Ronan Lyons | Personal Website
Ronan Lyons | Personal Website

Downsizing central to our housing solutions

Earlier this week, it was reported that the Independent Alliance TDs – who form part of the Government – are proposing a ‘granny flat grant’, that would help convert family homes into two units, as one of their flagship measures for Budget 2019.

As with all policy measures, the first question should be on what problem this measure is trying to solve. If the problem is real, then the follow-on question is whether this particular solution makes things better or worse, or whether there are better alternatives.

This means that one should not be distracted too much – at first anyway – by the amount. (Newspapers reported that the grant would be €15,000. Given current costs in the construction sector, that would pay for no more than the renovation of a couple of square metres.)

The problem that this proposed measure attempts to address is real. There is a complete mismatch between our housing stock, which is skewed towards family houses, and the current and future make-up of population – which is increasingly made up of one- and two-person households.

The 2016 Census highlights this in stark terms. There are over 900,000 dwellings in this country that would suit a family of 3-5 persons (i.e. with 5-7 principal rooms). But there are only 740,000 families in this country. This means that there are 160,000 more family homes than families.

And this is not a problem of homes in the wrong location: even in the Greater Dublin Area, there are more family homes (225,000) than families (208,000).

This is also not a problem that will go away over time. As we proceed to mid-century, our population will grow to over 6 million – but more and more of the population will be in one- and two-person households. A reasonable estimate of how many family homes we will need by the 2050s is about 930,000.

Instead, the country will need 1.9 million homes for smaller households. Our current stock is a paltry 350,000. Ireland Inc needs to learn – and rapidly – how to build urban apartments.

Consider that for a minute. We need almost no new family homes to be built over the coming decades. But that is precisely what we are building. Just 14% of homes built in the last year were urban apartments.

This is where the Independent Alliance proposal comes in. For as long as Ireland as a country seem entirely unable to meet its housing need the normal way – i.e. by building what it needs – it will need work-arounds. One of those work-arounds is to take the existing housing stock and split it into two – or more – homes.

We know from past experience, of course, that this is far from the first-best solution. Homes built for one family in the 18th century became mini-villages for the poor in the 19th century. And homes built in the 19th century – in places like Rathmines and Stoneybatter – became the bedsits and flats of the 20th century. It seems that, unless and until we learn how to build apartments properly, history is destined to repeat itself.

Many homes of the 20th century are already de facto split into many homes for many people. One quarter of the population growth seen in Ireland between the 2011 and 2016 Censuses was in what I term ‘crammer’ households – households comprising people none of whom are related to each other.

Going back to the two questions asked at the start, the Independents Alliance proposal is most definitely getting to the heart of a real problem. And it is likely to more good, than harm, certainly – even if the proposed amount may seem paltry to a quantity surveyor.

The real solution, of course, would be to provide significantly more options for those with empty nests. Work I was part of in 2016 for the Housing Agency and the Irish Smart Aging Exchange found that older residents love their area, not their dwelling.

This means that housing policy should seek to ensure a ready supply of regular apartments – in 3-5 storey complexes – on infill and corner sites throughout the suburbs. In addition, policy should support the construction of independent living and assisted living complexes as a major part of the country’s housing stock.

For too long, it has been the family home and then nothing until the nursing home or funeral home. Everything in between has been ignored. Hopefully the Independent Alliance proposal is the start of a long-needed change in direction.

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