Unlike Sinn Féin, we are taking the steps that are needed to address the problems in the housing sector. They are complex and will take time. Houses take time to build. I would love to have a miracle and for them to be up immediately, but there is a time lag between the actions being taken and delivery of new housing on the ground.
Sinn Féin claims the Government has created the problems in the housing market, which is complete nonsense. The Government is dealing with the consequences of a dysfunctional property market, where rents have increased due to, among other reasons, strong economic growth with unemployment at 8.9% and a property sector which was wiped out during the crash caused by our predecessors in government.
However, the House will be aware that some weeks ago, the Government took significant action and I addressed a Private Members' motion on the topic again recently. We have adopted a series of measures to tackle the problems in the housing sector by taking steps to boost supply and give rent certainty to tenants.
The Government is bringing rent certainty by introducing amendments to the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012 to address the issue of increasing rents in the private rental sector. Many of the Deputies may have been here for part of the debate on that Bill with the Minister of State, Deputy Coffey, earlier this evening. The rapid increase in rents seen in recent years is being caused by a mismatch between levels of supply and demand for rental accommodation in the areas where it is most needed. This is quite obvious. We are addressing the supply problem, but it will be some time before that supply comes on stream. As I said, houses take some time to build.
The primary measure on rent is to change the provisions for rent reviews so that instead of taking place every 12 months, they will occur every 24 months. This innovative measure will give hard-pressed tenants certainty and stability pending the supply of houses coming on stream. The proposal includes a sunset clause that will see the measure expire on the fourth anniversary of its introduction. It will be open to the Minister of the day to deal with that. This is a crucial provision that sends a clear signal to the market that this is a short-term measure pending the restoration of equilibrium in the market as supply starts to come on stream.
In providing for an extension to the period in which rent reviews may occur from 12 months to 24 months, the Government decided on an approach that would bring stability and predictability for the tenant but without changing the fundamental mechanism for the setting and reviewing of rent as laid down in the 2004 Act. The Government is mindful of the need not only to protect tenants from the circumstances that currently exist but also not to deter investment, which will limit the increase in supply that is needed. Unlike the Deputy's Bill, the Government approach balances the need to protect tenants with the need to ensure that more supply of housing comes on stream. Therefore, I will not be able to accept his flawed proposal.
Deputy Ellis's Bill seeks to amend the Housing Act 1988 with a view to introducing a definition of a person who is at risk of becoming homeless and creating a role for housing authorities to give such persons whatever financial and other support is required to assist that person remain in occupation of their home. The Bill's proposal to define legislatively someone as at risk of homelessness is far too broad to be workable within the remit of housing authority functions as laid down. Most households could be liable to be at risk of homelessness for reasons that may materialise which are beyond their control, for example, job loss and other economic factors, mental health issues, addiction issues or anti-social behaviour. The list is endless.
The premise of the Bill would create a legal obligation on the State to support financially an indeterminable range of risks, which is simply unworkable. It is not economically tenable and the Bill offers no qualifying criteria or limitations with regard to the circumstances or level of support to be put in place. For example, the wording of the Bill is so loose that it suggests that housing authorities should provide financial support to households with unsustainable mortgages of unspecified amounts. This goes far beyond the current role the State plays regarding housing need and private property. If these flawed proposals were adopted, the State could easily end up bankrolling unpaid mortgage debt on trophy homes. Sinn Féin has not done its homework here and if the Bill were to be passed the State could be open to all sorts of liabilities.
I am also curious about the provision that bodies other than housing authorities could determine whether a person should be considered at risk of becoming homeless and therefore eligible for the range of supports, including financial assistance, which would see that person remain in occupation of their accommodation. What seems to be suggested here is a potential - I am shocked to say this - privatisation of the means both to determine eligibility and to provide financial assistance but in the absence of any meaningful detailed criteria. This again suggests that this flawed Bill was not properly thought through and was put before the House opportunistically. Of course, it would not be the first time that Sinn Féin was strong on rhetoric and weak on substance.
