I pulled together some notes when speaking to Rory Hearne for an article he was writing on the topic for the Irish Examiner. I am putting them up here without much additional elaboration, but they are based on research from an ongoing IRC-funded project that I have been working on along with Kathleen Stokes.

The question of causes and solutions to housing vacancy is a complicated one, and while it can’t be solved overnight there is an urgent need for steps to be taken that begin to address it.

As it stands, there are a series of challenges relating to identifying, measuring and bringing vacant housing stock back into use.

Housing vacancy is notoriously difficult to identify and accurately measure. We currently measure housing vacancy at the national level through the Census and the Geodirectory address database. However, in both cases data on vacancy is not the primary thing being collected, but is rather a secondary dataset generated through other data collection priorities. The Census has arguably the wider coverage because enumerators can get access to apartment buildings, which are not accessible to other forms of measurement. But because the Census occurs at 5 year intervals it can only offer a static picture that doesn’t capture a lot of the flux in property markets.

In addition to long-term vacancy, there will be short term vacancies of various types – properties for sale, going through probate, houses as part of the Fair Deal scheme, Airbnb or other short term rentals – captured in this overall figure by virtue of being unoccupied on the night of the census. The types of vacancy that may occur are diverse and present different challenges from a classification and policy action perspective. Similarly, determining the length of time vacant can be a challenge for existing measures.

Without having an accurate picture of the levels of different types of vacant housing, it can be a challenge to implement policies to bring vacant stock back into use. What is clear is that different types of vacancy produce unique challenges and that the geographical and property market context influences the form that potential solutions might take.

The government approach that was initiated under Rebuilding Ireland has essentially tried to use market mechanisms to incentivise owners to either sell or lease the property to local authorities for social housing. The uptake of these schemes has been modest and geographically uneven. Waterford city has brought half of all the housing units under these schemes back into use, for example, through a coordinated and targeted approach.

But those working on bringing vacant housing back into use have highlighted a range of other barriers. These include regulatory issues like fire safety standards or conservation of structures with heritage status; market factors like land speculation and site assembly but also market failures to provide appropriate finance to build-out small and medium sized projects; and governance issues relating to the capacity of local authorities to enforce existing measures.

One significant issue underpinning all of this is the strength of private property rights inferred by the constitution. Put simply, the greatest barrier to bringing vacant housing stock back into use is that many owners simply don’t want to engage in doing so. Given the length of time involved, the resources of labour and time needed and the unpredictable outcomes, local authorities have indicated that they often only initiate compulsory purchase orders (CPO) as a last resort. They have much greater success with owners who are willing to engage.

The flip side of the slow take up of these ‘carrots’ is of course is that the existing ‘sticks’ do not sufficiently penalise owners for leaving property vacant. However while taxes on vacant property are certainly part of the puzzle, they won’t provide a silver bullet to fixing problems of vacancy. This is in part because there are many different types of vacant property and reasons for it being vacant; indeed, incentives may be a more pragmatic approach to unlocking some in the short term. But it is also because our property and land markets – especially our housing markets – are dysfunctional in many respects. Vacancy is one component and feature of this dysfunction. Therefore, it is impossible to solve vacancy without also addressing these wider problems with how urban development and housing works in the interests of some groups and against those of others.

A starting point is thinking about ways to make it less attractive to sit on vacant property as a speculative asset. But this is only a beginning. Building from an expanded typology or set of classifications, more detailed qualitative research is needed on the institutional, legal, market and social barriers involved in bringing different forms of vacant properties back into use in different geographical areas. Tackling problems of vacancy requires moving beyond technocratic fixes and opens up more fundamental questions about how we value urban space, prioritise particular forms of development, and balance the rights and responsibilities of property as absolute right to exclude against the common good.

Cian O’Callaghan