Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Ceisteanna (33)

Jan O'Sullivan

Ceist:

33. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the job description of vacant homes officers in local authorities; if they are required to investigate and report on the reasons homes in their authority area are left vacant; if they have specific time allocated in their working week to work specifically on activity to bring homes back into use; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26814/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Housing)

The purpose of this question is to find out exactly what vacant homes officers are doing. Given the fact that there are now so many people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, coupled with the fact that there is such a shortage of available housing, it is a scandal that there are empty properties throughout the country which could be used as homes. Even if the numbers are nowhere near the census figure of 183,000, we need proactive engagement on empty houses available throughout the country in order that they can be turned into homes for people. What are vacant home officers doing? Are they being proactive in bringing homes back into use?

I agree that we have to be very proactive in dealing with vacant properties. That is what we are trying to do. It was nice that the Central Statistics Office, CSO, figures last week reflected the fact that over 5,000 vacant properties had been brought back into use in the past two years. The report of the CSO was released last week and is independent of the Government. We also know that 8,400 local authority voids have been brought back into use. There has, therefore, been a major focus on vacancies.

Local authorities have designated vacant homes officers who act as a central point of contact. They provide information and advice for owners of vacant homes and also deal with queries from members of the public in respect of private residential vacant properties in their administrative area.  

The range of duties of the vacant homes officer includes tasks that support the development of local authorities’ vacant homes action plans. They are involved in co-ordinating both initial vacancy assessment exercises such as drilling down into available data, primarily from the CSO and GeoDirectory. They also undertake visual inspections of properties in their administrative area, where appropriate, as well as engaging with the owners of vacant homes on the options available to assist them in bringing their properties back into the habitable housing stock. A range of options have been outlined by the Department which are an attractive carrot designed to encourage people to bring forward these vacant properties.  

It is, of course, a matter for each local authority to decide the appropriate allocation of staff and resources for this work, having regard to its overall workforce planning policy. However, we have indicated to local authorities that we want them to do as much as possible to ensure vacant homes in areas of high demand for housing are targeted and brought back into use, where feasible. In that regard, my Department will be providing funding to support the work of vacant homes officers within each local authority, allowing for an increased focus on vacancy issues and boosting take-up of schemes to tackle vacancies. Correspondence from local authorities to that effect was received last week and there will be more in the weeks ahead.

I had the opportunity recently to visit Limerick where I saw some great work being done on vacant properties. I have to commend the vacancy unit for the work it is doing. I have asked it to do much more of that work. It has brought forward some excellent properties under the purchase and renewal scheme. It is also dealing with the repair and leasing scheme. There is a range of schemes in place. There is, therefore, no excuse for leaving properties vacant. I accept that in some instances there is a reason which must be addressed with the person who owns the property which might be complicated, but local authorities are being asked to prioritise this work. They have been provided with funding and we have seen some great results throughout the country, in Limerick in particular.

I am really trying to find out whether the people who have these jobs have other tasks to do. Is a specific amount of time devoted to proactively finding out the reasons properties are vacant, rather than just responding if somebody provides the information? Do they draft action plans? In the British system vacant homes officers have a very proactive role. They identify the reason a property is vacant in their local area, rather than waiting for somebody to apply under the existing schemes such as the purchase and renewal scheme. Is there a proactive plan in place for local authorities to specifically identify vacant houses? Do the officers in question then go and talk to their owners? Are there plans to have a tax on properties that have been left vacant for a long period of time?

Vacant homes officers and their teams are engaging on the issue. In Limerick four people have been assigned to the task. There is even a vacant homes manager. Their job is to proactively chase up vacant properties. I have seen good examples in different counties I have visited where vacant properties have been brought forward. We want the officers in question to do more. That is what we are asking them to do. It involves engaging directly with the owners of properties to find out what has gone wrong. The website, vacanthomes.ie, was set up by Mayo County Council and my Department. It is a useful tool in that regard and over 1,700 homes have been registered on it. It raises awareness of properties and encourages people to work with us to bring forward solutions. There is a range of schemes available which I will not go through. There are many options available through the local authorities. The allocated funding for this year, amounting to around €50,000 per unit, will be announced in the weeks ahead in order that this process can be driven physically on a day to day basis. I understand this is what vacant homes officers are doing in most cases. We have asked them in our meetings with them, when we meet them at housing summits and weekly meetings with local authorities, to focus on this issue and dedicate resources to dealing with it. We are matching that funding with resources from the Department.

The numbers taking up the two schemes are disappointing. Does the Minister of State have plans to increase the uptake either by changing the schemes or introducing a stick-based approach? Are there plans to have a tax on homes that have been left vacant for a long period of time?

We all agree that the numbers are not as high as we want them to be. The schemes have been put in place and they are attractive. We made changes to them to make them even more attractive. There is no reason the purchase and renew scheme cannot be used much more by local authorities which now understand this also. There are over 600 repair and lease-back properties in the system. Some 900 properties have been through the scheme and 600 are still being judged or worked on. I hope the majority will come through the system. We have changed the scheme to make it easier and more attractive. There is an option to lease back properties after five years. We are trying to place a focus on this project. Asking each local authority to have a vacant homes action plan, fund officers and put money behind the scheme is an attempt to place a focus on the issue. We should see a major improvement in the number of properties coming through both schemes, as well as others, in the months ahead. The vacant homes unit in the Department which was set up by the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, aims to drive this agenda to increase the level of activity. We will see increased activity in this space in the months ahead.