Refurbishing our derelict, decrepit buildings could help ease housing crisis
Hiding in plain sight, one solution to the housing shortage has been staring successive governments in the face for decades. Derelict and decrepit Victorian and Georgian buildings scattered within our cities had, in the most part, fallen victim to pre 1963 multiple occupancy.
By that, I mean squalid one-room bedsits with shared sanitary facilities. They received little or no maintenance, other than ubiquitous PVC windows and cement mortar pointing damming up the walls and keeping moisture locked in. Making it nice and damp indoors.
Whether through the abolition of bedsits or repossession from over-zealous amateur investors, many of these buildings are now on the market. The biggest challenge has always been the cost of restoring the building to single occupancy or at least sub-division into decent-sized apartments.
Frankly, anyone with a desire to live in a city-centre house full of character, would be easily deterred by the time and cost of dealing with banks, planners and builders. So, to encourage potential purchasers to buy pre-1915 dwellings, the Department of Finance introduced the Living City Initiative last year. Even though the benefits included tax relief on capital expenditure of refurbishment, the parameters were far too limited for any house hunter to get excited about it.
It was so restrictive that only 18 applications were made in Dublin, four in Cork, seven in Waterford, two in Kilkenny, two in Galway and none in Limerick. It remains to be seen how Limerick responds to the revised scheme. Finance Minister Michael Noonan is a former pupil of Glin National School, and must be very familiar with the need to restore 19th century premises in the village.
The changes in the new bill, which comes into effect on January 1, 2017, include the removal of the restriction on the maximum floor size of qualifiable property, removal of the requirement that it must have been previously used as a dwelling, and changes to the minimum expenditure needed to qualify.
Most importantly, the bill also extends the scheme to landlords to renovate rental accommodation in special regeneration areas.
The essential differences are that instead of the minimum spend of 10pc of market value prior to works it is now €5,000. There is also a cap on qualifying expenditure, in the case of a company trading from the premises it is €1,600,00 and where the individual is a company letting the premises, it is €800,000. Where the person who incurs the capital expenditure is an individual, the cap is €400,000.
As a precaution, local authorities will need to ensure this widening of scope to investors does not reduce the standard of renovation and materials used, and that the abuse of dwellings for multiple occupancy is prohibited.
The key to the success of the revised initiative is for local authorities to establish dedicated advice centres in collaboration with the Department of Finance and the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.
There are more complex regulations when refurbishing a Georgian building than perhaps a pre-1915 commercial building, because the property may be a protected structure or attached to one. And for that reason, the obstacles need to be ironed out at an early stage to avoid unwieldy delays while the purchaser has to endure mortgage repayments on a home they can't live in.
A one-stop-shop model exists in the Liberties Local Area Plan, established to achieve social, economic and physical regeneration in the area by providing a co-ordinated approach to the development of key sites. In the Liberties, Dublin City Council examined opportunities to provide new community infrastructure, new open spaces and public realm improvements.
Without a coherent regeneration programme supported by the local authority, the isolated house restoration under the new scheme will suffer.
The second major key to the success of this plan is policing, to ensure that crime does not set back the potential benefits for the existing and prospective residential community.
I recently viewed a three-storey over basement terraced Georgian house in the north inner city, where Dublin City Council had refused permission for four apartments and granted permission for two spacious residences over two levels. What had been a motorbike accessories workshop with leaking upper floors and syringe depository in the basement, is now an elegant, master work of restored craftsmanship, and was snapped up for rent.
This is a welcome plan - hopefully it will not fail again, otherwise the residential nature of our cities will continue to deteriorate, and they will exist only as commercial centres by day and segregated recreational areas by night.