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Around the corner from the Lansdowne Road Dart station and the Aviva stadium, on a leafy laneway, lies a red-brick apartment complex called Cannon Place.
Sixteen of the homes there have been empty for at least two years.
Hibernia REIT owns the apartments, which are not advertised for sale or rent at the moment, but could attract a monthly rent of around €3,000, says a spokesperson for Hibernia.
“We anticipate all apartments being ready in December, and will look to make them available to rent as soon as possible,” says the spokesperson for Hibernia. “Clearly it is in our interest to minimise the amount of time any of our apartments are vacant.”
Despite the uptick in attention around vacancy after the 2016 census figures came out – and the potential for vacant homes to help tackle the housing crisis – local councillors and academics say there still isn’t a system in place to accurately assess how many vacant homes there are.
At the moment “we have just no way of knowing”, says Philip Crowe, of Space Engagers, a social enterprise that engages communities in mapping projects and has worked on mapping vacant homes in Dublin.
But other cities do have systems in place to flag homes that might be empty, says Crowe, who conducted research earlier this year into the issue on behalf of the Housing Agency and the Heritage Council.
On Cannon Place
According to the spokesperson for Hibernia, tenants left Cannon Place in November 2017.
Hibernia started fire-safety refurbishment works and then discovered that the apartments needed new boilers, said a spokesperson for the company. The refurbishment works are almost finished, he says.
While the Cannon Place homes may soon be filled again, councillors for the south-east of the city say they are aware of vacant buildings around them – some derelict, some just empty.
“I’ve identified several vacant buildings in my area, some of them have been empty for the guts of three years,” says Green Party Councillor Hazel Chu, who lives in Ranelagh. “There is one around the corner from me that is derelict.”
Chu, who sits on the council’s housing committee, says she has asked for any data that the council holds on vacant homes, as she is keen to get a handle on the extent of the problem in her area.
Dublin City Council has a vacant sites register, but that doesn’t include vacant homes. They also have a derelict sites register but that is only for those that have fallen into extreme disrepair.
Crowe said that there still isn’t a comprehensive or reliable source of data. “So we can’t say what the extent of the problem is,” says Crowe.
But “there are systems that could be put in place to get a handle on vacancy and this has been done in other places”, he says.
Systems in Place
In the UK, there is a system that uses council tax to highlight that a home might be vacant.
A property is only liable for council tax when it is occupied, so if no one is paying council tax for a home, this alerts the council to the possibility that that home might be vacant.
In Scotland, they have dedicated vacant-homes officers, for whose main job is tracking vacancy, says Crowe.
They look at the council tax data and go check if the homes that aren’t paying council tax are vacant, and try to find out who owns them, says Crowe.
They support owners to bring the homes back into use if possible, he says. “You have to go case by case,” he says.
Then there are the Danes. “The system in Denmark is quite amazing. They have two incredible data sets,” Crowe says.
The Danish authorities have a population register that records information on the person, including their address, and then they also have a property register, which keeps tabs on occupancy and ownership of the property.
They cross-reference the two sets to highlight potential vacant homes, he says. “This is an ingenious, self-sustaining and dynamic database,” he says.
In Philadelphia, the authorities track vacancy, by combining several different data sets provided by public and private utility companies, Crowe says.
The technology exists to do that in Ireland too, he says. So, in theory, the government here could introduce a similar system, ideally using data from the ESB and other utility companies. “The data sets needed do exist, it is just a matter of gaining access to them,” he says.
Each council in Ireland has vacant-homes officers now. In September last year, Dublin City Council had three. The council hasn’t yet replied to queries about how its vacant-homes officers were progressing with their work.
Some of the jurisdictions that Crowe looked at are more aggressive than others in the measures they take to force vacant homes back into use quickly.
In Denmark owners who leave homes vacant long term, without good reason can face criminal charges. Owners have a duty to ensure their property is inhabited for at least 180 days a year, says Crowe.
It is a criminal offence for owners not to inform the local authority if a property is vacant for more than 180 days and the owners can be fined if they fail to do so.
“If the residency requirements aren’t being respected the municipality will assign a tenant to the property or ultimately force the owner to rent the property,” he says.
In Ireland, tackling vacancy is included in the government’s housing plan, Rebuilding Ireland, through two schemes – Repair and Lease, and Buy and Renew – which are focused on providing funding for properties that need to be fixed up before people can live there again.
Chu, the Green Party councillor, says she will be pushing the council to purchase more vacant homes to use them for social housing. “What we want the council to do is to purchase some of the vacant homes off landlords,” she says.
The acquisitions department of Dublin City Council purchases homes to house people from the social housing list.
“We want to find out where is vacant so we can say, ‘What about this?’” says Chu.