Ban on Rent Increases Bill 2020: Second Stage [Private Members]

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

I thank the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, for attending. It is a truism but one which cannot be said enough that rents in the private rental sector are simply too high. For too many people renting privately, the cost is far too expensive. New rentals in Dublin now cost more than €2,000 per month, with average rents in the capital running at more than €1,700. Elsewhere in the State, new rentals are €1,400 per month and the cost is even higher in many urban centres. The latest data from the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, published in March, show a 5.4% increase in rents since the same month last year. While the latest price report from in June showed that Covid-19 was having some impact on the market, it was, at best, a modest impact. The report showed that asking rents were up 0.5% on June of last year. The uncertainty in the student market is having little visible impact on the private rental market. In fact,, in its student housing report this week, recorded rises in student rents throughout the State compared with last year.

The much talked about shift of short-term rental units into the long-term market has failed to materialise and what new stock is coming on stream is high-end, build-to-rent housing. In some parts of the capital, this new and exceptionally expensive stock is lying vacant. Month on month, the number of tenancies registered with the RTB continues to fall. According to figures I got from the board last week, there has been a loss of 3,295 registered tenancies so far this year. Since January 2017, the first month in which registered tenancies started to fall, we have lost an astonishing 20,000 such tenancies from the private rental stock. Accidental and semi-professional landlords are taking advantage of the return of positive equity and getting out of the market. Despite repeated calls by me and others to the previous Minister to address this disorderly exit of landlords from the market, the problem continues to get worse.

Unfortunately, the future for many renters looks bleak. At best, prices will stagnate as demand far outstrips supply. For many, rent increases will remain a fact of life. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of renters will continue to pay excessive prices to keep a roof over their heads. Research from the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, in 2018 showed that 70% of lower-income renters pay up to 40% of their income in rent. These are people who are not eligible for the housing assistance payment, HAP, rent supplement or the rental accommodation scheme, RAS. The latest Central Statistics Office, CSO, deprivation data, published this month, show an increase in deprivation rates among renters, from 27% in 2018 to 34% in 2019. As we know, all of this was before the Covid-19 crisis.

Since then renters have been disproportionately affected by lay-offs and income loss. A huge number of people on the pandemic unemployment payment are younger or lower income workers in sectors such as tourism, entertainment and retail, and the economic impact of the pandemic has hit this group particularly hard. While there is no doubt that the Government's income supports have helped, today many of these people will be hit by cuts to the pandemic unemployment payment of between €200 and €400 per month.

Research published by the ESRI and the Department of housing in July suggests that the impact of Covid-19 income loss on renters' arrears was likely to be limited. The report's conclusion contained a stark warning, however. It said that the longer the economic impact of Covid went on, the greater the chance of struggling renters falling behind on their rent. In fact they urged the Government to be cautious about withdrawing income supports too quickly. Unfortunately the advice was ignored. The Government also ignored the advice of advocacy groups such as Threshold and Focus Ireland when it ended a ban on evictions, notice to quit and rent increases for the vast majority of renters in July. Instead, the Government provided a limited protection for a smaller group of tenants and within days Deputies across the House were, I am sure, receiving calls from tenants who had received notices to quit or indeed rent hikes. I spoke to a woman who lived outside Dublin, not in my constituency and not in a rent pressure zone. She did not qualify for the Government's limited protection and her landlord had increased the rent by €100, the second such increase in two years. Her income had fallen by 20% due to Covid-19 but she was not in arrears, not on any Covid payment and not eligible for the limited supports provided by the Government. Families such as these need our protection. Their rents are simply too high and they cannot afford any further increase. The consequences of refusing to provide them with any relief will be increased financial hardship, increased emotional stress, greater poverty and deprivation and, unfortunately in some cases, the loss of a tenancy and possible homelessness.

The Minister says he wants to promote home ownership and that is a good thing. When he was on the Opposition side of the House, he rightly complained that high rents were locking first-time buyers into a rent trap, and he was correct. They could pay rent or save for a deposit but not both. For some, this not only delayed the date when they would eventually own their own home, but they were also forced to put off starting a family. For others, the choice was worse: to live at home with family into their late 30s just to save a deposit. Then there are those in the latter stages of their working life, some of whom may have lost their family home due to relationship breakdown, others due to mortgage distress or repossession. They are fearful of a life of perpetual uncertainty and unaffordability in the rental sector. The Bill I am proposing tonight is for all of these people. It would protect young and low-income renters from further rent hikes, give older renters greater certainty into the future and help those desperately trying to save to buy their own home.

