The refugee crisis has shone a light on an issue that in Ireland is always simmering under the surface: housing. A lot of people have made the point that we have nowhere to put the refugees if they were to come here. This seems a natural thing to say when you think of the difficulties of finding accommodation, the upward movement in rents and the extreme version of this – real homelessness.
But is this actually the case? Do we have too few houses in Ireland?
In fact, we have too many.
The 2011 census revealed that there were 289,451 vacant properties (14.5pc of total stock). Of these 59,395 were classed as holiday homes. In any ordinary housing market, approximately 6pc of properties would be expected to be vacant (120,000 in the Irish case), meaning that oversupply is about 110,000.
These figure come from the very informative website irelandafternama.wordpress.com
Many of these houses are in ghost estates – a term coined in this column in 2006 following a shocking journey from Mayo to Dublin, when the ghoulish scaffolded skeletal structure of these estates seemed to be springing up on every bit of available land. Well, they haven’t gone away.
Could the refugees be housed in ghost estates? Of course they could.
My daughter suggested that maybe a good thing would be to give the Syrians the tools to complete these houses that were half-built. This doesn’t sound preposterous. After all, Japanese women rebuilt much of urban Japan with rudimentary tools after the Second World War.
Could the State provide the materials? Of course it could.
Such a development would be like a giant communitarian work programme, which would give the migrants a massive project and inject life into the estates.
This is what happened in Israel when over one million Russian refugees arrived into a population of four million in 1989-90. They built their own places to stay. It is what also happened in Germany in 1945 when 10 million displaced ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe arrived into West Germany with nowhere to sleep.
Some people may argue that no one wants to live in these estates.
Well, of course some people don’t, but lots would jump at the opportunity. If you are fleeing a country, you need safety and shelter and this is what these houses offer.
You would be amazed how quickly the fortunes of dereliction can be rectified by the presence of humans, by the enthusiasm for a new life and by the real human urge to get on with things.
We should regard the potential arrival of over 10,000 people as an opportunity. In addition, many of these estates are owned by Nama. It would be a blessing to the State to have regeneration. And given that so many are built in areas where the population is sparse, why not house these families in ghost estates?
If capacity is the problem, then there is no problem. We have lots of supply. The country is small and the people need somewhere to go.
If Germany can resettle 800,000 without excess housing, Ireland surely can house a few thousand families in houses that were actually built for Irish families. We have over 100,000 houses too many.
Let’s just briefly remind ourselves before we proceed why these estates exist.
They were built by speculators, financed by banks who thought they would sit on development land until the market began to rise, they would then finish building and ‘flip’ these houses onto the buyer, making a tidy profit in the process. This is worth remembering.
The plight of the refugees has drawn attention, once again, to the joke that is Irish housing policy. Not only do we have vacant and half-built housing in the countryside, we also have 8,000 vacant houses and 16,321 vacant apartments in Dublin where there is a housing shortage.
How can this be? Dublin is full of vacant sites that could be built on tomorrow. Dublin is full of land that is waiting to be developed and Dublin is full of people who want accommodation.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that Nama is selling development land and huge numbers of apartments to speculators. These speculators are sitting on these assets, creating artificial bottlenecks in the market, pushing up the prices and waiting for the prices to go sufficiently high so that they can ‘flip’ on.
Does it sound familiar?
What is happening now in Dublin is precisely the same as what happened in the ghost estates, except for now the speculators are American funds that have deep pockets and are only in Ireland to ‘flip’ Irish assets back to Irish people at ridiculous prices. They will then move on to the next troubled country and maybe come back to play golf and high-five each other on the 18th hole over the amount of money they made here.
This get-rich-quick-scheme for foreign speculators is orchestrated by the Irish Government and this is mainly why we have a housing crisis in Dublin.
In fact, the State introduced a capital gains tax freeze for seven years in order to facilitate property buying.
So why would you not sell on things for seven years, take the rents (if it is a block of apartments) and then sell tax-free?
Rather than allow the speculators to sit on the land, why not change policy and tell buyers of land that they have to have a ‘use it or lose it’ clause, meaning planning needs to be sought and foundations built in, say, two years?
The refugee crisis has revealed again the dysfunctional nature of the Irish housing market and the ludicrous situation that in the least populated country in Western Europe you can have too many houses and too few houses at the same time.