Solution to the housing crisis is under our noses and would regenerate cities, towns and villages
It's a solution to the housing crisis that's right under our nose.
News that the Government will not publish its strategy to tackle the appalling under-use of existing housing stock until the autumn is a damning indictment of an administration which appears more concerned with building new homes than using what's already there.
The latest Census data tells us there are more than 180,000 vacant homes across the State. Bringing even 50,000 of them back into use would represent the equivalent of two years' supply and help ease the housing crisis. And there's also vast potential to convert disused commercial premises, including shops, into homes.
These buildings are everywhere - in Dublin city and suburbs like Dún Laoghaire, in Galway, Athlone and in areas losing their populations, sounding the death-knell for many.
It's safe to say there probably isn't a town, village or city which doesn't have empty buildings already served with water and power, and close to shops, schools, public transport links, churches, parks, community facilities, garda stations, clinics, sports clubs and every other possible service required for thriving communities.
And not only has the State and private sector already paid for these services, which are often under-utilised, bringing young people and families will boost business as people spend locally. Avoiding the drive from edge of town housing developments to avail of services will also result in better air quality, and give people a chance to interact with their neighbours.
So why are so many buildings lying idle?
"There's an argument that to encourage people to purchase units in town centres and transform them from commercial to residential, there should be incentives," Sinn Féín's housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin says.
"Change of use is expensive, so how do you make the planning process more attractive and say to people it's a viable option? This is as much an issue in the cities as in the towns around the cities."
Housing experts say it makes sense to do up these units and restore life to the streets, where people join an existing community, instead of building new homes in vast housing estates which require the types of services already provided, and paid for, by the taxpayer.
"Buying a second-hand house in an existing settlement is a much lower burden on public expenditure than buying a new house in a greenfield location," one says. "The big thing with vacancies is everybody is dragging their heels and being ultra cautious. It's low hanging fruit, but it is complex. We need to stop disincentivising people, and the Department of Finance needs to look at more sophisticated models around the cost of housing."
For a person looking to buy a vacant house on a main street, they will have to first identify the owner and strike a deal. There is little or no help available on how to go about this.
To update the house, they will have to secure expertise including a quantity surveyor, an architect and engineer. While a headache, sources suggest it typically costs around €1,000 per square metre to upgrade an existing home, compared with €2,000 for a new build, and you benefit from services already in place.
But for those with plans to convert a disused shop or commercial unit to residential use, the problems are more profound. "People who want to do this are quite rare, and they should be encouraged. You should at least make it easier for people," one architect says.
While the Government has introduced two schemes to bring vacant units back into use, they are primarily aimed at providing social housing and will only secure a fraction of the available homes. With new home construction yet to reach the level needed to meet demand, good ideas are needed. Surely utilising what we already have, and have paid for, makes more sense than building new?