Deirdre Conroy: 'Vulture funds' rent-only developments are not part of our culture'
Clancy Barracks in Islandbridge was sold back in the noughties to private Irish investors for residential development, ie homes to sell. The construction cost of adaptation and new build wasn't going to be cheap. Loans were undertaken, and then there was that cliff drop in construction we all suffered from in some form.
Last year, I was working on a conservation report for a protected structure across the road from Clancy Barracks, and a Dublin City Council conservation officer recommended the property should be treated in the high standard of restoration as Clancy Barracks. I went over and had a look. The massive residential adaptation is quite startling. And very attractive with significant landscape patterns.
The original red-brick barracks provided sleeping and eating quarters for soldiers and quite elegant accommodation for the officers' mess. Now it is converted into handsome terraced houses and apartments. There are new-build, medium-rise apartment blocks within the grounds.
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Residents would be privileged to live here with the leafy banks of the Liffey nearby, the charming War Memorial Park and the extensive Phoenix Park. Islandbridge has gone very upmarket. I found a reception area within the grounds and thought I'd ask for a sales brochure to give my sons some idea of what they needed to save for.
The receptionist said: "We have no sales brochures." "Then how would I know the sales prices?" I asked. "Nothing is for sale. These are all rental only," she replied.
And that is the New Dublin; global corporate investors, aka vulture funds, such as Kennedy Wilson, can take over Irish development land for a modicum of what the original investor paid, and redevelop and adapt historic architecture, with high-end finishes and interiors on an economy of scale. And simply rent them high, not needing to sell. Renting in Ireland is not covered by protective legislative framework and that is causing serious issues for workers trying to maintain an address for a relevant period of time.
According to a new report by Savills Ireland, more than €1.1bn was spent by vulture funds on multi-unit residential schemes in 2018 - that's 29.6pc of last year's total property investment. According to Savills, 2,923 residential units were block-purchased by vulture funds last year, a five-fold increase on 2017, resulting in more than €1.1bn spent on multi-unit residential investments in 2018, compared with €113m in 2017. The most badly affected region for affordable house purchase or rental is, of course, Dublin where 81pc (2,273) of all residential units were scooped up.
Unlike Irish property developers of the past and the long wait for planning, vulture funds can do forward-purchase deals, resulting in de-risking schemes and helping them to get on-site.
The Savills' report found that corporate investors accounted for 11pc of all residential units bought in 2018 (and 8.1pc since 2012).
On the one hand this suggests that the increasing vulture-fund activity accelerates housing supply, but only for rental and not at affordable cost. There is an expansive population working in Dublin and other cities in global companies with income for short-term rent. But the long-term housing availability for the low-pay, general working population is not being addressed.
According to Dr John McCartney, director of research at Savills: "Rising house prices and tight mortgage lending have driven a big shift from owner-occupation to private renting. The number of households renting in Dublin rose by 10.8pc last year, and nearly 27pc of all households are now in the private rented sector. This has led to strong rents and negligible vacancy - factors which are obviously attractive to investors."
This does not suggest that people prefer to rent, it merely suggests they cannot afford to get a mortgage due to high house prices and low income.
This is an issue the Government must address, it is not appropriate on a human, and negligible on a housing, rights scale that vulture funds are accommodated with purchase agreements more than the working population. The increasing number of homeless lying in sleeping bags on the streets is a sharp indicator of what is going wrong, not right.
Dr McCartney says new residential supply is now coming on-stream but the residential market is likely to remain under-supplied until at least 2022, and this should ensure continued investor appetite for well-located residential investments. Again, this is boosting the vulture funds' access to housing, but not making it amenable or affordable to the local population.
The Irish are familiar with developers buying land, waiting years for zoning, then waiting years for planning, eventually building not exactly high-end homes, and selling them off the drawings to people who want a home - people who don't want to use their hard-earned income to continually support a landlord. This increase in rent-only developments is not in our culture.
Affordable housing was available in the not too distant past. And a mortgage was affordable with two incomes. Nowadays, renting a one-bed apartment is barely affordable with two incomes. I know this as my eldest has moved home after four years in an apartment to try to save, rather than keep profiting a landlord.
A recent UN report criticised Ireland for "failing to regulate corporate landlords and protect tenants' human right to secure housing". This Government has been talking about managing the crisis since 2011. But it's got worse and worse.