A chunk of the new social housing that the government has delivered in recent years has been from one source: “voids”, vacant homes that have been refurbished.
But differences in the figures have left some people scratching their heads, wondering if the government is counting run-down apartments that didn’t show up in figures before, or homes that were only vacant briefly, between tenants.
The long-term vacancy “has either been systemically underreported” in the past by local authorities, or “it has been significantly overstated in the completions,” says architect Mel Reynolds.
“The danger here is that if normal vacant units are being counted as voids brought back into stock, there is a significant distortion of what people expect are new social housing units,” he said.
If apartments fixed up between one tenant moving out and the next moving in are being counted as new social-housing units, then that’s a problem. “This is the equivalent of double-counting,” Reynolds said.
What Are “Voids”?
When council officials, or politicians, or policy wonks talk about “voids”, they are talking about vacant social housing. But the term includes all different kinds of vacant social housing.
It includes the bedsits that councils have been knocking together to make larger apartments, through a programme known as “two-into-ones”.
It includes long-term vacant social housing that needed substantial refurbishment and was set aside for a long time.
It includes the short-term vacant social housing, which becomes vacant when one tenant moves out, before another moves in. These are known as “casual” voids.
It also can include homes that the council has bought, and needs to do a bit of work on before it moves someone in.
When recent housing ministers have announced figures for the “delivery of social housing” each year, some of that social housing was delivered by fixing up voids.
In 2016, 18,300 households had their housing needs met through different “social-housing schemes”, then Housing Minister Simon Coveney said at the time.
Of those, 2,090 households had those housing needs met by voids brought back into use, Coveney said. (Current Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy has cited the same figures.)
In 2017, meanwhile, the target is for 21,000 people to have their housing needs met through “social housing supports”, according to Murphy.
What Are These “Voids”?
Earlier this month, Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin asked the government how many “long-term” social-housing voids had been brought back into use over the previous three years.
“There were 2,326, 2,696 and 2,090 vacant social homes brought back into productive use in 2014, 2015 and 2016, respectively, with funding assistance from my Department,” Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy said in his response.
“The latest information for 2017 indicates that nearly 850 units have been completed and I anticipate that this figure will reach over 1,400 by year-end,” he continued.
When Ó Broin compared these to figures in other government reports, though, something looked as if it didn’t add up.
“Either somebody is telling lies in their reporting of the figures, or properties on a systematic level across a large number of local authorities are within the space of a year falling out of use,” he says.
As he understands it, the types of voids that were counted up and included in the response were those which had been “six months vacant” and undergone “substantial refurbishment works”.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing didn’t clarify what definition of “long-term” they had used in the response.
Instead, he said: “This term wasn’t used by the Minister in his reply (…) rather it was the Deputy who used that phraseology in the question he asked.”
If those are long-term figures, though, it seems as if the government is claiming to have done up more long-term voids than there were available to do up.
A report from the National Oversight and Audit Committee (NOAC) that offered a snapshot of the number of vacant social housing units in autumn 2015 identified 2,755 longer-term vacant units. (If you count them as ones that were vacant more than 27 weeks.)
So how, if the figures Murphy cited in the Dáil are correct, how have councils managed to do up 1,400 this year, 2,090 the year before, and more still in 2015? That’d be more than 3,490, i.e. more than NOAC identified in its snapshot.
That would have required that while an affordable housing crisis was building, homeless numbers were rising, and tens of thousands of people were waiting on social housing lists, local authorities let hundreds of social homes fall out of use for at least six months.
“What seems to have happened is that […] not only have they brought those units back into use, but there seems to be this process whereby a significant number of units are falling out of use, and then classified as long-term voids and brought back into use,” said Ó Broin.
Another possibility is that the government, in addition to counting refurbished long-term voids, is counting some short-term ones – that were only vacant between one tenant moving out, and another moving right in – as new social housing.
Are They Really Long-Term Voids?
Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy said in the Dáil that these voids – the 2,695 in 2015, and the 2,090 in 2016, and the expected 1,400 in 2017 – are not short-term turnovers.
“As well as the above numbers of vacant social homes requiring significant remediation, there is a regular turnover of short-term vacancies in the social housing stock of local authorities,” he said.
“In general, these vacancies are addressed by the local authorities and given that these numbers alter on an ongoing basis, for example as tenants move in and out of housing, my Department does not record such numbers,” he said, in July.
But that contradicts what Coveney said in an announcement back in May when he said that the vacant-properties programme for the 1,400 units that would be refurbished in 2017 “applies to both short and long term vacant units nationwide”.
So who is right? Coveney or Murphy?
