I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
In 2011, when Fine Gael took office, there were 641 children in emergency accommodation according to the Central Statistics Office. Yesterday’s homeless figures stated there were 3,784 children officially homeless in February, an increase of 490%. Let that sink in for a minute. Under the watch of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and his colleagues, thousands of children have lost years of their young lives to homelessness. In total, there are 10,264 people officially homeless and 1,707 families sleeping in hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation, and family hubs. However, these are just the official figures. They do not include the 1,600 adults and children wrongly removed, in my view, from the homeless figures last year, nor do they include rough sleepers, women and children in domestic violence shelters, those in hostels not funded by the Government, nor those granted asylum but unable to access private rented accommodation because of the housing crisis and using direct provision as emergency accommodation. In fact, the Government cannot even tell us the full extent of the homeless crisis because it refuses to count all those without a home.
Yesterday’s figures must mark a line in the sand. The symbolically significant number of 10,000 has been breached. This must force the Government to stop and ask what is going wrong. More importantly, surely Government must now be asking what it can do differently in the weeks and months ahead to stop the flow of adults and children into homelessness.
How did we get here? What caused child homelessness to increase by a staggering 490% in eight years? How is it possible, in a growing economy, with more people in work than ever before, that we have such a deep housing and homelessness crisis? In part, the blame lies with Fianna Fáil. Decades of underinvestment in social and affordable housing, coupled with an over-reliance on the private sector to meet housing need, created a fragile housing system. Economic mismanagement led to recession, which in turn led to a housing crisis. However, Fine Gael can not lay all the blame at Deputy Micheál Martin’s door. From 2011 to 2013, Fine Gael slashed capital spending in social housing to its lowest level in decades. In 2014, when private sector rents started to spiral out of control, the then Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, blocked meaningful rent regulations. Tens of families started to present as homeless every single week. By 2016, tens had become hundreds, with family homelessness reaching unprecedented levels. In response, the then Minister and now Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, introduced the rent pressure zones. At the time, in this Chamber, we warned him they would not work, that they would be impossible to police and that it would lead to a two-tier rental market, but he dismissed our concerns and carried on regardless. Two years on, and it gives me no pleasure to say this, those of us who raised these concerns have been proven right. In 2018, as the Minister knows, rents increased by 7% across the State and by 8% in Dublin, which is twice the rent pressure zone cap. Yet, as late as this morning, the Government claims that its policy is working.
Today, the single biggest cause of family homelessness is landlords legally evicting their tenants when selling their properties. As house prices have started to rise, landlords, many of whom had been in mortgage distress, are now exiting the market. Indeed, since 2017, more than 9,000 rental properties have been lost. What has Fine Gael done to prevent the loss of these properties? What has the Minister done to stem the flow of family homelessness? In my view, the answer is quite simply nothing. Just as those in Fine Gael sat on their hands when the rental crisis started to spiral in 2014, today they continue to sit on their hands as more and more people lose the roof over their heads. There is nothing in Rebuilding Ireland to address this specific problem. In the weeks and months ahead, unless something changes, hundreds more families will be issued with vacant possession notices to quit and will be evicted as banks and funds force accidental landlords to sell their properties.
The Bill before us is very simple. It was drafted by Focus Ireland in 2016 and was debated and voted on before in the House. Put simply, it would prevent buy-to-let landlords who had availed of tax breaks when purchasing their property from evicting tenants into homelessness when selling up. This would ensure that many of these properties would in turn be purchased by other landlords, keeping the families in situ and preventing them from becoming homeless. When we proposed it back in 2016, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail contrived to block it. In doing so, in my view, they condemned hundreds of families to homelessness. I have no doubt that if we had passed this into law two years ago, many families who subsequently became homeless would have avoided that terrible tragedy.
While the Tánaiste made it clear this morning that Fine Gael has no intention of supporting the Bill, I would appeal to Fianna Fáil to do the right thing. As always, I am open to constructive amendment on Committee Stage. Therefore, what I would say to Deputy Casey and his colleagues is that if they support the intention of the Bill, they should not stand in its way and they should work with us to improve it if necessary as it progresses through the House.