A three-year ban on rent increases for existing and new tenancies is just one of a package of measures which Sinn Féin urged the last Government to take on board and we are doing so again with the new Government. A ban on rent increases is not enough of course. The cost of renting must also be reduced and that is why Sinn Féin has repeatedly called for a refundable tax credit for private renters worth a full month's rent. That would put an average of €1,400 back into the pocket of every renter in the State. We also need to see a massive investment in affordable cost-rental accommodation, led by local authorities, approved housing bodies and community housing trusts. Much was promised by Fine Gael and supported by Fianna Fáil in budget 2019. The Taoiseach and Tánaiste claimed this was a housing budget and our current Minister made great play of his role in securing €300 million to be committed to the delivery of 6,000 affordable homes by 2021 in the serviced sites fund. To date, not a single affordable home has been delivered under this scheme. In fact, only 50 are currently under construction in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, and these will not be tenanted until next year at a cost of €1,200 per month. In my view, and that of many working people, this is not affordable for the vast majority of working renters. We need thousands of affordable cost-rental homes delivered every year with rents somewhere between €700 and €800 per month. This can and should be done by this Government if they are serious about tackling the crisis in the rental market and meeting the affordable housing need.

We also need to reduce the over-reliance on the private rental sector to meet social housing need. This will only happen if the Government revises its social housing targets upwards. The 10,000 real social homes which it has committed to delivering next year is not enough. We have over 90,000 households living in the private rental sector on social housing supports. We need a plan to provide these families with real social housing which will in turn free up even more properties in the private rental sector for private renters or indeed first-time buyers. We also need further reform of the private rental sector. We need a real move to tenancies of indefinite duration, not just the removal of section 34(b) of the Residential Tenancies Act. We need improved inspection and enforcement of minimum standards and fire safety through an NCT-type certification for landlords. We need a comprehensive reform of the tax treatment of landlords which ends the appalling tax breaks for institutional investors while allowing good professional landlords to get a fair return when providing a good service. Rebuilding Ireland has failed renters. The rental market is in fact in a worse place today than it was when the then Minister for housing, now the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, launched his strategy for the private rented sector in 2017. Only a comprehensive reform providing security and affordability for tenants and landlords will suffice. Sinn Féin's Ban on Rent Increases Bill 2020 is one important piece of the package of measures needed to give renters a break and I have no hesitation in recommending it to the House.

Before I conclude, I note that the Minister was in my own constituency today and welcome it. He was out in Adamstown surveying progress in the strategic development zone, SDZ, funded by the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF. The Minister was rightly very critical of the slow pace of the LIHAF funding over the last number of years. Just last year he rightly complained that just €16 million out of €200 million had been spent. Adamstown is an interesting example because €20 million was promised back in 2016 and 2017 with the condition that the 2,000 LIHAF-facilitated units were to be delivered by 2021 and only a fraction of them have been. The Minister will be interested to know that very close to where he was standing there was an estate called Shackleton Park built by Cairn Homes and facilitated under the LIHAF. Some 229 of those homes were sold this year by Cairn to what the Minister has on many occasions described as cuckoo funds. If one looks on today one will see a two-bedroom home is now for rent in Shackleton Park at €1,800 per month and a one-bedroom home, which is quite small, for €1,500. The vast majority of the discounted units that were committed to - and this is no fault of the Minister as he was not responsible back in 2016 and 2017 - have not been delivered. The 400 large or discounted units are not guaranteed at the price of €320,000 or less because they are linked to inflation and construction prices, both of which have increased considerably since the original agreement was made in 2017.

I raise this issue because if the Minister is considering renewing or adding to the local infrastructure housing activation fund in the budget, he needs to ensure he does not repeat the mistakes of his predecessor. He needs to ensure funding only goes to developers who need it. Cairn Homes did not need it, as it made over €68 million in net profit last year and €56 million the year before. The Minister needs to ensure LIHAF delivers the homes within the time it is meant to and that there is genuine affordability, as was promised, through LIHAF and Rebuilding Ireland but which has not been delivered. I raise this as a genuine issue of concern because the Minister shared many of my concerns before his appointment. He is now in the driving seat and has the influence to ensure any future infrastructural funding is tied very clearly to timeframes for delivery and genuine affordability for working families.

