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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 14 Nov 2019

Vol. 989 No. 3

Overcrowded Housing Bill 2018: Second Stage [Private Members]

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

This Bill forms a small part of Fianna Fáil's practical and evidence-based suite of measures designed to produce an emergency-level response to the ongoing crisis in housing. A generation faces being left scarred from the Government still not admitting the scale of the crisis or making the necessary decisions. The unprecedented costs and acute shortage of homes available is driving a national rental crisis. This has allowed some unscrupulous landlords to exploit the position and cram renters into rooms. An "RTÉ Investigates" programme in 2018, "Nightmare to Let", revealed the scale of the problem across Ireland. Local authorities are not adequately equipped to inspect rental properties and lack proper legislative backing to address overcrowding. I know in Wicklow only a tiny fraction of rental properties is inspected and this is the case in all local authorities. This Bill will strengthen the legislative framework for tackling overcrowding by putting in place an up-to-date definition. It should be reinforced by additional resources to local authorities to roll out comprehensive inspections.

Our Bill puts in place a new statutory definition of overcrowded housing to replace the outdated 1966 definition and the limited penalties currently used. The aim of the Bill is to provide clarity to ensure landlords cannot exploit the current rental crisis to impose unsafe and substandard living conditions. It sets the basic minimum and not the preferred option or the standards for new builds. Whereas fire safety legislation can be used to tackle issues such as the overcrowding we saw in the RTÉ programme, it does not cover all units and it does not encompass quality of life standards. The Bill draws from UK and Canadian provisions to establish a new standard. It also sets out stronger penalties for breaches of the standard.

Some 3,544 people have cited overcrowding as the primary reason for applying for social housing. This hints at the scale of the problem. We need to increase supply to tackle the housing crisis and not turn a blind eye to falling and potentially dangerous standards. The RTÉ documentary revealed the scale of the problem but as rent levels continue to rise, it has only worsened. This Bill should form part of a new deal for landlords and tenants that keeps units in the rental market while protecting tenants.

As I stated earlier, the statutory definition of overcrowded housing has not been updated since the original Housing Act in 1966. The definition is out of date with respect to modern household composition, as it reflects societal norms of 1960s. For example, it does not include cohabiting couples and single-sex partnerships. The existing penalties for the owner of a house for infringement are far too light to act as a deterrent, as they are a fine of €2,500 or one month of imprisonment. Information on prohibition notices issued by local authorities under section 65 relating to overcrowding is not collated by the Department but the suspicion is that there have been very few, or possibly none, under that section.

Under section 64, local authorities have extensive powers to request information from building owners on the occupancy of their dwellings but they do not regularly do this or collect regular data on it. This is because the current definition is so out of date. There is strong suspicion that there have been no or very few fines or penalties issued to building owners under section 65 of the Housing Act 1966 for housing overcrowding. Overcrowding in private rented accommodation is usually dealt with under fire services, building control and dangerous substances Acts, which give local authorities extensive powers of inspection and enforcement. All this may be relevant to fire safety arrangements in properties other than those specifically excluded under the Acts. However, one objection to this is that, in general, the provisions of such fire services and building control legislation and associated inspection powers do not apply to single unit dwellings that are owner-occupied. This includes, for example, caravans and mobile homes, which have been the subject of serious fire safety and overcrowding concerns in recent years. This legislation is usually taken as applicable in dwellings within multi-unit developments or mixed-use buildings.

In any case, there is still a need for a statutory definition of overcrowding and housing bodies have called for it. Threshold has stated:

At the moment we are reliant on the provisions of the fire and safety regulations and planning law. This lack of clarity means some landlords are taking advantage of the housing shortage. Not only are renters being exploited financially but their lives are being put at risk. Threshold is urgently calling for emergency legislation to be put in place introducing a legal definition of overcrowding to prevent unnecessary deaths as a result of poor living standards.

