There are two very different tales told about the number of council homes sitting empty in Dublin.
Dublin City Council now and then notes how the number of what it calls “voids” is extremely low.
Meanwhile, quite a few Dubliners lament what they see as the far-too-large number of council homes sitting empty as people languish on the social housing list for years, or live in hotel rooms, or sleep on the streets.
So what accounts for the yawning gap between how the council sees things on this issue, and how some Dubliners view them?
Well, one of the reasons might be that the council isn’t counting all the empty council homes as being among the “voids”. But other government agencies say it should be.
How They Are Counted
At the moment, Dublin City Council counts some of its vacant properties as voids, but not others.
Take the tens of boarded-up flats in the Dublin City Council complex on Upper Dorset Street, which have been empty for years. It’s unclear if they are counted as voids.
That’s because if a complex is scheduled for refurbishment, the properties aren’t included in the count, says Sinn Fein Councillor Daithi Doolan, who chairs the council’s housing committee.
“A void [in the council’s definition] is somewhere that is temporarily empty waiting to be done up, turned around and reallocated,” says Doolan.
This tallies with a note in the National Oversight and Audit Commission’s annual report that looks at how local authorities are doing in a number of key areas.
When local authorities tell the Department of Environment how many voids they have, they don’t include units that are not being offered to waiting-list applicants because they need substantial refurbishment works or are intended to be demolished, says the report.
(Dublin City Council Press Office didn’t respond to queries about how they define voids, and whether the flats on Dorset Street count in its figures.)
But not all government agencies think this is the right way to count voids.
The figures should include all vacant council units, says David Silke, director of research and corporate affairs at the Housing Agency. “A void is any property that does not have a tenant living in it for a period of time.”
Silke points to a 2015 report by the Chartered Institute of Housing and the Housing Agency, which says it is important that all empty properties be categorised as voids.
That way they are included in management and review processes and local authorities can ensure they “make the most effective use of social assets … (and) to maximise rent and revenue from the social housing stock.”
Empty properties can cost money to keep secure, and “properties that are empty long-term undermine areas”, the report notes.
How Many Voids?
As Dublin City Council counts it, voids are just a sliver of its housing stock.
“Dublin City Council voids are probably the lowest in the country at approximately 1 percent of housing stock,” says Doolan.
Dublin City Council Press Office didn’t respond to a request for up-to-date figures, but at council meetings in the past year, council officials have consistently put the proportion of voids at around 1 percent.
If you count voids the way the National Oversight and Audit Commission does, though — and as the Housing Agency would like — then on 1 December 2015, 6.29 percent of Dublin City Council’s properties were vacant. (The figures for this year are not available.)
Other councils’ vacancy figures on the same date fell between 0.66 percent in Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown and 9.31 percent in County Roscommon.
Speeding Up and Turning Them Around
Doolan says the council is under severe pressure to allocate properties due to the housing crisis, and that it is working hard to turn flats around as quickly as possible after someone moves out, so someone new can move in fast.
Standards are dropping as a result, he said. “The city council are now allocating flats that they wouldn’t have allocated ten years ago.”
The council does seem to have speeded up the turnaround time. In 2015, Dublin City Council took an average 20 weeks to turn around a council house in between tenants, 12 other councils, out of 30, were faster.
In September this year, the average turnaround time was down to 14 weeks, according to Hugh McKenna, a senior executive officer of the housing maintenance section, in a response to a query from People Before Profit Councillor Tina MacVeigh.
Fast turnaround of voids is a priority, according to the council’s budget for 2017.
The budget says the council aims to continue to keep the number of voids properties below 1 percent of the total. It also aims to reduce the turnaround time to 10 weeks, and continue to merge bedsits to make one-bedroom units.
Dublin City Council’s capital programme sets out €14 million a year for the next three years to fund the turnaround of voids.
Back to the Flats
On Tuesday, Betty, a small woman with brown bobbed hair who lives in St Mary’s Place North was on her way home.
Some of the apartments there have been boarded up for years. “There is a lot of people doubling up around here (…), my own niece as well and other ones with kids, who would love to get into those flats,” she said.
“Across the way, there is a young girl with her two kids living in her mother’s two-bedroom flat, and the mother’s brother is living there too,” she says.
A homeless man pitches a tent in a green area in the middle of the complex too, she says.
Whether or not the complex at St Mary’s Place and Upper Dorset Street is included in the council’s voids tally or not, it hasn’t been forgotten.
Finance has been approved by the Department of the Environment for the total refurbishment of the complex, said Green Party Councillor Ciaran Cuffe.
This is just one of many major refurbishment projects on the council’s books. “We have around about 200 blocks of housing dating from just after the mid-20th century in Dublin and all of them need to be refurbished,” says Cuffe.
In some cases, tenants have to be moved out of the blocks, which can take a few years while other appropriate accommodation frees up.
Cuffe and Doolan both say it wouldn’t be practical to refurbish the flats one at a time because work needs to be done on the structure of the building, and upgrades are required that could have knock-on effects for several flats at once.
“We will be providing insulation, new wiring, plumbing, new heating systems and the economies of scale in doing a whole block are very significant,” said Cuffe.