As regular readers of this blog will know, some of the contributors to Ireland After NAMA have been involved in debates over levels of housing vacancy in Ireland post the property crash and financial crisis.  We now no longer need to rely on models to predict the level of housing vacancy as the preliminary results of the Census 2011 provide a detailed breakdown for each local authority (see Table below – click on the image to enlarge – or Census 2011, Table 7).

The total stock of houses in the country grew by 234,562 (13.25%) between 2006 and 2011, rising from 1,769,613 units to 2,004,175 units.  The overall level of housing vacancy, including holiday homes, increased by 10.5% from 266,322 units in 2006 to 294,202 units in 2011. The overall level of vacant housing stock dropped slightly from 15% to 14.7%, but is effectively static, with growth in vacancy being matched proportionally by growth in housing units, which shrank markedly from 2008 onwards.

The much quoted figure in the media of 300,000 vacant units then has then been proven roughly right.  Of course, as we have pointed out several times, the real issue is oversupply not overall vacancy.  To calculate oversupply we need to subtract the number of holiday homes and also the base vacancy rate (calculated in Ireland as 6% overall stock; in 2011, 120,250) from overall vacancy.  The number of holiday homes have not yet been released, but it seems likely that oversupply will be 80-100,000 (it was estimated by the DECLG to be c.122-147,000 at the end of 2009) given growth in households between 2006-2011 and the tail off of construction in recent years.

Housing Vacancy in Ireland 2011, Source Census 2011

To look at the county level, there are ten local authorities where overall vacancy is over 20%.  These include Longford (21.8%), Wexford (20.9%), Clare (21.3%), Kerry (26.5%), Leitrim (30.4%), Mayo (24.8%), Roscommon (23%), Sligo (22.2%), Cavan (22.1%), Donegal (28.5%).  Only 10 LAs saw a reduction in the number of vacant dwellings, the largest of which was Fingal that saw a decrease by -425 housing units.  All other LAs saw a growth in vacancy, nine by over 20%: Carlow (32.2%), Clare (21.2%), Kerry (21.8%), North Tipp (24.9%), Leitrim (24.1%), Roscommon (24%), Cavan (24.7%), Donegal (26.4%), Monaghan (23.3%).

Once we have the holiday home figures we’ll be able to calculate a geography of oversupply, but it is clear from these figures that there is a pronounced pattern of vacancy.

Rob Kitchin

The CIF have just published a report ‘Future Housing Supply in Ireland‘.  Their main argument is that there is between 6 months and 4 years housing supply across the country and yet housing building has all but stopped except for a limited number of one-offs (80% of units built in 2010).  In particular, Limerick City, Wicklow, Kildare, Limerick County, Cork City, Waterford City, Greater Cork, Kerry, Galway City, South Dublin all have less than 6 months supply.  Meath, Clare, North Tipp, Fingal, Cork County, Mayo, Dublin City, DLR, Galway County, Westmeath, South Tipp all have less than 12 months supply.   In other words there is an urgent need to start building houses again in a number of places around the country as there is a very real danger of running out of supply in these areas (see Figure 1).  The report is an interesting lesson in how to combine and spin data for a particular vested interest purpose.

CIF housing demand projections

Principally what CIF have done is taken the DEHLG unfinished estates survey data and matched it to the target population projections in the Regional Planning Guidelines.  There are three main issues with this.

First, it tries to reduce housing supply to the overhang of unsold new housing, ignoring the bigger issue of oversupply (all units inexcess of a base vacancy rate).  The DEHLG itself calculates that oversupply (122-147K) is significantly higher than overhang (43K) – see our key housing stats post.  As we have argued at length elsewhere to try to ignore the issue of oversupply and only focus on brand new houses is a massive folly as it only considers one part of housing stock.

Second, it assumes that the population growth targets issued to Regional Authorities in 2009 are realistic.  These projections were based on 2002 and 2006 census data when there was significant population growth.  The demographic shifts occuring in Ireland in 2011 are very different to that period.  We are back into a period of emigration and the projections are almost certainly over-estimates.

Third, the wider economy is in the middle of a severe recession.  It is very difficult to source mortgage credit, unemployment and underemployment is high, and the next generation of first time buyers are emigrating.  There is little to no credit for investors.  The housing market is simply flat.

In other words, the data entering the model is on the one hand selective and on the other suspect, and the study ignores the general context of the wider economy.  CIF have been telling us for 12 months plus now that we only have 6-12 months supply in some areas of the country.  It seems barely credible to argue that many places will run out of housing in 6 months time.  This is simply is not going to happen given the levels of oversupply, emigration, stagnation in the housing market, and the state of the wider economy.

