Yesterday the Irish Times published a short piece of commentary written by me to accompany a map of housing vacancy and unfinished estates, as part of the AIRO Pictures of Ireland series.  I’d originally submitted a slightly longer piece, which got cut by fifty percent due to space considerations.  Here is the full text to accompany the map.

As early as 2006, David McWilliams had coined the term ‘ghost estates’ for the dozens of unfinished developments visible on any trip across Ireland.  As the crisis deepened, unfinished estates became a symbolic and tangible marker of the excesses and follies of the property bubble.  In every village and town in the country were half-built houses and apartments, where the developer had ceased work or where units were unoccupied.

In short, too many housing units had been built for demand, the problem compounded by development finance evaporating.

The families who had bought and moved into what became unfinished estates were left trapped on them, facing a number of related problems.  These included living on or next to building sites and their associated health and safety issues, a lack of services and infrastructure, negative equity, anti-social behaviour, and a diminished sense of place and community.

Move forward to 2013 and very little has changed.  Unfinished estates still litter the Irish landscape, the people living on them face many of the same problems they did in 2006, and there is still a large oversupply of residential property in many areas of the country.

To date, the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government (DECLG) has undertaken three National Housing Surveys to monitor unfinished developments.  In the first survey, conducted in 2010, the number of unfinished estates were reported as 2,846, rising to 2,876 in 2011.  They were present in large numbers in every county in the country, but were particularly prevalent in the Upper Shannon area of Cavan, Longford, Leitrim, Roscommon and Sligo, the result of the tax-incentivised development.

In 2012, the DECLG reported that the number of unfinished estates had fallen to 1,770.  Unfortunately, the fall in numbers is principally because the definition of what constitutes an unfinished estate was changed.  The definition used in 2010 and 2011 refers to estates that have issues of vacancy and oversupply as well as outstanding development work.  In 2012 the definition refers only to the latter.

The map shows the distribution of the 1,770 estates with outstanding development work (black dots; see below).  The shading is the level of residential vacancy as reported in the 2011 Census, where dark red is over 25 percent vacancy.

In total, the Census revealed that there were 289,451 vacant properties (14.5% of total stock) in April 2011.  Of these 59,395 were classed as holiday homes.  In any ordinary housing market, approximately six percent of properties would be expected to be vacant (120,000 in the Irish case), meaning that oversupply is about 110,000.  There are also 17,032 units still under-construction according to the DECLG 2012 survey, excluding one-off sites.

To try and tackle the issues facing unfinished estates, the government set up two schemes.  The first, the social housing leasing initiative has sought to make some properties available for social housing.  The second, site resolution plans, are designed to tackle health and safety issues arising from incomplete or poor construction, with a fund of €5m administered by DECLG.  The former has had little take up and the latter has had little effect beyond fencing off dangerous areas and filling in potholes.

Most worryingly, the DECLG acknowledges that 1,100 of the estates are in a ‘seriously problematic condition’, yet only 250 estates (8.5% of 1,770) are active; that is, the developer is on site and undertaking construction.  That means that 1,520 of the estates that require development work have been abandoned to their fate.

Given that their developers have gone bust they are not likely to move towards completion in the short to mid-term.  In other words, several years after the crisis started, families are still living on developments that are substandard, with huge negative equity that locks them in.

In November, the Housing and Planning Minister, Jan O’Sullivan, announced that decisions would be taken in early 2013 to establish which estates are commercially unviable and need to have parts of them demolished.  Regardless of whether this happens or not, the unfinished estates issue does not seem set to be resolved for a number of years to come.

Unfinished estates and residential vacancy in Ireland

Unfinished estates and residential vacancy in Ireland

Rob Kitchin


New paper by NIRSA folk at NUI Maynooth/QUB.

