Department seeks more forced purchases of abandoned sites

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The Department of Housing will encourage local authorities across the country to step up their use of compulsory purchase orders (CPOs) to repossess vacant and abandoned homes, Prime Time has learned.

As part of a new plan to tackle abandonment, expected to be announced in the coming weeks, the ministry told Prime Time it hopes local authorities will acquire at least 2,500 vacant homes by 2026. and present them for sale.

The new post will coincide with the introduction of a homebuyer’s grant of between €20,000 and €30,000 for those who want to snag derelict property, a measure recently proposed by Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien.

Local authorities will also need to combine more CPOs and mainstream acquisitions with their existing programs to convert derelict buildings into social housing.

A central advisory service within the Housing Agency is being set up to support local authorities in these measures, while the Housing Finance Agency will provide a bridging finance facility to fund local authority CPOs.

The main schemes are known as ‘Buy & Renew’, where a local authority buys and renovates an abandoned building for social housing, and ‘Repair & Lease’, where a private landlord receives a loan to carry out the renovation in exchange of a long-term municipal tenancies.

However, some local elected officials are skeptical about the desired impact of the measures.

The government is offering a buyer’s grant for those buying derelict property (stock image)

Galway City Mayor Colette Connolly told Prime Time that people are tired of failed policies to tackle abandonment.

From the urban renewal programs of the 1980s to the more recent abandoned sites register, which allows authorities to order a clean-up, impose a fine or issue CPOs on properties, few have converted vacant properties. in housing in large numbers.

“A lot of people come to see me, 15 years later [housing] list, their children have grown up – and they look at these abandoned sites and no action. They are very frustrated,” Mayor Connolly said.

She said that such an intensification of activity on mutual funds is difficult to envisage.

“It takes us years to go down the road of compulsory purchase. The general manager and the staff are very reluctant to go down this road because it’s long, it’s complicated, it involves many legal procedures and it’s a very expensive way.”

Information released to Prime Time by Galway City Council shows it has only carried out three CPOs on derelict properties in the past decade.

Likewise, there are currently only nine properties on the council’s abandoned sites register.

By contrast, a government report released last week on behalf of the North and West Assembly identified 444 vacant and derelict buildings in Galway city and its suburbs last year.

The problem, according to Mayor Connolly, is that the current planning policy, which allows planning permissions to be extended for five years, conflicts with a policy to properly classify buildings as derelict.

There are around 1,400 properties on abandoned site registries nationwide (stock image)

“That leaves a huge amount of time for the owner to deal with the abandonment,” she said.

Galway City is not alone in not tackling abandonment. Information from the Department of Housing shows that there were only 111 CPOs between 2018 and 2020 in the 31 local authorities.

There are just 1,369 properties on abandoned site registries nationwide, 6% of the 22,096 abandoned addresses reported in the GeoDirectory residential building report for the last quarter of 2021.

The Repair & Lease and Buy & Renew programs have converted just 1,008 derelict buildings into social housing across the country since 2017.

The government’s next plans on abandonment are part of its Croí Cónaithe, or Living Heart, program which it hopes will reinvigorate towns and villages, as well as its Town Center First policy on community regeneration.

One man eagerly awaiting all the details is Owen Coughlan, an architect from Loughrea, Co Galway, which has 115 derelict buildings. He is currently drawing up plans for a potential buyer of a derelict retail space with living space above.

The premises are representative of many vacant properties in the city, Coughlan said.

“If you take Loughrea there are maybe a handful of families still living in their commercial units. After that the floors above all the other units are basically vacant or used for storage.”

He welcomed the government’s plan to offer financial support to buyers, who will be looking for a family home, rather than builders or developers who will be looking for a short-term gain.

The government is expected to announce its plan to tackle abandonment in the coming weeks (stock image)

However, he said a grant of between €20,000 and €30,000 would not be enough.

“As far as this property goes, it’s not close enough to be economically viable to start renovating this property,” Coughlan said.

Renovations could cost up to €300,000 to turn the property into a suitable living space, he said.

One council that has bucked the trend and eradicated a significant amount of abandonment in its center is Waterford. This is a ray of hope for the Ministry of Housing.

Waterford City and County CEO Paul Johnston attributes this to the council’s decision to focus on abandonment six years ago and the determination of his Vacant Homes Office.

After the council determined that 25% of applicants for the housing list wanted to live in Waterford city centre, it concluded that there were “a number” of vacant properties in the city, it said. he declares.

Since 2017, the council has purchased 45 properties using CPOs and acquired another 25 over-the-counter.

These 45 have been renovated and transformed into social housing in the city, as part of the Buy & Renew program. There are another 70 individual units underway, according to Johnston.

The council also launched the Repair & Lease program, before it was rolled out nationwide.

The Croí Cónaithe, or Living Heart, program hopes to reinvigorate towns and villages (stock image)

“We have about just over 300 units in the pipeline, and there would be about 140 units completed,” Johnston said.

Local woman Mary Power, a building owner in the city of Waterford, heard the council’s call and signed up for the repair and rent scheme.

The top three floors of her property had been derelict and vacant for 17 years, she said.

But because his downstairs business, which supplied fireplaces, was in difficulty, the bank did not give him a loan to renovate them.

Now, three years later, she has three municipal tenants and she couldn’t be happier.

“So the rent we get on the three apartments, which is slightly below market value, which pays off the loan in full over 10 years, and then we don’t owe anything on it,” she said.

Although the value for money of the repair and rent program has not yet been fully examined, local advocates say it provides people with safe homes.

Another participant in the repair and rent scheme is developer Owen Sheehan, who is engaged in a project to provide 71 homes for the elderly on the vacant site of St Joseph’s House at Manor Hill in Waterford City.

Although the government is moving away from long-term leasing of developers on new build on so-called ‘green field’ sites, Mr Sheehan said council involvement is essential for ‘wasteland’ sites, or abandoned.

Getting funding elsewhere for a project like this would be “almost impossible”, he said, because it is an abandoned site under a preservation order.

The developer has also recently transformed a former pub, Ryan’s on Cork’s Barrack Street, into eight apartments.

Between 2018 and 2020 in the 31 local authorities, there were only 111 CPOs

He said the Department of Housing’s plan for a building permit exemption for converting pubs or restaurants into accommodation means they will be built faster.

Mr Johnston said a big part of Waterford’s success in tackling abandonment has been the work ethic of its vacant homes office, which has taken on the age-old problems of finding owners and verifying title deeds, while selling the message to owners of abandoned buildings. .

To date, only three local authorities have full-time vacancy house officers, with the others only employing people part-time in this role.

The department told Prime Time that the minister intends to require all local authorities to appoint full-time vacancy housing officers in order to qualify for increased funding to €60,000 for vacancy housing offices .

As well as increasing housing supply, Mr Johnston said the fight against abandonment is bringing “properties, communities and streets back to life” and is “a win for everyone”.

But he said local authorities need determination.

“For it to work, you have to go out there and chase it down. Owners of vacant property don’t necessarily come to the door,” he said.

“You have to get known through the Vacant Homes Office, make people aware of what you can give them, what is available and what local authorities can give them.”

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