Why Ireland’s Housing Crisis Is Intensifying
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Despite a chronic housing shortage, Ireland’s capital remains overwhelmingly low-rise.
By Stephen Starr
Ireland may be known for its verdant landscapes and wide-open spaces. But Dublin — home to two-fifths of the country’s population — is ground zero of a deepening housing crisis. Last year, just 8,000 houses went up for sale on the open market.
The lack of shelter has prompted the average Dublin house price to rocket to $405,000, meaning long commutes and high rents. And it’s even worse for residents: Data from the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland indicate that the average first-time homebuyer in Dublin must earn at least $136,000 a year, when the median gross household income in Ireland in 2018 was just over $55,000. Maybe that’s why …
The number of homeless families in Dublin has risen more than 350 percent since 2014.
That’s according to counts conducted in January. Approximately 1,200 families, comprising more than 4,400 individuals, were counted as homeless in Dublin this year, almost three times the number of homeless families in the rest of Ireland combined. That’s compared with 2014, when only 331 homeless families were counted in Dublin. According to nonprofit Focus Ireland, the increase is largely due to economic factors like lack of affordable housing and jobs — more than half the homeless families surveyed this year said they lost their home because it was removed from the private rental market or they had problems with their rental (e.g., it became unaffordable). Median house prices in Dublin rocketed 93.8 percent between 2012 and 2019 to $415,000, and to $600,000 in south Dublin, the city’s most expensive district. By comparison, in Copenhagen, a similar-size European capital city where both take-home pay and taxes are higher than Dublin’s, the average house price is $278,000.
The high cost of apartments and houses and prohibitively expensive rents have fueled anger that’s had major repercussions in the political sphere: In February, the left-wing Sinn Fein Party made historic gains in the country’s parliamentary elections on the back of a campaign promising to solve the housing issue via the largest homebuilding project “in the history of the state,” along with rent freezes and rent reduction measures. Sinn Fein’s rivals, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, have dominated Irish politics for decades, and their combined failures to deliver adequate housing has caused a major shift in the Irish political landscape.
The issue is giving Dublin a bad name abroad. Last year, expat network InterNations surveyed 20,000 people in 82 cities and found that Dublin came in last — behind housing-crunched San Francisco — for expats seeking housing.
Shane Faherty’s commute to south central Dublin is only 20 miles each way from where he lives, yet it takes him between three and a nearly four hours to commute every day. That’s an average speed of 10 miles per hour — slower than that of a casual cyclist.
“The worst part of the journey is being stuck in traffic due to the lack of, or intermittent nature of, bus lanes. Those who use public transport are being socially and environmentally responsible yet are penalized by sitting in the same traffic jams as those who drive,” Faherty says, adding that he’d love to be able to afford a house closer to the city center. “Our kids are ages 1 and 4, so if I am lucky I get to see them for an hour when I get home.” What’s more, while 57 European cities boast high-speed metro systems, Dublin is not one of them. Plans are in the works to build one by 2027.
Despite the shortage, Irish cities have plenty of space to build high-rise residential towers and apartment blocks. But high-rises have never caught on in Dublin. The average building height is five stories, and the capital’s tallest residential building has only 22 stories and 120 apartments (London’s tallest is 75 floors and has 984 apartments). In Dublin, the second and third tallest with residential elements are a paltry 17 and 16 stories, respectively.
But some experts argue that a larger stock of high-rise apartments would not ameliorate the issue. “A suggestion to ‘building skyward’ assumes that there is a shortage of land and that high-rise is optimal sustainable development, neither of which is true,” argues Orla Hegarty of University College Dublin’s School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy. “Affordability is the biggest challenge in Dublin housing. The new stock of apartments that are being built in the private residential sector are high-priced and cater to niche markets,” Hegarty says. Dublin currently has an estimated 30,000 empty units, about 8,000 more than the much larger London.
Another problem is units being turned into short-term rentals. Dublin introduced controls on Airbnbs in 2018, but property site Daft.ie reported a 64 percent rise in the number of smaller rental properties in the city from the beginning of March, likely a function of Airbnbs no longer rentable due to coronavirus reentering the housing market.
But COVID-19 has also forced a quick fix for Dublin’s homelessness crisis: On March 25, the city announced that more than 350 empty hotel rooms and apartments will be allocated to homeless Dubliners to allow them to shelter in place during the crisis. What they will do after the virus subsides remains to be seen.
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