Social Housing and Homelessness Policy: Statements

I welcome the opportunity to open this important and timely debate on social housing supply and in particular I will focus my remarks on homelessness and the Government's firm ambition to eliminate long-term homelessness and rough sleeping by 2016. Deputies do not need to be reminded of the human and personal tragedy that the threat or reality of homelessness can trigger in a person's life. Homelessness is a destructive social condition that can wreak havoc on human dignity and well-being. As a social condition, it requires a social response from Government, from the voluntary sector and from citizens. Homelessness is an affront to every value that we assign to the concept of citizenship. In a real republic, there is an onus on us to ensure all citizens have a place they can call home - that is the goal of the Government's policy in this area. I am strongly focused on ensuring we fulfil that commitment.

In February 2013, I published the Government's homelessness policy statement in which the Government's aim to end long-term homelessness by the end of 2016 was outlined. The statement emphasises a housing-led approach which is about accessing permanent housing as the primary response to all forms of homelessness. The availability and supply of secure, affordable and adequate housing is essential in ensuring sustainable tenancies and ending long-term homelessness. Past policy on homelessness was driven by short-term measures and an overwhelming emphasis on emergency accommodation.

It is widely accepted that housing-led approaches offer the most positive outcomes for those experiencing homelessness. In the past two years in Dublin, 1,500 people have moved from homeless services to independent living, with necessary supports. This is the type of housing-led policy I want to see at the heart of homeless services.

When I published the Government's homelessness policy statement, I also established a homelessness oversight group for the purposes of reviewing the progress of the approach being advocated in the statement, identifying obstacles and proposing solutions. The group recently submitted its first report to me and a copy is available on my Department's website. On 25 February, the Government approved the establishment of a homelessness policy implementation team and an implementation unit. The team is tasked with implementing the homelessness oversight group's first report. This will include the preparation and publication of a structured, practical plan to make the transition from a shelter-led to a sustainable housing-led response to homelessness and to achieve the 2016 goals for homelessness. This practically focused delivery plan will secure a ring-fenced supply of accommodation to house homeless households within the next three years and mobilise the necessary supports. It will contain actions that will be direct, immediate and solutions-based.

The implementation team is representative of the key State agencies dealing with homelessness, housing and related services because the solutions to homelessness do not solely reside in my Department. The team is being led by an official from my Department and includes a senior official from the Department of Social Protection and the HSE as well as the managers of Dublin city and Monaghan county councils representing local authorities. The team will report on this plan to the Cabinet committee on social policy in April 2014 and quarterly thereafter.

There is strong engagement at Cabinet level on the Government's homelessness policy. I acknowledge the supportive voices in the House and the voluntary sector for a housing-led approach. Critical to the success of the Government's plan is the securing of a stream of appropriate accommodation in order that people can move on from emergency or temporary accommodation. For too long, an out of sight, out of mind attitude was deemed acceptable in homelessness policy, with people spending many years in hostel or bed and breakfast-type accommodation. A housing-led approach is radically different. International evidence points to its high success rate and it can make the difference in the lives of hundreds of our citizens who are currently without homes.

Increasing both public and private housing supply is a critical issue for the Government. In the coming weeks, the Government will agree and publish its construction strategy, which will facilitate an uptake in development and has the potential to create thousands of jobs. While no one wishes to return to the boom-bust cycle that inflicted so much damage on our economy and society, the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. Especially in key urban areas, we are simply not building enough private or social homes to meet demand. I want to see a situation develop whereby housing supply closely matches our increasing population and rate of household formation. I do not want the property sector to become another casino as it was in the past, but I want a thriving housing sector that serves its primary purpose of providing affordable housing for families.

The most recent data on the number of households qualified for housing support underpin the need for flexible and diverse approaches to be taken to increase the level of social housing supply. Homeless households featured in these data. There is no single solution to supply and my priority is to use all avenues available to me to respond to this housing need. More than €500 million in funding is being made available through my Department in 2014 across a range of housing programmes. I expect that in the region of 5,000 new social housing units will be provided this year. These will be delivered through a range of mechanisms, including continued investment in leasing and the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, the completion of existing capital programmes, mortgage to rent arrangements and the continued transfer of NAMA units.

As part of the public capital investment in housing, the coming 18 months will see in excess of €200 million being invested to expand and enhance our housing stock. Investment in regeneration and unfinished estates will total €80 million this year and additional measures include a new €68 million local authority mainstream building programme that I announced yesterday; an additional €15 million investment that will bring more than 500 long-term vacant local authority housing units back into use; a new two-year capital investment in housing for people with a disability, the elderly and people without homes, which will see some €35 million invested this year and next; investment in partnership with the not-for-profit housing sector to expand the number of social units available; and a €30 million investment in improving the energy efficiency of local authority homes, thereby reducing energy bills for thousands of families and supporting green energy jobs. Yesterday, I was in Darndale to announce the €68 million programme when a woman told me how much her fuel bills had been reduced by thanks to the insulation programme, which we started last year. I hope that it will make a major difference to families.

There are two important strands to this investment programme. The first is to increase the supply of new social homes. The second is to ensure every available appropriate unit that exists is transformed into a family home. With supply at record low levels, the second strand is important in addressing the immediate problem of supply, particularly for social housing. Given that the scope for Exchequer-funded large-scale capital building programmes is still limited, the not-for-profit housing sector must play a key role in the delivery of social housing. Approved housing bodies have a record of steady achievement over the past 20 years or so and greater use must be made of that sector's skills and expertise. In particular, the capacity of the sector to attract additional external financial investment will be important. It is actively engaging with the Housing Finance Agency, HFA, and my Department in exploring new ventures for this sector that I hope to see progress this year.