The Minister is sharing time with Deputies McAuliffe and Devlin.

I am indeed. I will have nine minutes and they will each have three. I will look into the matter Deputy Ó Broin mentioned. Where I was today in Adamstown, I saw fantastic work that has taken place and continues to take place. This is also the case in other parts of south Dublin like Killinarden where the Deputy's own party opposed 100 social homes and 300 affordable homes as part of another LIHAF scheme.

I will be reviewing how LIHAF works but delivery on the ground is what is crucial. I thank the Deputy for bringing forward the Bill and providing us with an opportunity to discuss the residential rental sector as it stands in Ireland today. I will not support the Bill because I do not believe that banning rent increases is the solution to the current housing supply crisis we face.

I note with concern that Deputy Ó Broin did not avail of the services of the parliamentary legal advisers. The Bill he has produced today is a tweaked version of the Sinn Féin Rent Freeze (Fair Rent) Bill 2019. I debated the Bill in the House when I was in opposition and I stated during that debate that I was willing to allow the Bill to proceed to pre-legislative scrutiny to provide an opportunity to tease out its ramifications, for example, the constitutionality or otherwise of the Bill and its potential impact in particular on supply throughout the country and not just in the rent pressure zones. It is not clear to me that Sinn Féin has made any attempt to ensure the Bill is legally sound or whether, as a base requirement, it is, in fact, constitutional. I suspect it has not and I suspect the potential impacts of the Bill have not been researched. Sinn Féin does not seem to accept that a ban on rent increases will not increase the supply of rental accommodation. Supply is a key constraint. Rents rise when demand outstrips supply. If Deputy Ó Broin had sought the assistance of the parliamentary legal advisers available to him to draft the Bill, he would to know this.

We need to note that in the North, where Sinn Féin is in power, in February this year the Minister for Communities announced an increase in rents in one of the first acts of the Executive after its three year hiatus. At the 11th hour, that same Sinn Féin Minister for Communities decided to defer the increase but it will actually come into effect in a short 13 days' time. There is one rule in the North and one rule in the South, as I have mentioned with regard to Killinarden.

On taking office I sought to quickly assist tenants. Covid-19 has not been easy for renters or private landlords. In my first month in office, I sought to act not just on rent increases but on tenancy terminations also. I sought to help those most in need of help on foot of Covid-19 and those facing potential homelessness on foot of tenancy termination caused by rent arrears. Incredibly, the Bill makes no reference to terminations or evictions. It was my belief in opposition and it is my belief now in government that we need to strike a balance between restricting the level of rent tenants pay and keeping ordinary landlords in the system. As Deputy Ó Broin rightly said this evening, if we look at the RTB data, we see that we lost almost 7,700 tenancies year on year to the first quarter of 2020. This is a significant number that must be kept in check.

It is worth remembering that 70% of landlords own just one rental property and 86% of landlords own one or two rental properties. These measures, while possibly well-intentioned, would drive more decent landlords out of the market, reducing supply and exacerbating the problem further. The simple fact of the matter is that we need residential rental accommodation. We have a well-regulated sector and rental properties need to be maintained. It is not in the interests of a landlord to mistreat a tenant, and any landlord who does should be and is liable to stern prosecution, with sanctions of up to €30,000 for those who breach rental pressure zone guidelines. If we were to introduce a ban on rent increases, we would see more exits from the sector, thus stifling that much needed supply and causing an even greater problem in the sector. I believe Deputy Ó Broin knows this but the truth of it does not suit his narrative.

The temporary prohibition on rent increases and terminations under the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 expired on 1 August. Sinn Féin's response was a blanket ban on all rent increases. The Government recognises this is not possible and introduced measures targeted at those most in need, which I have just covered. If we examine the two different approaches we see that section 2 of the Sinn Féin Bill proposes to ban increases in rent for existing and new tenancies for three years from enactment. There is no mention of evictions, no mention of Covid and no mention of rent freezes for those who need them most.

