When the crisis began
“Housing crisis” is a term that unfortunately we have heard manys a time before in Ireland but in County Donegal there is a housing crisis of a different nature taking place. The discovery of Mica in over 4000 homes across Donegal has left many people facing the harsh reality of demolishing their houses and starting again. With the pandemic forcing us to stay indoors now more than ever, this new crisis has pushed many families to the brink.
What is Mica?
Mica is a naturally occurring mineral that acts as a sponge and absorbs water before expanding and consequently destroying concrete blocks by weakening their composition. Given that there are various types of Mica, the main type found in homes in Donegal is that of Muscovite mica, taking its name from the “Muscovy windows” which were popular in medieval Russia when sheets of mica were used as a cheaper alternative to glass.
Typically showing signs after six to seven years, mica is identified by the sight of excessive web-like cracking along gable walls, corners and chimneys, however the speed at which homes are crumbling depends on the quantity of Mica in the blocks. Defective blocks are classified as those which have abnormal levels of mica in them and as an example of their devastating effects just one percent of Mica in a concrete block can reduce its strength by up to 5%. The offending discovery has meant that homes in Donegal are literally falling apart with many people forced to consider alternative living arrangements and many more homes facing demolition.
Mica Action Group
The anguish over this housing crisis has ramped up in recent months but the Mica problem itself is not a new phenomenon. It first began in 2010 when homeowners in Donegal noticed signs of decay occurring in their houses but were unaware of the cause. It was during this time that the Mica Action Group (MAG) was also formed.
Speaking with Eamon Jackson, chairperson of the MAG, he informed us that MAG are simply asking for a 100% redress scheme from the Irish Government, in an attempt to solve the current crisis and the removal of the cap per house.
The Irish Governments “Defective Block scheme” or otherwise known as the “Mica Redress Scheme”, launched in January 2020 and aims to cover homes affected in Donegal and Mayo, but some have criticised the speed at which the scheme has progressed. It comes after more than 8 years of campaigning by MAG and now with hope in sight it seems that their efforts are now being met with new obstacles.
The various restrictions and exemptions of the scheme would see domestic homeowners in Donegal forced to pay upwards of €100,000 in order to cover the additional costs of rebuilding.
As the reigning champion of being the poorest county in Ireland, Donegal and it’s residents fear it will be impossible to afford the new measures put in place. Not to mention, the prospect of acquiring a second mortgage whilst continuing to pay the first mortgage on a house that no longer exists.
The current scheme
Under the current Defective block scheme put in place by the Irish Government, as part of a 3 step process, the state would cover up to 90% of the remedial costs and require the homeowners to cover the additional 10%. However, the grant scheme that has been set up by Donegal county council comes with the catch of ‘one owner, one dwelling – one dwelling, one grant’. This means that should a house infected with Mica require additional work in later years homeowners would be unable to apply for the grant for the same dwelling again.
Furthermore, if a dwelling requires total demolition there is a capped grant allowance of €247,500 which Donegal residents have said will not be enough to cover costs for materials and labour, not to mention the additional fees required in order to qualify. In response to the recent measures that would require an engineers report before a grant can be approved MAG chairperson Eamonn Jackson said, “even the dogs in the street know that these houses have mica”.
Exemptions of the scheme
As time moves on and the damage increases, homeowners in Donegal have voiced concerns over what they see as impossible financial requirements to even qualify for the grant scheme. For starters, they would have to obtain an engineers report which could cost in the range of €5000 or more, and only after they have been approved would they be reimbursed this money. Then they would have to seek planning permission for a new dwelling, the costs of which would not be covered by the schemeWith a capped grant allowance for square footage, many homes would be smaller than what they were before unless homeowners provide the additional funds themselves.
The grant also stipulates that in order for a person to qualify, the home affected by Mica has to be the permanent dwelling place of the resident. As rented dwellings and summer homes are not currently covered by the scheme this has left residents, many of whom are pensioners, worried as to what their future will look like, as the very idea of starting over seems impossible.
Furthermore, homeowners who have been in receipt of Covid payments and those whose companies have been in receipt of Covid payments and pensioners will not be able to obtain a mortgage, leaving them financially stranded.
Below are some of the additional requirements of the current Mica redress scheme that are needed in order to qualify:
- No remedial works have been started or completed – you will not be recouped any costs for remedial work carried out prior to grant approval
- Alternative accommodation costs are not covered whilst the remedial works are underway
- If you do not qualify for the grant or it is discovered that mica or pyrite is not the reason for the dilapidation of your dwelling you will not be reimbursed the fees you paid for the engineers report
- Only attached buildings are included, for example, an attached garage will be included for remedial works but not a stand alone garage
- If windows or doors have been damaged by mica, they will be covered by the scheme however if your home is classed as a new build you will be required to use new standard, triple glazed windows and M class doors which are wheelchair accessible
- If work costs increase during the build, the grant scheme amount will not be increased
- If your house becomes more damaged before work begins you may apply for a revised report but this will mean another engineers report, the fee of which will not be covered by the scheme
Residents take action
As shown above, the exemptions and slow pace of the scheme have led many Donegal residents little option but to vent their frustration online with some residents calling for the boycott of the company allegedly responsible for supplying the blocks. Many residents in the Inishowen area of Donegal, where the majority of the mica cases have occurred, have criticized the lack of response from local T.Ds such as Pearse Doherty and Thomas Pringle who have remained silent on the issue.
In recent weeks there have been protests in Carndonagh, with a further two protests scheduled to take place in Buncrana and Letterkenny this Saturday the 22nd of May at 2pm. As the saying goes, “home is where the heart is”, but for many of these people this crisis has ripped the heart out of the place they once called home.
Please share this story to show your support and for more information join the Mica Action Group on Facebook or visit their website at https://www.micaactiongroup.com .