Wednesday, 19 May 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
There are approximately 92,712 vacant homes throughout the State. This does not include homes on the derelict sites register. This is a shocking statistic and it is clearly a very serious problem. The Government has committed to tackling vacant homes, as did its predecessor. Yet, there are only three full-time vacant homes officers across the entire State. This is nothing short of scandalous. How can the Minister of State stand over this?
When I asked how a part-time vacant homes officer is meant to tackle this issue in somewhere like Cork city where there are 8,880 vacant homes, he told me that staffing is an issue for the local authority. That is all very well and good except that these officers are there under a Government initiative. The councils did not establish the role of vacant homes officers. They did not establish the buy and renew or repair and lease schemes. They did not welcome vulture funds into this State with open arms like the Government and its best friends in Fine Gael did. It is, therefore, not a council issue; it is a Government issue.
The Government has missed by 70% the targets set under the vacant homes scheme. A promise was made that 5,600 homes would be returned. However, not even 1,700 were returned. The Minister of State came into this role full of bluster and guff that he was going to achieve things, but he has not delivered. These vacant homes are still lying idle. These vacant homes should be filled with young families and people instead of lying idle right across the State. The Minister of State is nearly a year into the job and he is jumping from blunder to blunder, having torn apart the hopes and dreams of young families across the State.
With almost 9,000 vacant homes in Cork city, we could nearly clear the social housing waiting lists by getting young families and their children into these homes. Instead, we must tell these young families that their children will be teenagers before the family can have a home of their own. How is this acceptable?
Currently, these vacant houses are magnets for anti-social behaviour, dumping, vermin and gangs. They are an eyesore and can cause problems in their communities. Instead of dreaming about owning their own homes and fixing them up, what can people in the constituency I represent dream about under this Government? An affordable home costing €400,000. The Minister has promised houses priced between €160,000 and €250,000. He said that people should not pay more than 35% of their income on their mortgage. Somehow, somewhere along the line the Minister and the Minister of State seemed to realise where their priorities lay. These priorities did not lie with the ordinary people of Cork North Central who are locked out of the housing market.
I put the simple question to the Minister of State: does he want to solve the housing crisis? Yes or no? I do not believe that he does. If the Government wanted to solve the crisis, it would fund local authorities to have full-time vacant homes officers in place to deliver the 92,000 homes that are there, so families and people can get the homes they need.
I thank the Deputy for raising this very important matter. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the position of vacant homes officers in our local authorities.
The national vacant housing reuse strategy was published by my Department in 2018 and since then my Department has provided funding to each local authority of €50,000 per annum. This funding is to support the work of a vacant homes office, including a vacant homes officer, for each local authority.
It is important to say that the allocation of staff within a local authority is an executive matter for the chief executive of that local authority. Each of the 31 local authorities has a vacant homes office, but currently only three local authorities have one person working in a full-time capacity as a vacant homes officer. In the remaining 28 local authorities the officer appointed as a vacant homes officer carries out additional duties in their planning and housing divisions. In some authorities, more than one part-time officer carries out the duties of the vacant homes officer.
In some local authorities, with restrictions that were imposed due to Covid 19, vacant homes officers were not in a position to carry out all of the duties that would normally be assigned to them. For example, travel around a local authority area to carry out inspections of vacant properties has not always been possible. As a result, some of the vacant homes officers were assigned alternative duties within the councils that they were able to carry out while the restrictions were in place.
The activities of vacant homes officers are comprehensive with their main focus being bringing vacant properties back into use throughout the country. The vacant homes officers provide assistance to property owners on how to best utilise available supports such as the repair and lease, buy and renew and long-term leasing schemes. The role and range of duties of the vacant homes office and officers within each local authority includes, but is not limited to, tasks that support the implementation of local authority vacant homes action plans; undertaking initial vacancy assessment exercises and drilling into available CSO and GeoDirectory data; carrying out or co-ordinating visual inspections and assessments of residential properties in their administrative area; identification of and contacting the registered owners of the properties deemed to be vacant from inspection; serving as a contact point for dissemination of advice, assistance and information on residential vacancy to members of the public, including landlords; and the collation and timely provision of vacant homes data to my Department.
Each of the 31 local authorities has prepared a vacant homes action plan for its administrative area. The vacant homes action plan identifies the scale of vacant homes in their jurisdiction and sets ambitious but realistic targets of the number of vacant homes that can ultimately be brought back into use. To support this work, my Department has facilitated a number of seminars to allow the network of vacant homes officers meet with relevant departmental officials, ensuring that information on reactivating vacant homes into liveable housing stock is made available to both the Department and to all vacant homes officers in the 31 local authorities
There are 31 local authorities, with three full-time vacant homes officers and the rest work part time. The Minister of State is telling us that many of these part-time officers have multiple roles. They can be the derelict sites officers, they can organise housing maintenance or they may be involved in allocations and planning. They are overseeing adaption grants and tenant purchase schemes. They can also be involved in processing Rebuilding Ireland home loans. The Minister of State said staffing is a council issue and the funding is in place. I have no doubt that somewhere like Cork City Council, with almost 9,000 vacant homes, would jump at the chance of a full-time vacant homes officer. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have stripped local authorities of their power and funding over the decades. Councils are no longer able to provide the services expected of them because the individuals working in them are expected to do multiple jobs. It is unbelievable that we are here today, listening to a Minister of State describing how a vacant homes officer is quadruple jobbing. We have 92,000 vacant homes. I asked him a straightforward and simple question. Does he want to solve the housing crisis? Organising seminars and failing to provide funding is not good enough.
I ask the Minister of State a straightforward question. Does he believe that the part-time vacant homes officers in the 28 local authorities will get the 92,000 vacant homes returned? I do not think they will. In fact, I know they will not. It is not acceptable that a Minister of State would come to the House and talk about vacant homes and providing funding when the staff are part time. It just does not make sense.
Not for the first time, we are hearing incredibly contradictory contributions from a Sinn Féin Deputy. In the first instance, he criticises the Government allegedly taking powers away from local authorities, and in the second, he says we should instruct local authorities and take over their staffing matters-----
They have the funding. As I said, every local authority has €50,000 in place to support the vacant homes officer. It is a matter for the local authority to adjudicate on how staff are assigned. The Deputy seems to be suggesting otherwise, that we should try to take more powers away from local authorities, while at the same time absolutely contradicting that.
The Department's role-----
I cannot help but hear the contradictions the Deputy is expressing. He might allow me the forum to complete my contribution, as I allowed him to complete his without interruption, but he obviously does not have the manners to do that.
The Department's role is to drive and co-ordinate actions in central government to support local authorities in their actions to tackle vacancy in local areas. There has been great success in bringing back vacant properties into productive use throughout the country. For example, since the introduction of the repair and lease scheme, 234 homes have been brought back into use and tenanted. The buy and renew scheme has also facilitated local authorities to purchase 670 vacant properties for social housing purposes.
Finally, since its introduction in 2017 and up to the end of 2020, the revolving acquisitions fund, managed by the Housing Agency, has facilitated the purchase of 878 properties, which have been made available to approved housing bodies and local authorities and accommodate households who need social housing support.
The Department is committed to tackling vacancy and will continue to do this work with local authorities over the coming weeks and months.