The Government's response is more comprehensive and targeted and is based on real independent research and advice. As the Deputy mentioned, we have commissioned ESRI research on trends in rental price inflation and the introduction of rental pressure zones in Ireland. As part of the rent index series, the RTB and the ESRI were asked to produce a short run index covering the period from January to June this year. The key findings from the report show that rental price inflation has moderated considerably since the pandemic began. National month-on-month declines were registered in three of the four months since March this year. Rents in Dublin fell year-on-year in April, May and June, and rent inflation outside Dublin also dropped sharply. Tenancy registrations with the RTB are also markedly down.

Furthermore, the Department commissioned from the ESRI a research paper exploring the short run implications of the Covid-19 pandemic and its effect on the private rental market. That report showed a very marginal increase in rent arrears and a stabilisation of tenancies, coupled with the fact the Government introduced the emergency rent supplement. I urge anyone who is watching and who is in difficulty with rent arrears or paying rent to avail of this emergency rent supplement.

The Deputy might wish to share with us the findings of any independent research he and his party commissioned in the production of the Bill. I am genuinely interested in examining it to see the research behind the Bill and the ramifications of a blanket ban for supply on the market. The Bill presented by the Deputy focuses solely on rent increases. There are no measures to address tenancy terminations or the impact of Covid-19. Prior to the summer recess, with the support of my Government colleagues and acting on evidence in the ESRI research, I introduced significant tenancy protections in the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020. This protects from eviction those who need it most and bans rent increases for those who need this protection. The Deputy and his party voted against these protections. Not only did they do so but they tried to convolute it further and make it harder for those who are to be protected. Deputy Ó Broin wanted people to have to declare themselves homeless rather than a simple declaration that they had been economically impacted by Covid-19. Deputy Carthy went on radio and spoke in the Dáil to suggest that we follow the lead of President Trump and make people jump through multiple hoops before they would be afforded any protection. Instead, and in recognition of the fact that Covid-19 has been hard on tenants and individual landlords, I put in place much more targeted protections that protect the most vulnerable tenants while allowing the rental sector to resume activity in as near a normal manner as possible. This is the responsible and correct thing to do.

Any notice of termination grounded on rent arrears will be invalid if the warning notice has not been served to the RTB and the tenant. Anyone who self-declares that their income and their ability to pay rent has been affected by Covid-19 will be protected. These are real protections. They are lawful protections. They are protections that have been implemented and they are working. A core principle of the Government is that everyone should have access to good-quality housing to purchase or rent at an affordable price in sustainable communities that offer a quality of life. This is what we need to deliver. The key to resolving the residential rental sector is supply. This is why in the budget for 2020, to which the Deputy alluded, social housing delivery increased to €2.63 billion, which is €258 million more than 2019. Even in this year of Covid, when we have had a shutdown, we will deliver more than 10,000 social housing units and we are pushing every week to ensure that public house building is delivered through our partners in the approved housing bodies and local authorities.

We are interested in real delivery of real protections for tenants from eviction in the Bill the Deputy and his party voted against. We will have real delivery of extra homes through the most ambitious voids programme we have seen in a number of years, which will bring back 2,500 social homes into use this year through the July stimulus plan. There is real delivery to empower local authorities to build themselves by raising the discretionary cap to €6 million. This has already been done. There is real delivery to help those people whom the Deputy says he wants to help buy homes by increasing the help to buy grant to €30,000. A total of 19,500 people have availed of this grant and the Deputy opposes it. He has publicly opposed it and he opposed it in the budget. He has opposed affordable housing in the House also. There is also real delivery in the call for housing the Government brought forward to focus on single properties and large properties to drive down homelessness for those who have been homeless for far too long. We will keep working on this and we will deliver as a Government in the area. We are ambitious for the country in resolving our housing crisis.

This Bill will not help and the Deputy actually knows that. That is why we are opposing it.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. I concur with the Minister on what is proposed in the Bill. As he said, the Government recently passed the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020 which puts protections in place for tenants, particularly in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It makes it unlawful to evict people who are impacted by the pandemic until 11 January 2021, a welcome provision. It also introduces new protections for those tenants who have been negatively impacted by Covid-19. It is targeted and focused law which provides short-term and long-term measures to protect those tenants who have experienced rent arrears and hardship as a result of the pandemic.

Where a tenant makes a written declaration that the economic impact of Covid-19 puts his or her tenancy at risk, the Act provides protection for them. It prohibits rent increases where tenants are impacted by the pandemic and are in receipt of income support or rent supplement. In the long term, the new law mandates that before a notice of termination grounded on rent arrears can be served, a tenant has a further 28 days to pay any outstanding rent. This is a welcome measure and one which has assisted many individuals. The involvement of the Residential Tenancies Board at an early stage will help tenants vindicate their rights and help prevent evictions.

