emergency response.
The biggest challenge the State faces is securing the volume of properties needed to provide an appropriate emergency humanitarian response and to also offer medium-term housing solutions. To that end, the area of vacant properties has rightly been identified by Government as the core element of its plan.
Reusing vacant properties can be an effective solution because they are often quicker and cheaper than new builds to make available. They also offer a more sustainable form of delivery and there are tens of thousands of vacant properties in urban centres across Ireland with close proximity to services and public amenities.
The initial wave of action on vacant properties has focused on identifying large properties that can be adapted to act as emergency accommodation centres, while also working with local authorities to accelerate the re-use of their void properties and to ringfence a number of these for refugees.
However, taken together with available and suitable pledged accommodation from the public and the use of emergency hotel placements and student accommodation for the summer, there remains the potential for a significant shortfall in accommodation needs, needs that could increase given the ongoing war. It’s also important to remember that when the war ends, and we all hope it ends as soon as possible, there is no quick return on the cards for many people who fled given the deliberate destruction of cities and towns and the targeting of residential buildings across Ukraine by Russia.
This may mean that much of the hotel accommodation and pledged accommodation currently on offer will fall away as the months pass, placing greater onus on the need to secure other, more sustainable, forms of accommodation.
For the State to secure the volume of accommodation needed it must now focus the next wave on securing the re-use of vacant properties held in private ownership. Those civil servants leading on the response to the needs of Ukrainian refugees are trying to marry the availability of important services, such as GPs and school places, with vacant properties.
The data exists to overlay these key metrics and to define which areas can best accommodate people in need. However, securing offers of empty properties on a scale needed in the preferred locations would be extremely fortuitous. In fact, securing offers of empty properties of the volume needed at all is an unlikely scenario.
That view is informed by the recent experience from State efforts, under Rebuilding Ireland and now under Housing for All, to activate more vacant homes in private ownership under an incentives-based model of re-use. While schemes such as Repair and Leasing are growing in popularity, their current targets are dwarfed by the need that exists.
The challenge is, and has been, that people in possession of vacant properties which are not otherwise tied up for reasons, such as the Fair Deal Scheme or probate, rarely take up schemes offered by the State. That is why under Housing for All, the Minister for Housing has already set out a significant target of 2,000 units to be taken in by local authorities through the use of Compulsory Purchase Orders. This is often cited as a lengthy and resource-intensive act for councils to undertake, and given as reason as to why so few long-term vacant and derelict properties have been secured using the CPO process.
If we are to gain use of the properties quickly as part of the Ukrainian response, particularly properties held by property investors big and small, the Government will need to move beyond existing incentive-based models and the use of CPOs to secure them.
We previously proposed the introduction of emergency Compulsory Leasing Order powers to allow local authorities and the Housing Agency to take control of and reuse empty properties. It is an obvious measure which is now required to meet the challenges faced by the State; emergency legislation which would enact a simplified process to allow local authorities to take temporary charge of long-term vacant or derelict properties for the purposes of responding to the refugee crisis. It would enable access to properties which are currently standing idle and would likely remain so even in the midst of a refugee and housing crisis.
The Compulsory Leasing Order would not change property ownership but simply allow full or partial use of a property by the council under emergency provisions. The council would oversee the upgrade and put the property back into use and the owner would receive rent minus the cost of refurbishment, similar to the existing Repair and Leasing Scheme model. Once the emergency period has passed and monies owed to the council are repaid, the property could revert to the original owner but only for ongoing use as social or affordable housing.
This could also apply to, not just residential properties but also, mixed-use properties with commercial ground floor and empty upper floors. A Compulsory Leasing Order on the upper floors could see suitable properties converted into apartments. Similarly, there would be scope to take possession of large empty commercial premises for conversion to accommodation or housing.
Going one step further would see the introduction of Compulsory Sales Orders whereby the owners of long-term vacant properties would be obligated to sell their properties on the market. Legislation could specify that these homes could only be bought by owner-occupiers, housing associations or local authorities to avoid speculators buying them and letting them sit idle. This additional move to tackle vacancy would supply the market with additional town centre properties for people to acquire.
Additionally, it would boost supply in high-demand areas and increase supply of accommodation in the housing system to help deal with the additional pressures brought about by the refugee crisis. This would help alleviate concerns that the focus on finding accommodation for refugees may have a negative impact on the overall housing system. It also makes sense to act on this now if we are to fully address the vacant homes issue.
The properties that are at the core of the solution to the refugee crisis, and indeed the housing and homeless crisis, already exist. How we open the doors to those homes now requires real emergency powers in a time of a true emergency.
Pat Doyle is CEO of Peter McVerry Trust