Irish government seeks Catholic Church help to solve housing crunch

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Ireland’s housing minister has contacted the Archbishop of Armagh suggesting that the Catholic Church could better organize property sales to address a major housing shortfall, with tens of thousands of new homes needing to be built.

Darragh O’Brien, Ireland’s Minister for Housing, has sent a letter to Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh for help in identifying Church-owned land or vacant buildings that could be used for housing.

O’Brien, a member of the Fianna Fáil party, said that some dioceses have engaged with local authorities regarding unused land and properties, the Irish Times reports. He suggested that this Church cooperation should adopt a nationwide scope.

Among his suggestions are allowing the state to have the first option to purchase Catholic entities’ lands or buildings for sale through Church cooperation with local councils, housing bodies, or Ireland’s Land Development Agency.

It is unclear how much Catholic-owned property could be available for housing. There is no centralized entity that owns Catholic Church property. Local bishops have significant influence over some property owned by their diocese, and religious orders and other Catholic organizations can have their own property holdings.

O’Brien’s letter acknowledged Church independence in managing its properties and said that it is primarily the state’s duty to address the housing crisis. In remarks last week, he said the government plans to place a “massive emphasis” on affordable housing, promising a program for Ireland “on a scale never seen before.”

In his letter to Archbishop Martin, O’Brien cited the archbishop’s previous remarks on the housing crisis as well as the remarks of Archbishop Dermot Farrell of Dublin. He said the Church is aware of the “need for strong action” given homelessness, a crisis facing renters, and young families who need housing.

In recent years Catholic entities in Ireland have been selling some property in multi-million dollar deals, in part to support aging religious communities. Before the pandemic, Catholic church attendance and vocations to the priesthood and religious life had declined significantly over previous decades, when Ireland was among the most devout countries in the world. According to a European Social Survey conducted in 2016, only about 36% of Irish adults said they attended a religious service once a week.

Many religious congregations have gifted property for social housing, Sister Liz Murphy, then-secretary general of the Association of Leaders of Missionaries and Religious of Ireland, told the Financial Times in 2019. Sister Murphy said the religious “are more than playing their part in that area.”

O’Brien said the government would work with the Church and other organizations to help address the housing crisis. Its Housing for All program aims to provide over 33,000 homes by 2025. Other expected measures are property taxes on vacant properties, incentives for people who want to move to smaller homes, and grants to renovate town properties around Ireland.

The program is being finalized and is expected to be launched soon.

O’Brien’s letter to Archbishop Martin come amid the coronavirus epidemic, and Irish pandemic measures have been among the strictest in Europe. Public Masses were suspended entirely from March to June 2020, then again from Oct. 7, 2020 through May 10, 2021. In July, several Irish dioceses announced that they would proceed with First Communions and Confirmations, despite government advisories that these and baptisms not take place.

Archbishop Martin had criticized public officials of introducing “draconian” regulations on public worship in “a clandestine manner.” Other critics objected that religious gatherings and venues. were singled out for stricter treatment than other gatherings and venues.

O’Brien’s Fianna Fail party is governing in coalition with their historic rivals Fine Gael, in addition to the Green Party.

Opposition party Sinn Féin’s housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin criticized O’Brien’s outreach to the Catholic Church as “bizarre,” according to the Irish newspaper The Independent. He said the Church has still failed to produce promised cash and property to the state in reparation for historic abuses.

“Let’s build on the land we have, rather than seek more land in this way,” he said. He added that local authorities have land but not sufficient funds to develop them for housing at a large scale. Ó Broin said that the Irish state was giving land to private developers to secure new homes.

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