It is important that the proposers of this Bill recognise the recently passed Act because it provides many protections. These include the swift resolution by the Residential Tenancies Board on hearing disputes between tenants on deposits and the reform of the fair deal scheme to incentivise renting out vacant properties, a particular issue in my constituency.

I question the Bill's constitutionality and will be opposing it. While I am open to all considerations to assist renters, any Bill put before the House must be focused, targeted and sustainable, as well as constitutionally sound. Accordingly, I will not be supporting the Bill.

I always welcome the opportunity to speak about the unforgivable shortage of housing in this city and the rest of the country, and in turn, the unenviable and unacceptable position of renters. I welcome the opportunity provided by the Opposition to highlight again the real experience of renters, the lack of security of tenure, the uncertainty, the disproportionate percentage of rental cost relative to their income and the failed housing policies pursued for the past nine years rather than providing public housing for everyone. We know affordable housing ultimately benefits each individual in society, communities, as well as improving the competitiveness of our country.

I do not welcome, however, that this Bill does little to overcome the constitutional advice a ban on rents has faced for some time. I am disappointed the Opposition did not do more work to amend this legislation which is a copy-and-paste version of previous versions. Fianna Fáil facilitated such a version to ensure its implications could be debated.

Bringing this legislation forward gives us all the opportunity to raise the issue but it does little to provide a solution. Just short of eight weeks into the role, the Minister will provide some of the solutions. I look forward to having the details of an affordable rental scheme, an affordable purchase scheme, tenancies of indefinite duration and a rent deposit scheme put before the House, along with the details of the many other commitments in the programme for Government published only 75 days ago.

People voted for a change in the direction of housing policy. The Government has promised this change. Just weeks into the job, the Minister has already pressed go on many of its measures. I welcome again the opportunity to speak about the dysfunctional housing market in Dublin. I look forward to the solutions the Minister will bring forward.

People Before Profit will support this Bill. I want to cut to the chase. There have been many debates on renters and housing in this Chamber. Renters are being ripped off in the State. A small cohort of landlords are doing extremely well out of this. They are doing so well that they have commodified the basic human right to shelter. Does the Minister know how that has happened? It has happened because his Government and previous Governments have facilitated it.

Getting to the juicy details, billions of euro have been transferred to private landlords through housing subsidy payments. This year more than €1 billion will go to private landlords because of the absence of public housing. Vulture funds were allowed to buy up billions of euro worth of loans and NAMA sold off property portfolios at vastly reduced prices. The vulture fund, Lone Star, paid €500 in corporate tax in 2016 while in the same year it made €15 million in profits. Has the world gone mad? The bad policy was created by previous Governments.

The single biggest cause of homelessness is evictions from the private rental sector. Due to the lack of supply, rents have been inflated by the private sector. We have a generation that has witnessed the worst housing crisis in decades, not only in the rental market but in terms of the homelessness situation. Prior to the Covid-19 public health emergency, affordable houses were unaffordable and rents were almost unaffordable. In the past three months, rents in this State have risen by 0.5%. It is obvious that rent increases are Covid-resistant.

In Dublin Mid-West, landlords do not accept HAP but they accept homeless HAP which is 20% more than the market rate. For example, the rent for some houses is probably double what it was perhaps two years ago. Landlords are causing the crazy inflationary situation where people are being completely priced out of the market.

This has been created by the neo-liberal policies of the Minister’s Government. That will only be challenged and overturned when that policy is overturned. There are still almost 9,500 people in emergency accommodation in this State. It is an absolute shame that this is happening. Until that is challenged, we will continue to come back to this Chamber to raise the same situation.

Before calling Deputy Funchion, I remind Deputies that for the Thursday evening Private Members’ business, Members submit their names in advance to the Clerk, indicating that they wish to participate. Members are called in the order in which they submit their names. We have 75 minutes for the debate with 43 minutes remaining.

I commend my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, not only on this Bill but on all the work he has done on housing.

I do not think anyone in this Chamber could disagree with the statement that rents need to be reduced. Between my time in the Dáil and previously on a local authority, I have been elected for 11 years and housing has consistently been the number one issue I have dealt with and it is getting worse year on year.

