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Housing crisis: Seven solutions to Ireland’s biggest problem

Cut building costs, incentivise buy-to-rent and overhaul property tax, experts advise

‘The Housing Fix’ is an Irish Times series exploring solutions to Ireland’s housing crisis – arguably the biggest social and economic issue facing the country and its next government – in the run-up to the general election.

More than a decade after the Republic became home to Europe’s biggest property crash, the housing and property market remains in difficulty. The Central Bank of Ireland estimates the State will need 34,000 new homes a year over the next decade to keep up with demand.

We don’t have precise data yet but only 21,000 were likely to have been completed last year.The mounting pressure on the rental market forced the average rent to spike more than 5 per cent to a record €1,403 across the State in the third quarter of 2019. Meanwhile, the latest figures from the Department of Housing show that 10,448 men, women and children were homeless in November, up 5 per cent on the year.

Here, some leading property experts give their views on the measures needed to boost supply to meet demand.

Radically overhaul property tax

Dermot O’Leary
Chief economist with Goodbody Stockbrokers
With a general election in full swing, there’s a fear that politicians will focus on short-term fixes concerning housing, the most important domestic policy issue facing the country, according to Dermot O’Leary, chief economist with Goodbody Stockbrokers.

“Let’s face it, governments don’t exactly have a great record in intervening in the property market, but there are a few areas where it can impact positively. The first area relates to its role in the market for land. The government, both directly and indirectly through various arms of the state, is the largest landowner in the country.”

O’Leary sees the vacant site levy, introduced in 2015, and the Land Development Agency (LDA), established in 2018, as good initiatives both aimed at freeing up land for housing, but they have so far been implemented “rather meekly”, he says.

“The LDA has been slow off the mark, with some State agencies seemingly reluctant to allow it to interfere with their land holdings. It is unlikely that it will supply homes to the market in scale for quite some time. A greater urgency is required.”

The vacant site levy has had some local success in discouraging land hoarding, but a “much more aggressive” implementation of the law is needed to reduce loopholes, O’Leary said.

Substantial increases in the price of delivering services, particularly water, has also pushed up the cost of building, he added.

“A brave politician could reduce the upfront costs by funding these costs through a radical overhaul of the property tax system. Councils have the power to increase property taxes by up to 15 per cent, but have so far decided in many cases to reduce the charges, for political gain.

“By spreading the cost of the provision of services such as water over a longer period, the upfront costs of housing delivery can be reduced, positively impacting supply.”

Reduce building costs

Sean Mulryan
Founder of property developer Ballymore Group
According to Sean Mulryan, whose Ballymore Group is working on mixed developments in Dublin’s north docklands and housing projects in counties Kildare and Dublin, the Government needs to set up a taskforce urgently to assess why houses are much more expensive to build outside Dublin city centre than major English cities.

“There may be demand for 35,000 new homes a year but people can’t afford them – and that’s largely down to the high standards buildings must meet in Ireland, ” said Mulryan. “If you look at places outside Birmingham and Manchester, house prices are almost €100,000 cheaper than outside Dublin. And it’s not because English builders are operating on lower margins.”

“The English build very good houses but the standards that ours must meet are higher. In Ireland, we had three changes in regulations over 10 years, adding significant costs to delivering a home. While some are very welcome, others couldn’t justify the increase in build costs for the minimum efficiency they gave.”

Mulryan estimates about 10 per cent of houses completed in Ireland last year have not been sold, due to affordability issues, with those houses priced to give a 10 per cent profit margin, below the 15 per cent builders normally aim for.

The developer says builders are also contending with soaring labour costs, amid a dearth of construction workers. “I’d say labour costs are up 25 per cent in the greater Dublin area in the last three years, with raw material costs also only going one way: up. We’ve got to train our own and convince young Irish tradespeople they have a future here.”

On a more positive note, Mulryan has detected a stabilisation in Irish land prices in the past 12 months following a surge in values since 2013, with developers “starting to twig the reality of the cost of delivering homes and affordability of buyers with the Central Bank mortgage limits”.