My Department, the Housing Agency and NAMA continue to work together with housing authorities and approved housing bodies towards identifying suitable NAMA housing units and bringing them into social housing use. As I mentioned during Question Time, by the end of December 2013, 596 units had been completed or contracted under this process.

There is a need for continued innovation to accelerate the transfer of homeless people from inappropriate and expensive emergency accommodation into more appropriate and sustainable housing and to identify the barriers and solutions to accessing a supply of appropriate and adequate housing. During 2014, I will seek to maximise the supply of housing for homeless households. It is largely within the various social housing delivery mechanisms that we must find the adequate supply of housing to make a housing-led approach to homelessness a reality.

Traditionally, it has been difficult to quantify the number of homeless persons on an ongoing basis. This is in part a consequence of the volatility within this cohort of housing need. When the homelessness policy statement was published, I announced a set of indicators to be used to demonstrate the dynamics of homelessness as it is addressed. These indicators will give a clearer picture of homelessness and, in quantifying its ongoing extent, will support the introduction of realistic and practical solutions for individuals. It is not just a case of having figures for the sake of it. The pathway accommodation and support system, PASS, was extended in 2013 and is operational nationwide. It will assist housing authorities in reporting on these indicators and 2014 will be the first year for which PASS will produce composite national data on homelessness. These reports will be published on my Department's website as soon as they are available.

People become homeless for a variety of reasons and, accordingly, a variety of responses are required. Dublin City Council recently released figures from the November 2013 count of rough sleepers, which confirmed a minimum of 139 rough sleepers across the Dublin region on a given night. This is unacceptable. It is an increase on the number during the previous April and is a matter of concern. The increasing number of rough sleepers in Dublin reflects the gravity of the challenge facing the Government, the voluntary sector and other agencies in tackling the homelessness problem. Rough sleeping is its most disturbing manifestation.

By the end of 2013, some 4,613 unique individuals used homeless emergency accommodation services in the Dublin region. This compared with 4,837 in 2012. The number of new presentations of homeless persons in Dublin averaged at 5.4 per day in 2013. The daily average in 2012 was 6.8. Dublin City Council has indicated that the fall in the number of new service users in 2013 was not as a result of decreased demand, but rather a slowing down in the number of people moving out of services into tenancies, thus reducing the number of beds available for new service users.

Despite the significant achievement in assisting 1,500 people to move from homeless services, there is an increase in the numbers presenting as homeless and, worryingly, an increase in the number of families presenting. This is an urgent issue, particularly in the Dublin region. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the most common reason for this increase is rent arrears for families residing in private rented accommodation. Families are served with notices to quit and I understand that they leave the accommodation immediately and present to homeless services.

Prevention measures are essential to ensure families and individuals do not become homeless. Dublin City Council is planning to launch a prevention campaign in the coming weeks. Measures must be put in place to ensure we know in advance if there is a danger of a family or individual becoming homeless and in order that we can intervene at that stage.

I am examining all sources of supply held publicly, privately or by NAMA which can be utilised to provide adequate emergency and, more importantly, stable long-term accommodation in the Dublin region and elsewhere. Securing supply will reduce our reliance on expensive and often inappropriate emergency accommodation and give people security and stability. I do not underestimate the challenge of sourcing supply given the lack of new building over the past five to six years, but I am determined to examine every available option to tackle the scandal of homelessness. Approximately one in five households in the country is renting accommodation in the private sector, which is the biggest share of the housing market since the 1950s. There is evidence of rents rising far in excess of the rate of inflation, particularly in cities, which suggests a lack of supply in certain segments of the private rented sector. Other data suggest a growing pressure on rents especially in the lower segment of the market. Rising rents carry a risk of affordability issues emerging in parts of the private rented sector. My Department will be commissioning relevant policy research in this area, including in regard to the potential role of rent certainty.

I am pleased my Department's 2014 national homeless budget will be maintained at the 2013 level of €45 million. I am acutely aware, however, of the demand for services and the cost of delivering them. This makes it all the more important that effective strategies are used to address and prevent homelessness and that people are moved out of homelessness and into independent living as quickly as possible. Investment of more than €50 million was provided through my Department and housing authorities towards the provision of homeless services in 2013. Similar investment is expected in 2014. In addition, the Health Service Executive spends in excess of €30 million annually providing care supports for the homeless. Arrangements were put in place in 2013 to provide for the delegation of homelessness funding to the lead housing authority in each of the nine regions, and this will continue in 2014. These arrangements seek to ensure the measures being pursued by housing authorities reflect the housing-led approach advocated in the policy statement, that actions are in place to achieve the target of ending long-term homelessness by the end of 2016, and that evidence to support progress will be presented through the reports on the indicators.