Aside from immediate safety concerns, the definition is relevant for social housing needs assessment purposes. Fire and building control regulations will only help in cases where overcrowding is so severe that it causes a serious hazard to the occupants. That is not the case with much overcrowding. For example, a family living in a flat that is so overcrowded that the children have nowhere to do their homework or are forced to play out on the streets because there is nowhere to play will not, in itself, create a serious hazard. However, it is going to create major emotional and developmental difficulties for those children and it is going to work against other Government objectives, such as trying to improve basic standards of education. We are looking for another mechanism to pick up that sort of impact of overcrowding, which lies short of a serious, immediate hazard.

Data published by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government indicates that of 25,814 dwellings inspected in 2018, a total of 20,414 were substandard, representing 81% of premises inspected. Additional resources are clearly needed and a new quality certificate model of private rental units must be rolled out. This is a technical Bill but it provides assistance to the State's efforts to tackle substandard rental accommodation and provides a more modern benchmark for the rental sector to aim towards. Our acute rental crisis will need radical Government action if we are to make any impact on the standards and supply of rental homes.

We in Fianna Fáil propose a three-step new deal for renters and landlords based on tenant rights and rent certainty, quality of accommodation and increasing supply. These plans would help to create a stable, viable rental market for more than 457,000 tenants and 175,000 landlords. On tenants' rights and rent certainty we propose to strengthen security of occupancy for families and long-term tenants. We want a new deposit retention scheme and we will deliver affordable and predictable rent with a strengthened rent pressure zone system.

With the quality of accommodation being offered to tenants we propose overhauling the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, with new investigative powers and substantial extra resources to ensure that this essential market operates to the highest possible standards.

Fianna Fáil supports a much stronger regime of inspection and certification of rental properties. We also need to protect the owners of rental properties and, to that end, we will strengthen landlords' rights to remove rogue tenants. The latter must be identified and dealt with because they prevent homes from entering the rental market and force existing landlords out of the rental market.

We all know that the elephant in the Chamber is the question of how to increase supply. Fianna Fáil has innovative, radical and purposeful policies in this regard. We will provide incentives to encourage rental unit supply, such as local property tax deductions and reduced commercial rates for above-the-shop unit lets. We propose a substantial financing packages for new build-to-rent units, an empty property refurbishment grant to repurpose existing properties into homes, and assistance for involuntary landlords in negative equity.

I welcome the debate on this Bill. Its provisions can help to facilitate a substantial increase in the number of quality rental homes available for the thousands of people in need of them. I acknowledge the Minister of State's proposed amendment, which we intend to support.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following:

"Dáil Éireann, while acknowledging the relevance of the Overcrowded Housing Bill 2018, in the context of serious cases of overcrowding that have occurred in the rented sector, resolves that the Bill be deemed to be read a second time this day three months, to allow for further consideration of the statutory amendments that might be appropriate to the overcrowding provisions in the Housing Act 1966, with a view to their inclusion in the next Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Bill.".

I thank Deputies Casey and Cowen for bringing forward this Bill, which allows us to discuss how we can tackle cases of severe overcrowding. Such cases arise particularly from the actions of a small number of unscrupulous landlords. Instances of gross overcrowding, while relatively rare, are utterly unacceptable and we all wish to find solutions that will prevent them.

The Bill as drafted applies to all housing, including owner-occupied properties, social housing and the rental sector, which means the impact is broader than may have been intended. The further time I am seeking will facilitate further consideration of the issues raised by the Bill and the inclusion of proposed amendments to the overcrowding provisions in the Housing Act 1966 in the general scheme of the residential tenancies (amendment) Bill that is expected to be submitted to Government for approval in December. We would like the issue of overcrowding to be considered in tandem with the amendments we will be progressing in that Bill, which will include other important reforms to the rental sector. The Minister said during the debate in July that we would have another rental Bill coming later in the year. I am sure we will have a lengthy discussion in the House on those proposals.

