As It Pushes to Meet Targets for Building Social Homes, the Government Counts Some as Complete Before They Really Are

Those relying on Department of Housing data would think that in the first half of this year, Dublin City Council and housing charities built and bought 201 new social homes within the city. (Or 200, depending on the dataset.)

But more than half of those homes – 138 of them in Parkwest and Bluebell – weren’t actually completed until months later.

In reality, Dublin City Council and housing charities delivered 63 social homes, for the more than 30,000 applicants on the social housing and transfer waiting lists.

If other department figures are accurate, that means that Clare County Council beat them easily, delivering 144 new social homes, as did Wicklow County Council, which topped the charts for the first half of this year by delivering 167 new build social homes.

A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said that the extra homes counted in the second quarter but finished later were at “practical completion stage” by the end of June.

With the end of 2022 in sight, politicians in the governing and opposition parties have been sparring over the question of how many new social homes have been delivered so far this year – and whether the government will meet the national yearly target set in its housing strategy, Housing for All, of 9,000 new-builds.

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said that “2022 delivery under Housing For All is progressing well for the Dublin Region” and the councils are increasing the number of homes in their supply pipelines too.

“Practical Completions?”

A Department of Housing social housing report says that 86 new social homes in Parkwest, which were built by the charity Tuath Housing, were completed in the second quarter of 2022, so between April and June.

But those homes weren’t really finished then.

“Park West was completed this week,” said a spokesperson for Tuath Housing on 4 November.

The Department of Housing also listed 52 homes in Bluebell, built by Respond, as finished within the second quarter of 2022.

But those homes weren’t really finished then, either.

A Dublin City Council spokesperson said Respond completed 52 homes in Bluebell in September 2022. And a council report prepared by officials for councillors on the housing committee in September and issued in October did not yet mark those homes as completed.

However, the council spokesperson said, “both developments, Park West and Bluebell, reached practical completion stage by end of June 2022. This does not mean that units were ready for occupation.”

“Snagging and rectification of defects follow on from this date and can take many weeks depending on the site, the number of units and the type of development,” they said.

The quarterly delivery figures are “very important status markers”, they said, but the delivery programme is based on the annual targets under Housing For All.

Sinn Féin TD and housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin says it is “entirely dishonest” to count homes as completed when they are not fully finished.

There is a clear process in place for this because all newly built homes in developments are issued with completion certificates, he says.

Said Social Democrats TD Cian O’Callaghan: “How do their figures have any credibility?”

It is serious because people in need of homes are waiting for them to be done, and some of those people could be in dire housing situations, including homelessness, said O’Callaghan.

“It’s misleading,” he says. “They should be telling us when social homes are finished and completed and people are moving in.”

The Final Tally

There are a bunch of different schemes for delivering new social homes. But for its targets under the government’s housing strategy, Housing For All, the Department of Housing counts new-build social homes as those built directly by the housing charities known as approved housing bodies, and those built directly by councils.

They also include those delivered through the provision known as “Part V”, whereby developers of big private schemes can sell a percentage to use as social homes.

Finally, they also count what are known as turnkey homes, which includes new build homes that councils and AHBs forward fund to get them off the ground as well as those under construction that are bought off plans.

Under the government’s housing strategy, Housing For All, the four Dublin local authorities, together with housing charities, are expected this year to deliver 2,118 new-build social homes.

In the first half of 2022, across the four Dublin local authorities, councils and housing charities built and bought just 278 new social homes, show department figures, once the 138 completed later are subtracted.

Fingal County Council is down to deliver 360 new-build social homes this year, according to its housing delivery action plan. But between January and June, there was no new social housing completed in the county.

A spokesperson said the council is happy with its record on social housing delivery and that it is on track to meet its target and exceed it by one home.

“Fingal County Council has a good track record in the delivery of social homes across the county and has met all new-build delivery targets,” says the spokesperson.

They expected that most of the new homes will be done in the final three months of the year, they said.

Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has a target of 463 new-build social homes this year. In the first half of the year, it delivered 152 new social homes.

“Every effort is being made to complete as many new homes as possible before the end of the year,” says a spokesperson for that council.

But the council “does not expect to fully meet its build target in 2022 due to issues such as COVID-19 and site abnormalities which have impacted on the programme as well as supply chain and resource issues in the construction sector”, they said.

Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has a very strong pipeline for delivery in 2023, she says.