I agree with much of what Deputy Gino Kenny said about HAP and trying to find HAP properties. It is almost impossible for people to find a property for which HAP is accepted. I was going to take the opportunity to say to the Minister, if he was here, that the HAP system needs to be looked at. Perhaps that message could be passed on because, when a landlord accepts HAP, that is a celebration in itself. Much of the time someone will not get that money until the end of the month. If, for example, a person moves into a property on 1 October, the payment is not made until the last Wednesday of the month. People often do not have the money themselves. That is in respect of people who qualify for HAP. A large number do not qualify for any supports and they are trying to save, potentially for a mortgage. It is absolutely impossible to be in the private rental market while saving for a mortgage. It is totally unfair that just because one is in that situation, one is locked out of the housing market.

There was a scheme a number of years ago whereby local authorities were able to provide mortgages for those with a 3% deposit. These were for people who could prove they were able to pay rent but who perhaps just were not able to come up with a 10% deposit. We need to start looking at imaginative measures such as this again. We have gone totally backwards on housing. We do not ever hear of affordable housing schemes, let alone affordable rental schemes. At least if rents were affordable for people, they could hang on a little longer on the housing list. One of the biggest issues we see day in and day out is people saying they do not mind if they have to wait but that they cannot afford to make up the difference in HAP or cannot find a landlord who will take HAP. A whole bunch of other people say they do not qualify for anything. Even though they might be on modest incomes, they are totally locked out of any supports. People are living with their parents well past a normal age, and with their own kids. It is totally unacceptable. That does not even cover people facing homelessness, in emergency accommodation or in totally unsuitable accommodation but who are afraid for their lives to open their mouths for fear they will be put on notices to quit.

Those are the main points I wanted to make. Disappointingly, the Government has stated it will not support the Bill. There needs to be solutions to housing, affordability and the building of public housing. Rents are a massive part of this because if people can afford to pay their rent, it will lead to fewer notices to quit. As Deputy Ó Broin said earlier, it puts less pressure on the whole system if people can afford to pay. There cannot be a Deputy here who does not hear from people day in and day out about notices to quit, not being able to find a place, or unsuitable accommodation. It is a major stress for everybody in those situations. I do not know how many more times we have to talk about this here or how many more debates we have to have on it, but we really need to see some solutions. It is disappointing that the Government will vote against this.

I advise Members that while they have ten minutes each theoretically, if all the Members who are now indicating use their ten minutes, we will not get through everyone because I must retain five minutes for the Minister of State to respond and ten minutes for the proposer of the Bill to make his final contribution. That is 15 minutes out of 39 minutes. Members can work it out for themselves. I call Deputy Ó Ríordáin.

I might cut my contribution to five minutes or thereabouts to facilitate other Members who wish to make contributions and who have been here all day. It is only fair we share the time. While everybody wants to support the Bill tabled by Sinn Féin, and the Labour Party also appreciates the opportunity to speak on the issue of housing, I am disappointed the Minister is no longer in the Chamber. We have, however, had some constructive engagement with him in the past, particularly on one of the housing strategies the Labour Party is trying to pursue, which is a rent-to-buy scheme. The Minister of State will appreciate that, particularly in high-rent areas, it is difficult for couples or individuals to rent and to save for a deposit at the same time. We were trying to reintroduce a previous scheme whereby an individual could, through the local authority, rent for three years, with all that rent going towards a deposit, and walk away from the scheme after three years if they so wished or put that towards a deposit and get on the property ladder, the idea being that one did not have to rent and save simultaneously. Many of these schemes were reasonably successful previous to the crash but were then discontinued. We want to work proactively with the Department and try to get some of these State-sponsored schemes up and running again to benefit people.

I will say this much about the Minister's response. I served in government for a particularly short period of 18 months, and one of the big lessons I learned there was that when Government says something is not possible, unconstitutional or not legal, all those barriers can be overcome if the matter is important enough. There are any number of things we were once told were not possible, potentially not legal or potentially unconstitutional, concerns which were all swept aside once the Covid crisis hit. I refer to rent freezes, eviction freezes and the nationalisation of health services.

