ONGOING PROBLEM A severe shortage of rental properties in Ballina – exacerbated by the ongoing pyrite scandal – is forcing some workers to commute from far outside the locality.
Would-be Mayo renters and buyers are in dire strats – but why?
BUT for the global pandemic, housing would arguably be dominating the headlines in this country.
Once regarded as ‘a Dublin problem’, issues around the affordability and availability of housing in Mayo have been covered in these pages with greater frequency. This year alone, two emergency meetings of Mayo County Council have been called to discuss this very issue.
The figures speak for themselves. In a county of over 130,000 people, today (Tuesday) there are currently just 46 properties available to rent on Daft.ie. According to figures given at an EGM of Mayo County Council earlier this year, 2,662 people are on the social housing waiting list.
The ongoing scourge of dereliction continues to blight villages, town centres and rural areas across the county, with 15,492 Mayo properties (including holidays homes) lying unoccupied according to the 2016 census.
As this newspaper has documented, difficulty in acquiring planning permission in rural areas has been raised on several occasions by public representatives.
According to the latest Daft.ie report, Mayo is the fourth cheapest county in the Republic of Ireland in which to buy a home – the average asking price currently stands at €172,823. Fourth cheapest the county might be, but this average still represents a 17.7 percent year-on-year increase.
A shortage of affordable homes to rent or purchase is being felt acutely in some parts of Mayo. Indeed, county councillors have claimed that some people have refused job opportunities in Westport because they cannot find a place to live.
Likewise, a severe shortage of rental properties in Ballina – exacerbated by the ongoing pyrite scandal – is forcing some workers to commute from far outside the locality.
Director of Services for Housing with Mayo County Council Tom Gilligan pulls no punches when asked about the state of rental market in Mayo, which he describes as ‘totally dysfunctional’.
Speaking to this newspaper, Gilligan said: “You can’t have a situation where you’ve less than 50 properties for rent [in the county], because apart from housing, it’s impacting economically. People trying to come to live in Mayo, trying to work in Mayo, where do they live? How do they get that foothold?
“Then we have the hidden homelessness, a young generation living with their parents and not able to get on the property ladder because there is such a limited number of properties for them to move into.”
A founder of VacantHomes.ie, a website that helps people identify vacant properties and their owners to help bring them back into use, Gilligan is passionate about the issue of housing. Indeed, there is palpable frustration in his voice when he speaks on the issue of vacant housing and dereliction.
“In the middle of a housing crisis it’s a tragedy that there are so many vacant homes here. It’s unsustainable,” he says.
“I do believe, and I’ve said this before, that it’s actually immoral that people are leaving these homes vacant at the time of a housing crisis and a shortage of rental properties.”
The Mayo News asked Gilligan expand on comments he has made publically on housing in recent months.
When asked why, in defiance of seemingly huge economic incentives, so many properties are lying empty, he replies that there are ‘a myriad of reasons’. These range, he says, from emigration to the owner having moved to a nursing home, to the owner not having the means to redevelop the property. For many, becoming a landlord is simply not worth the hassle.
He insists that there are no quick fixes, easy solutions or silver bullets for tackling this multi-layered problem.
Still, he welcomes the introduction of the vacant site levy as well as the €60,000 Repair and Leasing grant scheme as incentives to bring vacant property into use for social housing. The vacant site levy is a heavy penalty on landowners who have been hoarding land rather than developing it for housing.
According to Gilligan, Mayo County Council have been ‘proactive’ in the use of compulsory purchase orders for derelict sites. “In some cases, even the threat of the CPO has worked to help bring properties back into use, and we’ve seen that on a continuous basis,” he says.
Commodity or right?
IN the eyes of many commentators, the root of the country’s housing problem extends back before the start of the Cetlic Tiger.
Sinn Féin TD Rose Conway-Walsh is of the view that Mayo’s housing problems can be laid firmly at the foot of national policy.
“We cannot separate what’s happening in one county from what’s happening in the national picture,” she tells The Mayo News.
“The first thing I would put [the housing shortage] down to is the invitation to the vulture funds and real estate investment funds, that have bought up thousands upon thousands of houses … [and] that use them as a commodity to trade.
“They have total control of how much homes cost and what the rental costs are. That’s extremely worrying.
“That didn’t happen by accident. It happened because they were given very generous tax incentives to do that. We basically gave control of our housing to the private market. We did the same thing in terms of local authority policy that was handed down by the last government and by this government.”
In agreement with Deputy Conway-Walsh is Dr Rory Hearne, Assistant Professor of Social Policy at Maynooth University and author of Housing Shock: The Irish Housing Crisis and How To Solve It.
An outspoken commentator on this issue, Hearne says that the root of the problem lies in housing being viewed as a commodity rather than a fundamental right.
Fuelled by reckless Celtic Tiger lending, excessive amounts of private housing ended up being built in the wrong places while the building of social and affordable homes slowed to a trickle.
“I would argue essentially that governments over the last 20 to 30 years told local authorities to get out of building council housing,” Hearne tells The Mayo News.
“They were defunded essentially, and housing was turned to the private developers, to the private market, banks to fund people getting mortgages.”
“I’m sure if you go through the like of Ballina and Claremorris that you’ll see vacant and derelict properties,” he adds, citing rural depopulation as one factor.
“What we haven’t had is a strategy to use our existing property, and the focus has essentially been on private developers building new estates.”
Hearne has publicly argued for a referendum to enshrine the right to housing in the constitution.
He says that protections granted to private property under Article 43 of Bunreacht na hÉireann are ‘a barrier’ to the large-scale compulsory purchase of land and derelict property.
“In terms of changing our culture and approach to housing we need to have that referendum as soon as possible, to state very clearly that it is our state’s responsibility to ensure that people have access to a home.
“That is not saying ‘here’s a key for everybody to have a home’, but that the housing system is working so that people can get a home.”
‘Housing for All – a New Housing Plan for Ireland’ is the Government’s housing plan to 2030. While it commits to increasing construction of social homes and compulsory purchase of derelict properties, the question around the role of the private sector has become a vexatious one in political circles.
While oppositions parties have taken issue with Housing for All’s perceived over-reliance on the private sector, Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien has publicly criticised Sinn Féin for their objection to certain private housing developments.
One such development in Donabate in north county Dublin made headlines when Sinn Féin members were among nine members of Fingal County Council who opposed the construction of 718 private homes, 238 social homes and 238 affordable homes on public land.
When we put this criticism to Deputy Conway-Walsh, she insists that her party would not have opposed the development if a better deal had been on the table.
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong whatsoever with a builder or developer making a reasonable profit. But there has to be conditions there that the end product will be affordable to meet the housing needs of the people,” she asserts.
She believes that private investment funds should have an ‘absolutely minimal’ role in the housing market. “There’s no point in allowing [private investment funds to purchase] public serviced land, that we’ve paid for through our tax … [and] hold onto them until they can flip them over for another profit.”
At the end of our conversation, the first-time TD poses an unprompted question to this reporter: “Do you ever think you will be able to afford to own your own home?”
“Not in Dublin,” is the answer.
She insists that unless the housing issue is dealt with urgently, home ownership beyond the M50 will soon be beyond the reach of most people.
One can only hope that this prediction does not come to pass.