Tá áthas orm go bhfuilimid ag déileáil leis an mBille seo mar tá géarchéim ann i dtaca le tithíocht.
We have waited more than three years for a significant legislation on housing from this Government. This Bill is certainly significant and contains some improvements to how local authority tenancies are managed but it will do very little to change the course of the housing crisis we currently face.
Currently, just under 90,000 households are on housing waiting lists across the State. This represents well over 100,000 men, women and children who are currently not adequately housed. Some are living in dangerous, overcrowded, unsecure, unaffordable and downright inhumane conditions. Many others simply cannot afford to house themselves in the private market due to unemployment, poverty or other factors. These figures represent the most vulnerable in our society - those who are denied the most basic right of a secure roof over their heads. They occupy modern slums, emergency accommodation, overcrowded family homes, hostels, bed and breakfasts and hotels, most of which is at the expense of local authorities. They sleep on friends' sofas. I have spoken to people who are not living but are simply surviving as heart-breaking testimonials to the ability of human beings to endure. Some are even sleeping in cars as we have seen recently.
Some 78,000 households are unable to afford the private market and must rely on rent supplement from the State. This subsidy, which is a subsidy of a private market which cannot provide for those in need, costs us €344 million a year. That is nearly €4,500 per household in receipt of it. Many on rent supplement are dependent on social welfare, in part due to a ban on them working over a very limited number of hours. Illegal top-ups following the introduction of two separate cuts to rent supplement rates and the new rent thresholds have led many families to extreme deprivation in order to meet exorbitant rents which is the only term one could use to describe rent rates currently.
In Dublin alone, rents have gone up by 14% since this time last year and rents had already been rising steadily for the past four years. There is one simple reason for this which the Minister seems to want to ignore. Landlords are in a position now where they can charge anything they want and people desperate for a decent place to live will pay - daft.ie has never been so empty as rent properties are snapped up in hours, taken without even a viewing. Landlords are now abandoning rent supplement and RAS as they believe they can do very well without such State aid and the annoyance of the greater bureaucracy and the choice between setting reasonable rents or demanding illegal top-ups.
The Government seems to have forgotten that the private market is about profit and right now profits are very good.
There is no desire for private landlords to provide housing for all; in fact, that is bad for business as far as they are concerned. It is a very basic case of supply and demand. That is why we need the State to intervene where the public good is not served by this model. I do not believe there are many cases where it does serve the public good but certainly in housing the profit model left to itself is actively damaging to the public good. It was the profit model in housing and the light touch regulation which led us into economic collapse and it will do nothing to tackle the housing crisis it created.
The recent Constitutional Convention recommended that the right to a home be enshrined in Bunreacht na hÉireann and that it be enforced by the courts. We believe that people do have a right to a home whether it is enshrined in the Constitution or not. We urge the Government to set a date for the referendum but we strongly urge that the Minister work in the here and now to realise a right which has already been signed up to by the State under the UN convention. At present, the right to a home is a sick joke in the State. There are measures which the Government could undertake today which would ease the problems in housing and the suffering of so many people.
Sinn Féin has outlined how €1 billion identified in the strategic investment fund could be invested in social housing. The plan would see the building of approximately 7,500 homes over 18 months while creating jobs, raising council revenue and saving money on emergency accommodation and rent supplement. The new housing stock would also help to reduce rent rates which would further bring down the rent supplement bill and protect private tenants at risk of losing their homes due to soaring rent rates. Of the €1 billion, €985 million could be spent on building 6,502 new homes for social housing, as well as renovating the final 948 homes left over after recently announced Government plans to deal with long-term vacant housing.
Those 7,500 homes represent 7,500 families given a new lease of life, a secure home and a chance to live in dignity. It represents thousands of jobs and millions in savings for the State. If 7,500 families were taken off rent supplement, it would save more than €30 million a year on the budget. It would reduce waiting lists in 18 months by nearly a tenth on top of housing promised by the Government already. The cost of allowing people to remain homeless and in emergency accommodation is so great that many other housing authorities around the world have decided it would be more cost-effective simply to house as many as possible immediately in whatever housing is available and suitable. The authorities would then pay the entire rent and provide supports as needed. That has been found to be more cost effective and has been shown to be a successful way to end homelessness or at least cut down on homeless numbers considerably. In Utah, the housing authority is on track not just with strategy, but in real terms, to end homelessness. It decided that to house people was a more cost-effective route and that is exactly what it did. It has reduced long-term homelessness by 74% over eight years while the approach in this country has seen homeless figures rise by similar percentages in recent years.