Placing neoliberalism: the rise and fall of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger, by Rob Kitchin, Cian O’Callaghan, Mark Boyle, Justin Gleeson and Karen Keaveney

Abstract.In this paper we provide an account of the property-led boom and bust which has brought Ireland to the point of bankruptcy. Our account details the pivotal role which neoliberal policy played in guiding the course of the country’s recent history, but also heightens awareness of the how the Irish case might, in turn, instruct and illuminate mappings and explanations of neoliberalism’s concrete histories and geographies. To this end, we begin by scrutinising the terms and conditions under which the Irish state might usefully be regarded as neoliberal. Attention is then given to uncovering the causes of the Irish property bubble, the housing oversupply it created, and the proposed solution to this oversupply. In the conclusion we draw attention to the contributions which our case study might make to the wider literature of critical human geographies of neoliberalism, forwarding three concepts which emerge from the Irish story which may have wider resonance, and might constitute a useful fleshing out of theoretical framings of concrete and particular neoliberalisms: path amplification, neoliberalism’s topologies and topographies, and accumulation by repossession.

Published in Environment and Planning A 44(6): 1302 – 1326

PDF: EPA Placing Neoliberalism 2012

A new group called ‘Nama to Nature‘ has started an innovative bit of civil disobedience, planting trees on unfinished estates to help speed up the process of entropy and revert the spaces back to nature. details the groups activities in one estate in Keshcarrigan, County Leitrim.

We left early in the morning, some of us rowing across a lake in the haze of daybreak with bags of compost, spades and saplings. By 8am we were down to work, managing to find sufficient exposed soil to plant 500 alder, 100 silver birch, 100 hazel, 100 ash and 200 willow. What we did was a largely symbolic gesture, tonnes of rubble still need to be removed and the plastics need to be disposed of as a matter of urgency or they could pollute the adjoining lake.”

Such kinds of activism are called ‘guerilla gardening’ and there are such groups all round the world. gives a good intro  including details on guerilla gardening in Ireland, also see the Wikipedia page that has a load of links.

The basic premise is to reclaim public space for the public by planting seeds and plants and to encourage community participation in the environments in which we live. The rather grey area with respect to unfinished estates is the extent to which they are public spaces given that the unfinished elements of such estates remain legally in private hands, and indeed the lived in parts do to until they are taken in charge by local authorities.

Nevertheless, the point of civil disobedience is to challenge such notions of what constitutes public/private space and to actively intervene to positive effect.  Nama to Nature, and guerilla gardening in general, does both.  Through direct intervention it actively shows what alternative futures some of these abandoned developments – especially the ones that are not commercial viable now or in the short to medium term – could have.  And moreover, it starts to make such futures possible through planting.  It’ll be interesting to see if the movement catches on and how these new gardens and forests fare in the coming years.

Rob Kitchin

We’ve been working on the 2011 unfinished estates database released by the DECLG last week and computing the changes on an estate by estate basis between 2010-2011.  We have upload all the 2011 data and the 2010-2011 change data onto the AIRO website, enabling users to query all the results for every estate.  To use the site you will need to register.  Once registered, click on the mapping module tab, scroll down and click on ‘+ housing’, then scroll down and select ‘Unfinished estates’.  The module will then load.  To query the estate data click on ‘indicators’ button and select what data you are interested in.

We will exam the data in more detail over the next couple of weeks. Initial examination of the complete and occupancy data reveals that between Oct 2010-Oct 2011:

105 (3.6%) estates had a fall in the level of occupancy

1536 (54%) estates had no change in the level of occupancy

2109 (74%) estates had a change of 2 or less in the level of occupancy

2396 (84%) estates had a change of 5 or less in the level of occupancy

In other words, the vast majority of estates that were in the 2010 database experienced very little change in the level of occupancy between 2010 and 2011.  In fact, the 100 estates (3.5%) with the most positive change in occupancy accounted for 60.7% of all newly occupied units.  The change in occupancy then was highly concentrated into a relatively small number of estates.  These estates have a geographic pattern.  Of the estates that experienced occupancy growth of 40 or more (31 estates), 23 were in Dublin, 3 in Cork, and one each in Waterford, Mullingar, Mallow, Lucan and Ratoath.  That is, they are concentrated in the cities and large towns and their commuter belts.  Huge swathes of the country saw very little uptake of occupancy in their unfinished estates.

