Ireland's bust leaves ghost houses and zombie hotels

DUBLIN, Ireland — The ancient Ireland of the tourist guidebooks has its share of haunted castles and spooky old ruins. But in the modern Ireland of the post-boom years you are more likely to find ghost housing estates and zombie hotels.

In Ireland, with a population of four and a half million, 300,000 homes are lying empty, according to a recent academic survey. Many of them are in clusters of almost-finished houses, built in fields that were rezoned for development in the madness of the housing boom. While bankrupt developers have left the housing developments unfinished, banks are keeping empty grand hotels open to prevent them from becoming, well, ghost hotels.

From afar, many of these ghost estates look as if they are finished, but up close you find no cars in the driveways, no curtains in the windows and no sound but the wind stirring the weeds in the yards. In the cities the wind fairly howls through the open floors of unfinished apartment blocks, such as the skeleton of a 14-story building put up in Sandyford Dublin by the developer John J Fleming Construction. It is destined to remain for a long time as a memorial to the worst housing crash in Europe, as John J Fleming owes 1 billion euros ($1.35 billion) and its assets have collapsed in value. The building is part of a complex that was once valued at 36 million euros ($48 million) but is now worth about 9 million euros.

Incidentally, there is a fine-looking 10-story apartment block right beside the 14-story shell that seems like a nice place to live, with residents sunning themselves on the balconies. But on closer inspection you will find it is an illusion, a giant illustrated canvas draped over another empty concrete block like a shroud.

There are 621 ghost estates in Ireland, according to the National Institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis, which defines a ghost estate as a housing complex where more than half of the properties are empty or remain under development. With no one taking responsibility for these developments, and banks issuing few mortgages, many are likely to remain unsold and will have to be knocked down, according to the institute’s director, Rob Kitchin.

The so-called zombie hotels were acquired by many of the same developers and are being kept open by the banks, partly for tax purposes. Perhaps the most prominent is the four-star Burlington Hotel in Dublin’s exclusive Ballsbridge neighborhood, a favorite haunt (forgive the pun) of cabinet ministers and the jet set.

The Burlington is one of three hotels on a seven-acre plot purchased by developer Sean Dunne in July 2005 for a staggering 379 million euros ($507 million). Dunne had the intention of pulling them down and erecting a futuristic luxury community that would be the envy of Europe. Planning permission was refused and now, saddled with debt, Dunne and the banks that have taken a majority share are keeping the Burlington open at cut-price rates: Rooms that once cost 300 euros ($400) a night are now available for 79 euros ($105).

This is wonderful for clients, but a potential disaster for still-solvent Dublin hotels that are being forced out of business. Of a total of 59,000 hotel rooms in Ireland, a quarter need to be closed urgently, according to economist Peter Bacon in a report on the Irish hotel industry.

Banks are keeping a large number of hotels open for seven years to allow investors to take advantage of capital allowances and to avoid the creation of a tax liability due to a claw back of allowances that have been claimed already.

“We are living in a fool’s paradise if we believe that the offering of deep-discounted and below-cost hotel room prices will be a long-term benefit to the economy,” Bacon told the annual conference of the Irish Hotels Federation in Galway. Perhaps so, but for the tourist more accustomed to “rip-off Ireland,” this country has recently become perhaps the cheapest place to stay in Europe.