Ending long-term homelessness is an ambitious target. Success will require an enhanced level of partnership between the statutory and non-governmental sectors. Often the discourse around homelessness focuses on figures. Our language refers to the numbers presenting, units provided, millions spent, rough sleepers counted and bed nights occupied. Tackling homelessness is not just about the figures. Our driving motivation is the dignity and value of individuals and families. It is a responsibility I take very seriously in my role as Minister of State with responsibility for housing and planning. That is why finding housing-led solutions to homelessness ranks high on my agenda. I look forward to hearing other contributions to the debate.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the issue and make suggestions with a view to the Government tackling the problem in a way which leads to results. More than 100,000 households are on social housing waiting lists nationally. That equates to at least 200,000 citizens, which, notwithstanding the financial difficulties faced by the Government, must be acknowledged to be a crisis which is out of control. I contend vehemently that the Government has failed to put any flesh on the bones of its lofty 2011 housing strategy. Instead, we have had re-heated policy announcements and a failure to launch capital investment or help voluntary housing associations to finance projects. How different was the Minister of State's announcement yesterday from what was announced in the 2014 budget? What difference does the announcement make to a sector which is starved of funding for the disabled, the elderly and housing adaptation grant assistance? In my county, applicants are being told their assessments will take three to five years before they even get to approval stage. Can the Minister of State tell me that yesterday's announcement will make a blind bit of difference to those applicants? How can she account for the fact that in this day and age a housing officer in my county of Offaly, which I have been given the privilege to represent, could say to me recently that it was not possible to deal with the representations I was making on the housing list? He said I could publicise that fact as he has not the resources, staff or mechanisms to deal with the issues.

There has been a vicious combination of harsh social welfare cuts and escalating rents, not only in Dublin but in other parts of the country, which is driving more and more people onto social housing waiting lists. Homelessness levels are increasing as a result. The woefully slow pace of property transfers from NAMA is testament to the failure of Government to prioritise the issue and provide sufficient administrative and logistical support to voluntary housing associations and local authorities. I contend further that the Government's over-reliance on private rented property and the rental accommodation scheme will blow up in its face very shortly. There should be no mistake about the fact that banks will call in the debt relating to many of the investment properties which are in private ownership. When that blows up, God knows what point the waiting list figures will reach.

I will not harp on this morning about the inability and inefficiency of Government in the handling of this issue and the failure over three years in office to bring forward a housing Bill containing concrete proposals - thinking outside the box - to meet the lofty aspirations which were in the strategy it published when it took office. If it had been otherwise, maybe then we could see light at the end of the tunnel and a distinctive mechanism and roadmap to deal with the issues. Instead, I will use my time to make concrete proposals which I expect the Minister of State to note, respond to and include in any housing legislation which is imminent and intended to be before the House in the current session.

I ask that each local authority have a specific task force entrusted with accelerating the transfer of NAMA property units to social housing provision. The current delays have reduced the social dividend of the body and compounded the waiting list problem. The team, based in a local authority housing department, could be charged with identifying units, facilitating housing associations, co-ordinating the legal work on transfers and ensuring follow-through on necessary upgrading and investment. Another example of the deficiencies and inefficiencies of the current approach to delivery is that in Tullamore, a number of units were identified in a housing development which the local authority was interested in acquiring. Notwithstanding that ambition, there has been a failure by the bondholder and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Having agreed a plan to address the unfinished nature of the estate, they have gone to ground on a framework and detailed plan on the use of funds to make the estate habitable, not only for those in residence but also for those seeking housing from the local authority. I remind the Minister of State that her Department is well aware of the issue. I spoke recently to an official in the Department about it specifically.

The Minister of State indicated that a fund has been established. A bond may be available but despite their best efforts in this regard, local authorities have not received an adequate response. I questioned the Minister for Finance on this issue some weeks ago on the basis that he has a role in acquiring bonds for local authorities to be used to finish estates. A departmental official has been charged with responsibility for ensuring this is done. The fault, therefore, lies not with the local authority but with the bondholder, a reputable bank in which the State owns a large stake. As far as I am concerned, the official in the Department who has been tasked with liaising with the bondholder and local authority is not doing the job properly.

A tenant purchase scheme should be established for local authorities and voluntary housing associations, with a view to empowering people to achieve home ownership. The proceeds of sales completed under the scheme should be ring-fenced for future investment in the construction of new housing units.

We can all identify with the issue of vacant homes. Far too many dwellings in the ownership of local authorities are lying idle because they have been starved of funds to address the issue. Under the direction and leadership of the Minister of State, local authorities should allow families on waiting lists to move into and refurbish such homes. The costs of refurbishment should be gradually defrayed by a reduction in rent. This approach would result in more housing units becoming available and would help to tackle waiting lists, while simultaneously reducing upfront costs to local authorities.

Development plans should adhere to a hierarchy of plans to facilitate the construction of homes for sustainable demand, rather than speculative construction. They should play a strong role in the creation of long-term housing policy. Density issues must also be addressed to stimulate greater levels of construction and keep prices affordable for ordinary households. Housing construction should adhere to sustainable planning guidelines. Onerous unit density criteria are having a prohibitive impact on construction levels and stoking up prices to the exclusion of low and middle income earners.

Approximately 50% of income from development levies is spent on water supply. By virtue of the establishment by the Government of Irish Water, water supply will be subject to change under the new water regime. This will give rise to a double charge on home owners if they are required to pay water charges and the development levy, as it currently stands. The Government must review development levies across all local authorities and reassess the level at which they are set based on a re-evaluation of costs arising from the removal from local authorities of the responsibility for providing water.

The problems with the Priory Hall complex and many similar housing developments underline the pressing need to protect home owners from rogue developers. I welcome the new building control regulations in so far as they address issues related to multiple units, albeit not in respect of purported deficiencies in one-off dwellings. I ask the Minister of State to consider establishing a national database of rogue developers who fail to meet the criteria associated with planning approvals. This database should be used to inform future planning permission decisions and the level of bonds required by local authorities.

It is a pity we did not have such a database when the Deputy's party was in power.