Like Deputy Casey, I understand the need to update the provisions in Part IV of the Housing Act 1966 to reflect modern standards and the changes to living patterns in recent years. The Deputy asked about the number of prosecutions that have been made under that legislation. I do not have that information to hand but I suspect he is not far off the mark in his estimation. I will try to get those figures for him. The need to update the potential penalties for breaches of the overcrowding provisions is apparent and I agree with the proposals in the Bill in this regard. Gross overcrowding, where accommodation can contain many multiples of the numbers of occupants it is designed to hold, has obvious and potentially serious safety implications. Increasing the penalties for offences arising under Part IV of the 1966 Act is entirely appropriate in the context of those who exploit others in such a way in order to enrich themselves. However, the Bill as drafted does not give housing authorities greater powers to enforce the overcrowding standards. The provisions under sections 64 and 65 of the Housing Act 1966 provide for obligations to give particulars relating to a house to a housing authority at its request by way of a notice. Where the authority sees fit, it can serve a notice on the owner specifying the maximum number and categories of persons who may occupy it, and non-compliance with such a notice is an offence. We need to examine what powers housing authorities require in this respect, particularly where there is a serious threat to life or to the health and well-being of the inhabitants. In those circumstances, the power to seek an immediate order of the court specifying the maximum number of people permitted to occupy, or ordering that the house be vacated, may be required. I understand there has been some consultation with a number of local authorities to determine how such provision might best be facilitated in legislation.

The definition of overcrowding proposed in the Bill is slightly unclear and needs to be tightened. The changes proposed to the age up to which people may share a room and the size standard of that room appear to have a range of unintended consequences for ordinary households and serious implications for many aspects of housing policy. We will be happy to work with the Deputy to clarify these matters. The Housing Act 1966 defines overcrowding as people of opposite genders sharing from age ten, except for adults in a relationship, and requires free air space of 11.33 cu. m per person. This equates to a floor space of 4.65 sq. m in a room with a standard ceiling height of 2.4 m, which would be a typical small box room that can fit a single bed. Having examined the complex space standards proposed, we conclude that while in certain instances they are an improvement, where they provide for more free air space for one person, they could also lead to a reduction in the minimum allowable free air space for two people when compared with the existing standards, building regulations and planning guidance.

Looking at the room standard as proposed in the Bill, a range of other issues quickly become apparent. Room sharing by opposite-sex siblings aged five to nine would amount to overcrowding and that is a significant policy change that has implications for the social housing sector in particular. The Deputy referred to the UK and Canadian models and the age brackets applicable in those instances. These are issues we can analyse further. Room sharing by more than two adults of any gender, no matter how big the room may be, would also be defined as overcrowding, again with serious potential implications for the rental sector. At present, where the room is large enough, more than two people of the same gender may occupy it. For example, three same-gender students can share a room. The new definition would categorise this as overcrowding and landlords would be expected to abide by the standards. This seems to me to be an unintended consequence of the provision in the Bill. In some cases, such sharing configurations are appropriate and do not constitute permanent family living.

The Bill as drafted would also rule out a visitor over five years of age sharing a room with two others, even for one night. As such, a situation where several children are having a sleep-over might constitute overcrowding under the definition proposed. I am sure this is not the intention of the provision but it might cause difficulties of interpretation with the legislation. Another significant impact of the final part of the space standard proposed in section 2 is that many currently acceptable dormer bedrooms would not meet the new standard.

The Bill's definition of overcrowding would also have implications for housing delivery. On a basic level, it would mean that a greater number of units, and, within that, a higher proportion of larger units, would be required within the national housing stock to house existing households. This would worsen the gap between available and required stock. While the intention may be good, we must consider the types of housing we will be bringing forward. There would be additional implications for those current social housing occupants who, under the new definition, would be expected to move to larger local authority houses due to family size and composition. Some households accommodated through the housing assistance payment scheme would have to source larger dwellings. All of this would significantly add to the cost of social housing provision. There are implications, too, for immediate stock availability. Again, the intentions are positive but we must bear in mind the consequences. In many towns, it is difficult to find four or five-bedroom houses for larger households. In some cases, six or seven bedrooms are needed and local authorities are often required to be imaginative in finding solutions for large families. The data show that a significant portion of homeless families are also large families. The Bill's provisions might further complicate that difficulty. We need to analyse the requirements for existing tenants while also keeping in mind the requirement to find homes for those who need them urgently.

