I am grateful to the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this important topic. Historically, one of the prime responsibilities of a local authority was to house people who, through no fault of their own, could not afford to rent houses and apartments in the private sector and get their feet on the property ladder. Owing to the economic slowdown, the local authorities cannot afford to pursue traditional methods of servicing their obligations. In the past they used their land stocks, built houses appropriate to their needs and were then in a position to allocate them to those on their housing lists.
I realise the needs of each local authority differ but, recently, because of the lack of capital funding, they have all become reliant on the private sector to provide the housing they need. The situation has changed drastically since I was a member of Kilkenny County Council. The rental accommodation scheme, RAS, has helped enormously in providing social housing for local authorities and housing agencies. Given the current economic situation, this is likely to continue for some time.
The property tax has been brought in by the Government to try to make local authorities more self-sufficient and less reliant on funding from central government in order that they can look after local issues with local money and, in some ways, replace the old rates system. Today, local authorities, housing agencies and approved voluntary bodies do not have the funds to deliver the level of service they once did and, as a result, they are in danger of failing in their obligations, which may leave them open to legal challenges. We are once again experiencing a mismatch of housing need and housing stock. These bodies cannot access the capital they need and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government does not have the funds required under the traditional capital assistance scheme or the loan and subsidy grant scheme. In addition, the leasing initiative combined with the capital advance leasing facility, CALF, scheme, are not providing the finance for all the voluntary bodies.
The result is that all the agencies and the local authorities are reliant on the private sector to provide the housing units that are needed. The proposed transfer of the RAS to local government will only increase this reliance on the private sector. It is also worth noting that what used to constitute a family home years ago has changed significantly. Many families live in flats and apartments and there are many single parent families. There is no one size fits all scenario anymore and this provides a greater challenge.
Property charges will have to be paid by everyone, including those who engage with the county councils to make housing available.
This brings me to the nub of the problem. We must incentivise landlords, who prefer to rent in the private sector. The introduction of the property tax is bringing this issue into sharp focus. Landlords prefer to rent to private tenants so that they can increase rents and offset them against their incomes. When this is not possible, landlords simply rent in the private sector and will not engage with local authorities. I am trying to be proactive and deal with this issue before it becomes a crisis.
This week, my office took a huge number of calls from people who cannot get housing. Some are not earning enough to rent in the private sector but are earning too much to qualify for rent allowance. This situation is getting worse and is causing great stress to people. We must start acting now.