Pillar 5 of Rebuilding Ireland, the Government’s Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness, deals with utilising existing housing stock and VacantHomes.ie is Mayo County Council’s innovative response in trying to release the potential of vacant homes throughout the country.
VacantHomes.ie is a website that was initiated by Mayo County Council on behalf of the local government sector, as an online resource for anyone to anonymously log possible vacant properties and alert housing authorities who can then follow up with the owners to see whether the vacant property can be brought back for use as a home.
Tom Gilligan, Director of Services at Mayo County Council, highlights the importance of the VacantHomes.ie initiative in helping to solve Ireland’s current housing crisis. “What we want to do is to try and bring empty homes back into use and are asking the public for their help to do this” says Gilligan. “Local people have local knowledge and they can provide a unique insight as to why properties are vacant. With this local knowledge they can identify and log details on to the vacant homes website, www.vacanthomes.ie This information can then be used by each housing authority in order to follow up and help get the unit back into use. Bringing vacant homes back into use is a win-win for everyone”. Apart from providing much needed homes for people with a housing need, bringing vacant homes back into use helps rejuvenate areas that are in decline. Breathing new life into homes that are vacant benefits our communities and helps protect local services. It also helps the economies of our cities, towns and villages by having more people living within the area which stimulates growth including the creation of jobs. From a climate change perspective, it is also important as key infrastructure is already in place including roads and utilities such as water, telecoms and electricity.
To date, Mayo County Council is delighted with the feedback and assistance it is receiving from the Department of Housing, Planning & Local Government, local authorities, the public and various agencies throughout the country as regards its response to the housing crisis. “Here in Mayo, we have a significant number of vacant properties, similar to other parts of the country and we see hugh potential in getting them back into use”, says Gilligan. “It’s all about reusing what we have and maximising the use of our housing stock. Apart from the obvious benefits of housing, economic and climate change, bringing vacant homes back into use reduces the pressure for new housing developments”.
Although bringing vacant homes back into use will help alleviate the housing crisis it is recognised that there are so many varied reasons why a property is vacant, including for sale, in probate, or perhaps the owner may be in hospital or in care. Local authorities now have Vacant Home Officers who are available to provide advice, assistance and can work with property owners every step of the way in bringing a property back into use.
Along with Vacant Home Officers, there are a number of schemes available which provide assistance, including financial for the property owner. These include the Repair and Leasing, Buy and Renew and the Long-Term Leasing Schemes. The Repair and Leasing Scheme is intended for owners of vacant homes who cannot afford, or access the finance needed to bring the empty property up to the standard required. If the property requires repair work, the local authority or Approved Housing Body will provide upfront finance to a maximum of €40,000 or (€50,000 in the case of former bedsits). For this the property must be provided for social housing for a minimum of at least 5 years. The Buy and Renew Scheme is a companion to the Repair and Leasing Scheme as it allows the property to be purchased as opposed to be leased by a local authority. The focus on this scheme, is around older vacant homes to help tackle the blight of dereliction and help improve the appearance of an area. The Long-Term Leasing Scheme may suit owners of properties that are vacant and in good condition. It is also financially viable with a rental income guaranteed of 80% of each month’s market rent. Other benefits for the owner include; no management of tenants, or advertising fees and no day – to –day maintenance of the property. “While take up of some of the schemes has been slow, we are starting to see much more momentum, particularly as awareness of them grows”, says Gilligan. “Here in Mayo, so far in 2019 we are seeing much more traction, particularly around the Repair and Leasing Scheme, with agreements to lease already on a par with the whole of last year”.
While Mayo County Council is mindful of the need to bring vacant homes back into use, it is also very much focused on its own build programme. Last year 2018, Mayo County Council exceeded its overall target set by the Department of Housing, of providing housing solutions. Whilst satisfied with its performance thus far, the Council is mindful of the need to continue to deliver on its overall Rebuilding Ireland target up to 2021. Whilst we have our Rebuilding Ireland targets from the Department, we are ambitious enough to try and exceed them and in the process provide ourselves with additional units”, says Gilligan.
Back in March, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Eoghan Murphy TD visited Mayo and it’s fair to say he was very impressed with the number of capital projects that are happening within the County. The Minister and his team, on the day, visited a number of sites in Ballina, Castlebar, Ballinrobe, Swinford, Foxford and Knockmore. There were other sites such as in Westport, Ballyhaunis, Parke, Killawalla and Newport that the Minister didn’t have an opportunity to visit and this work continues to highlight the amount of progressive construction that is happening throughout the County.
On bringing vacant homes back into use, Gilligan concludes: “I think it is important we pursue these vacant properties in order to capture the many benefits, from a housing, economic and also from a community point of view. There are many vacant homes in towns and villages throughout the country and I know people would prefer to see them returned to purpose”.