A period of policy stability

Stephen Bell
Chief executive of property development finance company Cullaun Capital
For Stephen Bell, who served as chief risk officer at Ulster Bank and AIB after the crash before setting up Cullaun Capital in 2018, Ireland needs a period of policy stability and consistency to boost building.

“Everything about this sector is about time,” says Bell. “If somebody breaks ground today on a housing project, houses will be made available some time in 2021. People screaming that things have to happen faster are probably the cause of some of the negatives, because the more uncertain builders and investors feel, the less likely they are to commit to projects.”

While much of the political focus is on housing for families, Bell says there needs to be more emphasis on the needs of younger and older people – with the Government’s Project Ireland 2040 development strategy forecasting the population increasing by 1 million over the next 20 years and 1 million more people over the age of 65.

“There still is this huge focus in Ireland on the 1995 solution to housing requirements of a three-bedroom semi-D with gardens to the front and the back. But we’re not embracing diverse and emerging needs,” says Bell.

“Co-living is a great example,” he says, referring to accommodation that offers studio rooms with communal kitchen and living areas. “This will never be a solution for the majority of people, but it will for some people. There are many 25 to 30-year-old [foreign direct investment] employees who have no interest in owning their own house or living in the suburbs with a garden.”

Bell has also called for greater co-operation between the public and private sectors. “Wouldn’t it be great if various stakeholders actually sat down in a room and worked out what bits are best dealt with by the State and would be best left to the private sector?

“What you have now is the State semi-interfering in all sorts of ways – when it hasn’t enough money to do everything. There are some counties where a €20-a-week increase in the National Treatment Purchase Fund nursing home rate could make the private construction of a new nursing home viable. Instead, you have 50 per cent more money going to public sector nursing homes that are of lower quality and have problems meeting [Health Information and Quality Authority] standards.”

Streamline bureaucracy and regulation

Fiona Cormican
New business director at Clúid
The social housing sector, non-profit bodies and associations, many of them charities, accounted for around 40 per cent of social housing output last year. With demand rising, this output is set to grow further. Fiona Cormican is new business director at Clúid, the largest housing association with 7,500 properties. It  is one of the biggest developers – and landlords – in the country. Cormican believes that it is essential to recognise social housing as a “very valuable part of the jigsaw” of overall housing provision and not just an add-on.

Clúid concentrates on new-builds. It completed more than 300 homes last year and is on target to exceed this in 2020. It builds both through traditional procurement – where Clúid is responsible for the design and tenders out the construction, or design and build, where the contractor takes responsibility for both design and construction.

Cormican says that the models used can deliver new builds for €245,000 or less. The organisation manages the tenancies, with tenants generally on differential rent, where payments depend on income. Sites are chosen  based on local authority needs, and funding comes via government grants and loan financing from the Housing Finance Agency.

The sector is set for further growth, she believes – there are around 270 associations, many much smaller, under the umbrella of the Irish Council  for Social Housing.  Many have innovated in terms of design and energy efficiency. The strength of organisations like Clúid, she says, is the years of experience in development and the models developed in working with small and medium sized builders for efficient delivery.

Progress could be even faster, she says, if bureaucracy and regulation could be streamlined, with efficient processes between local authorities, builders, the associations  and government. Everyone is working hard to up the level of delivery, she says, but every effort must be made now to speed up provision, which in turn can allow families to move out of private rental accommodation and free up more space in that sector.

Increase supply of affordable homes

Tom Hayes
Chief executive of Bank of Ireland Corporate Banking
The gap between new housing supply and demand is not expected to close for at least another five years, according to Tom Hayes, chief executive of Bank of Ireland Corporate Banking.

“We need creative solutions to alleviate the problems of the future and we must also not be afraid to challenge the approaches of the past. We must examine what we build, and where we build, the height and density of our housing to create sustainable urban areas, and the specific needs of an older population.

