I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The Bill seeks to formally declare the housing and homelessness crisis a national emergency. It provides for the delimiting of the rights of landlords, banks and finance houses, including vulture funds, in order to protect tenants and mortgage holders from eviction as provided for under Bunreacht na hÉireann and as advocated for by Focus Ireland and many other agencies dealing with homelessness.
On 29 March, the Taoiseach addressed the Select Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach. He stated "I have no difficulty whatsoever describing the housing shortage or the homelessness crisis as an emergency." The situation has worsened significantly since then. Comparing like-with-like figures, by September 2018 the total number of homeless had increased by 1,497 persons including 442 extra adults and a shocking 1,055 extra children, reaching a total of 11,304 persons.
Focus Ireland also pointed out that 193 additional children became homeless in September alone.
Last week, Professor Eoin O’Sullivan, head of the school of social work and social policy at Trinity College Dublin, advised the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government that the housing situation would get worse next year. He said that much more than 50% of people who become homeless are from the private rented sector, that rents are escalating rapidly, and that until something is done about the right to terminate tenancies there will be a continuing flow into homelessness.
Yesterday there were shocking new figures of rent increases. Rents nationwide rose by 11.3% in the year to September, with no slowdown in sight, as average rents nationally were pushed to an all-time high of €1,334, €304 or 30% more expensive than during the Celtic tiger. The average rent in Dublin is close to €2,000 per month, while rental growth in Limerick exceeded 20% in the past year. It is clear the Government's policy of rent pressure areas is simply not working. The national spokesperson for the Simon Community, Niamh Randall, put it in a nutshell when she said on radio that rents cannot be controlled while evictions from the private rented sector continue.
Tenants are afraid to complain lest they be evicted, and there is no national register of rents. New tenants have no way of knowing what the rent paid by the previous tenant was, and dare not ask lest they be excluded from consideration for scarce accommodation and end up homeless. The Government knows well that its policy of rent control in rent pressure zones is not working, as it has repeatedly been told by the various homeless agencies.
The dice are loaded in favour of landlords. While some decent landlords are not taking advantage, the commercial landlords, including the vultures, are. Irish citizens are paying a heavy price and the common good is not served by current Government policy. At least half a million people in the Republic are in housing situations that are causing them serious distress, as homelessness campaigner Fr. Peter McVerry stated at a conference in Liberty Hall recently.
As legislators, we all have a responsibility to change drastically this situation in the interest of the common good. Dáil Eireann has, by majority, called on the Government to propose emergency measures to do so, through a Private Members’ motion that called on the Government to declare the housing and homelessness crisis an emergency; to reduce the flow of adults and children into homelessness through emergency legislation making it illegal for landlords, banks and investment funds to evict tenants and homeowners in mortgage distress into homelessness; to provide real security of tenure and real rent certainty; to introduce measures to reduce the cost of rent; and to introduce a target date to end long-term homelessness and the need to sleep rough.
As an Opposition Deputy, under Standing Orders I am not allowed to propose a money Bill. Accordingly, the Bill implements only measures to halt the worsening situation. Focus Ireland has repeatedly highlighted through its services and research that the main reason for families becoming homeless is that they are being evicted from their homes by private landlords due to properties being sold or repossessed. To remedy this, the right to private property must be delimited, as provided for in Bunreacht na hÉireann in Article 43.2.2°, which states: “The State, accordingly, may as occasion requires delimit by law the exercise of the said rights with a view to reconciling their exercise with the exigencies of the common good.” A large number of citizens are being subjected to unreasonable and extortionate rents, contrary to the common good, and the problem is worsening continuously. This must be halted.
Section 1 provides that Dáil Éireann affirms in law that a housing emergency exists. Section 2 provides that a housing emergency will continue for a period of three years after the passing of the Bill and that the Government will bring a review before both Houses of the Oireachtas on the expiry of the three year period. Section 3 provides that no tenant shall be evicted from a buy-to-let dwelling, that is, a dwelling purchased for letting purposes, during the period of this national housing emergency. Section 4 provides that there shall be no further increase in rents on dwellings. Section 5 provides that existing private rents shall be reduced to reasonable levels, having regard to the differential rent that would be payable by a tenant in situ to a local authority for rental of a similar dwelling. Section 6 provides that no resident of a mortgaged dwelling shall be evicted from that dwelling during the period of this national housing emergency.
Under the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act, the State delimited the exercise of private property rights by public service pensioners. The Bill seeks to use the same provision in Bunreacht na hÉireann to delimit the powers of landlords to evict people and to oppress them with unreasonable and extortionate rents. The measures enacted under this Bill supersede all existing law on the matters concerned while the emergency continues, and the housing emergency formally brought into existence by this measure will continue for a three year period from enactment, allowing time for the fundamental causes of the housing emergency to be addressed. Large-scale public housing on public land is required.
Speaking at a recent seminar to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the civil rights movement, Fr. McVerry said the Government was facing a catastrophe, with the housing crisis set to deepen. He called for a major Government programme of social housing construction on a scale not seen in decades to alleviate the crisis. He said that we could have a catastrophe coming down the road unless Government policy changes. The Government’s response to homelessness and social housing was to provide three out of every four houses in the private rented sector but this sector is part of the problems, not part of the solution. Fr. McVerry said that most people becoming homeless are out because they were evicted from the private rented sector.
The Bill does not provide for the increased building of public housing on public land. If it did, it would have been ruled out of order as a money Bill. It implements measures, however, for the common good to prevent the situation continuing to worsen and provides some alleviation of the extreme distress being suffered by significant numbers of people while long-term solutions are put in place. Its passage would force the Government to accept that its current housing policies have failed and it would give an opportunity to Oireachtas Members to change the failed policies of this minority Government.
Some Deputies may have difficulty with some of the measures proposed, while others may have additional proposals. These can be discussed on Committee Stage, where detailed amendments can be tabled and discussed. I appeal to Deputies, therefore, to allow the Bill to proceed to Committee Stage. At the end of the three year period of the national housing emergency, the Oireachtas will review the situation and consider how to proceed for the common good in the context of the housing and homelessness situation at that time. Once again, I appeal to Deputies and, in particular, to Fianna Fáil and the Government, to support the Bill, which is crucial to addressing the disastrous housing situation.