The increased use of inspection and-or notice powers under the 1966 Act and the strengthening of enforcement powers associated with overcrowding as currently defined will support housing authorities in tackling instances of serious overcrowding in a more robust manner. This should achieve the aim of reducing the incidence of overcrowding in the rented sector more effectively than amending the definition. There is an issue in terms of the increased resources and personnel required to follow up and implement a more robust regime. In fairness, some local authorities are leading the charge in this regard and already have high rates of inspection. In other cases, the inspection rates are quite low.

By 2021, all local authorities are expected to meet a national standard such that 25% of all houses in the private rental market will be inspected every year. This will mean that in a four-year cycle, all private rental properties will be inspected. It has been noted that where inspection rates are high, the incidence of discovery of poor living situations also tends to be high. That is because inspections are generally targeted and based on information collected. One would expect to find issues in such cases. This type of targeted inspection is not ideal. Instead, we are seeking to be more proactive in having a regime where 25% of properties are inspected automatically every year.

Increased resources were allocated for that last year and this year in order to get us to that level by 2021. We would all agree that we would like to get there more quickly if we can. Many local authorities to whom I talk are aware that this has to be carried out. They understand they have a duty to do this. I accept it is not the case that they all do so. Again, it is an issue of resources and time for some but we will work with them to get to that level.

With all of this in mind, it is our intention to bring forward amendments to the 1966 Act in the next residential tenancies Bill. These will achieve the goal of Deputies Casey and Cowen without the potential negative consequences, many of which I have outlined. There may be issues as we go through it. I understand that when legislation is drafted there can be side-effects or unintended consequences. I am assuming that is the case, as I have mentioned. While the general intention behind the Bill is acknowledged, the Government proposes to defer the reading of the Bill for three months to facilitate further consideration of the issues raised and the inclusion of proposed amendments to the overcrowding provision in the Housing Act 1966 and in the pending residential tenancies (amendment) Bill. I understand Deputy Casey is accepting our amendment. I acknowledge that. Very often when we have discussions such as this we ask for six or seven months and people do not believe we will come back and do anything about it. In this case, we genuinely want to find solutions. There is some positive stuff in the Bill, with which we would agree. I have outlined some of it. I hope we can bring in some of the needed changes in the months ahead.

I thank Deputy Casey for introducing the Bill. I also thank the Minister of State, Deputy English. I accept that his commitment to introduce amendments to deal with this issue is genuine. The issue of overcrowding in our housing stock is very significant. It is important to acknowledge that it is now two years since the documentary "RTÉ Investigates - Nightmare to Let" showed some of the most appalling overcrowding many of us had seen in a long time. It is important to acknowledge, however, that kind of overcrowding is not the most common, nor is it the only kind of overcrowding this Bill tries to address. It is important to reflect on the kinds of overcrowding with which we deal every day.

In a very large number of local authority houses three and, in some cases, four generations of the one family live in exceptionally cramped circumstances. This is because a lack of supply of social housing or other available housing options over many years. It is not uncommon in my constituency or, I am sure, those of other Deputies for two adults and two children to live in a box bedroom of 7, 8 or 9 sq. m for a very extended period of time. It is not just that it is cramped, it is also unhealthy and unsafe as a result of condensation and damp impacting on the respiratory well-being of the tenants, in addition to the enormous stress and strain it puts on family relationships. I think of one family in my own constituency. Ten adults over three generations were living in a standard three-bedroom 1980s local authority house. That was not unusual or exceptional.

A significant amount of overcrowding also comprises people sleeping on the couches of members of their extended family. This is often described as hidden homelessness or sofa surfing. These are cases where people cannot get accommodation and their extended family does not have an additional box bedroom. This also causes significant issues.