In addition to many other flaws in the detail of the Bill's drafting, it also demonstrates a lack of awareness of the existing suite of tailored supports, offered by a range of Government and other funded services to deal appropriately with the various personal, social and economic issues that can lead to people being in the unfortunate situation of homelessness, for example, the health and social care services offered by the Health Service Executive and Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, economic supports available through the Department of Social Protection, Money Advice & Budgeting Service and others. The Bill would undermine the existing services and expertise that are on offer for specific circumstances and would instead place financial and support responsibilities on housing authorities for a range of complex causative factors, which would be a step in the wrong direction.
The Bill ignores the existing prevention measures which are operational through the Department of Social Protection for those in receipt of housing supports. Under the Department of Social Protection's interim tenancy sustainment protocol, which is currently operational in Dublin and Cork and is being rolled out to other areas, and national tenancy sustainment framework, uplifts - an increase in the level of rent supplement normally allowable - have been granted to more than 5,000 households in the past 18 months.
Furthermore, the Bill shows a lack of awareness of the range of tenancy-protection support and advocacy services currently funded through the various housing authorities that do such excellent work. These include the housing authority-funded tenancy protection service which is provided through Threshold, the housing NGO. This service operates in tandem with the Department of Social Protection's interim tenancy sustainment protocol. The service is aimed at individuals, couples and families living in private rented accommodation that are experiencing housing problems and are at risk of homelessness, especially due to rent increases. They do fantastic work and I want to acknowledge tonight that Threshold does amazing work Under the arrangements, Threshold provides advice and advocacy for tenants who are at risk of losing their homes prior to the case being referred to the Department of Social Protection. This is sufficient in many cases to secure the tenancy.
There are many cases of that kind. The extension of the excellent Threshold service to Galway and the commuter counties outside of Dublin is currently being developed, and it is under consideration to extend it further afield as well. I wish to see it rolled out to further areas because it is such a good protocol. New legislative provisions are not required to allow housing authorities fund proactive housing support services.
Public awareness is a most crucial aspect of homelessness prevention. Research commissioned this year by the Housing Agency found that the surveyed homeless families had little or no prior knowledge of their tenancy rights or of the various State and NGO services that could have assisted them before the loss of their tenancy. Public awareness campaigns have been an important part of the homelessness prevention efforts during 2015. That is something I dialled up, and insisted was dialled up, and through the range of measures I announced a number of weeks ago to protect tenants, we will be dialling up even more. The awareness of their rights by tenants will be part of the process by which tenants and landlords agree their contracts in years to come.
Deputy Colreavy said it is a pity Ministers do not hold clinics. He should be aware that I hold clinics all over Tipperary, in many towns, in my constituency offices and further afield in all the parishes. One comes across housing issues all the time. I am always struck in some cases by the lack of knowledge and awareness of tenants' rights. Given those rights are quite good, broadening awareness of them is something on which all Members should collectively work.
Two public awareness campaigns have been undertaken by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive to advertise the services it funds, including public advertisements on Dublin Bus and many hoardings, to ensure members of the public are aware of the services that are in place that could help to support them at a time of distress or crisis in their lives. A significant level of media coverage was also generated, and while that is often critical of State-funded services, it ultimately serves the purpose of creating awareness and building on awareness. We should all be advocates of raising awareness.
The Department of Social Protection has been proactively engaging directly with its clients while undertaking a communications campaign to ensure that rent supplement clients, who are worried about losing their home, are provided with information on the supports available. Initiatives have included text messages to approximately 50,000 rent supplement recipients; the availability of updated website information; information made available through social media in various formats and also through third parties on social media; and updating of the Citizens Information website and its micro site keepingyourhome.ie. A national poster campaign was also implemented, with posters distributed to social protection offices, post offices, citizens information centres, MABS offices, credit unions and to every Member in both of these Houses for use in their clinics.
The Private Residential Tenancies Board has been overseeing a €300,000 national advertising campaign to make tenants aware of their rights and landlords aware of their obligations because it is a two-way street. It is not just about making tenants aware of the vast rights they have under the legislation and the improved legislation that is going through the Houses, but also to make landlords aware of their responsibilities. This campaign, which ran across print, broadcast, online and outdoor media, has been developed on the back of recent research which found that 36% of tenants were not fully aware of their rights as a renter while many landlords are small-scale operators, with 65% owning just one property and 84% having two or one. Sometimes the 65% category is referred to as the "accidental landlords".