At present, almost 300 people are staying in hotels across Dublin every single day. The cost to the city is approximately €20,000 a day and millions a year. That is a wrong approach. This is the busy season for hotels and any person put out of a hotel now adds to the homeless list. I am aware of examples of that happening. The Minister of State has supported some Housing First pilot schemes but we face a major problem in emulating Utah and other places which have put full support behind the model. We do not have sufficient homes available to house people. That is a major problem and there is one solution. A major investment in social housing is required, as outlined previously by me and Sinn Féin. One cannot house people in homes that do not exist or further distort the private market with State subsidy of rents.
That brings me to the important point of the urgent need to deal with rents. Rents are too high and it is damaging to society and the economy. Landlords are cleaning up while local businesses falter as people struggle to make their rent which represents a growing portion of their outgoings - swallowing up their monthly income. Rent control is not a new idea. It has been tried and tested in many places around the world and has been successful in keeping rents at a fair level when implemented reasonably and in conjunction with the provision of social housing. Just last month the British Labour Party unveiled a plan to introduce rent controls. Perhaps it is time the Labour Party took a leaf out of the book of its sister party across the pond.
I recognise and appreciate that the Minister has commissioned a report on rent control but that is not enough. We need action on rents now. A major rent bubble is being created. A report was commissioned on deposit retention schemes by the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, in 2009. We are still waiting for the scheme which is badly needed. In fact, Sinn Féin submitted an amendment to the Residential Tenancies Bill in 2013 which would have provided for such a scheme but it was rejected by the Minister. This cannot be a re-run.
I also call on the Minister to deal with the immediate and very worrying problem being faced by rent supplement recipients who face eviction due to their landlords demanding rent above the current threshold. That is a very serious and widespread problem and poses a real danger to many families of being put on the street and therefore in need of emergency accommodation. The Minister of State has made remarks on directing community welfare officers, CWOs, to operate with discretion in order to avoid evictions. I urge that she would push at Cabinet level that the Department of Social Protection would issue a directive in that regard. The Department must look beyond the short-term cost of breaking its own threshold and consider the long-term expense and human suffering of the families being made homeless and forced to take up emergency accommodation. Is it not better that families are kept in their homes for a few euro more a day than to be placed in a hotel or bed and breakfast accommodation for close to €100 a night without cooking or cleaning facilities and at the whim of the management? Homeless people have been told to queue up in hotel foyers and wait until accommodation becomes available. In many cases more than one room is required for families. In some cases it costs a couple of hundred euro a day to accommodate a family in a hotel. It is that kind of short-term thinking that got us to the position where the biggest local authority in the State - Dublin City Council - built only 29 homes last year while tens of thousands in the city are desperate for homes.
Those are the great problems faced by the people in need of housing in the State and this Bill will not do much for them. That said, there are some welcome improvements on current policy, although more could be done even on those points. The eviction of local authority tenants and repossession of the home is a very difficult subject but I welcome that the Bill does take steps towards improving what was a wholly insufficient procedure in terms of the rights of the tenant but also those around them - the people who have to suffer where there are anti-social elements. The current legislation has been shown to be in violation of the EU Convention on Human Rights. It allowed local authorities summarily to evict people with a rubber stamp from the District Court. That was rightly ruled by the Supreme Court to be incompatible with the State's obligations. Tenants who face eviction should have the right to a fair hearing and due process. A local authority cannot be allowed to evict tenants on a whim or for other biased and unfair reasons, as evident in the case of my friend, Councillor John Brady, in Bray, who was given an eviction notice for rocking the boat and advocating on behalf of two women who were forced to live with their children in completely unsuitable emergency accommodation.
In the early stages of the drafting of the Bill, it stated that local authorities would have to give 15 days warning to any tenant that they were seeking to evict, allowing them time to prepare for the process. That has been reduced to ten working days. Focus Ireland rightly said that this should be 30 days in order to allow appropriate time to gather advice and information. I support the call and will seek an amendment in this regard on the next Stage. Eviction is not a solution to antisocial behaviour issues and it is and should always be a last resort.
This would allow appropriate time to gather advice and information. I support this call and we will seek an amendment in this regard on Committee Stage.
