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Specter of 'ghost estates' haunt post-property boom Ireland

The building boom, when economic times were good in Ireland, has led to a huge oversupply of homes across the country. So-called "ghost estates" now blight the republic, with many homes left unoccupied or unfinished.

A view of a housing block at Spencer Dock in fading light

It's easy to find housing estates like Spencer Dock in Ireland

Ask a taxi driver in Dublin to take you to a "ghost estate," and a kind one will point out that you can walk there and don't actually need a cab. There are several examples of unfinished or largely unoccupied housing developments in the Irish capital, one of which is called Spencer Dock.

A view of Spencer Dock

While there may be lots of housing, there are few real homes

Spencer Dock's developers say the project will be completed and residency rates will rise, but it is currently far emptier than they would like, and stationary cranes dot the landscape with unfinished buildings breaking the skyline.

Apart from the main road a street away, there is little activity - the sound of children playing outside is rarely heard, for example, according to those people who have taken up residence. There is also a shiny new tram line, but very few people waiting to use it.

It is hard to find Irish residents living in this development off the banks of the River Liffey and just outside the center of Dublin.

Mikaela Ekman moved here from Sweden. She acknowledged the strange atmosphere in the largely empty neighborhood.

"Yeah, it's very half finished!" she said, laughing and pointing to the cranes around nearby buildings.

Spencer Dock's developers have even had to launch legal action against customers who agreed to buy property on the site but have changed their mind in view of plummeting home values and low residency.

A problem not confined to Dublin

There are far too many buildings for people in Ireland, according to Brendan Williams, a lecturer in urban development at University College Dublin.

Dr Brendan Williams

Williams says housing supply vastly outstrips demand

"We estimate that the overproduction or oversupply in the housing area is approximately 17 percent; in other areas, such as commercial and offices, it's of the order of 20 percent," he said. "There is also an oversupply in other sectors as well, such as hotels."

Williams says construction continued at a rapid pace in the Irish Republic long after signs appeared that the economy was cooling, with disastrous effects for Irish banks that invested heavily in the housing boom.

"In a general sense, there was an oversupply and an overbuilding that continued largely through the period 2004-2009, which contributed, obviously, to the eventual failure of the property market."

Nearly 100,000 homes were built in 2006 alone. Williams said house prices have crashed by as much as 50 percent from their peak. That has wiped billions of euros off the balance sheets of the banks.

What now for ghost estates?

It's not clear exactly how many homes are unoccupied across Ireland. Some estimates put the figure as high as 300,000. What is clear is that for the few residents who live in the ghost estates, life can be miserable. Some have such low occupancy rates that shopkeepers have declined to open in the area; on some one side of the road is finished, while the other is not.

Resident Steven Lewis,

Steven Lewis is very aware of the problems of living on a ghost estate

Steven Lewis is one of those who has chosen to live on what he himself describes as a ghost estate just outside Dublin. He has done so because rent is cheap, but admits there is a downside.

"I've had my car broken into three times this year," he said, acknowledging the problems with crime on estates where little pride is felt by residents for their unfinished surroundings.

Steven sympathizes with those people who actually bought property where he lives. "My heart goes out to working class families that have bought a home, and they open up their windows and they see a half-finished house across the road from them," he said.

"They're now developing sewerage problems and all sorts of other health issues. My heart seriously goes out to these people because they can't move on now."

A need to face up to reality

A tram station

There are new tram connections, but few passengers to use them

The solution to these problems is one that may be unpalatable to banks, developers and property owners alike.

Williams says that people need to acknowledge the realities of vast oversupply and start selling unoccupied properties in ghost estates at vastly knocked-down prices.

But there's another looming problem that could make such steps immaterial: with tens of thousands of people expected to leave Ireland in the coming years because of its economic problems, excess supply in the housing market may yet worsen further.

Author: Olly Barratt, Dublin
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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