“It is clear that there is one area of the residential sector that is not being adequately catered for – affordable housing. We know that there are a number of housebuilders and other stakeholders weighing up options on how to increase the supply of affordable homes, and we believe local authorities should come more into play in easing the pressure in this space.

“This should involve local government providing an equity contribution to the cost of acquiring a new home, and then retaining a stake in that property during the lifetime of the ownership. Banks clearly have a role in this also, and we are currently investigating some options in this space.”

While Hayes says the Central Bank’s mortgage lending rules are controlling excessive inflation in property values, they are putting a ceiling on the price of new homes at a time when costs are rising.

“Input costs such as labour and materials are experiencing upside pressures and government tax take remains a significant proportion of all costs. In order to increase supply of housing we need to look at all these factors and have some mature conversations. It needs to be viable for housebuilders, providing a reasonable profit margin while also being affordable for first-time buyers.”

Remove PRSI and USC from rental income

Marian Finnegan
Head of residential and advisory at Sherry FitzGerald
The Government’s decision in Budget 2020 to extend the help-to-buy scheme for first-time buyers to the end of 2021 should help underpin home construction, particularly in rural Ireland, but the pace of increase of activity will inevitably disappoint without further interventions, according to Marian Finnegan of Sherry FitzGerald, the biggest estate agent in the residential market.

“Our housing market requires a lot more than just homes for first-time buyers,” she said. “The stock of available property to rent has fallen rather than increased in recent years, largely as a result of an exodus of private investors from the market.”

Finnegan says there is a clear reluctance to introduce any policy to incentivise or encourage new private investor activity. “The re-introduction of 100 per cent MIR (mortgage interest relief) in the 2019 Budget was a baby step in the right direction. However, the market cannot afford the luxury of baby steps; it needs radical action.”

Simply removing PRSI and USC from rental income would have a positive impact on income yields and supply, she says.

Sherry FitzGerald estimates demand for new homes is currently at 40,000 a year. “All measures, including a reduction in VAT on construction activity, particularly in relation to the development of apartments, needs to be reviewed, in light of this continued imbalance,” said Finnegan.

“All in all, we need to be prepared to take bold positive steps to increase supply of all types of properties, properties to rent, properties to get us started on the ladder, properties to trade up to and equally important properties to trade down to. A single approach is not sufficient – the time for crisis solutions is now.”

The buy-to-rent sector is key

Eddie Byrne
Joint managing partner of developer Quintain Ireland
Eddie Byrne – jointly responsibility for developing more than 9,000 homes on US private equity group Lone Star’s landbank around Dublin in the coming years – says the buy-to-rent (BTR) sector has a key role to play in boosting supply.

“Critics of BTR miss the point: we have an accommodation crisis not a home ownership crisis,” he said. “There are simply not enough homes, whether they be owner-occupied, rented, social or shared. The only measure that will change that is an increase in supply of any – but preferably all – types of accommodation.”

Outside of small pockets of Dublin, it is not viable to build apartment blocks for owner-occupiers because of the cost to build relative to the sale prices, according to Byrne.

“This means that BTR developments are not displacing opportunities for owner-occupiers, but providing vital supply that would otherwise not be there, and catering for a large cohort of people who rent out of choice, not necessity. Satisfying this demand is key to stabilising rents.”

Byrne says there needs to be greater understanding of how State intervention can both help and hinder the market.

“We have the help-to-buy scheme, which has allowed many thousands of people to buy a home, and increased the pool of potential buyers. Crucially it has done this without fuelling house-price growth because of the Central Bank’s macro prudential rules.

“While a change to the loan-to-income of 3.5 times salary is looking unlikely, it is worth being aware that it is one of the most stringent caps in the world, and driving many aspiring housebuyers into an undersupplied rental market.”

Increased construction regulation has added, by some estimates, over €30,000 to the cost of each house in the past five years, he said. “Environmental and safety regulations are vital, but with the exchequer taking a substantial percentage of the cost of each new home in taxation, is there a way the cost burdens of the regulations could be shared to make more projects viable?”

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