Chinese investors have donated more than €20m to an Irish social housing charity in return for residency status in Ireland.
Fifty-two Chinese millionaires endowed €400,000 each to the iCare social housing body as part of the Government's immigrant investment scheme.
The money will buy a minimum of 165 homes and up to 320 if borrowings are secured against the funds, according to iCare.
Funds of €20.8m were approved two weeks ago by the Department of Justice, which administers the scheme. A further €2.8m is awaiting approval.
The scheme grants residency rights to non-EU citizens in return for an investment of at least €1m or an endowment of €400,000 or €500,000 to a social cause.
Most of the 1,200 people who availed of the scheme up to September last year are Chinese millionaires who must prove a minimum personal net worth of €2m to qualify. The funds must be legitimate, and applicants must have a clean record. Residency rights are limited to five years but can be renewed.
David Hall, the debtor campaigner who founded iCare in 2018, raised the money following an investment tour of China last year to capitalise on the immigrant investment programme.
He hoped to raise money for a mortgage-to-rent scheme operated by the charity aimed at homeowners burdened with unsustainable mortgages. "I met immigration consultants over there, I began to speak at immigration conferences," he said.
He described the Chinese investors whom he met as "wealthy individuals who want the option of residency in Ireland". The application process to the Department of Justice was exacting and robust, he said.
The first Chinese investors applied to donate to iCare through the scheme last year but were approved only two weeks ago.
The not-for-profit charity aims to help mortgage holders in distress by buying their loans from the lender. The housing association leases back the property to the householder who continues to live there on a means-tested rent. Tenants have the option of buying back their property later at the price iCare paid for it.
Investment schemes offering citizenship or residency to wealthy non-EU individuals have attracted criticism.
The European Parliament's committee on financial crime and tax evasion has urged member states to close down their investor immigration schemes, saying benefits do not offset the money-laundering and tax-evasion risks.
The Department of Justice reviewed the immigrant investment programme in 2017 and said the risks were minimal but could increase as the scheme grew.
Mr Hall urged the Government to make use of the new scheme to raise funds for public and social projects, especially in the time of Covid-19.
"The scheme is there. We don't have any money and we are in a time of need. Why not avail of it? This a scheme that presents a major opportunity over the next 12 months to help with social housing and homelessness," he said.
"The funds are a huge boost to iCare. It will allow us more flexibility in buying back properties, it will allow us more flexibility in determining rents, and it gives us room to invest in repairs and upgrading of properties."
iCare has bought 153 homes since 2018 and a further 486 are under negotiation. Its most recent purchase of 23 homes for €2.9m was concluded last Monday, including a €1m local authority loan. The charity said last week's purchase will keep 23 families in their homes.