Nat O'Connor The Department of the Environment has published a report into the state of 120,000 dwellings in Ireland's unfinished, 'ghost' housing estates. (RTÉ news report here and report summary here). It will be some time before a full set of solutions are proposed as to how we deal with the surplus houses. And different decisions (knocking them down versus investing in them to make viable communities) will please or displease different sectors in the economy.
I want to suggest is that there are innovative, low-cost solutions available for people trapped on unfinished estates, and we should discuss a wider set of possibilities than are necessarily permitted by a legalistic or bureaucratic mindset. One solution would be to allow people on ghost estates to swap houses. Allow people in unfinished estates the option of moving - cost-free - to a same-size dwelling in another ghost estate. This would be a quick option to create viable communities, where vital infrastructure like sewers, road surfaces and lighting can be finished more cost effectively.
Such a proposal would require the Government to twist the arm of the banks a little, to allow mortgages to be moved from being secured on one asset to another. And stamp duty should be waived on the transaction, and 'first time buyer' status moved, which will require our bureaucrats to be flexible.
I imagine many people living on mostly unfinished estates have massive negative equity. Combined with the unfinished nature of the estate, these properties will be difficult to sell - which lessens people's ability to move after job opportunities or for family reasons. Allowing them to move to estates where the infrastructure is consolidated would relieve all of this.
But the main goal would be to allow people to get on with their lives sooner, and allow them to contribute to society and the economy, without spending years more trapped in 'limbo' (or hell in many cases).
Yet, as well as the administrative issues, one of the barriers to this kind of solution is the lack of any kind of coherent urban policy in Ireland. Our attitude to planning has been as laissez faire as our approach to financial regulation. Hence, the idea that the state could create such a house swap scheme comes up against the mental (but no less real) barrier that 'we don't do that kind of thing in Ireland'.
Just as we belatedly come to appreciate the merits of regulation, we should also begin to seriously consider the need for better urban policy built around the needs of people who are trapped in the many sub-standard built environments that resulted from the last decade.