As I said, the Tánaiste made it clear this morning that the Minister, Deputy Murphy, would not be supporting the Bill. He said it would not work, would drive landlords out of the market, would discourage new investment and would fall foul of the Constitution. Let me respond to each claim in turn. In the commercial rental sector, sale of property with tenants in situ is standard and, in fact, is a condition of almost all commercial rental contracts. If it works there, why can it not work in the private rental sector? We are already losing a very significant number of rental properties from the market. According to the latest figures from the Residential Tenancies Board, the figure is 9,000 in the past two years.
The problem is that the loss of these properties is completely disorganised and chaotic. Insisting on keeping tenants in situ during a sale would assist in keeping many of these properties in the rental sector. As for new investment, given the very high rents, which are currently above peak boom-time rates, and generous tax breaks for real estate investment funds and other investment vehicles, it is hard to see how such a simple measure would have any impact on future investment.
On the issue of the Bill's constitutionality, if the Minister has legal advice from the Attorney General he should publish it. This has happened previously, although not often enough. All those of us on the Opposition benches can do is refer to previous Supreme Court rulings on related matters. In its ruling of August 2000 on Part V of the Planning and Development Act, the Supreme Court set out the way in which the Oireachtas could limit property rights and the judgment is worth quoting in some detail:
In the present case, as a condition of obtaining a planning permission for the development of lands for residential purposes, the owner may be required to cede some part of the enhanced value of the land deriving both from its zoning for residential purposes and the grant of permission in order to meet what is considered by the Oireachtas to be a desirable social objective, namely the provision of affordable housing and housing for persons in the special categories and of integrated housing. Applying the tests proposed by Costello J. in Heaney v. Ireland  and subsequently endorsed by this court, the court in the case of the present Bill is satisfied that the scheme passes those tests. They are rationally connected to an objective of sufficient importance to warrant interference with a constitutionally protected right and, given the serious social problems which they are designed to meet, they undoubtedly relate to concerns which, in a free and democratic society, should be regarded as pressing and substantial. At the same time, the court is satisfied that they impair those rights as little as possible and their effects on those rights are proportionate to the objectives sought to be attained.
This Bill will not prevent landlords from selling their property; nor will it impose on them any actual financial loss. They may, in the words of the judgment be forced to "cede some part of the enhanced value" of the property, but this is being done in accordance with the principles of social justice and in the name of the common good as outlined in the Constitution and to address a matter which this Oireachtas surely believes is a "desirable social objective" which is "of sufficient importance to warrant interference with a constitutionally protected right." What could be more pressing and substantial than preventing child homelessness? Are the marginal gains of landlords selling their properties more important than keeping families in their homes? Is the Government seriously suggesting that property rights should trump children’s rights?
At the heart of the Bill before us tonight is a very simple choice. Are Deputies on the side of big landlords, vulture funds and real estate investment trusts or are they on the side of the 3,784 children who will sleep in emergency accommodation tonight? Do we believe that the right of people to safe and secure accommodation is more important than the right of landlords, who previously benefitted from tax breaks, to make an extra 10% or 20% profit on the sale of their property?
This morning the Tánaiste claimed that the forthcoming Residential Tenancies Act will help in reducing the flow of families into homelessness but I do not believe that is true. While the Act will strengthen tenants’ rights, which I support, it will not assist those facing legal eviction when their landlord is selling up. They will remain without adequate protection. If Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Deputies refuse to support our Bill tonight, they must set out their alternative. What are they going to do for those families with notices to quit in their hands tonight, who do not know what the future holds? This Bill is not a silver bullet. It is a small but important measure that, if passed into law, will make a real difference to people’s lives.
The latest homeless figures confirm, once and for all, that Rebuilding Ireland is not working. In my view and that of an ever growing number of people, it must be replaced. As the Oireachtas agreed by a majority on 3 October last, we need to see a doubling of capital investment in social and affordable housing. We need emergency measures to tackle spiralling rents and reduce homelessness. We also need to see the right to housing enshrined in the Constitution. The Raise The Roof campaign has scheduled a massive demonstration in Dublin on 18 May next to support these demands. All those involved in that campaign, both inside and outside the Oireachtas, are determined, through people power, to force the Government to change its policy or, through people power, to force a change of Government. In the mean time, while we are fighting to deal with those bigger issues, the families with notices to quit need our support tonight. Let us stand with them and, by passing this Bill, give them the protection they desperately need and deserve. We must ensure that in the coming months we see, for the first time in years, a reduction in the number of families entering into homelessness and not, as has been the case with this and the previous Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, a month-on-month increase.