Rob Kitchin

Several newspapers (e.g., Irish Times, Independent, Examiner) are reporting that the Advisory Group on Unfinished Housing Developments has published its draft report today.  I’ve searched the DEHLG and Housing and Sustainable Communities Agencies websites but can’t locate it as yet (the main page for unfinished estates on the DEHLG website is here).   Going on what the newspapers say, there are 348 developments that are in need of immediate action to deal with public safety hazards (e.g., unsecured construction materials, open excavation pits, uncovered manholes, and partially completed buildings that could be unstable) where no current on-site work is being undertaken and the vacancy rate is over fifty percent.  These estates may also suffer from a lack of public lighting, problems with water and sewage services, poor road surfaces, lack of pavements, and a lack of open areas.  The identified developments are in every county, with particularly high numbers in Cork County (52), Cavan (34), Galway County (20), Dublin (the 4 LAs, 30), Donegal (23), Louth (17), Longford (16), Monaghan (14).  Individual estates are not identified.

Minister Finneran has announced a fund of €5m for local authorities to use to help address the worst of these problems.  Whilst the fund is very welcome, it only averages €14,360 per estate.  For that kind of money one would think that the issues would have been addressed already and it seems highly unlikely that all the issues can be tackled for that sum.  That said, it can certainly be used to address the worst of the problems, especially those that pose safety threats.  However, the bigger and longer term issue of how to finish out estates still needs resolution.  The draft guidance manual published late last year provides one roadmap, though as we noted in our own submission is far from ideal.

The issue of dangerous and developer abandoned estates is also far larger than the 348 estates identified; these are the worst estates that have the most problems.  Lots of other estates have many of the same issues and using the criteria of 50% occupancy seems a rather arbitary way of delineating the level of risk.  One could have an estate of almost full occupancy with a very severe hazard in it that needs urgent redress.  Our analysis of the unfinished estates database shows that:

  • 1,475 estates have uncompleted properties on them; 71% of these estates are non-active, i.e. they have effectively been abandoned by the developer for the time being
  • 635 estates have more than 50 per cent of units under-construction
  • 777 estates consist of 10 or more units where 50 per cent of units are either under construction or vacant  (i.e. they are ghost estates as we originally defined them last January)
  • 2,157 estates have residents (78,195 households)
  • 1,102 occupied estates are complete but have vacancy
  • 1,055 occupied estates are incomplete and may also have vacant units (454 occupied estates have more than 30% per cent of units in-complete)

Chairman of the advisory group John O’Connor, chief executive of the Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency, quoted in the Irish Times, himself acknowledges that the issues extend beyond the 348 identified estates, stating that local authorities were best placed to advise which estates in their areas were most in need of, or would most benefit from, funding to resolve public safety issues.  In other words local authorities seem to be in a position to assess estates on a “site by site, case by case” to draw on the fund to address issues.

The key issue now is for Local Authorities to start drawing down the funding available and to address the really pressing health and safety issues in order to improve the lives of residents.

Rob Kitchin

This piece also in the Irish Times today:

“Emails, texts and phone calls kept coming all week as hordes of foreign journalists flew into our beleaguered country.  … [A]ll of them were hunting for ghost estates.  Images of empty Irish houses, the symbol pretty universally chosen to illustrate our plight, haunted TV screens and foreign newspapers.  But where to find them?  Bill Nowlan maintains that journalists will have a hard time tracking real ‘ghost estates’ down.  Says Nowlan  ‘It’s hard to find semi-derelict tumbleweed estates – because they’re largely a media fiction.”

As per the early post today, 1,475 estates out of the 2,846 unfinished estates identified by the DEHLG have uncompleted properties on them.  Admittedly they are not all semi-derelict tumbleweed estates, and many of them are nice estates, but one doesn’t have trouble finding unfinished estates that look worse for wear (especially on estates where there are high rates of under-construction properties).   Media fiction they are not, though the media does focus on the very worst of them (which I agree is not helpful or fully representative of the range of conditions of estates and this variation does need to enter into the discussion about them).  And as the earlier post notes, these estates have a range of real issues that need redress.  However, it is certainly not hard to find them – take a drive through any county in the country.