Eviction is not the solution to anti-social issues and it should always be a last resort. Anyone evicted from a local authority tenancy is then the responsibility of the local authority when he or she requires emergency accommodation. This should not be forgotten, and the damage this can do to a family unit can be much greater potentially than the anti-social behaviour in which a person was engaging. This trauma could make it even more difficult to deal properly with antisocial elements in a family. It must also be remembered that where criminal activity takes place it is a matter for the Garda.
The provision for giving tenancy warnings could be useful in preventing minor anti-social issues from developing into very serious problems. Issuing these warnings and the process which follows must be clear and transparent and allow for proper engagement between the tenant, the party responsible for the problem and the council. This should not be allowed to be a measure for punishing or penalising people who are seen as a nuisance by council officials for whatever reason not related to actual anti-social behaviour. As tenants deserve a fair hearing in the eviction process, they must also be allowed a fair hearing in this regard.
We feel, considering the housing crisis we face, that allowing someone with no succession rights to stay in a home which could be completely inappropriate for them for six months is not acceptable. There have been cases where single people who did not have any right to the former home of their deceased family member stayed in the property for an extended period of time. I recently came across this with regard to a four-bedroomed home. With so many families in desperate need, it is unacceptable that people should stay for long periods after being told to leave the premises. This needs to be addressed. If one does not have a recognised housing need and succession rights, there should be no more than a period of respect for the bereaved and an appropriate opportunity for the person to find alternative accommodation and remove possessions or other items. A problem often faced by local authorities is that people are very slow to remove items from houses. In some cases it is a sentimental issue as the houses are regarded as family homes, although the people involved have no succession rights. However, this sentimentality does not give them a right to stay there and this is clear.
Sinn Féin respects the right of local authority tenants to buy, and this is important in maintaining communities and avoiding poor social mix, but this must not be allowed to deplete the social housing stock without sufficient replacement and an increase in the stock. While we support the inclusion of a tenant purchase scheme, we believe the State must implement a significant house building initiative as a matter of priority. We also believe the money obtained from these houses should go back into social housing and should be targeted in this way. The State should not be allowed throw the money into the mix for other measures. It is very important to replace the stock and give people the right to buy their own house.
We welcome the introduction of the housing assistance payment as a much needed improvement on the rent supplement system, but it marks a failure of this Government and successive Governments to ensure that rent supplement remained a stop-gap measure for private tenants in difficulty. The Government has now adopted an approach which seems to desire a system whereby the State does not provide housing but incentivises the private profit market to do its job in social housing. The voluntary housing groups are doing a massive job, but the main delivery of social housing should come from local authorities because they are the best source. Unfortunately, we seem to be going in the opposite direction and the Government is drawing back. This approach cannot and will not work because the private market is incapable of providing housing to the extent it is needed at the value required. The State is the only vehicle for the delivery of quality affordable housing for those most in need.
We support the improved provision for people to work while receiving housing assistance, but share Focus Ireland's concern that maintaining people who have become unemployed more recently on rent supplement is unlikely to help end the poverty trap it has perpetuated over the years, given these are the people most likely to return to work in the short or medium term. Placing only those who are long-term unemployed in the position whereby they can work while allowing those newly unemployed to remain within rent supplement constraints makes no sense.
We also share the Simon Communities' concerns about the standards of accommodation. The State should strongly avoid subsidising landlords providing substandard housing. It is already scandalous that some landlords in receipt of rent supplement are not even registered with the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB. This is totally unacceptable.
I strongly oppose the idea of putting in place a system mandatorily to deduct rent arrears from the income and social welfare of tenants and rent assistance recipients. Social housing has been allowed by successive Governments to become the last resort for the most vulnerable and poorest in society. Those in social housing or receiving social housing support are not affluent. In cases where arrears are owed, usually the people involved have failed to budget correctly following a drop in income or a new expense. New medicines, social welfare cuts, water charges, back to school expenses and accidentally undeclared new incomes are often the cause of accrued rent arrears.
In most cases tenants are happy to work with councils to plan repayments. Most of the tenants with rent arrears whom I have dealt with would have no problem with a direct debit type scheme for repayment of arrears which was reasonable. To do this mandatorily would be a very negative step in how councils and their tenants relate to each other. It certainly would not be acceptable for a private landlord to be able to syphon money out of a tenant's account without permission to pay arrears. My experience of local authorities, in particular Dublin City Council, is that they pull out all the stops to deal with people in arrears and they are generally very flexible. We need to be careful about making this mandatory and taking the money from social welfare payments. In the past some people have had a choice between putting bread on the table or paying rent and in some cases this is how the rent fell behind. The current system of repayment of arrears, while not perfect and requiring renewed focus, has the potential to work well and is based on co-operation between tenants and the councils. This change would be devastating if applied in some cases and I am strongly opposed to it.