The long-term solution to homelessness is to increase the supply of homes. We all agree on that. The Government's social housing strategy 2020 was published in November 2014. The six-year strategy sets out to provide 35,000 new social housing units at a cost of €3.8 billion - since then we increased the amount of funding - and restores the State to a central role in the provision of social housing through, inter alia, a resumption of direct building on a significant scale by local authorities and approved housing bodies. Work is under way at hundreds of sites across the country, and these were announced in recent months. In addition, the strategy envisions delivering up to 75,000 units of long-term, quality accommodation to meet housing needs through local authority housing support schemes. There is a range of other measures as well.
We all know the lack of sufficient construction activity in the Dublin and Cork regions, in particular, has been a major contributing factor to the current lack of housing supply, with knock-on impacts in terms of homelessness that are obvious to everyone. A number of important measures have been taken already, such as initiatives to improve financing, legislative changes around the vacant site levy, of which I personally am a huge advocate, reductions in development contributions which were announced in recent weeks, and amended Part V provisions which deliver real homes instead of giving options to local authorities to take revenue for use in different areas. The new provisions will deliver real homes, turn-key homes, which is to be welcomed.
These measures, and the units earmarked under the social housing strategy, will take time to fully impact on supply, and in the meantime shorter-term measures must be implemented. The measures will include the enhanced supply of more affordable starter homes in key locations through a targeted rebate of development contributions in Dublin and Cork for housing supplied under certain price levels; new national apartment planning guidelines to reduce the cost of apartment building in Dublin city by approximately €20,000 per unit and; changes to aspects of the operation of strategic development zones to enable swifter adjustments to meet market requirements. All of those measures are very positive and could have a real impact on supply in years to come. Collectively, they could have a significant impact in particular in the areas where we have such demand, namely, the greater Dublin area and in Cork city.
This debate also requires that we acknowledge the significant activity that is, and has been, taking place to address the issue of homelessness during 2015. Homelessness is a complex phenomenon and measures to address it require an integrated approach across Government, agencies, many NGOs, local authorities and many Departments. A range of measures is being taken to secure a ring-fenced supply of accommodation for homeless households and to mobilise the necessary supports in order to deliver on the Government's 2016 target. These measures have been identified in the Government's implementation plan on the State's response to homelessness, and in last December's action plan to address homelessness. The plans represent a whole-of-government approach to dealing with the issues associated with homelessness, namely, the many aspects of housing and intercepting people, the welfare of all those who find themselves in a vulnerable situation and in health care, because many people, in particular rough sleepers, have very complex needs that have been discussed in this House by many Deputies on all sides.
It should be noted that of the 106 measures identified in the two plans I referenced, just 80 are still in progress while just 13 have yet to commence. This demonstrates the scale of activity in a very short space of time, with half of the identified measures already dealt with.
I want to refer briefly to a number of actions that we have taken. There has been a 32% increase in direct emergency homeless funding for 2016 and an increase of more than 50% over two years. This is funding with respect to my Department for emergency accommodation and so on. Much more funding comes across the whole of Government, all the agencies and local authorities. The Dublin Region Homeless Executive pilot of the housing assistance payment, HAP, including recent enhancements, allows an increase in the limits available to 50% above rent supplement levels. This increase will improve the competitiveness of homeless households on HAP in the private rental market and increase their likelihood of being able to transition to stable tenancies.
I also want to remind members of the ministerial direction I put in place requiring key local authorities to prioritise homeless and other vulnerable households in the allocation of tenancies under their control. That obviously has had a significant impact. Under this direction the Dublin region authorities must allocate at least 50% of tenancies to homeless and other vulnerable households, while the authorities in counties Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford have been directed to allocate 30%. We analyse these percentages quite a bit and we can recalibrate as we see fit.
