Aoife Corcoran has worked with the Peter McVerry Trust since May 2018, as a part-time vacant homes officer and co-ordinator.
She researches properties that people flag on the charity’s campaign platform “Reusing Dublin“.
The goal is to bring vacant homes back into use, so that instead of being a neighbourhood’s missing or rotting teeth, they can be part of the solution to the affordable housing shortage.
It is not an easy job. “Most of the work is finding owners,” Corcoran says, and this can take a lot of time.
In July, the Department of Housing published a National Vacant Housing Reuse Strategy, which includes details of the Vacant Homes Unit set up within the department in 2017, and a plan to appoint vacant-homes officers in local authorities.
But Francis Doherty, head of communications for Peter McVerry Trust, says he worries that council vacant-homes officers won’t all be devoted to the role full-time – they’ll be existing staff members endowed with an extra title, and lacking the time to dedicate to it.
Local authorities in Dublin say their vacant-homes officers are involved in several stages of finding owners and bringing empty properties back into use, but only Dublin City Council said that theirs were in the role “virtually full-time”.
A Full-Time Job
“It’s fundamental that this is a full-time job,” says Doherty, and that officers have responsibilities for other government schemes to bring properties back into use, such as the buy and renew, or the repair and lease schemes.
And possibly issuing compulsory purchase orders, he says. “It’s crucial that they don’t have other duties.”
Peter McVerry Trust’s own vacant-homes officers – there are two – start by identifying empty buildings, and they need time to do even that, he says. The council’s officers “need to have the availability to meet property owners, because not all properties will be suitable”, Doherty says.
The Department of Housing offers grants of €50,000 a year to local authorities toward the cost of operating vacant-homes units, said the spokesperson for Dublin City Council.
In most local authorities, a single officer would be appointed, said the spokesperson. “In Dublin City Council our Vacant Homes Unit comprises of three officers who are all working virtually full time on this issue. They would also investigate vacant/derelict sites from time to time.”
Staff in some of the Dublin City Council’s area offices are also involved in identifying and following up on vacant properties, they said. The council’s Planning and Development Department has also put significant resources into dealing with derelict sites and they work closely with the council’s Vacant Homes Unit, said the spokesperson.
South Dublin County Council has a vacant homes officer, who is also responsible for housing rents and loans, the rental accommodation scheme (RAS) and leasing, said a spokesperson.
Officials in another department also work with the vacant homes officer to manage the derelict and vacant sites registers, they said.
In Fingal County Council, the vacant-homes officer has responsibility for the buy and renew scheme, the repair and lease scheme, management of the compulsory purchase order process for the Housing Department, and acquisition of private properties, according to a spokesperson for Fingal County Council.
Fingal’s Planning and Infrastructure Department also manages that council’s vacant sites register and derelict sites register, and works closely with the vacant homes officer, they said.
In Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, the vacant-homes officer primarily identifies “suitable vacant properties”, and finds the registered owner.
The officer would then coordinate an inspection of the property, and liaise with the owner to “ascertain their interest” in making the property available under the social housing leasing scheme or the repair and lease scheme, and work with the council’s housing construction section, said a spokesperson for that council.
Fingal and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown councils did not reply to queries on what other responsibilities their vacant-homes officers have, and roughly how many hours a week they can dedicate to that role.
How It’s Done Elsewhere
In Scotland, the government-funded Empty Homes Partnership puts a dedicated empty-homes officer in every local authority, says Susie Rose, media officer for Shelter Scotland, the agency running the initiative, which aims to bring Scottish private-sector empty homes back into use.
“The support of the partnership includes training, networking, shared tools and resources for empty homes officers and part-funding for councils who want to set up empty homes services on a trial basis,” says Rose.
On the advice of the Empty Homes Partnership, councils should employ an officer whose sole focus is empty-homes work, says Rose, though some prefer to make the empty-homes office part of a wider housing role.
“Smaller and neighbouring authorities have shared staff or a small team to great effect. Some councils offer their own grant and loan funds to assist owners with financial barriers to bringing a property back into use,” says Rose.
Empty homes officers in Scotland work in much the same way as here; tracking down owners and working with them to bring their property back into use.
The Scottish government also previously introduced legislation allowing councils to increase their council tax by 100 percent on empty homes, ensuring there is an incentive to bring them back into use and creating income to help fund support for the owners of empty homes, says Rose.
An empty-homes tax or levy would have been an obvious step to take, says Doherty, of the Peter McVerry Trust. “It’s an effective measure elsewhere. It [the National Vacant Housing Reuse Strategy] didn’t draw enough on international evidence.”
In Ireland, there is a vacant sites levy, but that applies to empty land, not empty homes. There are also derelict sites registers, which can include structures, and can allow the council can impose financial penalties – but not all vacant homes are derelict.
Vacant-homes officers should be trying to uncover why properties are vacant, says Corcoran. They should be examining who is buying these properties, and looking for patterns.
“Transparency is needed, and that’s what we don’t have,” she said.