Irrespective of what occurred previously, the Minister of State has a responsibility to this Dáil to pursue policies and implement legislation to address current deficiencies, not those of yesterday, last month or last year. I and many others are fed up listening to the old mantra from the Government. It is as if Ministers press the "play" button to activate the message that everything is the fault of Fianna Fáil and it inherited all the problems it faces. The Labour Party had a lofty policy document on housing strategy when it entered government. It is time it put flesh on the bones of that policy and stopped rehashing the arguments we heard in the previous general election campaign. The Government parties won the election and more luck to them.

We still have work to do to address the deficiencies left by the previous Government.

This Government will be adjudicated on its deficiencies. It has not put flesh on the bones of its policies.

It is my job to make honest and credible proposals and the Minister of State's job to evaluate all such proposals and produce her own concrete proposals thereafter.

Some of the Deputy's proposals are good but he should remember who caused the current problems.

The Taoiseach gave the Minister of State responsibility for housing. I ask her to do her job, rather than engage in a wham-bam type argument across the floor about what was or was not done previously.

It is a bit much-----

The Minister of State should live up to her responsibilities.

To avoid confrontation in the Chamber, Deputies are asked to address their remarks through the Chair.

I will avoid confrontation with the Minister of State if she chooses not to interrupt. As she admitted, I am making some reasonable suggestions, which I hope will be taken on board. I look forward to the housing Bill, which has been three years in the making. I hope the Minister of State will consider some of the suggestions that I and other Deputies will make in this debate to ensure the housing crisis is addressed in a meaningful manner.

On apprentice labour models, the dramatic decrease in construction activity has decimated apprenticeship numbers. Skilled labour is vital to the future of the construction industry and a reliable source of employment for young people. Any increase in construction by local authorities and housing associations should be co-ordinated with SOLAS to maximise the training and upskilling elements of apprenticeships. This would benefit the economy and young people who wish to work in the construction sector.

The Minister of State will have noted an analysis published early this week of CAO applications made by young people and many not so young people who have benefited from the welcome lifelong learning initiatives encouraged by previous Governments. The study found an upturn in the number of applications for courses related to construction. The Minister of State has a responsibility in this regard in so far as she is able to encourage housing development and construction. In the event that increased construction activity flows from the Bill to be published in the coming months, I ask the Minister of State to work with SOLAS with a view to maximising the training and upskilling available to apprentices.

I regret that I have been forced to raise my voice in making some of my proposals. I entered this debate in the expectation that the Minister of State has provided Deputies with an opportunity to engage in an honest effort to play a role in addressing the housing crisis. As I stated, I have been informed by a housing officer in my home county that it is no longer possible to deal with the number of representations being made on housing because the time, resources and tools required to adequately deal with the housing waiting list are not available. The position is replicated in many other areas. Colleagues from Dublin, Cork and other cities will agree that spiralling rents have caused the housing crisis to spiral out of control in their areas.

Irrespective of who was or is in government, the fact remains that we have become excessively reliant on the private rented sector and local authorities have become over-dependent on schemes such as the rental accommodation scheme. To echo the words of Professor Morgan Kelly, it is as sure as night follows day that the banks will start to call in loans. This will also mean calling in the properties associated with many of their loans, in which many of those on housing waiting lists are housed.

A concerted effort is required to address the housing crisis. I implore the Minister of State to honour her commitment, which was echoed in recent months by the Minister and the Taoiseach, to introduce a housing Bill. The legislation is required in addition to the funds announced yesterday and in the 2014 budget. A whole-of-government approach is needed to address the serious crisis in housing.

I wish to share time with Deputy Jonathan O'Brien.

Following the recent Constitutional Convention decision that housing is a right that should be enshrined in the Constitution this is a timely and worthwhile debate. What it should not be is a time for Government to give itself an undeserved slap on the back for re-announcing housing measures already declared and so far undelivered. The latest of these is the €15 million over two years for the redevelopment of vacant housing units, which will deliver a meagre 449 homes. These are not additional houses but houses already in existence which could have been made available previously but for massive cuts to maintenance and other council services. These houses form part of a natural turnover in the context of the death of tenants and so on. This money has been announced a number of times, giving the impression that great strides are being made to tackle social housing. It has also been announced time and again that NAMA is to provide 4,000 homes for social leasing. It is rarely announced that fewer than 500 houses have been delivered, that the scheme is almost three years old and that social leasing is just another subsidisation of private landlords with limited social housing return.

The Minister of State, Deputy O'Sullivan, finally clarified this morning that the local authorities have deemed only 2,000 of the 4,000 homes promised by NAMA as suitable and that the Government only promised 2,000 units. Despite this, the number of 4,000 is bandied about by the Minister of State and the Government. The reality is much less impressive. Clúid housing plans to build 400 new homes in 2014. The State should support the delivery of social housing by the local authorities. Voluntary housing bodies are welcome but the main source of housing provision should be local authorities. The fact that the 449 houses to be provided will be local authority housing is positive. We need to grow the publicly owned housing stock. If this starts with reclamation of vacant units, so be it.

While I welcomed the recently opened new housing in my area by Fold housing, I was not happy that this was originally publicly owned housing which was given to the voluntary bodies to redevelop. The excuse I expect is that the local authorities cannot raise the funds to refurbish these but that is only because the Government has done nothing to open up new funding avenues. The Government's solution is not to be creative to ensure a large varied public housing stock, which is essentially privatisation. This is privatisation to not­for-profit bodies that do excellent work but privatisation nonetheless. The Government wants to shirk its responsibility and is using voluntary bodies to do so. I do not believe this Government wants to live up to the reality of the crisis in housing. Slapping itself on the back for a scheme to deliver-refurbish only 449 homes in two years is a clear indication of this. The Government is in denial or does not care. I hope it is the former.

