The Irish Times view on Ireland’s homes: big houses, small households

It is understandable that people should wish to remain living in the homes where they raised their families and made their lives

Seamless pattern of simple houses

It is a recurring feature of contemporary Irish life that the country’s rapidly changing demographic needs are ill-served by its planning system and homebuilding sector. Another shortfall has been identified in this week’s report from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) on the size of dwellings and households.

In comparison with other European countries, Irish housing units are on average bigger, with fewer people living in them. Put bluntly, many Irish homes have more bedrooms than the occupants need.

The reasons are clear. Ireland is by far the EU country with the smallest number of apartments, at 10.6 per cent of the total housing stock. The lack of different housing types poses challenges for anyone who might wish to adapt their housing situation to different stages of their lifecycle. The standardised three- or four-bedroom dwelling type which dominates the country’s housing stock inevitably leads to a pattern of underuse.

More than 88 per cent of people aged over 65 live in under-occupied housing. This is more prevalent among higher-income groups and homeowners. The ESRI suggests that building more “high-rise developments” would allow more people to relocate to homes of a more suitable size.


That is debatable. It is understandable that people should wish to remain living in the homes where they raised their families and made their lives. It is equally understandable that, in a country with a strong historical preference for houses over apartments, many would find the prospect of downsizing from the former to the latter unappealing. Any idea of penalising people for those decisions would be morally unacceptable as well as politically untenable.

A Department of Housing report in 2020 estimated that between 15 and 20 per cent of older homeowners could be willing to downsize, potentially releasing up to 121,000 homes. But it also reported that people would only be willing to move if they could purchase a smaller, purpose-built home for mature households in the same area for a lower price. And a relatively low proportion would consider moving to an apartment.

Currently, in the urban areas where housing supply is under most pressure, there are precious few opportunities for people to downsize within their own communities. And the vast majority of recent urban developments are rental apartments, the most unattractive option according to the 2020 report.

This is not a temporary or short-term challenge. Alongside Ireland’s current population boom, a significant change in household formation is underway. Families are getting smaller, people are living longer and more of them are living alone. The country’s current housing stock does not reflect these realities. It appears that neither does its planning for the future.

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