Offaly councillor blasts lack of progress on vacant properties
A number of councillors have fumed over the lack of progress on the upgrading of vacant properties for use as housing in Offaly under the misfiring Repair and Lease Scheme.
The issue came before the February meeting of Offaly County Council where the poor uptake rate of the scheme was acknowledged by council management and elected members.
The failure to convert an estimated 1,500 vacant housing and residential units in the county into housing was raised by councillors Tommy McKeigue and John Leahy with Cllr Leahy saying, "the Repair and Lease Scheme is actually a very good idea with the potential to bring life back to rural areas and in particular rural towns."
"The problem, as is so often is the case with this government, is that it is under-resourced and too restrictive in its objectives," he continued.
"In particular the scheme does not reflect construction, material and labour costs. Currently the scheme offers a €40,000 interest-free loan over a 5-year period. This however only covers the most minimal of restorations."
Cllr Leahy said the terms and references of the scheme need to change and he is calling on three categories to be created consisting of a €40,000 loan over 5 years; an €80,000 loan over 10 years; and a €120,000 loan over 15 years.
Cllr. Leahy also believes qualification criteria should be extended significantly. Currently, the system is for people who are on the social housing waiting list or in receipt of HAP.
"Once again, those members of the aspirational working class who get up early in the morning to go to work have been evicted from a state scheme on housing," Cllr Leahy said.
"This scheme must, if it is to operate in practice rather than theory, must be extended to those who are seeking affordable housing."
"This would include people who are renting accommodation and people who are working but cannot access a mortgage or do not qualify to be on a social housing waiting list."
"The current scheme should also prioritise town centre development. In a scenario where 50% of future retail sales will be online the traditional shop unit will not exist."
"Councils need to facilitate the conversion of vacant commercial units to homes which may then ensure, in a living high street, the traditional sweet shop and drapery survive."
"Repair to lease is not working because it does not cater for working people. The government should end this vacuum as part of a root and branch reform of a housing system that caters to those at the top and those at the bottom, but which as with all other aspects of public policy, ignores those in the middle."
Responding to the issue of the scheme on Monday, Offaly County Council housing officer, Monica Cleary said: "The issue of vacant properties is visible but they are vacant for a number of reasons. Maybe people don't want to become landlords or there are issues with the banks."
"We are working on the scheme to improve the numbers partaking and we are working to identify landlords," she added. She also mentioned a number of turnkey units which have been previously vacant becoming available for use in 2019 as a sign of progress.
Offaly County Council Chief Executive Anna Marie Delaney also informed councillors that OCC management had met with Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy and junior Minister for Housing and Urban Development in recent weeks. She said they raised the issue of low uptake in the scheme with the Ministers.
She complimented the Council's housing team and said OCC would achieve its housing targets in 2019 and beyond. Cathaoirleach Danny Owens also paid tribute to the work being done within the Council's housing team and said, "we're doing better than most counties."