Meanwhile, South Dublin County Council delivered 63 homes in the first half of this year towards a target of 400.

“We engage with [the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage] on our projected output and targets regularly,” said a spokesperson for South Dublin County Council in response to a question as to whether it expects to meet the target.

The Department of Housing has set a target of 895 for Dublin City Council for 2022. Dublin City Council has set its own slightly higher target.

Of those targeted homes, 63 had been finished in the first half of this year.

At an October meeting of the council’s housing committee, Mike Allen, director of advocacy with Focus Ireland, asked if the council was on track to meet its own target for new social homes.

Director of Housing Delivery Dave Dinnigan said it was something that the council is trying very hard to achieve despite cost inflation and other issues in the sector. “We are confident enough that we are going to get up and around that figure.”

Who Is Building?

The spokesperson for the Department of Housing said that the government has set an ambitious target in Housing for All for building social and affordable homes.

Also, “there are a significant number of initiatives aimed at achieving these targets with a particular focus on Local Authority and AHB direct builds”, they said.

But that focus doesn’t seem to be coming through in the figures.

“Local authority builds are actually falling,” says architect and housing commentator Mel Reynolds, who crunched the numbers for new-build social housing so far this year and in recent years.

The very low level of homes directly built by councils themselves is surprising, says Reynolds.

“The number of houses built by the four Dublin local authorities in the first half of this year? The answer is zero,” he says.

In 2020, councils directly built 269 homes themselves, he says, but that dropped to 175 homes in 2021.

The state should be contributing more to the overall supply of housing by building on the vast tracts of land that it owns, he says.

“What is going on? Why aren’t they building?” says Reynolds. “The state has the land, has the resources, it has the design teams, engineers, quantity surveyors.”

If councils and housing charities are forward-funding sites that wouldn’t otherwise be developed that is good, says Reynolds, because it is increasing supply. But if those homes are almost completed anyway, like the ones that Dublin City Council is currently seeking to purchase – those with a done-date in the last quarter of this year or next year – that means the council is snapping up homes that are about to hit the market.

Ó Broin, the Sinn Féin TD, says the way the funding system is structured means it is much easier for councils to buy from the private sector than to develop housing themselves.

For councils to develop social housing on their own land is a bureaucratic and cumbersome process.

“There is a perverse incentive created by the department to nudge councils towards turnkeys,” he says. “The system is designed to slow everything down.”

In his experience, most turnkey purchases are homes that would not be developed otherwise though, he says, and most of the time in Dublin if the state is competing for homes it is likely to be competing with an investor fund.

But there is a danger in relying primarily on the private sector to deliver social housing, because it could slow down at any time.

Turnkeys should be an additional supply to supplement a major government programme of directly building social homes, he says.

The main thing the data shows is that “we are not delivering enough social homes”, says Ó Broin. “The reason is because the direct build by the local authorities and the approved housing bodies is far too low.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing says the council’s construction pipelines are increasing across the Dublin region, as evidenced by the Dublin Housing Delivery Group report.

“There are just under 8,000 units in the build pipeline, of which 2,700 units are on site,” says the report. “This has increased from 3rd January 2022 when there were 6,400 units in the build pipeline.”

The spokesperson says: “In areas where a local authority does not have the land or the projects to provide delivery in the short-term, local authorities have entered into development arrangements with developers who have sites available which have not been activated.”

Approved housing bodies have done the same and buying turnkeys supports developers to deliver housing projects that they might not otherwise be built, he says.

O’Callaghan, the Social Democrats TD, says that in some cases those turnkey purchases are homes that would go up for sale on the open market and so the state could be pushing up prices.

The figures show there is no major programme of direct-build social housing underway in the Dublin region, he says, which seems contrary to repeated statements by the Minister for Housing, Fianna Fáil TD Darragh O’Brien.

“Our clear focus is to increase the stock of social housing through new build projects delivered by local authorities and Approved Housing Bodies (AHB) and, with this, to reduce the numbers of social homes delivered through acquisition programmes,” said O’Brien in the Dáil on 8 November, for example.

“Not only are they not going to hit that 9,000 figure but most of them are turnkeys,” says O’Callaghan.

If the councils get desperate to push up their numbers for the year they might pay over the odds for turnkeys too, says O’Callaghan. The state should ramp up its own building programme, he says.

“It’s far from an ideal way to be managing the supply of social homes,” he says.

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Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

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