Unfinished estates are chosen as a symbol to highlight our plight because ultimately lending for property is at the root of the state we find ourselves in.  We take no pleasure in having to point out they exist, but pretending that they don’t or that only a handful have issues will not help address the problems residents or the property market faces.

If anyone else approaches the Irish Times and the IT doesn’t know where to point them – either direct them to the maps on the DEHLG website or refer them to, but don’t pretend the 2,846 unfinished estates don’t exist or that the problems relating to them are trivial.  Denial is not going to make the issue go away (ask Brian Lenihan about the banking and fiscal crisis).  Next we’ll be told we don’t have any zombie hotels, or empty retail parks, or vacant offices, etc.  They too are a mirage.

Rob Kitchin

Bill Nowlan has a piece in the Irish Times today arguing that the issue of unfinished estates is relatively trivial and we shouldn’t be too worried about them.  It is full of phrases such as ‘just 2,900 estates’ (as if 2,900 is not a lot); ‘the output [from the survey] is good’; they are ‘new estate developments’ rather than unfinished (despite the fact that 1475 estates have incomplete units, 71% of such estates being non-active, i.e. they are abandoned by the developer); ‘the number of part-built houses at 10,000 is insignificant, equating to about three months work in a normal property and construction environment’ (ignoring the other 10,000 under-construction and the fact there is nothing normal about the present market and won’t be for some time); ‘there are only 23,000 new houses built and unoccupied … this is just 2 per cent of the overall national stock of homes in the country’ (omitting the 10,000 nearly complete and the 10,000 under-construction); ‘we have a housing surplus [172,000] but only 8.2 per cent of that surplus is in new housing estates’ (again, ignoring the other 20,000 in production, but also ignoring the fact that the rest of that surplus is an issue).

Where we agree is that there is a lot of misinformation in the media about vacancy and unfinished estates, with the media conflating both oversupply and overall vacancy with unsold units.  We have posted on this several times – see our key housing statistics post.

Where we disagree is about shifting the focus from oversupply to overhang and the argument that we can basically stop worrying about unfinished estates beyond negative equity.  Overhang is unsold houses.  Oversupply is the number of units in excess of household demand taking into account holiday homes and an expected rate of vacancy.  The oversupply is estimated by DKM on behalf of the Dept of Environment to be between 122,029-147,032 (NIRSA and UCD have similar estimates).  In a weak market with high emigration, high unemployment, and poor access to mortgage credit, 44,030 units (23,250 complete, 9,976 nearly complete; 9,854 where construction has started) is an issue, and so is the distribution of properties.  And the gap between overhang and oversupply is also troubling (see our post here).  To try and focus exclusively on the overhang and ignore other facets of the overall housing stock in Ireland such as oversupply is to create a different type of misinformation.

And there are a number of issues on various estates as anyone who has visited a lot of them or lives on one will be able to testify.  For the people living on unfinished estates these issues are very real and they need to be addressed.  The issues concern health and safety, security, anti-social behaviour, building control, planning compliance, bonds and finance to complete, and negative equity.  The Department of Environment acknowledge these issues exist, which is why they have set up an expert group to try and find solutions.  There are 78,195 households living with some form of these problems, on estates where on average 35% of units are unoccupied or unfinished.  As noted above, 1475 estates have uncompleted units on them.  This is not trivial.

The survey was very useful and provides a pretty good picture of unfinished estates, but let’s not lose the run of ourselves and try and now spin the situation in order to convince ourselves that these estates are not a problem beyond negative equity, that the housing market is essential fine once we work off the overhang (as if that is going to happen any time soon), and that the present boom and bust was a ‘normal’ event (its scale and extent is far, far bigger than anything else in Irish history).  Any unoccupied house that has been built for a while needs maintenance, unfinished estates need completion, low occupancy estates need residents, the issues above need redress, and the issue of oversupply rather than overhang remains in play.  The unfinished estates data can be spun in many ways, but there are real issues here and they are not going to go away any time soon.

