Since 2017, Dublin City Council has identified 983 long-term vacant homes in the city. So far, it has bought 98 of the homes and has renovated 47 of them.
But 655 of the vacant homes are still not being lived in, said Dublin City Council’s housing manager, Coilín O’Reilly, at a meeting of the council’s housing committee on Wednesday.
“These are private property,” he said. “If someone doesn’t want to engage with us and doesn’t want to sell it, we don’t have any powers.”
The vacant sites register only applies to large development sites and the derelict sites register only applies when specific criteria have been met, he said.
At the meeting, council managers outlined a number of other challenges to tackling vacancy and dereliction.
Councillors welcomed the detailed explanation of the process and the work that the council is doing but also expressed frustration at the timeline for refurbishment, and at the owners who leave homes vacant in a housing crisis.
“Morally I don’t know how they sleep at night, knowing that there is a potential home there for people in need,” said Labour Councillor Alison Gilliland.
Barriers to Tackling Vacancy
The council defines a home as vacant if it has been unoccupied for more than six months and the owner is not actively marketing it, said John Ryan, head of the council’s vacant property unit, at the meeting.
Properties can be left empty for different reasons, including legal issues relating to the title deeds and other disputes, said Ryan, running through a presentation for councillors.
Sometimes the owner can’t afford to bring the property up to building standards, or is living in a long-term healthcare facility, he said.
“In some instances, but it’s very low cases, the property could be used for an investment portfolio,” said Ryan.
Council staff face barriers in trying to get a vacant home back into use, he said.
First they have to track down the owners. “It is not always possible to identify the owners of the property, not all properties are registered in the land registry,” he said.
They also have to demonstrate that the property is long-term vacant, said Ryan, which means it is not being used at all.
“We have come across instances whereby we have written to the owner of a property to say it is vacant and they have come back and said it’s not vacant, a relative of mine stayed there on such and such a date,” says Ryan.
Once the council establishes that a home is vacant it still can’t force the owner to do anything with it, said O’Reilly, the council’s housing manager. “We don’t have any powers as it currently sits.”
The council can ask the owner to sell the home to it and if they agree the council uses the buy and renew scheme to fund the renovation of the vacant home and then allocates it to a household on the housing list.
The council can and does compulsorily purchase derelict homes too, said O’Reilly.
Ryan said that if the council buys a property that is in reasonable condition it can generally refurbish it in around 12 to 15 months.
But some long-term vacant properties are in need of major renovation works, said O’Reilly. “They all have different problems, different issues and the first thing you have to do is work out what is wrong with them.”
In the case of a derelict property, the council starts out trying to purchase it from the owner voluntarily, but if necessary it will initiate legal proceedings to get a compulsory purchase order, which takes around 18 months, said Dave Dinnigan, director of housing delivery.
For a derelict property or any property in very poor condition, the council needs to do surveys to find out the nature and extent of the damage and employ an architect to draw up plans for the refurbishment, said Ryan.
It also has to apply to the Department of Housing for the money to do the work, he said.
In 2017 the council bought a derelict property at 6 Nelson Street in Phibsborough. “It was in very poor condition,” said Ryan.
Photos taken inside the house show green mould on the walls, a hole in the wooden floor and a badly damaged ceiling.
The council appointed a design team in 2017 and they completed the designs in 2018, said Ryan. In 2019 the council appointed a contractor, he said.
The refurbishment of 6 Nelson Street was due to be completed in 2021 but was delayed due to complications with the works and Covid-19, he said.
It was finished in 2022, five years after the council had bought it.
Councillors said they welcomed the work that the vacant homes unit is doing and several asked what would help council staff to get the homes turned around quicker.
If the funding was more readily available that would help to speed it up, said Gilliland, the Labour councillor. “I do think the department needs to give us a little bit more autonomy on this.”
Social Democrats Councillor Catherine Stocker and Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey both raised the issue of public buildings that are left vacant, including the old Royal City of Dublin Hospital on Baggot Street.
“Can we give them a shove to get that into some kind of use?” said Stocker.
Stocker said that another way to discourage owners from leaving buildings empty was to allow squatting. “The discouraging or preventing of squatting has actually done us a disservice in terms of tackling vacancy and dereliction.”
Mike Allen, director of advocacy with Focus Ireland said that he shared the frustration expressed by councillors about how long it takes to bring a vacant home back into use.
“It is meant to be a major part of government strategy, often referred to as low-hanging fruit, I think ironically at this stage,” he said.
Dr Kevin Byrne, a committee member on behalf of the Public Participation Network, said that some other councils compulsorily purchase homes and then sell them straight away. He asked if Dublin City Council has considered doing that.
Derelict houses are expensive and complex to bring back into use, said O’Reilly, the council’s housing manager, so the council is best placed to tackle those tricky projects because they have the skills and expertise.
Often the reason the house has been left to go derelict is because it is so difficult to renovate it, he said. If the council sold those homes on without doing them up, the new owner might encounter the same problems that the previous one did, said O’Reilly.
For a derelict property “there is social value in bringing the property back but in reality, it is many times more expensive than a new build”, said O’Reilly.
Claire McManus, spokesperson for the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, backed that point.
“If these projects stacked up the builders and developers would be doing them,” she said. “Building a house outside the M50 somewhere is a lot cheaper, easier and lower risk than these projects.”