There are enough vacancies to house both refugees and homeless people

Ukrainian 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 by war, are placed in such accommodation when there are more than 150,000 vacant homes across the country. It is wrong to further traumatize these children and their families. They need a home to have the space to grieve and process their experiences, and to give them hope for a future in Ireland.

The humanitarian crisis in Ukraine comes on top of a pre-existing housing emergency in that country. Therefore, this government must take emergency measures of a magnitude and level that we have never seen before in this country. Through a national emergency housing and refugee response, it is possible to provide sufficient housing for refugees, homeless families and people at risk of eviction.

The government must also respond to the disaster raging in the area of ​​local housing. There are 1,180 homeless families and their 2,667 children in emergency accommodation. Thousands more are being evicted from their homes by owners selling or converting their property into short-term vacation rentals. Every day there’s a new story of a family pleading for a home via social media as they face eviction. Increasingly, young people who have good jobs are emigrating for lack of housing.

Central Bank figures suggest that just 24,000 new homes will be built this year, 25% below the government’s Housing For All target of 33,000. The government is still unable to get local authorities back into the construction of new social housing. Last year, local authorities built just 1,198 homes, 10% less than in 2020, and the lowest level of new construction of social housing since 2017.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin led the responses after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed a joint session of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann. Photo: Maxwells/PA

These are multiple housing emergencies. Now is the time to fundamentally address our housing crisis. The government must adopt emergency measures to ensure that all appropriate resources available in this country are used to deal with existing Ukrainian refugees and housing emergencies, as it has done during Covid.

Those who can afford to contribute the most should do so.

This starts with the use of existing vacant accommodation, as proposed by the Irish Refugee Council: unoccupied holiday homes, unoccupied Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) apartments and vacant student accommodation. Immediately habitable vacant houses are found on most streets in every city, town, and village that, with minor repairs, would make good homes. There are 60,000 holiday homes. Landlords should be encouraged to voluntarily pledge their vacation homes for Ukrainian refugees.

This would immediately mean that families arriving from war-torn Ukraine would have a roof over their heads and not have to live in a crowded tent, warehouse or hostel.

Unprecedented emergency

The war in Ukraine constitutes an unprecedented humanitarian emergency in the context of an ongoing housing crisis in Ireland and every sector of society must play its part. Large corporate owners and investor funds own 45,600 properties in Ireland. We know some of these are vacant and some are purpose built student accommodation which will be available during the summer months.

The government should immediately ask all major landlords to identify vacant homes and how many homes they are willing to offer Ukrainian refugees.

There are still 90,000 vacant homes across Ireland, according to Geodirectory.

The government knows where they are and who owns them through data collected from the latest property tax returns. He must immediately contact these owners to request the use of their vacant property for a period of 12 months.

Banks also hold at least 1,000 repossessed homes. Nama also holds significant assets. Many are vacant.

Ukrainian refugees wait at a central train station in Warsaw, Poland.  For each family, it is a personal story but it is also the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War.  Photo: Czarek Sokolowski/AP
Ukrainian refugees wait at a central train station in Warsaw, Poland. For each family, it is a personal story but it is also the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. Photo: Czarek Sokolowski/AP

Together, this represents a large number of currently vacant homes that the government could obtain for immediate use. There are clearly enough empty houses to accommodate people arriving and pre-existing homeless families.

Abandoned and vacant commercial properties

There is further potential to provide more housing through the renovation of derelict properties and vacant commercial properties. Geodirectory identified 22,000 abandoned homes and 29,000 vacant commercial properties. There is also potential for 4,000 housing units above shops in Dublin city centre.

There must also be tens of thousands of vacant office buildings that can be converted into housing fairly quickly.

In six to 12 months, many of them could be in service if we created a small army of construction workers focused on that.

By combining vacant and derelict properties, it is possible to provide up to 200,000 homes. This is what we could do as a country, if the government acted.

Voluntary effort

Landlords should be asked to voluntarily provide their property for this national housing and refugee emergency response. If insufficient numbers arise, the government could use emergency powers to require their use during the emergency period.

Thousands of additional accommodations are permanently available on short-term vacation rental platforms. Some of them could certainly be used even on a six month to one year basis to house Ukrainian families.

A public construction company

In order to obtain the capacity to quickly convert vacant and derelict houses and commercial buildings, the government should immediately establish a public construction company. Within months, with 1,000 workers hired, the company could renovate 500 homes a month and quickly grow 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 fancy hotels, we need houses.

Prohibition of evictions

The government must also immediately ban ‘no fault’ evictions in the private rental sector for a period of 12 months so that we can focus on the Ukrainian refugee and housing emergency. This would ensure that thousands of families and individuals are kept in their homes and do not need new homes in the months to come.

The government has spun a cynical narrative that the Ukrainian refugee crisis will be a significant factor in the failure to achieve Housing for All goals. It is dangerous and wrong.

There was a housing emergency before the horrific occupation of Ukraine.

Communities and families are doing all they can to intervene and support families fleeing war in Ukraine. At the same time, we all realize that too many people in this country suffer from not having their own secure home, including renters who don’t know from month to month if they have a home.

A home for all who need it

We cannot allow the Ukrainian refugee crisis to be exploited by those on the far right to stoke racism and exploit the fears and hardships experienced by many. The government has a choice and a decision to make.

There are enough vacant and abandoned houses for anyone who needs them. The government must therefore use all the tools at its disposal to provide housing for Ukrainians fleeing the war and housing for our pre-existing housing emergency. We can and must do both.

  • Rory Hearne is Assistant Professor of Social Policy in the Department of Applied Social Studies at Maynooth University

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