FIFTY-one new council houses in Edenderry and Tullamore should be ready for allocation early next year, the October meeting of Offaly County Council was told.
In Birr, four of the 12 units being built at Macregol will be available before the end of this year, councillors heard on Monday.
However, with 649 applicants on the public housing list across the county, and even more, 849, currently receiving housing assistance payments (HAP), the demand remains much greater than supply.
At the Blundell Wood site in Edenderry, the construction of 33 houses is nearing completion and in Tullamore, 18 houses are being built at Chancery Lane.
“They should be finished in the coming months,” housing officer Monica Cleary said.
Ms Cleary also said a further 81 houses were at different stages of the planning process at Raheen, Clara; Sr Senan’s, Edenderry; and in Belmont and Moneygall.
“They’ve all received stage one approval with the Department and now we’ve just completed the tender process for appointment of design team consultants,” she added.
Other projects further along the approval process include an 18-unit development at Kylebeg, Banagher and seven units at Circular Road in Daingean.
A total of 107 houses are being built by approved housing bodies (AHBs), voluntary organisations which undertake to build public housing schemes and manage the estates afterwards.
In Mountbolus, the four-house scheme being built by a local group, Mid Offaly Housing Association, is “nearing the final stages”, the housing officer said.
Other AHBs are almost finished building six units at Scurragh, Birr and refurbishing 16 at Riverside, Portarlington.
At Killane, Edenderry, the Tuath housing body has started the construction of 27 houses in the lst month.
“It’s good to see more houses getting constructed,” said Ms Cleary.
Also, there will be three more houses at An Corran, Crinkle, 41 at Kearney’s Field, Tullamore and 19 at Clonminch, Tullamore.
“They are going out to tender and hopefully we’ll start progressing them in quarter one 2020,” said Ms Cleary.
Despite the allocation of 83 houses so far this year, 21 single people and nine families are in emergency accommodation.
“While the numbers are still quite high I’m glad to say they are decreasing so that’s at least a good sign,” said Ms Cleary.
She said there are 98 more allocations “pending” over the next few months and 55 of those will be local authority tenancies.
The council has also bought 21 houses this year.
Reacting to the housing officer’s report, councillors called for more to be done and Cllr Sean O’Brien said with a total of 1,498 families waiting for housing “some other intervention” is needed from national level.
“The councils can only work with what’s allocated to them,” said the Independent councillor from Tullamore.
He said the widespread use of AHBs had been a “retrograde step” and said the private market had been unable to provide houses.
Cllr Neil Feighery, Fine Gael, said the situation was “very challenging” but the Government’s Rebuilding Ireland programme was starting to bear fruit and €1.2 billion was allocated in the Budget for investment next year and that will ensure “a steady supply of social housing”.
“A lot done, more to do,” remarked Cllr Feighery.
Cllr Declan Harvey, Fianna Fail, said the 18 houses in Chancery should be allocated to those “longest on the list” and he called on the council to build more houses, especially bungalows.
“Even 50 houses a year may not be enough,” said the Tullamore councillor.
Cllr Danny Owens said a bugbear of his over the years had been the length of time it took for council housing projects to move through the phases with the Department. “From the time you decide to build houses to when they’re delivered is somewhere between two-and-a-half and three years. That is something I’ve asked for before to be looked at closely,” said the Fianna Fail member.
He added was glad that the number of houses being built or planned by the council now seemed to exceed the amount from the AHBs. “That’s good, the County Council are taking ownership, they’re building their own stock, collecting their own rent and having their own asset.”
The AHBs were defended by Cllr John Leahy, the Independent councillor who is involved with Mid Offaly Housing Association.
Cllr Leahy said he was aware of the amount of work it took to get such projects off the ground and he praised the council staff for their “unnoticed” assistance.
He said the council could build enough houses directly and that is why AHBs were needed.
“We’re in a housing crisis and we need someone to take up the slack,” he said.
In relation to delays in building, he said time passes very quickly when all factors had to be taken into consideration, including land, planning permission, consultation, solicitors, architects and government departments.
“When you start looking at it all together, even with no problems whatsoever, 18 months flies by very quick.”
He said he believed the Rebuilding Ireland framework was working and while it was regrettable that people are in hostels and are homeless, “progress is being made”.
“You can’t speed up the process and have a situation where you have the likes of Priory Hall,” said Cllr Leahy.
Cllr Eddie Fitzpatrick, Fianna Fail, said the eligibility criteria for the Rebuilding Ireland home loans should be reviewed, while his party colleague Cllr Tony McCormack said the income ceilings for HAP did not suit couples when rents in Tullamore had gone as high as €1,200 for a three-bed and €1,500 for a four-bed.
Cllr Ken Smollen, Irish Democratic Party, said he would have to take issue with a councillor who indicated the situation was improving.
He said there are now more than 10,000 people “officially homeless” across the country, including 4,000 children.
“They’re the highest numbers ever. We can’t ever claim that there is improvements being made,” said Cllr Smollen. “We as a country are failing, and we’re failing the most vulnerable people that we should be looking after.”
Ms Cleary told the councillors that allocations of council houses would be made “in accordance with the scheme of letting priorities which was adopted by the members”.
Councillors were also told there were long-term projects in the pipeline, including at the Rectory lands in Birr and other sites in Tullamore.
“There’s very real possibilities in some of them,” said housing official John Cunningham.
However, he added that private building would have to play its part and it would also contribute to social housing because under the ‘Part 5’ rule, a certain number of houses will have to be set aside for the public list.
Mr Cunningham also said the four-stage process had been tightened up last year and was now a “59-week process” from concept to being tendered and “on site”.
But he cautioned: “That’s the ideal scenario. There are many things that can get in the way of that and planning is the obvious one, and the tendering process”.
The meeting also heard Cllr Smollen ask if the regulations on anti social behaviour were being adhere to because some tenants were “causing severe harassment and disruption, distress to many people in other houses” in Tullamore and Clara.
Councillors were told a number of issues raised will be discussed further by the council’s housing policy committee.