Rob Kitchin

An Bord Pleanala have just released their 2009 Annual Report.  In the accompanying press release they argue that ‘the present hiatus in development activity gives us a chance to review the way our planning system works so that it will be fit for purpose when development is restored to a sustainable level in the future’.  However, the second paragraph argues that the planning systen did not contribute to the present crisis of excess supply and ghost estates:

Under the legislation it is not the role of the planning system to control the overall level of development or to restrict competition, rather to ensure that whatever level of development the market demanded takes place in an orderly manner in accordance with good planning principles and practice. Thus, while bad local decision making in planning contributed to some of the current problems, such as ghost estates in certain areas, the overall provision of excess capacity over a wide range of property types cannot be put down to a failure on the part of the planning system.”

This seems to me to be a very narrow and limited definition of the role of planning in the state.  Planning and planners take an active role in the visioning, production and implementation of local and county development plans, their role is not simply confined to making decisions on applications and undertaking enforcement.  A number of principles and guidelines relate to sustainable development in line with demographics and environmental considerations and so on (indeed, later in the press release it is stated: ‘The planning system will have a crucial role in this by directing where development should be located and the kind of development that is sustainable’).  If planning was to oversee ‘whatever level of development the market demanded’ then clearly there is a major issue, because way more housing units, retail units, offices and hotels were produced than there was demand for.  How can planning have ‘a crucial role in this by directing where development should be located’ but then have no responsibility for the location or level of poor sustainability of development?  And planning is meant to restrict competition around issues such as zoning of land.  Plus the main statement is somewhat contradictory.  If ‘bad local decision making in planning contributed to some of the current problems, such as ghost estates’ it is difficult to see how these ‘cannot be put down to a failure on the part of the planning system’.  The second half of the sentence does not logically follow the first part.   ‘Bad local decision making in planning’ – so it was bad planning then (perhaps not by planners, but certainly within the planning system).

If the planning system was not part of the problem then why have the government just introduced a new Planning and Development (Amendment) Act, that explicitly recognised that planning played a significant role in producing unsustainable development, even if it was mainly those parts of planning most influenced by politicians and politics, and a lack of coordination across boundaries and scales?  And if the planning system was not part of the problem why do An Bord Pleanala think that ‘The bursting of the property bubble raises questions about the role of the planning system in the property market.’  That we need to ‘learn very important lessons from recent experience’ including:

  • ‘planning for each area must adhere to national policies and must be governed by the relevant regional and local context;
  • all zoning must be very carefully considered on the basis of well established good planning principles;
  • development must be strongly directed to locations where infrastructure – especially, transport, water services, education – exists or is proposed under the public capital programme’
  • in planning the public good must be given greater priority over private interests;
  • statutory development plans, when duly made, need to be respected across the board by all interests, and indeed by local authorities themselves, rather than being seen as something that can be changed or circumvented if enough pressure is applied?’

What the statement seems to be trying to argue is that the planning system as it was devised did not fail as it worked within its parameters.  The argument seems to run: the system might not have been fit for purpose, but we ran that system as it was designed; therefore planning did not fail, because we followed and upheld all of that system’s principles and guidelines. If that’s the case, then it’s somewhat of a specious argument.  All it is that means is that we had a poor and failing planning system, that was implemented as it should, thus leading to poor, but procedurally correct, planning decisions.  The system was nevertheless a failing system.

Planners clearly had a very difficult role during the boom.  They were under fierce pressure from politicians, developers, businesses and residents.  There was a presumption for development operating and the system did not always help them.  They were accused of blocking or slowing development and being a general hindrance and nuisance.  The vast majority were trying to do a good job, often trying to work back against the system, with the odds stacked against them.  I’m not then arguing that planners or organisations such as An Bord Pleanala were the problem.  Indeed, they did a sterling and valuable job of trying to counter some of the worst and inappropriate excesses.  The overall planning system in terms of planning for, and overseeing, development did however contribute to the problems we now face.  If that was because the system did not give planners a strong enough role or position or powers, then that is nonetheless a failure of the system as it was (though not necessarily of planners).