The numbers cannot be ignored. There are currently approximately 90,000 families on housing waiting lists in this State; 98,000 families in receipt of rent supplement and 25,000 on RAS. Homelessness has worsened because of the Government's austerity agenda and failure to deliver social housing which would reduce rents and house people currently in emergency accommodation. The statistics are shocking, particularly when juxtaposed with the claim by the Government that it will end long term homelessness by 2016. We cannot have a housing led approach without housing. The Government is pursuing a houseless approach. There are approximately 5,000 homeless people in this State. According to Focus Ireland, there was a 43% increase in 2013 in the number of people seeking housing advice to help prevent them losing their homes. In the capital, 16 families per month, and up to five children per week, are losing their homes. In 2013, approximately 9,237 people were homeless or at risk of losing their homes. This compares to 7,819 people during the same period last year. The number of people sleeping rough on the streets of inner city Dublin has increased by 88% since 2012. Homelessness statistics are now at an all-time high.

In 2013, rough sleeper teams from the Simon Community made contact with 4,271 people, distributed 22,700 sandwiches and hot drinks to people on the street and issued 2,500 needle exchanges. More than 40% of those who accessed its emergency service had been homeless for more than five years. There were approximately 136 people sleeping rough in Dublin in November last, compared with 94 in April. Threshold states that there was a 77% increase in demand for its services in 2013. The solution is simple. Private housing must become more affordable and more social housing must be provided. The provision of more social housing will curb demand and so lower rents across the board. This requires only political will to decide what must be done. All the major housing charities agree that the solution is political.

We can build more social housing. In this regard, Sinn Fein has shown the way. In 2012, we showed that with European Investment Bank funds and other investment funds more than 9,000 homes could be built over two years. This is 18 times more than NAMA has delivered for leasing and 18 times what the Government promises to have refurbished in two years. While it would not be sufficient to end the housing crisis it would be a good start, or it would have been two years ago. The Government only recently sought European Investment Bank funding for housing. We have little detail regarding on what that investment will be spent. Given recent Government schemes, I have my doubts about its likely effectiveness in tackling the shortage of housing.

The provision of 9,000 new homes in the system would start to ease soaring rents. This type of development could allow for rent caps to be put in place. Rent caps can work but they have to be introduced in conjunction with the delivery of significant numbers of social housing to ensure people are adequately housed. Much of the private rented housing in the inner city of Dublin is not fit for habitation, with most failing even the most basic of standards. The State cannot stand by and allow slums to develop. The programme for Government proposes exploration of alternative funding models for social housing. Three years on the best this Government can come up with is alchemy as nothing has been brought to the table. Even its proposition of social housing bonds has been ignored. This scheme would allow local authorities to sell bonds using existing social housing as leverage. It has worked for many bodies in the UK and Europe which have raised billions to build more housing, thereby overcoming the problems referenced earlier by the Minister of State in the context of the troika and loans.

Another policy proposed by Sinn Féin and many experts in social housing is the establishment by local authorities of housing trusts which would allow them to borrow in the same way as voluntary housing bodies do. This would open up many more options for councils to raise funds to build housing, separate from Department funding. This could significantly increase the ability of councils to provide housing. This policy has been ignored by the Government despite some councils exploring it. I recently asked the Minister a number of questions in this regard but they remain unanswered. I propose to bring this to the attention of the Ceann Comhairle.

The Government needs to make a serious about-turn on social housing provision. It is the key to lowering rents and ending homelessness. It is as simple as providing for peoples' rights. I look forward to the debate on the housing Bill. We have a housing crisis. Some 16 additional families per month are reported as homeless. If that is not a crisis, I do not know what is. Over the last couple of years, and in particular the past couple of months, I have dealt with many families facing homelessness. I recently dealt with two families in that situation. I also recently protested at the clinic of the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, in regard to a family previously in receipt of rent supplement that had to split up having become homeless.

This is the human cost of what is happening. Families are being split up and men, women and children across the board are suffering. We are not tackling this matter in a serious fashion. There is a need to get real and to put a genuine house building programme in place.

It is possible to argue whether there is a housing crisis. I contend that such a crisis exists. No one can argue, however, that there are individual families who are in complete crisis. There is no doubt that Government policy is partly to blame in this regard. At least 80% of those who visit my constituency office in Cork want to discuss housing.

That figure is increasing all the time.

I only have five minutes available to me but in all honesty I could speak for five hours in respect of this issue. In any event, I wish to use my time to focus on three areas, the first of which relates to the changes to rent allowance. Those changes are pushing more and more people into poverty and onto the streets. That is a fact. Deputies will attest to the number of people visiting their constituency offices and stating the changes to rent allowance have led to their being forced to pay more to their landlords. Said landlords refuse to maintain the properties in which those people live. To be honest, some of the properties in question are slums. I have visited a number of them and discovered they do not have hot running water or heating, that the windows are faulty and that they are damp and cold. People are paying a portion of their social welfare payments to top up their rent allowance in order that they can live in these properties. The only other choice available to them is to register as homeless. Some are beginning to do so because they can no longer afford to pay. The position in this regard must change. This matter is not about money, it relates to a policy decision the Government took in respect of rent allowance caps.

The second matter to which I wish to refer revolves around the quality of housing. We have already heard a great deal with regard to the provision of social housing to people who are on social housing lists. What about those who live in social housing? Local authorities employ building inspectors charged with inspecting dwellings in the private rented sector. I refer here to the building inspectors from the rental accommodation scheme sections of local authorities who are responsible for ensuring properties meet the relevant criteria before their owners can become landlords under the rent allowance scheme. I have visited local authority properties in the city in which I live which would not pass any safety standards. I do not say it lightly but local authorities are among the worst rogue landlords in the State. The quality of housing in some local authority areas is shocking. Last year Cork City Council introduced a €2 rent increase, the purpose of which was to pay for boiler maintenance. There are people in the city who are paying an extra €2 in rent for the servicing of boilers which are not to be found in the dwellings in which they live. Those people have neither central heating nor hot water.

