Over 1,000 affordable homes unsold
HARRY McGEE Political Correspondent
Some 1,100 affordable homes still remain unsold around the country because of the slump in the property market, the Department of the Environment has said.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) also heard toay that an additional 1,000 affordable homes will be coming on stream during 2010.
Officials from the Department of the Environment told the PAC meeting that the bulk of the unsold units, some 80 per cent, were located in the Dublin and Cork Regions.
However, they argued that significant inroads had been made in reducing the stock of unsold affordable house in the past year.
Secretary general Geraldine Tallon said that the Department responded swiftly when it emerged last year that the stock of unsold affordable units was increasing.
She said the Deaprmetn had bought number of unsold units down from 3,400 at this time last year, to 1,100 now. This had been achieved through the sale of 700 units and from the transfer of a further 1,600 units to use as social housing.
When questioned by Deputies Ned O’Keeffe (Fianna Fail) and Deirdre Clune (Fine Gael), Ms Tallon said there was no legal impediment to transferring most of the remaining units for use as social housing, if deemed suitable.
Labour Party TD Roisin Shortall said that one of the reasons that local authorities could not sell the units was because the market price for property had fallen to below the original discounted prices for affordable properties. She also suggested that many affordable units were now in negative equity.
Earlier this year, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council disclosed that it had €27 million worth of affordable housing stock on its books that it was unable to sell, despite reducing the prices to keep them 20 per cent cheaper than the open market value.
It was disclosed that €848 million is owed to local authorities in development levies. The largest sum owing is to Fingal County Council which is owed €161m, and where 50 legal cases have been initiated. Dublin City Council is owed €147m and has issued 100 warning letters. Other authorities owed large amounts include Meath (€47m); Wexford (€22m); Roscommon (€17m); Dun Laoghaire (€70m); Limerick (€36m); and South Dublin (€29m).
The meeting also heard that almost 4,000 local authority houses lay vacant at the end of 2008. The Department said that the figure represented a “significant improvement” on 2007 when around 5,000 or 4.3 per cent of properties lay vacant.
“We do feel that it’s an area where local authorities can do better… We accept that it’s an area where strong focus needs to be maintained,” said Ms Tallon.
She said the average delay between occupancy was 22 weeks. Committee chair Bernard Allen Fine Gael said there was one local authority house in Cork that had been vacant for 14 years.
Ms Shortall said that increasingly, local authority houses ere being “thrashed” after families had been evicted.
She said the vacated houses constituted “a blight on communities” and that local authorities were powerless to do anything about it because of a lack of funds.
Mr Allen said he agreed: “There are lots of houses closed up, shuttered, some of them wrecked by anti-social behaviour and they are a scar on the face of areas. It’s just adding to the down-grading of areas,” he said.
Ms Tallon responded by saying the overall budget for local authorities was €5 billion and “it was simply not good enough to take refuge in the idea that local authorities have no money.”
Ms Tallon defended the record of the Department, saying that the needs of 125,000 families had been met since 2001.
“In the round, the performance of the housing programme has been credible,” she said adding that the target for 2010 was between 8,000 to 9,000 units.
She also said there was an opportunity for increased engagement with the National Assets Management Agency.
She said securing vacant private property on leases depended on the willingness of proepryt owners and financial institution to either enter long-term agreements.
“We have been finding that they prefer to wait for NAMA to be set up to give an opportunity to settle the market and allow a picture to emerge in relation to value. It has been difficult for the past year or so to engage property owners in terms of long-term leasing.”