Something I have started to notice more recently in the private rental sector is cases of multiple families renting private homes. These people are not even eligible for social housing support. They are often people with relatively decent incomes but, because of the high price of rental accommodation both in the city centre and the suburbs of Dublin, it can be the case that two professional working families with children rent a house that was only intended for one. I can list a number of cases in which three extended families are forced to share simply because of the cost of rental accommodation. This results in many difficulties.

We also have a lot of older single men, many of whom may have separated or divorced and left the family home to the wife and children. Some of these men have issues with alcohol addiction or with their mental health and are living in very unsanitary and overcrowded accommodations that are almost like flophouses. This also raises issues.

If we are going to design not only a new definition but also a new enforcement regime, we have to ensure we capture all of these circumstances to make sure that those people do not continue to live indefinitely in appalling housing conditions.

I share and support the intention of the Bill and we will therefore support it, notwithstanding the Government's amendment. Given that the proposers are supporting the Government's amendment and that we accept the Minister of State's intention, we are happy to endorse it.

The comments I will make in the last few minutes I have are made with a mind to influence the debate around those amendments because that is where this will ultimately go. I agree with the Minister of State, Deputy English, with regard to the comments he made on the technical outworkings of the proposal before us. Any definition has to be assessed against our building standards and the Department's technical guidance documents, including those on design standards, particularly those which were recently introduced - albeit with a lot of criticism from myself and others - in respect of studio apartments and co-living. The definition needs to be assessed very closely against the minimum standards for the private rental sector but also against the design standards for local authority housing. The Minister of State alluded to this. In some cases, the floor area per person described in table 2 on page 4 of the Bill would require a change in design standards for local authority housing or could result in housing currently under construction falling foul of the new standards. We have to work all of that out.

We also have to look very carefully at enforcement. One of the difficulties with the current enforcement regime is not only that there is not an adequate level of inspections and that the sanctions are too weak, but that sanctions are not imposed immediately on an offence being identified. In fact, people in breach of the existing standards are given time to rectify that breach. Even in the case of the very serious breaches identified in the properties featured in "RTÉ Investigates - Nightmare to Let" two years ago, under the existing legislation the landlords would be given time to rectify the issues before facing any sanction. That is an appalling state of affairs. If there are standards and if a serious breach of those standards is an offence, people should not be given time to rectify such breaches. They should be immediately sanctioned, followed by an opportunity to rectify to avoid further sanction.

I will express a concern. The Government has a target of inspections of 25% of all private rental properties by 2020 or 2021. On the basis of the latest National Oversight and Audit Commission figures, we will not reach that target. Whether this is a result of a lack of funding being provided by the Department and the Minister, or whether local authorities are failing to employ staff or get inspections up and running, we need to inspect that 25% of properties and we need to do so much sooner than the 2021 deadline. There is little point in spending a lot of time putting a new definition in statute but not carrying out the inspections. Some local authorities are still only inspecting 5% or 10% of rental properties. Others are doing much better. A failure to inspect, however, means that all of our work will have been in vain.

The other crucial thing is, if we introduce new standards and a better enforcement regime, where do people go? I will take for example the case I mentioned in which two families, comprising four adults and six children, are living in a private rental property in my constituency which was designed for a standard family of two adults and two children. Where are those families going to go? Where are the properties going to be, whether they be social, affordable purchase, or affordable rental? Where new standards are introduced, which should be ambitious, we need a parallel assessment of the number of properties that will be affected and of the lead-in time for enforcement. We cannot force people into homelessness because of a lack of available alternative housing options on the social, affordable or private end as a result of the new standards.

The converse, however, is that we should not allow the poor supply of housing to lower our expectations of what the standards should be. I am not, in any way, arguing that we should not have the highest possible standards. In fact, I am arguing the very opposite. In parallel with those standards, we need to be far more ambitious with regard to the delivery of the required social and affordable housing.