In my view, planners need to move from being defensive about both their role and the system. Rather than saying, ‘it wasn’t us or the system,’ they should be using the crisis – as noted by An Bord Pleanala – as an opportunity to point out the weak parts of, and flaws in, the system, highlighting what aspects of the way the system was configured contributed to levels of oversupply and ghost estates, and how it should be altered and their position strengthened.  Trying to argue that the planning system did not contribute to the problem, at the same time as calling for very important lessons to be learnt and the system to be altered is simply not credible – especially when what is being asked for relates to changes in how planning is performed and implementation.  If there were no failings within the system, then everything can surely be left alone?

The overall thrust of An Bord Pleanala’s statement is correct – the present crisis presents the best opportunity in generation for planners and their organisations such as the Irish Planning Institute and An Bord Pleanala to push for change in planning in Ireland at all scales.   However, rather than be reactive and defensive, now is the time to be proactive.  Now is the time to seize that opportunity.

Rob Kitchin

The housing units inspected by the DEHLG survey can be broken down into 5 different housing types: Detatched, Semi-Detatched, Terraced, Duplex and Apartments. This breakdown is based on all units (179,230) so also includes units that have been granted planning permissions but not yet commenced (58,025). The current summary data available through DEHLG will not allow a further breakdown of housing type by level of occupancy or construction status. Hopefully this will be available when the complete survey output becomes available.

The following two graphs detail the breakdown by unit types within each local authority. It’s clear that there is a really different pattern throughout the country with Dublin City, DLR and Fingal with an absolute glut of apartments within these unfinished estates. Cork County with the highest number of overall units (18,681) has a mix with a higher proportion of semi-ds and terraced units.

Unfinished Estates: Units by Type (percentage)

Unfinished Estates: Units by Type (absolute)

Justin Gleeson

One of the questions I’ve had from the media and also on a blog is why is there a difference between the NIRSA (and DKM/DEHLG) oversupply figure and the number of unsold units on unfinished estates as calculated by the DEHLG in their recent survey.  Essentially the difference is oversupply versus overhang, and the overhang consisting of more than unsold units in unfinished estates.  In the last few days there seems to be an attempt to shift focus to the overhang, and in my view that’s a big mistake.

Oversupply is the rate of vacancy above a base 6% vacancy rate once holiday homes have been accounted for.  It is concerned with the number of households with respect to the supply of housing units.  At a basic level, according to the DEHLG and CSO, in 2009 there were 1.96m units in the country and 1.63m households (the latter figure only released a couple of weeks ago), a difference of 330,000.  The NIRSA model estimated a difference of 338,031; DKM/DEHLG 301,682-326,685; and UCD 345,116 (so each study had pretty good alignment with the latest data – see our key housing statistics post, which also gives links to all data).  We need to take out holiday homes, as these properties are bought and serve a purpose.  We also need to take out the expected base vacancy rate – all housing markets have an expected rate of vacancy, in that not all homes are expected to be occupied.  Both NIRSA and DKM/DEHLG use a base vacancy rate of 6%.  On 1.96m units that would be 117,600 units one might expect to be vacant.  The difference between the overall vacancy minus holiday homes and the base vacancy rate is the oversupply.  These are effectively houses surplus to either holiday home use or household demand to live in them.  NIRSA estimates oversupply as of the end of 2009 as 120,248, and DKM/DEHLG estimate as 122,029-147,032. UCD estimate that it is 171,178 (using a 5% base rate)

Overhang on the other hand refers to the number of unsold units in the state, regardless of whether there is anybody to occupy them or use them.  The unfinished estates report details that there are 33,226 unsold units (23,250 complete, 9,976 nearly complete) and another 9,854 where construction has started.