Overall, the government set a target in Rebuilding Ireland, the government’s flagship housing programme, to deliver 47,000 social houses by 2021.
Of that number, about 26,000 “will be exclusively built as social housing”, it promises. Of that number, there 3,459 units that are derelict or void and so will be refurbished, it says.
“The existing social units that are targeted for refurbishment are those that may be derelict or in need of more substantial refurbishment, over and above the normal pre-letting works carried out by local authorities under their own resources,” said Coveney, in January this year.
Given the NOAC figures that showed there were only 2,755 long-term vacant units in 2015, it’s unclear where the 3,459 units that are derelict or void in the long-term and so will be refurbished have, or are going to, come from.
Fingal County Council Councillor Cian O’Callaghan, of the Social Democrats, has had similar queries about how voids are being classified there.
He said that he’s been told by management that these voids included as social-housing output are mainly “casual voids”, the short-term ones, and some are Part V or acquisitions – so those that are bought by the council either from developers or from the private market.
According to statistics from Fingal County Council it got funding from the Department of Housing to carry out work on 148 void properties in 2016. Of which, 85 were casual voids, 40 were acquisitions, 22 were long-term leases, and 1 was a unit through Part V.
That raises yet another set of questions, not only around whether the government has been inflating social housing figures with short-term vacant homes, but whether it has been double-counting some of them.
“There’s a question of whether these may have been counted twice. Firstly, as a new acquisition, and then secondly as a void that’s turned around,” says Cian O’Callaghan.
A Dublin City Council spokesperson said that it has exceeded its “initial preliminary target” of 377 voids under the programme of “returning vacant properties to productive use” this year.
It has refurbished 736 voids, he said. “These vacancies are mainly the result of a tenancy ending or a property being purchased.”
Of those, 146 were what the council calls “longer-term voids”, said a spokesperson.
So those which are part of a regeneration project, or scheduled for demolition, or can only be refurbished as part of a wider retrofit, or knocking smaller units into bigger ones, they said.
The equivalent figure for 2016 is 297 “longer-term voids” out of 901 total voids that were turned-around, they said.
The Department of Housing didn’t respond to queries about whether it was double-counting acquisitions, or Part V units, or two-into-one units.
Should We Even Count Them as Social Housing Output?
Given that these are just existing homes that have been refurbished, there is some disagreement around whether turnaround of “voids” should be included in figures for social housing output at all, whether they are long-term or short-term.
Or whether they should be included as part of the announcements from the Department of Housing, as a sign of progress towards Rebuilding Ireland targets for new social housing.
“Firstly, […] there was some suggestion by the Department of Housing that turning around long-term voids, long-term vacant units, was creating additional social housing,” said Councillor Cian O’Callaghan of the Social Democrats.
It now seems to him, though “that the vast bulk of the voids that are listed as a part of our housing appear to be short-term casual voids that were always there, and are turned around in a matter of weeks.”
“Adding them in to, kind of alongside figures with long-term social housing output, you know, new houses, and houses that they buy and homes that they buy, it just seems completely out of sync with that,” he said.
It has always been the case that when a house or an apartment becomes empty, for whatever reason, it then has to be redone before it’s let. “That was always the case. There is nothing kind of additional or new about this,” he says.
“It’s just part of the ongoing maintenance that always has to be done,” he says. “It’s important. It has to be done like it always has been, but it’s not a new initiative and it’s not a different initiative or anything like that.”
Says Ó Broin: “My view is that if properties were vacant for long periods of time and therefore not in active use in stock, then I think it is reasonable for them, if they are bought back into use, to be counted. Although they should be delineated as such.”
But it is important that it is made clear where these units are coming from, he said. “These units are being included as additions to the council stock,” said Ó Broin.
They’re a big chunk of those figures: “For example, in 2016 – just so people understand – the total number of builds of social housing was 652, the total number of acquisitions was 1,552. But the voids figure for 2016 is 2,090.”
“So the single largest component of the government’s claimed social-housing output in that year comes from those figures,” he said.
“If these figures aren’t right, that means their claim in terms of new additional social units available for people to live in in 2014, 2015, 2016 could be wildly out.”
“I think that matters to people because people want to know how many extra social houses are available to get people off the list and out of emergency accommodation,” he said. “If we’re out by (…) thousands each year, then we have a problem.”
[UPDATE: This article was updated on 23 November at 4.40pm, to include more figures from Dublin City Council on its voids breakdown.]
[UPDATE: This article was updated on 25 November at 1.20am, to include more figures from Fingal County Council on its voids breakdown.]