We are happy to work with the proposers of the Bill and with the Minister of State in committee to get this right. There are a range of voices and experts in this field from whom we would like to hear in committee. As we did with student accommodation, let us do this in a way that allows us to get it right. Let us work together and ensure that, in this instance, people in any kind of housing will have standards which will ensure a good quality of life, an inspection regime that identifies those properties that fall foul, and an enforcement regime that ensures the standards are upheld. Crucially, we also need to be far more ambitious in supplying social housing and housing that is affordable to rent or to buy, as well as straight private housing, so that all people in the immediate future can expect to live in good quality accommodation that meets their needs at an appropriate and affordable price.

I look forward to working with colleagues on this in the months ahead, as will the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and on bringing forward the legislation. I thank colleagues for their views on the proposed Bill and their comments on the issues raised. We all acknowledge that there is overcrowding. There are different statistics for different situations but as we knock on doors and meet people, and as some people come to us, we hear of overcrowded situations, which we do not want to continue. That is why when we allocate social housing it is from the social housing waiting list. People often ask us why, if there are 10,000 houses, we cannot give those to the 10,000 people who are without a house. We have to work off the list in the right order, and we try to do this where we can. Many people who are in overcrowded situations or in substandard accommodation are waiting for a new social house. From meetings with the local authorities over the last couple of weeks I am glad that this year, we will be in a position to place 200 or 300 houses into the system, which will help to make a difference and bring some relief to many families who are waiting for housing. We need to continue doing that, as well as sorting out this sector, in the years ahead. I wanted to just touch on that area of supply.

On the current inspection powers and whether there is a time delay, if the owner of a house is causing or permitting the house to be overcrowded, the local authority can require the owner to desist from causing or permitting such overcrowding within a period not exceeding 21 days. The owner has 21 days to rectify it. This period would be normal enough in most cases, and we see this in the health sector too, whereby a person is given a little bit of time after an inspection. Perhaps some might think 21 days is too long, but if it is urgent there are other powers, such as those the fire services have. From an inspection and overcrowding perspective 21 days is generally accepted. The local authority can serve notice to the owner of the house specifying the maximum number of persons who may occupy the house without causing overcrowding. They do and can act quite fast. Under the Fire Services Acts 1981 to 2003, there is a provision to prohibit the occupation of premises, to which Part 3 of the Act applies, where necessary in serious cases. The authorities use those powers. That is not to say, however, that we cannot strengthen the legislation also.

Rather than going back over this, I believe we are all in general agreement that we need to act on this. That is why we propose to revisit this in the months ahead.

I thank the Minister of State and Deputy Ó Broin for their contributions. Deputy Ó Broin referred to the likes of three and four generations living in one house. It illustrates the fact that we do not fully know the depth of the housing crisis, given that people are couch surfing and three or more generations are living in a house. The crisis is a lot bigger than is portrayed to us daily. I acknowledge the support for the Bill in the House. It was intended to try to address one of these issues, which is the overcrowding in the sector. As Deputy Ó Broin said, it does not just apply to the "RTÉ Investigates - Nightmare to Let" programme. It is a bigger issue than that. The Bill's intention is for a good purpose.

If we got the definition right, as well as the criteria around that definition, then it does not matter if it affects housing deliveries because it is what we require as a society. Housing delivery is one thing but the standard of the housing we live in must be to a certain standard. If that affects housing delivery, it affects housing delivery. It should not come in to play.

I agree with Deputy Ó Broin about inspections. We need to do a lot more around the inspection regime. I have been in Dáil Éireann for three years and have worked on the housing committee for three years. I have seen that we can work together. I have seen legislation brought in where the Government party, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have worked together because it is for everybody's benefit. That is why we are willing to accept the Minister of State's amendment. We know that the members of the housing committee work exceptionally well together and have brought legislation through the House due to working together. On that basis, we are willing to support the Minister of State's amendment to defer the reading of the Bill. With a combination of everything, hopefully we will provide proper legislation pertaining to overcrowding in our housing stock.

Amendment agreed to.
Motion, as amended, agreed to.

It is proposed to read the Bill a Second Time three months from this day. We will have to see how that date works out.

We will put it into our diaries.

Absolutely. It can mature over the winter.

The Dáil adjourned at 6.24 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 19 November 2019.