Prices and rents keep rising, yet there is no shortage of land. So is the real issue zoning and nimbyism?
Affordability is the only issue in housing policy. The number of units built, for purchase or for rent, whether by public authorities or by private sector developers, is irrelevant. Policy targets expressed in units to be constructed are an evasion.
Especially around Dublin and the provincial cities, prices and rents are far too high, prices are beyond the reach of would-be buyers in steady employment and rents absorb a punishing portion of income.
Demand exceeds supply, and the only confirmation that balance has been restored will come whenever purchase prices fall toward construction costs and free market rents decline.
Prices and rents continue to rise, and a recent survey reveals that people expect these trends to continue. The Government has once again chosen to dodge specifying a target for prices, which is all that matters.
Last Wednesday, in their regular property market report, estate agents CBRE argued it will take forever to achieve a meaningful increase in housing delivery if every new scheme is refused planning or repeatedly appealed, in line with recent experience, pushing up house prices and rents “for the foreseeable future”.
The Taoiseach concurs. At his press conference on Thursday to launch the latest housing policy plan, Micheál Martin berated nimbyism, appealing to the public to desist from opposition to new housing developments. He declined to acknowledge that nimbyism and the frustration of housing development cannot prosper unless accommodated by policy.
The planning laws and the facilitation of resort to appeals and judicial review constitute a Nimby Charter. In yet another housing policy statement, the Government has offered no credible proposals to address either issue.
A familiar chorus of cross-party agreement emerged last Monday, with Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald the most prominent objector to a 1,614-unit development at the empty site on the former Clonliffe seminary in Drumcondra. The site is located less than 3km — a 25-minute walk — north of Dublin city centre.
Other objectors include local politicians of all parties, including several representatives of the government parties. Remarkably, McDonald feels this substantial development would somehow make housing less affordable.
These schemes, she complained, “are driven by investors seeking to exploit the high demand for housing and apartments in urban centres”, according to the Irish Independent. If only investors would seek out areas with weak demand, low prices and cheaper rents, they could do the patriotic thing and build ghost estates well away from the inner suburbs of Dublin.
McDonald’s party colleague, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, has similarly opposed the construction of 1,102 apartments at another site inside the M50 and located in his constituency of Dublin South-Central at Bluebell, around 7km from the city centre.
These two developments alone would make a worthwhile contribution to dampening rent escalation in Dublin. There are many others being held up by objectors — with support, and in some cases leadership, from politicians claiming to be concerned about unaffordable housing.
Political opponents of residential development in Dublin never admit responsibility for the resultant high prices and high rents. Nor is this confined to Sinn Féin.
Also reported on Monday, the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Green Government has asked the Catholic Church to identify land it owns that could be used to help tackle the housing crisis, and Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien has made a written request to the Primate of All Ireland, Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin.
If His Grace is tempted to respond, he might query why O’Brien’s government colleagues in Drumcondra, in agreement with Sinn Féin and other local representatives, have opposed the construction of housing on the empty Clonliffe site, voluntarily divested to the builders when it became surplus to the church’s requirements.
O’Brien is correct to highlight the numerous sites available that would be suitable for housing — for purchase or to be rented out by local authorities or real estate investors.
The city of Dublin, including its central areas and inner suburbs, is pockmarked with derelict sites for which no plausible use is feasible other than residential development. A little farther out, the city is ribboned by empty land either side of the M50, including thousands of hectares of limited use, even for agriculture, given the proximity of the city.
Some of the derelict sites are obsolete industrial or retail parks, some belong to state agencies, some to religious bodies, some to farmers or private developers. But it does not matter who they belong to, or whether development is for purchase or for rent, if the land-use planning regime encourages the frustration of every proposed development by politicians and residents’ associations.
If the problem is acknowledged to be affordability, the policy target should be lower prices for buyers and lower outgoings for renters.
It is not possible to achieve affordability across the market through the selective provision of subsidised access for small, politically-selected groups. Prices in Dublin’s outskirts, where empty sites are plentiful, need to fall toward the true economic opportunity cost — essentially, the alternative use value of agricultural land.
Taxing away the zoning gain is not needed if the zoning gain can be eliminated — and it can.
There is no shortage of land; there is a shortage of zoning and of usable planning permission.
This would have the incidental benefit for Dublin area homeowners of reducing the base on which residential property tax is assessed — the reluctance of Dún Laoghaire councillors, including socialists, to levy the full permitted charge reflects their perception that the next revaluation to absurd prices is unfair.
Fear of homeowner voters, and of landowners living off hope value, has paralysed politicians of all parties.
Adopting a lower price target would require acceptance that the land-use policy of the past 40 years has been a slow-burning disaster, that sticking-plaster solutions stimulating demand rather than supply are no longer adequate and that the planning and land-use policies of recent decades need to be abandoned.