Older people could soon be incentivised to become landlords under changes to the Fair Deal nursing home scheme.
Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy believes a substantial number of houses are vacant because their owners have moved into care and have no motivation to rent out their home.
Under the Fair Deal scheme, people who take up residence in a nursing home have to give 80pc of their disposable income to the State to cover the cost of their care. Mr Murphy is now in consultations with the HSE and Department of Finance about changes to the terms and conditions of the scheme that could see some rental income exempted.
It's not known how many vacant homes owned by elderly people in care are dotted around the country, but sources said the minister believed the figure was substantial enough to justify incentives. There are an estimated 25,000 people in nursing home care.
A source told the Irish Independent making changes to Fair Deal will be "complicated but the minister wants to do it".
Mr Murphy hopes to include measures "to encourage and facilitate the use of vacant properties of those in nursing home care" in a new 'Vacant Homes Strategy' which will be launched next month.
Age Action Ireland this morning gave a "cautious" welcome to the suggested move.
Justin Moran, Head of Advocacy and Communications, said: “We’re going to have to see the detail of the proposal from Minister Murphy but we would certainly welcome any change to Fair Deal that encouraged nursing home residents to rent out their homes by allowing them to retain the rental income."
He added: “It’s important that any change must be an incentive that protects the choice of a nursing home resident to rent out their home. We would be worried if nursing home residents, already paying levies on their income, assets and family home, would also be targeted by any vacant property tax as they would simply be unable to afford it.”
Minister Murphy will today announce a number of "key actions" aimed at bringing thousands of empty properties back into use. Census 2016 found around 190,000 vacant dwellings, with 65,000 lying idle for five years or more despite the housing crisis.
"We're building new houses and we're going to build more, but with the pent-up demand in the system from years of little or no construction, we have to manage empty homes back into use," Mr Murphy said.
Speaking on Morning Ireland on RTE Radio One, Mr Murphy said: "The important piece of work that is being done right now at the moment is getting the vacant housing unit that is being set up in my department to work with the local authorities to drill down into that 80,000-90,000 number to establish what the true number is. And then establish with the owners of those properties what the reasons are for vacancy.
"We will come with an incentive and also a penalty scheme but also, I hope, an increased compulsary purchase order powers so we can get those properties back into use."
He wants to take a "carrot and stick" approach. Penalties are being formulated for homeowners who leave properties empty for a sustained period but any attempt at introducing a 'vacant property tax' will come under intense legal scrutiny.
Among the other measures being taken is the establishment of an empty homes unit to co-ordinate a national response and the activation of a website for individuals to anonymously highlight vacant properties. The local authorities in the country's five main cities, where homelessness is highest, have been asked to provide 'City Action Plans' by the end of October.
Mr Murphy intends to bring draft regulations before the Dáil on its return that will allow the change of use of vacant commercial and over-the-shop premises to residential use without having to seek planning permission.
"As I've said before, there's going to be a carrot-and-stick approach to this, which will be finalised in the coming month or so. People with property interests need to be made aware that we are moving quickly on this," Mr Murphy said.
The minister is under intense pressure to deliver reforms after the latest figures showed the homeless crisis worsening despite the Government's much-heralded 'Rebuilding Ireland'. In June, there were 5,036 homeless adults, up from 4,922 in May. The number of homeless families rose to 1,365, including an extra 118 children.
Speaking about his Vacant Home Strategy, Mr Murphy said: "Increasing supply isn't just about building new homes, it's about managing the stock that we already have that's not being used. There is more to come under the strategy but this is the right start."
He said local authorities needed help from individuals to identify vacant properties.
"We need action taken at local level, with national co-ordination from my department. The new website being co-ordinated by Mayo County Council is crucial because we need individual people in communities up and down the country to help us develop and implement a targeted approach as quickly as possible. So we're asking for people's help to make this work.
"It's critical that we get a proper handle on the current vacancy levels, in terms of what's changed and come back into use in the last 16 months, where they are and who owns these vacant properties.
"Armed with this information, we can then prioritise and target those areas where demand is greatest and help to increase the choice and availability of new homes to buy or rent," he said.
Last week, homeless campaigner Fr Peter McVerry said the Government was "ideologically incapable" of addressing the homeless crisis.
Property & Mortgages
As house prices continue to rise, the Government appears no closer to solving the problem of affordability. There's a good reason why. Why would any builder commit to delivering homes for €300,000 or less in Dublin, or €250,000 in Cork, when simply putting them on the market will fetch far higher sums?