The significant programme of restoring void local authority units - units that are boarded up and not in use - to productive use is in operation nationally. This is something in which I have taken a direct personal interest, because turning around such voids, as we all know in the political sphere, is the quickest way of developing new units anywhere in the country. We have exceeded targets in this respect. A total of 2,333 void units were returned to productive use during 2014 and the expected figure for 2015 is in the region of 2,500, which is nearly 5,000 units in two years. I say again in the House for the umpteenth time that Dublin City Council and the other local authorities in Dublin have been notified by me that they can establish as many teams as they want to open as many voids as they can anywhere across this city and that funding will be provided directly for that.
The high-level task force on social housing and homelessness, chaired by the Secretary General of my Department, meets weekly. This task force has overseen the identification and delivery of properties to accommodate homeless families in the Dublin region, including the delivery of a NAMA property which is now operating as a 65-unit homeless facility with a single assessment centre for homeless families, and the acquisition of approximately 100 units ring-fenced for homeless households.
The provision of modular housing is another such action designed to provide immediate options. The Government has approved the delivery of 500 units of modular housing for homeless families across Dublin. This programme of modular housing provision is being implemented to mitigate the issues associated with an increasing number of homeless families accommodated in inappropriate commercial hotel arrangements. These units will provide emergency accommodation in the first instance, with each unit providing accommodation for a single household at a given time. While the placement of households in these units will be on a temporary basis, such placements will offer a greater level of stability than is possible in hotel accommodation while move-on options to long-term independent living are identified and secured. This is an innovative solution that will help deliver new units for homeless families in as short a timeframe as possible. It is yet another example of the determination of this Government to tackle the problems in the housing sector and to tackle homelessness as quickly and effectively as possible. I mentioned moving on people who have come through into homeless services. I acknowledge that hundreds - a thousand, by the end of the year - families or individuals will have been moved through emergency accommodation into accommodation by the Dublin Region Homeless Executive. I particularly acknowledge the work of Cathal Morgan and all his team, who do fantastic work every day of the week.
I thank the House for again providing me with an opportunity to update Deputies on all actions that are being taken to address homelessness and in the area of housing, and the pressures in terms of housing and rent. I am acutely aware of the values held by our society and the threat that is posed to these values by homelessness, and we are taking urgent action across a range of areas to tackle it. It takes up most of my time every day. We are all appalled - I am no different in that respect - that anyone would sleep rough on the streets of our capital or any other city or town in the country, and that there are children who will spend this Christmas in emergency accommodation. However, it is a very positive reflection on our society and our political culture that an ongoing debate is taking place. There are very few nations across the world that place such an emphasis on the plight of the homeless, and fewer, even among our EU colleagues, that are so effective in implementing responses and bringing about solutions. When one has discussions with one's counterparts who deal with this issue in other countries, one will find that too, as I have on a regular basis. On that note, I will conclude by referencing the Dublin Region Homeless Executive cold weather action plan, which is now in place. This proactive measure sees an additional 175 beds in place throughout the winter period. Accordingly, no one should sleep rough in Dublin this winter unless it is through their own personal choice. There are beds available for anybody who wishes to avail of them, and transport is available to take individuals to safe, suitable facilities. We are the only capital city in Europe that can guarantee a bed for anyone who is sleeping rough who wants one and will take one. Unfortunately, there is a small number of individuals who obviously are in distress and have complex needs, mainly as a result of addiction, mental health issues or other complex issues, who do not want to avail of emergency accommodation. All efforts are made to assertively engage with such individuals and to direct them to the appropriate HSE health care and social services.
The issue of homelessness is complex and is about much more than simply having a roof over one's head and much more than just funding and money, as I have said many times before. I reassure all Members that I and my colleagues in government will continue to do our utmost to tackle the ongoing and intricately connected problems in regard to homelessness, rent and the supply of housing for the future. Let no one have any doubt about the determination that I have, and that this Government has, to tackle the problems in the housing sector. We need to boost the supply of housing, both social and private, and I have set out above the many measures the Government is taking to do just that. The Government has also taken action to stabilise rents and to give rent certainty to renters, and to give additional protections to tenants.
Despite Deputy Ellis's best intentions, I believe this Bill is deeply flawed, has unintended consequences, is ill thought out and, clearly, does not represent anything like a workable solution to the problems in the housing sector or homelessness. Therefore, on behalf of the Government, I will be opposing this Bill.