So why is there a substantial gap between estimated oversupply (120K) and potential overhang (43K), and why does it matter?

Explaining the gap is not straightforward because we do not have any definitive data.  It seems likely, however, that the difference consists of three types of property:

  1. Other unsold houses.  The unfinished estates survey had some parameters – an unfinished estate was defined as estate with 2 or more houses where development and services had not been completed and estates completed from 2007 onwards where 10% or more of units are vacant.  Therefore unsold houses in estates completed prior to 2007, for example in the second half of 2006 when the market was softening were not included.  Nor does it include unsold houses in estates with less than 10% vacancy.  Nor does it include new, unoccupied one-off housing.  Unfinished estates remember only refer to 6.1% of all units in the state.
  2. Excess second hand vacant houses that have either come onto the market or which have not done so when one might have expected them to.  There are c50,000 second hand houses on the market, a proportion of which are vacant.  They might be the houses of recently deceased or those who have moved area or country.  Some of these won’t be on the market because the fall in house prices has led to the perception that the owners will not realise the full value of the property or because of issues of negative equity.
  3. Vacant investor properties bought at the height of the boom with the aim of buying to flip or buying to rent.  In some cases these properties may have no mortgage (bought for cash) or a relatively small mortgage, and therefore there is no pressure to get tenants in. In other cases, the property may have been bought in marginal, rural locations where it is all but impossible to source new tenants given out-migration and competition.  At the height of the boom, a significant proportion of property was being bought as investments.  For example, 27% mortgage business in 2006 was investor mortgages according to data cited in Derek Brawn’s book, Ireland’s House Party.  The bottom line is that in many cases units were bought for which there was no immediate household demand.

So, why does the difference between overhang and oversupply matter?  Surely, if property is bought it is no longer a problem?  All we need to do is work off the overhang and we’re back in business. In fact, shouldn’t we start building again before the overhang is worked off to make sure we don’t end up with a shortage?

The difference matters because the rate of oversupply suggests there is a strong mismatch between the number of households and housing units.  The difference between overhang and oversupply effectively represents latent supply.  They are units where there is a strong possibility they will come onto the market when the conditions are right, especially once they come out of negative equity.  Even if they become rental properties, there’s presently not enough households to fill them given net out-migration and weak population growth through natural increase.

For the housing market to recover we need supply and demand to tighten right up so that there is active competition for property.  As prices rise, latent units will come onto the market, especially as negative equity thresholds are crossed.  And even if this additional supply is slow, an expected 6% base vacancy is very generous and this could be eaten into as the new build gets going again.  In most countries base vacancy is 3-5%, so there is some slack there.  There are also the c. 50,000 secondhand houses presently on the market, some of which are presently vacant.  Starting to build before we’ve fully aligned supply and demand could extend the problem and keep the market flat.

Of course, the market is going to remain flat whilst the economy is in the doldrums, access to credit is restricted, and unemployment and underemployment remain high.  The housing market will not be well served, however, by focusing solely on the overhang and ignoring the issue of oversupply.  Ultimately reducing both overhang and oversupply is reliant on a growth in, or redistribution of, households (the latter will, of course, leave vacant units elsewhere in its wake, as will moving from rental into new build).  Unless households grow in number, then the issue of oversupply will continue for quite some time.

Talk of there being only 18 months supply of housing units based purely on the overhang figures in unfinished estates needs to be treated with caution.  It takes no account of the latent supply implied by the rate of oversupply.  It was only a couple of months ago that a figure of 3-4 years supply was being talked about based on the oversupply figure.  Nothing has changed other than swapping from oversupply to overhang, which suits the government, construction industry and aligned interests such as estate agents because it makes the size of the problem appear much smaller.  Of course, all of this varies geographically, and some areas will align supply and demand more quickly than others, but 18 months seems very optimistic regardless of location given the present market and the fact that many estates need finishing off before new ones are started and few, if any, developers can access finance to fund existing, let alone new, estates.

Rob Kitchin