Census 2011 should give us a good idea as to where we are with housing and population/household demography.  Once the data is released our housing supply/demand models can be recalibrated and we’ll have a better idea as to what kind of building programme we’ll need.  Regional Planning Guidelines and Local Area Plans should then also be recalibrated.  I seriously doubt we need to panic about supply until we have that data.  If the CIF want a case for stimulus, it might have much more credibility arguing for investment in infrastructure than housing.  The solution to an oversupply problem is not to produce more supply, it is to work it off.

Rob Kitchin

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

According to the 2006 census there were 51,441 housing units in Cork City of which 6167 were vacant (exc. holiday homes).  Between Apr 06 and end of 2009 the DEHLG housing completion data reveals an additional 3,579 units were built.  To put that in perspective, in 1996-2006 the number of households increased by 2,636 well below the vacancy and new build rates.  At the same time, Cork’s development over the last decade offers one of the best examples of plan-led development in Ireland. The Cork Area Strategic Plan and the Cork Docklands Development Strategy both aimed to implement an approach to development that was coordinated at the urban and regional levels, and aimed to stimulate growth that was in line with NSS guidelines and best practice in spatial planning.  So, if Cork followed an evidence-based approach to planning for development, why is it now suffering such high levels of vacancy?

There are a range of factors that influence this.  For one, development in Cork has suffered from unfortunate timing.  For the last decade, the projected growth expected from the docklands project has informed the scale and type of development in Cork city.  Cork is not characterised by urban density and does not have a legacy of apartment living.  The docklands project sought to fundamentally alter this pattern.  The project planned to stimulate the growth of the knowledge economy in Cork city by providing new office spaces in the docklands.  Additionally, the docklands would provide a range of new amenities (schools, parks, crèches, bars, restaurants, cafes) that would encourage both single residents and families to live and work in the city centre.  By the time the recession hit, the docklands project had yet to really get off the ground.

However, the developments that had happened in the city had based themselves on these projections.  Thus, developments like the Elysian that aimed to capitalise on the emerging trend towards apartment living were coming on stream at a time when the property market was imploding, making them an even more risky proposition in that they not only had to contend with a distressed market but also battle against entrenched consumer preferences.  At the same time, new housing estates were being developed in the suburbs.  Many of these came on stream at the wrong time.  Additionally, many prospective buyers had been priced out of the market as property prices soared, forcing them further out into the county.

Similarly in the County, expected growth was predicated on the designs of the CASP to create a commuter zone around the metropolitan city region.  Many speculative housing developments sought to capitalise on these trends.  Both the CASP and the CDDS are long-term strategies that were only beginning to see tangible results over the last three or four years.  As such, the recent surge of development interest in Cork was unfortunately in synch with the crash.

While these projects were certainly based on a strong rationale couched within the logic of spatial planning, it should also be said that the levels of growth expected from these strategies was excessive; the outcome of entangling reasonable and sensible projections with the fever dream of the Celtic Tiger.  Furthermore, even though Cork attempted to implement an evidence-based forward planning approach parts of the city and county were also characterised by the type of ad-hoc and clientalist developmental practices seen in other counties.  As David Counsell suggests in his study of the CASP, while on paper the plan suggested a coordinated effort by City and County Councils to plan and manage the growth of the region, the actuality was more fragmented.  Local Councillors still managed to rezone land for  development in towns and villages upon which massive housing estates were built that were in excess of reasonable demographic projections and against the objectives of the CASP.  Many of these developments are now unfinished ghost estates, while others are situated in areas without proper social provisions.

Rather than indicating the futility of evidence-based planning, the case of Cork demonstrates the problems associated with the fragmentation of the Irish planning system.  In the absence of joined-up planning, local authorities have only limited abilities to guide development in coordinated ways, and are often at the whim of local Councillors and developers.  While Cork certainly was not immune from the frenzied over-development of the Celtic Tiger period, the fact that to a certain extent this development followed a coherent plan means that in the long-run this may not be as destructive as in other counties, where development has left run amok without rhyme or reason.  Furthermore, it speaks more fundamentally about the difficulty of implementing a strategic approach to planning in the Irish context.  Because of the vagaries of planning structures and the lack of statutory regional policies, strategic planning is constantly challenged and undermined.

Cian O’ Callaghan and Rob Kitchin

Our initial calculation of estimating potential oversupply of new housing April 06-09 used population growth between 96-06 to estimate the potential number of houses needed if population increased at the same rate in 06-09.  We have refined this model to use household numbers that better reflect household fragmentation, to include a rate of obsolescence (at 6 per 1000 per annum) and for holiday home build (5 per 100), and to take account of the underlying surplus vacancy rate in 2006 (calculated by the DoEHLG/DKM as in excess of a base rate of 6%, minus 23K under-counted holiday homes – 87,356).  It does not take account of local effects such as development plans or strategic investments, or the functioning of local labour markets, and provides an estimate of oversupply not the actual oversupply which is unknown. (more…)