I am referring here to local authority housing, some of which is in appalling condition. I accept that much of this comes down to finances. Local authorities are being starved of funding. We have heard a great deal about how the money collected by means of local property tax is going to go back to local authorities and be spent on improving services. That is not happening at present. The Minister of State visited Cork recently and she is aware of the regeneration project that is in train on the north side of the city. As part of this project, housing that was substandard was knocked down and is due to be replaced by top quality dwellings. To date, not one brick has been laid. All the old houses were demolished and there are now green areas where they once stood. None of those houses has been replaced. There are houses in the city which are boarded up and which have been lying idle for five years or more. That is shocking. I have been visited at my constituency office by people who want to know why they cannot be allowed to move into these houses. They have informed me they will redecorate them bit by bit. They want to move into these dwellings to get a roof over their heads. This is because they are sleeping on couches in other people's houses. Others have informed me they and their two children are sleeping in a box room into which it is not even possible to fit a wardrobe. As a result, these people are living out of suitcases. They just want homes at a time when there are houses all over the city that are boarded up.

The Minister of State just announced that funding will be made available to bring 500 vacant houses back into use. There are 500 vacant houses in Cork city alone. I accept that a certain percentage of dwellings must be kept idle in the context of facilitating turnaround and for emergency purposes. However, there are houses available. It will cost us more in the long term. When houses become idle, the council goes in and rips out fitted kitchens, tears up tiled floors and removes wood panelling and top quality fixtures and fittings. All of these are thrown into skips. We are informed that this is done because houses must meet a certain standard before they can be reallocated. Council workers then paint all the walls yellow in order that the houses in question can finally be reallocated. When I was a councillor I raised this matter and I was informed that the reason houses could not be allocated in their current condition related to the insurance criteria and safety standards which need to be met.

Deputy Cowen referred to the rent allowance scheme. This is a disaster waiting to happen and it is going to come crashing down around the ears of those in local authorities. We must face up to that fact and immediately begin to implement policies to address the social housing needs of people in this State.

I call Deputy Boyd Barrett. I understand he is sharing time with Deputies Joan Collins and Catherine Murphy. Is that agreed? Agreed.

As I and many others have previously made clear, people are in dire straits. I refer to those who are on the housing lists, those who are being pushed into homelessness and out onto our streets, those who couch surf and those who live in desperately overcrowded conditions with other family members. These people have no possibility of getting a secure roof over their heads. It is not an exaggeration to state that we are facing into the worst crisis relating to social housing and homelessness in the history of the State. This crisis is the result of a catastrophic failure on the part of the previous Government, in the first instance, and it is being compounded by policy failures on the part of the current Administration. The stakes could not be higher.

There are many important issues with which society must deal. If, however, a family does not have a roof over their heads, they cannot function properly within society. How can one pursue educational opportunities, access employment, maintain one's mental health or avoid developing drugs or drink problems if one does not have a secure roof over one's head? It is the most basic consideration and if the Government cannot deliver this for its citizens, then it is unworthy of the name. The previous Government completely destroyed the economy because - quite disgracefully - it treated housing as a commodity for speculation and to enrich its friends in the banks and the property sector. As the Minister of State said, that is what caused the crisis. The current Administration, however, has compounded the problem at every single turn. This debate is taking place three years too late, and tens of thousands of families are paying the price of the Government's failure to address this most serious issue as a matter of urgency.

Everything to which I refer has happened in the aftermath of a period in which we built the largest number of houses ever in the history of the State. We are faced with the greatest crisis relating to homelessness and social housing since the foundation of the State following its biggest ever building boom. This does not add up. There are more empty houses throughout the country than has ever been the case but we are faced with the crisis to which I refer. In July 2012, with some 100,000 people on the housing list, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government stated it would no longer be directly providing and building council housing.

We did not say that.

The Department issued a policy document in July 2012 in which it was stated that direct provision of newly built social housing was being brought to an end and that it would in future rely on leasing arrangements with the private sector. At the same time, rent allowance supports and caps were reduced.

I remember the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, promising us in this House that this would not cause problems or lead to homelessness and that, in fact, it would lead to a reduction in rents. I plead with the Minister of State to put up her hands and say she got it wrong because the exact opposite happened. Rents went through the roof and homelessness followed directly as a result of the reduction in the rent caps and this is still happening. I recall the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, saying to me that no one would be made homeless as a result of the Government's policies. On three occasions I have brought families to the House, including as recently as last week, who have been made homeless or who will be made homeless this week because of the reduction in the rent caps against a background of rising rents. The landlords simply say they are sorry but the rent is going up. The rent allowance community welfare officers will not vary the rent caps and people are evicted. Then, they must go to emergency homeless services and they are put in hotels or hostels on the other side of the city. They have to drag children across the city to schools and some cannot get to schools. They cannot function and they do not know from day to day where they will be sleeping.

