Breathing life into the wasteland of ghost estates
Experts say potential for social housing and Exchequer revenue in developments significant
"I would suggest that one should be preserved as a monument to national stupidity, and the Anglo Irish Bank building should be preserved as a monument to national greed."
Fr Sean Healy isn't laughing. The director of Social Justice Ireland is, quite plainly, laying down what he'd do were he a member of the proposed government taskforce charged with cleaning up the 2,800 'ghost estates' littering this country.
In January, the Sunday Independent revealed the disgraceful conditions being endured by those living in these defunct housing schemes. The article, entitled 'The Quiet and Lonely Life of a Ghost Estate', was one of the first to directly knock on the doors of these forgotten mortgage holders. They told of desolate housing environments, hazardous conditions for their children and no way out from their situation.
Nine months later, the emergence of the Department of Environment report offering a breakdown of figures on the ghost estate phenomenon comes just a week before Halloween, and makes for aptly horrifying reading. Of the 120,000 homes begun, 33,000 are vacant or near completion, and another 10,000 are barely shells.
Simon Ensor, of the Irish Auctioneers and Valuers Institute Residential Panel and National Council, welcomes the arrival of the report. "At least we can now move forward on the basis of a fairly robust survey. The expert group must be set up as quickly as possible and can't get put on the long finger. They're also going to have to be creative in terms of their thinking."
He's alluding to the fact that every day this issue is hesitated upon, those unfinished units are deteriorating through vandalism and exposure to the elements. With another winter commencing, further numbers of these semi-finished houses could be irreparable by the time the taskforce publishes its findings and recommendations in January. The potential for social housing is great, but the manner in which it is carried out is what really requires some thinking outside the box. As Fr Healy explains: "I don't think you should be trying to force people down to Roscommon because somebody built a housing estate on the edge of a small village that was bigger than the village itself and it hasn't worked out.
"There are over 60,000 households on waiting lists," he continues. "However, there are two serious caveats: one is a lot of that housing is not in the correct location, and the second is that a lot is not appropriate for the people who require it -- older people, people with disabilities etc. That might involve some renovation and adjustment. The other thing is the possibility of co-op housing."
According to Bernard Thompson, chief executive of the National Association of Building Co-operatives, this is worth considering. "It's early days yet in one sense because there's a lot of legal and financial difficulties to be sorted out, but we obviously do see potential for some of the sites," he explains.
"Many of these sites are subject to charges held by banks and so on. We're hoping that housing co-operatives, locally owned and contributing to local housing needs, could be part of the solution, and we've had some preliminary discussions with the Department of the Environment about that."
How would it work? "Probably in two ways," he explains. "One would be home ownership co-ops, where people who could afford to buy might come together in particular localities to look at utilising some of the unfinished estates. That would take a bit of technical advice and assessment, and we might be able to help in that regard.
"We've also been organising local social rented housing co-ops where the members are tenants of a not-for-profit co-operative. We have been engaged in problem-solving -- in terms of people of modest or low incomes -- for many years, and we think co-operatives could help."
Willie O'Dea TD raises a key practicality that must be considered amid the wider economic landscape. "We've got to get money back for the taxpayer," he stresses.
"We're up to our necks in debt. It'd be more cost-effective to appropriate some of those houses for social housing rather than getting the local authorities to build the social housing from scratch. It's not just a question of handing them over for nothing to the local authority and then letting the local authority take over the rent from now to infinity."
Fr Healy introduces another idea: revamped estates don't just have to cater for the housing market. "There are lots of other valuable kinds of community services to look at -- drop-in centres for old people, artists' residences, that kind of thing."
The issue of demolition has been brought up in several quarters, especially where, as one senior planning official posits, the building "hasn't been weather-proofed and has undergone significant deterioration". Mr O'Dea disagrees, and adds that turning no-hoper sites back into agricultural land is contrary to the fundamentals of Nama, and that agricultural land is not worth that much anyway.
Harry Allen, a member of the wider credit union movement more or less agrees, but is frustrated by the idea of a government committee "made up of all the wrong people".
"I'm not saying they shouldn't be part of it," he says, "but it should be the people in the areas affected that should be making the decisions. You don't need a new quango to decide that. We're only at the start of this process when we should be at the end of it."
Tony Cantwell, managing director of the CMG Media Group and its flagship website irishconstruction.com, is someone with his ear close to the ground where construction is concerned, and he also sees real potential in ghost estates.
"I would try to establish what the housing waiting lists are in each county and match those against the ghost estates in that county. I would immediately demolish the excess and return it to agricultural use. I would then suggest a low-level rental charge for the first three years for those properties that were brought up to a habitable stage, say something in the region of €300 a month.
"After three years they could move into the rent-to-buy stage. Therefore, the rent they pay could be offset against a pre-determined price."
Doing the sums -- 33,000 vacant homes, multiplied by €3,600 a year -- leaves you with a figure of around €120m. Over Mr Cantwell's proposed three-year period, it would mean €360m. That's money that could not only renovate unfinished houses, but could also eventually find its way back to the Exchequer.
Mr Cantwell also foresees trickle-down benefits of such an approach to local tradesmen and manufacturers, generating jobs and tax revenue in the meantime. "And that's with €300 a month!" he enthuses.
"The other side is that labour materials and service costs are all significantly down on 2006 levels, in terms of bringing these houses up to a standard. At the same time, the people who'd move in and would pay low rents, they're getting off the housing list and have a chance to maybe buy their own house. I think there's an opportunity here -- if we can just look at it imaginatively," he adds.