The Minister of State said the plan is to end long-term homelessness by 2016. At present, given that 5,000 people are homeless, this target seems virtually impossible to achieve. Last month, approximately 40 new people were reported as homeless. How will we end it? I support the idea of home purchase and the right of tenants to purchase their own homes. I will wait to see the method and mechanism to be used and these are extremely important. I would like to see financial contributions used more to get more housing. It has proved successful in the past and delivered much housing for local authorities. Without rent control, all we will do is increase prices because once the local authorities start trying to buy prices go through the roof and we have seen this happen in the past.
In many of the cases where homeless people are in hotels they are not near schools. They have been put in far away places and moved around. They must be kept as close as possible to their communities, schools and places they access. This should be a priority. I acknowledge there is desperation, that hotels are being chased and people are being put left, right and centre. Some people have been obliged to attend two or three different schools within months because their families have been moved from one place to another. This is absolutely scandalous and is putting enormous pressure on people.
Over the past two years, a number of rules have been introduced in respect of local authorities. I believe the change regarding the crossing over from one local authority to another has caused huge problems and must be reconsidered. In the so-called good times, many people went to places such as Cavan or wherever and bought into them but now find themselves in serious trouble. Many people are trying to get back to places where their families were or where they had their communities only to meet this obstacle of crossing over from one local authority to another. It is the same in respect of people on the housing waiting lists in that one cannot go on to Fingal's list if one is living within Dublin City Council's limits or if one lives in Fingal, one cannot go on to the city council's lists. This policy, which has only been introduced within the last couple of years, must be reconsidered. It has cut down the choices for many people in respect of places in which they had lived and where they wished to be.
There is another issue about which I remain unclear. I refer to people who had family homes but who lost those homes or in cases in which there was familial discord between the husband and wife or the partners and people were obliged to move out. The experience in some local authorities has been that such people cannot get housing through rent supplement. In some cases, Dublin City Council has been more flexible and provided such people with a housing needs letter enabling them to approach the welfare officers. This issue must be examined as it is highly unfair that in some local authorities, someone who unfortunately breaks up with a partner and now finds him or herself out of a home and who is unemployed etc., is being excluded from getting on the housing list. The rule must be applied across the board. One cannot have one rule in Cork and another rule in Dublin because from what I have heard, this seems to be what is happening across the country. This issue also must be examined because the position must be clarified for people.
The housing crisis now is in the worst state I have ever seen. I have never seen so many people in desperate need and have never seen so many people in such dire situations. I acknowledge this did not simply happen on the Minister of State's watch. It happened under the previous Government and unfortunately, even during the so-called boom, the quantity of social housing that should have been produced was not produced. However, another area that may require reconsideration or re-examination is the Part V provisions. The Minister of State has indicated there will be some changes in this regard but were building to recommence, I would not like to think the 20% provision that originally had been gained from large housing groups and schemes would be conceded. Members should be reluctant to concede in this regard and that position should be maintained. I acknowledge the Labour Party has strong views in this respect and I certainly believe Members should remain strong on this issue. Members should not concede that provision too easily. I acknowledge that not many houses are being built at present but if things are moving and if the housing market begins to be addressed, it is important to get those units. In addition, Members should consider the issue of affordable housing with a view to ensuring the State is in a position to pursue it. That is an area that has worked very well over the years with the local authorities.
The Minister of State has an awful job ahead of her because the housing situation is absolutely calamitous at present. Moreover, it will get worse because a huge number of people are in mortgage distress. The homeless situation will continue and in my opinion it will increase. The housing lists will lengthen because the authorities are firefighting at present and even those firefighting measures are going nowhere near helping to alleviate the situation because it has become so bad. Were the banks to become more aggressive - all the signs are that they will - this country will be facing one of the worst human problems seen here for many a year. That is my worry and the banks must be put in their place in this regard. Consideration must be given to demanding that people who cannot afford a mortgage should remain in their homes and pay rent. This possibility must be considered and Members need to be making the point that people cannot be put out. It does not make sense economically to seize these homes and for people to be put out. This issue must be addressed and while I do not know the Minister of State's intentions on this issue, I certainly will be watching closely as to what is to be done and how this problem will be tackled because this is the major crisis that is yet to come. While it already is with us, it will get worse.