It is an extraordinary situation and it is getting worse. Deputy O'Brien is perfectly right. Fully 80% of cases that come to my clinic relate to people facing homelessness in dire situations and I know it is the same for Deputy Catherine Murphy. Some will be 17 years on a housing list. I have before me a case study. Noleen from Wicklow was renting a house for €900 per month. The landlord increased the rent to €1,300 and the reason given was household charges. She ended up in a hostel with her four children. She now has a house on the rental accommodation scheme but the landlord refuses to do repairs and the council maintain it is up to the landlord to do such repairs. She has been told she will be 17 years on the list before she gets a house. What will the Minister of State do? We need direct build of council houses. The Government must vary rent caps in the interim to ensure people are not made homeless; otherwise, all words are useless.

Five minutes is a rather short time to make an intervention on-----

It is indeed, and it has slightly eroded already.

If you had not interrupted me I could have said more.

This crisis has been brewing for some time. There was a housing crisis throughout the years of the property boom, a crisis of affordable housing. Young people and young couples seeking to start a family were priced out of the housing market by the greed of developers and bankers. Hand-in-hand we had policies coming through local authorities referring to pathways to a home and that every homeless person would be in a home by 2010. It was an absolute disaster. Now, there is another policy stating that the homeless will be housed by 2016. The situation will unfold into another disaster because the bricks and mortar and the foundations are not being put in place and there is no plan in place to deal with the issue.

The combination of a property bubble and the housing crisis was facilitated by the previous Government's policy and it was supported by the Opposition parties in the local authorities at the time. The Labour and Fine Gael parties supported all these policies which were pushed through by Fianna Fáil in the local authorities in respect of housing.

That is not the case.

First, a decision was taken to stop building social housing by local authorities.

That was done by Fine Gael.

There was a conscious strategy to develop a private rented sector. Section 23 tax breaks were used to encourage a private landlord sector. Local authorities were responsible by accepting levies instead of social housing units from developers and they attempted to maximise funding through levies throughout the country. Absurd planning decisions resulted in a mass of ghost estates which are completely unusable when it comes to meeting today's housing needs. It is an absolute scandal that we have arrived at the situation we face today. The reliance on the private sector alone has led to a disaster.

There is a severe shortage of suitable housing for rent in urban areas. This is particularly the case in my constituency of Dublin South-Central. Now private landlords are responding to this shortage by rack-renting. In the past three months, rents in the Dublin 8 area have increased by 10%. The average rent for a house in Drimnagh is now €1,200 per month. Landlords are refusing to rent to people on social welfare. A virtual apartheid is under way and in the newspapers property is advertised with a requirement of work references only. Potential renters have to provide a work reference which means a person who is on the waiting list and who is not working will not be accepted. Thousands of people have lost their jobs through no fault of their own and they cannot even ring up the place for access to accommodation. Otherwise landlords are blatantly stating that no rent supplement candidates need apply. That is the situation people are facing in Dublin. People have been forced out of private rented accommodation because rents have gone up. Landlords can increase rent once a year according to the rules and regulations. People have been told there will be an increase of €150. Many of these people are already topping up the rent. At the moment the rent is approximately €1,000 or €1,025 and these people are paying extra through a second agreement with the landlord. Now, the landlords are cheekily pushing that up again and forcing these people out of their accommodation and into a homeless situation.

The rental accommodation scheme is a disaster in Dublin. In one situation a family moved to Galway and gave their house in Drimnagh to the local authority for the rental accommodation scheme. A young family is living there now but the family from Galway was forced to come back to Dublin because of a job situation. However, they cannot move into their house because that young girl has nowhere to go and there are no rental accommodation scheme properties in Dublin for her and her two children. Now, the family cannot access their home because we have advised this girl to over-hold and that is because she has nowhere to go except for the streets. This is typical of the madness going on at the moment.

The situation for buy-to-lets is equally unsatisfactory. Many people who bought second or third properties are going through the process of their houses being repossessed. Why does the Government not intervene and take those houses? Many of these people simply want to see the back of these houses and have no wish to deal with the issue. Why does the Government not intervene in the buy-to-let repossession process, take them back and let those people walk away from the situation? Then, at the least we would have some housing stock in the city. Far more could be done.

This debate is simply not good enough. There should be an urgent meeting of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht, which should examine the needs and what is in place. There should be a task force made up of local authorities to examine the needs. We need land. The five main local authorities include those in Cork, Kildare, Dublin city and Galway. We know where the need is. These five authorities have 50% of the housing crisis. The matter should be dealt with. These areas should be targeted and we should sit down and examine the situation in an emergency meeting the week after next. That is what we should be doing rather than debating it in the House.

I will confine myself in the main to homelessness. I welcome a debate on housing policy although I wish we had a little more time to deal with it. There has been a major legacy left to this Government - I completely acknowledge that. The Minister of State has displayed an understanding of the issue. I do not doubt her sincerity but I doubt the sincerity of the Government to give the kind of backing this crisis needs. I would have preferred to see some other members of the Government in the House listening to the debate because this is the crisis dominating at constituency level.

The reason for the crisis is the shortage of housing in some locations. The caps are too low or they are below what is deemed to be the market rent. People are being priced out of their homes although the term used is "priced out of the market". They have been trying to pay top-ups and have run up arrears from inadequate income. I rang auctioneers to find out why. The daft.ie website and other online sites have references such as "no rent assistance". Landlords will not take tenants receiving rent assistance. I rang up the auctioneers to find out why they will not take rent assistance and many of the auctioneers said there was too much red tape, they could get far more without it, or they could get rent above the caps.

In Kildare, the rental accommodation scheme practically does not exist. I question the adequacy of the number of local authority staff dealing with housing. A high input is needed to make the rental accommodation scheme successful but this has not been facilitated. The only staff I have seen hired by Kildare County Council for housing are the security guards outside the building housing the section that deals with housing and homelessness. This year alone, Kildare County Council dealt with 80 families with children in respect of homelessness. This is not a problem exclusive to the cities.

