I understand the desire of many in the House to speed up the construction of housing. There is a chronic lack of supply which has contributed to a housing crisis, unprecedented levels of homelessness, enormous social housing waiting lists, completely unsustainable rents and mortgage arrears. Overcoming this lack of supply is vital but the most obvious way to do it, which is a well-funded scheme of housing from the Government, is not forthcoming. The strategy this Bill aims to facilitate proposes to provide only one third of the housing needed to clear waiting lists. This is not an adequate response to the housing crisis and, in fact, things will get worse under Fine Gael's national rental strategy.
I welcome the amendment made on Committee Stage in the Seanad which deals with the speculative hoarding of land. It is essential that the new fast-track planning permissions are not held back for years on end, rendering the procedural changes useless. The most efficient reform of planning would be more extensive use-it-or-lose-it policies. There are 28,000 permissions outstanding and not acted upon in Dublin. The solutions include introducing the vacant site levy earlier - 2018 at the latest - as well as a four-month limit on outstanding planning permissions. What use is an expedited process if developers can simply hold on to the permission and not build?
It is difficult to see how planning can be fast-tracked effectively without dealing with staffing issues. Unless we are prepared to examine that question, any fast-tracking is open to result in shoddier planning rather than more effective procedures. I am also concerned about the diminution of the role of local government in the planning process which the proposed changes seek to bring about.
The fact that decisions were passed to An Bord Pleanála in a way that would allow county plans to be bypassed is very worrying, limiting further the role local elected officials can play in determining how their communities develop.
There has also been much discussion about the so-called Tyrrelstown amendment in the House. I want to draw the attention of the House to the research of the Private Rental Tenancies Board which shows that 91% of landlords own three properties or fewer. In that context, the amendment proposed by the Seanad to protect tenants in the case of five or more properties being sold off is the very minimum we need. The Government's proposal that these protections be limited to the 0.54% of landlords who own ten or more properties is totally unacceptable.
I want to propose that we approach these issues from two perspectives. The first is from the position that there is a housing crisis that affects the majority of people in the country and not just a small minority. The second is that we need to consider tenants' rights as the issue at hand. In the case of the latter, there is an equity issue to be considered in the introduction of security of tenure solely for tenants in a tiny number of properties which do not apply to other tenants. We need to explore ways to protect all tenants, not just a few, in cases where properties are sold.
I welcome the amendment introduced by the Seanad to limit the exemptions offered to landlords in this case. As housing expert Lorcan Sirr remarked in The Sunday Times, the Bill, as originally drafted, would allow any landlord worth his or her salt to drive a coach and four through it. It is vital that the attempts the Seanad has made to close these loopholes remain.
It is important to highlight changes made in regard to receivers. Many tenants are fearful of the results of receivership because receivers are not subject to the same laws as landlords. This must be changed as soon as possible.
I want to comment on the Bill as part of fulfilling the national rental strategy. What we need to solve the crisis in the private rental sector is commitment to fundamental reform. This does not just mean measures to facilitate developers, rather it means a Government policy that stops the entire housing sector being turned over to the market. Without adequate rent security provisions or a major scheme of public housing construction, we will not be able to solve the biggest crisis in the country today.
The solution to this profound crisis cannot be found in simply speeding up the existing process. It can only be found in changing the ideology that has underpinned how we have dealt with housing in this State for decades. We need a Government which is willing to say that housing is a right for every person, that paying for it should not drive a person into poverty and that it is too important to leave its provision to private profiteers. Until we achieve that, we will be putting a sticking plaster on a wound that cuts to the very heart of this society. That is the essence of what is happening today.
I am sure every Deputy has received an e-mail from Focus Ireland. We all received e-mails from supporters of the campaign. My inbox is full of them. I would like to read it because it is important. It is from Mike Allen, who says:
I am writing to you concerning the planning Bill that you will be debating this week and our campaign to close off one of the main routes through which families become homeless. You will have received some of the almost 40,000 emails which have been sent by supporters of this campaign directed at their own TD and giving their own address. We thank you for your courtesy in responding to these.
From front-line work, we see more than 20 families each month becoming homeless simply because their buy-to-let landlord has been forced to sell up. This is the cause of homelessness for about a third of families becoming homeless. The issue is not just about 20 families becoming homeless this month, but also about the almost 15,000 households who have a buy-to-let landlord who has arrears of over two years. There is little doubt that without legislative changes most of these families will find themselves evicted from their homes over the next couple of years even though they may be completely up-to-date with their rent and have years left on their tenancy agreements.
The proposed amendment is both fair and proportionate, given the scale of human misery which will result from inaction on this issue. Individuals, banks and lending institutions which entered into a buy-to-let arrangement did so in the full knowledge that part of the business plan was to provide a home for a tenant. Many have benefitted from the section 23 and other tax reliefs and the Focus amendment limits their options if they want to sell so that they must sell the property with the tenant in place. This is commonplace in commercial rents.
Focus Ireland recognises and welcomes the strong cross-party concern and commitment that exists on this issue. We recognise that the Government's Tyrrelstown amendment is well-intentioned. However, it provides protection for only a tiny percentage of all tenants and in our experience excludes virtually all of the tenants who are at real risk. The Tyrrelstown amendment is also undermined by the loophole that allows landlords to set aside tenant protections where they can increase the sale price by 20% through doing so.
While we understand that this provision is designed to address constitutional concerns, we believe it is misconstrued. It is surely not the intention of the Constitution that a price should be put on the protection of the family home. If goodwill alone was enough to solve the problem of homelessness there would be no child facing Christmas cramped in a hotel room.
We understand that the solutions to homelessness are complex and many will take a number of years to make a difference. The hard truth is that there are very few policy changes available to us which can help quickly reduce the numbers of families which become homeless. Focus's proposal, which has been drafted with expert assistance, is one of the very few interventions capable of slowing down the family homelessness crisis the short term. They hope that the Dáil will support it and in all truth if the Dáil decides not to support such a simple measure it is hard for Focus to conceive of any meaningful measure which it would be prepared to take.
That should be taken on board by the Minister because it is a fact that those living in buy-to-let properties will be the worst affected. In cases where tenants are paying their rent in full, have no problems with the rent and are expected to remain in a tenancy agreement for a number of years, but whose landlord has to sell because of problems, the unit should be sold with the tenant in situ. That is the least we can do to protect families who could face homelessness over the next year or two.