There are a lot of puzzling questions about the vacant dwelling figures released by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) not long ago.
The biggie is why, at a time of housing shortage and homelessness, there are apparently 6,300 more vacant residential units in the city than you would expect, as Rob Kitchin, a geography professor at NUI Maynooth has calculated.
And when you drill down to the city-level figures, there’s the weirdness of where these vacant units are: in affluent southside neighbourhoods. The two electoral areas with the highest proportions of other vacant units — after you take out holiday homes — aren’t usually synonymous with vacancy.
“It seems extraordinary, really, you know. That’s hard to understand,” said Labour Councillor Andrew Montague, who is also head of the Dublin City Council’s planning committee.
Map by Simon Auffret
Top of the list is Mansion House B, which covers an area the shape of a squashed kite that stretches north and east of Stephen’s Green, with Nassau Street to the north. It takes in Dawson Street, Kildare Street, Merrion Square and Fitzwilliam Square.
Once you take out holiday homes, other vacant dwellings make up 106 of the 451 homes in the neighbourhood, which is 23.5 percent.
In that area, 365 of the 1,693 homes are vacant dwellings other than holiday homes. That’s a vacancy rate of 21.6 percent.
According to the CSO, the guys and girls who did the legwork for the census were careful in identifying vacant dwellings. They looked for signs that a place was unoccupied: no furniture, cards, piles of junk mail, that kind of thing.
They asked neighbours and made several visits. (That’s how they worked out if a place was residential or not, too.) Dwellings under construction and derelict properties aren’t included.
Mansion House B
On Monday afternoon, the streets in the Mansion House B area show few of the usual signs of a neighbourhood with a high rate of vacancy.
There are several for-let signs for office space, but no obvious ones for residential units.
Several business owners in the area said they haven’t noticed a particularly high level of vacant dwellings in the area.
“I wouldn’t think of this as a residential area anyway,” said Jessica Stanley, who was working on Monday at the Science Gallery’s Makeshop on Lincoln Place.
Paul Murphy of Earnest Estate Agents, which handles properties across Dublin, said there might be a few reasons that this neighbourhood features high, but he’s also not sure.
There are a lot of second homes, he said, maybe belonging to people who live outside of the city on the weekends, but use them during the week – but not as primary homes.
“There’s a lot people who can afford second homes who live in the area, there’s a lot of people who like the idea of having an address it that area,” he said. (It’s unclear whether these properties would have counted, though.)
They could be investment properties, too, that people buy to sell on in a few years rather than to rent, he said. “Maybe they don’t want the hassle of tenants or whatever, I’m not sure,” he said.
The values hold well in that area, he said. “You’re not going to lose your socks on it.”
Green Party Councillor Ciaran Cuffe wondered if there were apartments that had been NAMAed and were in the process of being sold.
But NAMA chief Frank Daly told the Oireachtas Committee on Housing and Homelessness in May this year that the agency’s debtors had only 6,000 housing units across the country and nearly all are occupied by tenants.
“So there is really no hidden supply of houses that NAMA is keeping from the market,” he said.
Pembroke West B
On Tuesday morning on the tree-lined streets of the Pembroke West B electoral area, businesses and residents said the same: they haven’t noticed high vacancy levels.
There were plenty of cars parked in driveways of red-brick, mainly semi-detached homes.
Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey said the statistics were news to him. “I’m surprised,” he says. “I’d imagine it’s because of the collapse, and now regrowth, of the property economy. People were holding on to properties.”
But Fine Gael Councillor Paddy McCartan said it is something he had noticed while canvassing on several of the roads in this area over the years. “For years and years on Raglan Road and Elgin Road there never seemed to be anybody on the electoral register,” he says.
These roads often have buildings with several storeys over basements, he said. “Pembroke Road would be the same category, three-storey over basement or bigger.”
On Elgin Road, there are some large buildings with multiple empty flats, such as the properties at numbers 4 and 6 on the street, which have been on and off the market over the years.
Lacey said he thinks there is a lot of short-term accommodation in the neighbourhood, too. “By that I mean people who are working in Dublin and commute out.”
(Again, it’s possible that these would have been listed as vacant dwellings by accident, but if the census counters talked to neighbours and returned several times, they are less likely to have been included.)
Some have questioned how Airbnb rentals play into the figures. They would be categorised as holiday homes, said Conor Hughes in the Census Enquiries Section at the CSO. So, they might account for the increase in vacant holiday homes counted, but likely don’t play into the number of other vacant dwellings.
There are proposals to tackle vacancy in the government’s “Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness”, which was released on Tuesday.
One of these is to review legislation so that those who want to convert above-the-shop offices and vacant retail spaces into homes and apartments can do so “without having to go through the planning process”.
The number of vacant spaces above shops has been repeatedly raised as a problem that needs to be tackled.
The government’s plan also noted a proposed pilot project: a “repair and leasing initiative” under which local authorities can provide aid to landlords to bring vacant properties in line with current rental standards, and in return the properties can be used as social housing.
Both Montague and Cuffe said it’s important that the council work out exactly why properties are vacant in different parts of the city.
After all, it’s kind of hard to come up with best solutions if nobody’s sure of the reason why these properties are empty. “I think there is a lot of jumping to conclusions here,” said Cuffe.
Said Montague: “We should find out and get to the bottom of this. A good understanding of what’s going on is probably the first thing.”
That said, Montague said he thinks there’s a case for issuing compulsory purchase orders (CPOs) on properties that have been vacant for two years or more in areas where there is a massive housing shortage. “We don’t need to build another house if we use all the houses that we have,” he said.
Semi-derelict homes would be the best targets for that at first, Montague said. Kildare County Council has been more aggressive and successful than Dublin City Council in CPO-ing properties, he said.
Cuffe suggested another possible solution. “We need to find ways of speeding up probate when somebody dies,” he said. “Homes can be empty for years on end while lawyers come to an agreement.”