It is happening elsewhere as well. I have had people attending my office who are physically sick. I have boxes of tissues on the desk because they cry their eyes out. I have seen people stressed out and have had to refer them to Pieta House with suicide issues. I have seen anxious children asking their parents where they are going to live. At a time when the Government is doing good work on protecting children, we are creating another vulnerable section in society given the uncertainty involved. Children can see the anxiety of parents who are out day and night looking for a roof over their heads. They are not specifying where they want a home, they will take anything to avoid ending up in a homeless shelter.

Meanwhile, people who were traditionally in homeless shelters during the good years when there was supposed to be plenty of money, are being displaced onto the street by others who were never homeless before. This is just the beginning of an absolute crisis with serious numbers involved. One can be sure, however, that the numbers will increase to a large degree due to the housing shortage.

Six local authorities account for half of the entire waiting list: three in Dublin, two in Cork and one in Kildare. That is where rents are highest. The matter must be put on a war footing because tinkering at the edges and thinking that the rental accommodation scheme will deliver a solution is cloud-cuckoo-land stuff. Landlords are not providing accommodation because the caps are too low.

I understand that banks are telling landlords, some of whom are accidental landlords, to get families out of houses because they will earn more by renting out individual rooms. I have seen that happening. The people worst hit by this crisis are families with children who constitute the new homeless. This is nothing less than an absolute crisis.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the important issue of social housing and homelessness. Social housing in this country is at crisis levels. Every day of the week, I receive queries from people seeking short-term, long-term and emergency housing but sadly there is very little out there for them at present.

The demand for social housing has always been high but in recent years with the economic downturn, it has sky-rocketed out of control. People who never thought they would have to seek social housing are now coming to me, and other Deputies, to see what options are available to them.

Some of these people had bought properties during the boom but can no longer afford to pay the mortgage, and many have handed back their keys to the bank. They are now relying on the State to put a roof over their heads. Others in private rented accommodation had to leave their homes as private rents have increased. Others have been languishing on the council's housing list for many years, some of them up to ten years or more, without any sign of being housed at all.

With the new band system in place in Dublin City Council, the social housing list has become a black hole for thousands of people on the list. They may now find themselves in 600th or 800th place on the waiting list, which is devastating as they face a longer wait of many years for council housing.

According to the 2011 census, one in ten private households now lives in social housing via local authorities or voluntary co-operative housing. This highlights the need to address the social housing situation. This is the reality, not a dream.

I have lobbied the Taoiseach and other Ministers, including the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, on this issue since I was elected to the Dáil. I am acutely aware of the seriousness of the situation not only in my constituency but throughout the country.

The Government recently launched a new funding model to increase the supply of social homes provided through the not-for-profit housing sector. The capital advance leasing facility, CALF, was launched in 2011 to renew co-operation between the Government, approved housing bodies and external finance providers.

Under this scheme, an approved housing body can purchase or build properties with funding of up to 30% available from the Exchequer and the balance being raised under private or housing finance agency's finance. The properties would then be made available to meet social housing needs. Some €13.5 million has already been allocated by the Department to assist in the provision of 353 housing units.

This week, the Government announced a new €15 million fund to bring vacant local authority houses back into use. Local authorities have been asked to submit their proposals for funding under the new scheme by 28 March. The Department will then make allocations as soon as possible and it is expected that the fund will bring approximately 500 vacant local authority units back into beneficial use this year.

How much of this money will be ring-fenced for Dublin City Council to deal with the huge number of people on the housing list in Dublin? This €15 million fund is not enough so I am asking the Minister and the Minister of State to re-examine this matter to see if more funding can be approved.

In Dublin city alone, there are approximately 16,000 people on the housing list. In my constituency of Dublin South-Central there were 170 voids in September 2013. It is unacceptable to have houses and flats lying idle when there is such a demand. For example, there are 36 voids in the Basin Street complex. At Tyrone Place, which is less than two minutes' walk from my house, there are currently 18 voids. Other inner city flat complexes have equal numbers of vacant places. It is time we opened the doors of unoccupied flats to help homeless people.

I am pleased to see that local authorities which access this new €15 million fund will be encouraged to use the services of community-based organisations who recruit and train long-term unemployed people for some of the required works.

At present, Dublin City Council's maintenance crews are dwindling rapidly, leaving local authority tenants waiting for up to two years to have simple maintenance problems resolved. I am concerned that in my area of Dublin South-Central there are just two plumbers, one carpenter, two painters and 12 electricians to service city council tenants. We must allow local authorities to recruit people in these positions, as they are really struggling to maintain their properties and carry out simple, everyday repairs.

This week the Government launched a two-year €68 million local authority home building initiative. This is a major investment in local authority housing and will see €68 million invested in building 449 homes right across the country over the next two years. It is not enough, however, because a lot more needs to be done to facilitate thousands of homeless people, not only in Dublin but elsewhere. The initiative is a drop in the ocean compared to what is required. The Government should look again at providing fresh funding.

Other new schemes under way with the support of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government include a €35-million investment for housing for people with a disability, people without a home, and the elderly.

Has the Deputy spoken to the Taoiseach?

I have spoken to him a number of times.

The Minister of State should consider transforming properties for use by the many people with disabilities who cannot cope otherwise. That situation needs to be examined. Another scheme under way involves a €30 million investment to improve the energy efficiency of local authority housing.

I must ask the Deputy to move the adjournment of this debate. She will have three minutes and 20 seconds remaining when the debate resumes.