Ukranian children will be going to school from tents and warehouses in the coming weeks. Large arenas at Millstreet, Co Cork, and tents for 320 people at Gormanston Camp in Meath are being prepared.
It is unacceptable that refugees, scarred from war, are put into such accommodation when there are over 150,000 vacant homes across the country. It is wrong to traumatise these children and families even further. They need a home so they have the space to grieve and process what they have gone through, and to give them hope for a future in Ireland.
The Ukraine humanitarian crisis comes on top of a pre-existing housing emergency in this country. Therefore, this Government has to take emergency action of a scale and level we have not seen before in this country. Through a national housing and refugee emergency response, it is possible to provide enough homes for refugees, families who are homeless, and those facing eviction.
Government must also respond to the raging home-grown housing catastrophe. There are 1,180 homeless families and their 2,667 children in emergency accommodation. Thousands more are being evicted from their homes by landlords selling up or converting their property to short-term holiday rental use. Every day, there is a new story of a family pleading for a home through social media as they face eviction. Increasingly, young people with good jobs are emigrating because of a lack of homes.
Central Bank figures suggest only 24,000 new homes will be built this year — 25% behind the Government’s 33,000 target set in Housing For All. Government is still failing to get local authorities back building new social housing. Last year, local authorities built just 1,198 homes, 10% fewer than in 2020, and the lowest level of new build of social housing since 2017.
These are multiple housing emergencies. This has to be the time to fundamentally tackle our housing crisis. Government must enact emergency measures to ensure every appropriate resource available in this country is put to addressing the Ukraine refugee and existing housing emergencies as it did during Covid.
Those who can afford to contribute the most should do so.
It starts with using existing vacant homes, as the Irish Refugee Council has proposed: unoccupied holiday homes, unoccupied build-to-rent investor fund real estate investment trust (REIT) apartments, and vacant student housing. Vacant homes that are immediately liveable in are to be found on most streets in all cities, towns, and villages that — with minor repairs — would make good homes. There are 60,000 holiday homes. Owners should be encouraged to voluntarily pledge their holiday homes for Ukrainian refugees.
That would immediately mean families arriving from war-torn Ukraine would have a roof over their head, not have to live in a tent, warehouse, or an overcrowded hostel.
The Ukraine war constitutes an unprecedented humanitarian emergency in the context of an ongoing housing crisis in Ireland and every sector of society should play its part. Large corporate landlords and investor funds own 45,600 properties in Ireland. We know that some of these are vacant, and some are purpose-built student accommodation, which will become available in the summer months.
The Government should immediately request that all large landlords identify what units are vacant and how many units they are prepared to offer for Ukraine refugees.
There are a further 90,000 vacant homes across Ireland, according to Geodirectory.
Government knows where they are and who owns them from data collected in the latest property tax returns. It should immediately contact these owners to request use of their vacant property for a 12-month basis.
The banks also hold at least 1,000 repossessed homes. Nama also holds substantial property. Many are vacant.
Combined, that is a huge number of currently vacant homes the Government could get for immediate use. There are clearly enough empty homes to accommodate the people arriving and pre-existing homeless families.
There is further potential for providing more homes from refurbishing derelict property and vacant commercial property. Geodirectory has identified 22,000 derelict homes, and 29,000 vacant commercial properties. There is also potential for 4,000 above-shop homes within Dublin City centre.
There must also be tens of thousands of vacant office blocks that can be converted to accommodation relatively quickly.
Within six to 12 months, many of these could be brought into use if we created a small army of construction workers focused on this.
Combining vacant and derelict property there is potential for providing a supply of up to 200,000 homes. That is what we could do as a country, if the Government acted.
Property owners should be requested voluntarily to provide their properties for this national housing and refugee emergency response. If insufficient numbers come forward, Government could use emergency powers to require their use in the emergency period.
Thousands more homes are available permanently on short-term holiday rental platforms. Surely some of these could also be used even on a six-month to a year basis to house Ukrainian families.
In order to get the capacity to quickly convert vacant and derelict homes and commercial buildings, the Government should immediately create a state construction company. Within a few months, with 1,000 workers hired, the company could be refurbishing 500 homes a month, and rapidly scaling up to thousands each month by early next year if it hired 20,000 workers.
Many construction workers are currently building hotels and offices. In a housing and refugee emergency, we don’t need more luxury hotels, we need homes.
The Government must also immediately ban ‘no-fault’ evictions in the private rental sector for a 12-month period so that we can focus on the Ukraine refugee and house emergency. This would ensure thousands of families and individuals are kept in their homes and are not requiring new accommodation in the coming months.
The Government has started a cynical narrative that the Ukrainian refugee crisis will be a significant factor in not meeting Housing For All targets. This is dangerous and wrong.
There was a housing emergency before the horrific occupation of Ukraine.
Communities and families are doing all they can to step up and support families fleeing war in Ukraine. Alongside this, we all realise that too many in this country are suffering from not having a secure home of their own, including renters who don’t know one month to the next if they have a home.
We cannot let the Ukrainian refugee crisis be exploited by those on the far right to whip up racism and exploit the fears and hardship experienced by many. The Government has a choice and a decision to make.
There are enough vacant and derelict homes for everyone who needs one. So Government must use every tool at its disposal to provide homes for Ukrainians fleeing war, and homes for our pre-existing housing emergency. We can and must do both.
- Rory Hearne is assistant professor of Social Policy at the Department of Applied Social Studies, Maynooth University