Hundreds of Dublin City Council-owned homes are overcrowded, while hundreds of others remain underused, council figures suggest.
There are seven people living in a one-bedroom home. And in another case, eleven people are squeezed into a two-bedroom home.
Meanwhile, there are four-beds with just one person living in them, and there are five-beds that are home to just three people.
“I think it is an issue that needs to be carefully talked about,” said Green Party Councillor Ciarán Cuffe, who got the figures in a response to a query to council managers.
Of the one-bedroom council homes in the Dublin City Council area, 111 have three or more people living in them.
For two-beds, 243 have six or more people living in them. For three-beds, 46 have nine or more people living in them. For four-beds, four households have 12 or more people living in them.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are homes that are emptier. For three-beds, 823 have only one person living in them. For four-beds, 113 have one person in them, and 232 have two people in them.
“The bottom line is that there are hundreds of underused or overcrowded tenancies or homes where Dublin City Council is the landlord,” Cuffe said.
What counts as overcrowded isn’t straightforward. Policymakers often consider at the number of people per room in a home, but there are complicating factors. Are people adults or children? What mix of genders are they? How old are they?
Defining what is underused can be subjective, too. Single parents might need a space for a child, or children, at the weekend. An adult might need a room for a carer to stay. “All of that has to come into it,” said Cuffe.
Council tenants who want to move homes for whatever reason can apply to go on the transfer list, a spin-off social-housing list.
That includes tenants looking to swap with those in homes, in cases when it would mean a better use of a larger home, said a council spokesperson. “There is also a special provision […] whereby tenants who are surrendering larger accommodation get priority for a home more appropriate to their needs.”
People in overcrowded social housing are among those on the transfer list, in what’s called “band two”. That means they aren’t prioritised.
But whatever system the council sets for who gets a social home and when, families moving out need somewhere to move on to, says Sinn Féin Councillor Daithi Doolan, who chairs the council’s housing committee.
That’s a problem, said the council spokesperson. “Currently there is a very strong demand for the limited amount of smaller homes that we have in our housing stock at present and therefore we are not always able to facilitate those who are willing to surrender [larger homes].”
Some of the people living in overcrowded homes “are living in Dickensian conditions”, said Doolan. “Some of them are living in unacceptable conditions, in social housing.”
But “it always come back to supply”, he says. “We don’t have a magic wand or a bag of fairy dust.”
Dublin City Council does have a scheme to tap into under-occupied homes in the private sector, where underuse is probably a bigger issue than in local-authority homes, said a council spokesperson.
Through the “financial contribution scheme”, the council can buy private homes that are under-occupied by older people at a reduced price, and offer them a local-authority home.
“We then give the purchased home to a family on the social housing waiting list. This is a fairly popular scheme particularly for people who own former Local Authority homes,” the spokesperson said.
The council tried to encourage people to move from emptier social homes to smaller ones after the Annamore Court complex was built in Ballyfermot, said Doolan. “The uptake wasn’t as good as we thought.”
But some made the move. That multi-storey sheltered apartment building of 70 homes was built in 2017 by the Iveagh Trust. Seventeen of the homes went to people who downsized, says Gene Clayton, chief executive of the Iveagh Trust.
Clayton said it was one of the first schemes they’ve publicized like that. “We had posted around local areas, shops.”
Encouraging more local-authority tenants to downsize would take a more consistent programme, he says. “It’s only as much as you let people know […] It’s about education.”
Cuffe of the Green Party said he wondered whether there might be a need for incentives. “That might mean encouraging empty-nesters to move to smaller accommodation, perhaps by offering a grant for furniture, decoration or other measures,” he said.
The council is looking to build 61 more homes in Ballyfermot, some of which would be social housing for senior citizens. “Again, we want to make it attractive for singles or couples who are in an underutilised house,” says Doolan.
In general, though, having somewhere for those who are willing to leave what has perhaps been a family home with years of memories is still a challenge. “We’re not building enough beds for people to be moving into,” said Doolan.
Doolan says more funding is needed from the Department of Housing for grants for extensions – which can be used for those in overcrowded homes, as well as those with medical needs – who just want to add on to the place they are already in.
“It’s a lot easier than building a new house,” he said. But “that funding we receive is minuscule, it’s just not big enough”.
Most council homes are three-bedroom houses because families have needed those over the years, said a council spokesperson. “This has only begun to change in recent years with a greater demand from single persons and a reduction in the size of families presenting.”
Over time, families living in the bigger homes changed “through death and family members leaving”, so now many are under-occupied, the spokesperson said.
At this month’s meeting of the council’s housing committee, Aideen Hayden, chair of the housing charity Threshold, said the council needs to look at its social housing stock, and consider how well – or not – it is catering to single people.
“Where units do become available that are, say three-bed units, we [should] look very carefully at repurposing them into single units,” she said.
She and Labour Councillor Alison Gilliland both said at the meeting that they’re concerned about the number of single people on the housing list, compared to the number of social homes that there are for single people.
“Which, in effect, has pushed single people into the rented sector,” said Hayden.
Cuffe says he is wary of the sensitivities around discussing larger social homes that might be used for more people, and how to encourage that.
“It’s a minefield this whole issue,” says Cuffe. “We’ve seen huge controversy in the UK, where taxation was proposed on empty bedrooms. I don’t think we should go down that road.”
“But at a time when we have tens of thousands of homeless people in the city, we do have to look at a better use of the limited housing stock that we have,” he says.
Said a council spokesperson: “At a time when there is such a shortage of social housing and a lack of overall supply, it would be very difficult to turn this under-occupation issue around.”
“What we need is a decent ongoing supply of one and two-bedroomed homes in our housing stock, a reduction in demand and a reasonable incentive for tenants to downsize. It will be some years yet before we will reach such a situation,” they said.
There is a need for three-beds too though, the council spokesperson said. “For the thousands of families on the housing waiting lists and in the meantime there is no easy solution to this under-occupation issue but we are certainly open to any doable ideas.”