Monday 22 October 2018

AG clears way for forced sales of vacant homes

Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy Photo: Tom Burke
Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy Photo: Tom Burke
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

The Government has been given the green light to use controversial compulsory purchase order powers to force the owners of more than 180,000 vacant homes to sell or rent their properties, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

Attorney General Seamus Woulfe told the Government he sees "no impediment" to using existing laws to allow local authorities to move on owners of vacant properties as part of a new strategy to resolve the housing crisis.

"He has indicated there shouldn't be any obstacle to increasing the use of CPOs (compulsory purchase orders)," a senior Government source said.

The radical new plan will see legislation generally used to build roads and public transport systems used to force property owners to put houses back into the housing market if they are vacant for more than 12 months.

The Government feared using CPO laws on vacant homes would be a breach of constitutional personal property rights but the Sunday Independent has learned the Attorney General has cleared the path for the controversial strategy.

The move is sure to cause huge concern among thousands of property owners who will now be forced to sell or rent their houses if their houses are vacant for more than a year.

However, the Government hopes the threat of the compulsory order powers will be enough to incentivise property owners to put vacant houses or apartments back into the housing supply.

"We don't want to take properties off them, we want to put them back into use," a senior Government source said. "It's like water charges, we don't want to charge you for excessive usage, we just don't want you to excessively use," the source added.

A recent pilot project by Dublin City Council saw the local authority issue compulsory purchase orders on 21 vacant properties.

A source familiar with the project said, after the threat was made by the council, 14 properties were rented privately and seven were leased to the council.

If a compulsory order is made against a property, the owner is entitled to be paid the market value of the house or apartment and the proprietor should not lose out financially from the sale.

Local authorities can currently make orders against derelict or dangerous properties if there are public safety concerns over the building. Compulsory purchase orders can also be served for the "common good" under existing legislation and the Government will argue this clause can be used due to the housing crisis.

Last Friday, Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy announced a dramatic shift in the Government's housing strategy, which will see the State move from buying homes to building houses to alleviate the homelessness crisis.

Mr Murphy pledged to increase the number of houses built by the State next year by 800 to a total of 3,800. However, this is far short of the 30,000 new homes needed per year to resolve the housing shortage.

It is understood the move from "buy to build" stemmed from growing fears within the heart of Government that its house purchasing strategy would overheat the Dublin housing market by as early as next summer.

Mr Murphy and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe agreed to stop buying houses in the capital as they were warned it could exacerbate the housing crisis by inflating house prices further.

Mr Donohoe is expected to announce soon a €4bn four-year capital spending project which will include housing projects.

However, Mr Murphy will have to battle against Minster for Health Simon Harris, who is seeking money for new hospitals, and Minister for Education Richard Bruton, who wants to build more schools.

Mr Murphy already has some €5.3bn at his disposal to invest in housing and homelessness projects between now and 2021. However, it is understood he will receive additional funding from the capital spending review when it is announced.

The housing and homelessness crisis have spiralled out of control since Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has taken office.

There are currently more than 8,000 people living without homes in the country and this includes almost 3,000 children.

The figures do not include an average of around 200 people who sleep rough in Dublin city centre. The homelessness crisis was heightened in the past two weeks following the deaths of four homeless people.

As part of the solution to the crisis, Mr Murphy plans to clamp down on people on the housing list who turn down offers of social housing.

Applicants for social housing will now be able to turn down only one offer of a house before being put to the back of the list.

It was previously reported that more than 3,000 offers of houses have been turned down by people on the social housing list.

The information on refusals is not collated centrally but Mr Murphy will begin collecting the data from local authorities in the coming weeks.

At last Friday's Housing Summit in Dublin, the minister also announced he would offer to move homeless families in the cities to accommodation in rural counties.

Meanwhile, a cross-party group of councillors on Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has come together to develop a massive 540-home affordable and social housing development in South County Dublin.

The group, led by Fine Gael councillor John Bailey, has proposed a public private partnership which would result in the development of 200 social housing units, 200 affordable homes and 140 "rent to buy" houses.

Mr Bailey said he hoped the proposal will be used as a template by other local authorities seeking to find solutions to the housing crisis.

"We put our political differences aside and sought to assist the council's executive in its endeavours to meet the council's obligations as a housing authority and committed ourselves to finding a deliverable solution to the current crisis in housing supply and homelessness," he said.

Sunday Independent

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