I wish to outline how serious the situation is by referring to the Daft rental report for quarter 1 of 2020. It states that rents increased by 3.8% nationally year-on-year, which marks the lowest rate of inflation since late 2012. However, while rents fell nationwide by 2.1% between March and April of 2020 in the teeth of the Covid crisis, between their lowest point in the early 2010s and the peak of quarter 1 of 2020, they increased by between 52% in Connacht-Ulster and 107% in Dublin. As for rent-a-room trends in quarter 1 of 2020, in Dublin city centre, the average rent for a single bedroom was €715, an increase of 8.2% year-on-year. The average rent for a double bedroom in the city was €820, an increase of 4.6% year-on-year. In south-east Leinster, the average rent for a single bedroom was €389, an increase of 16.1% year-on-year. In Limerick city centre, the average rent for a single bedroom was €429, an increase of 16.3% year-on-year. In Waterford city centre, the average rent for a double bedroom was €399, an increase of 9.6% year-on-year. In Galway city centre the average rent for a double bedroom was €1,260, an increase of 19.7% year-on-year. According to the Daft housing report of July 2020, the average national rent was €1,412. The average rent in Dublin was €2,030 in July 2020. Monthly rents were on average 0.5% lower in Dublin but higher than March levels elsewhere. Rent has increased in Laois by 4% year-on-year and is now at an average of €1,002. Rent has increased in Longford by 3.3% year-on-year to €737 on average. Rent has increased in Kilkenny by 4.2% year-on-year to €999 on average. Rent has increased in Limerick county by 3.4% to €925 on average. In Longford, the monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment has increased by 8% year-on-year to €556 on average. In Carlow, the monthly rent for a one-bed apartment has increased by 9% year-on-year to €724 on average. I will give just one more example because I know that other Deputies wish to make contributions. In Dublin 24, the average monthly rent for a one-bed apartment increased by 5% year-on-year to €1,425.

The point I am trying to make is that people in opposition are genuinely trying to find solutions and coming into this Chamber from a good place. I challenge the Minister's contention that when legislation is put in front of him, people are playing games, are not serious or are not dealing with crisis situations facing families and individuals day by day. When answers come that refer to constitutionality or legality, I do not necessarily take them at face value because of my experience. With a bit of imagination and the same sort of energy and belief we all came together with at the beginning of the Covid crisis, we could overcome a significant number of issues. With that in mind, I would like the Minister of State in his contribution to refer to the rent-to-buy scheme the Labour Party is trying to pursue.

I will not use my full ten minutes. I wish to make just a few points. First, I wish to address the issue of supply of rental units. There is something of a narrative that if rental income levels are not increased, that will hit supply. The one thing we can say with certainty about this is that rental incomes have gone up considerably in recent years, particularly during the period before RPZs were brought in but also since they were brought in. In most areas, rental incomes were increasing beyond the percentage allowed for under the RPZ legislation. We have the statistics on this from the Daft reports. Insufficient rental income is not causing problems with rental supply. In most parts of the country, rental income is well above the cost of a mortgage in the area. The landlord or investor in most instances is, therefore, able to cover his or her repayments and make his or her tax contributions, whereas in the past landlords sometimes had to supplement their mortgage repayments based on rental income.

Income is not the problem. There are problems with infrastructure and constraints in the development of new housing. There are issues with land supply and who controls development land, and the lack of affordable, social and cost-rental housing schemes. However, rental income is not the issue.

In 2004, the RTB was set up, limited regulations were brought in to address the private residential sector and modest improvements to security of tenure were introduced. At the time, there was a strong narrative to the effect that this would lead to a big exodus from the private rental sector. This is what we were told. What happened after 2004 in terms of rental supply? Did it contract? Was there an exodus? The opposite happened. Between 2006 and 2016, there was a doubling in the number of households that were renting following the introduction of those modest measures that we were told would lead to an exodus. Much of that increase happened after the collapse of the Celtic Tiger and it is clear that some of the issues relating to supply are not connected to rental income because many of the increases in rental supply that happened at that time took place while rents were not increasing.

We know from the ESRI study that was published in July that, before the pandemic, one in three households in the private rented residential sector had insufficient income after paying the rent to meet basic costs of living. Rental costs are having a major impact on people’s lives and their ability to do the basics. I refer to families making a decision about whether they can afford to pay for a GAA camp for their children over the summer and so on. They may not be able to meet those costs because of rental pressures.

I am glad that a number of Government Deputies raised constitutional issues. I am also glad that there is the commitment to a referendum on housing in the programme for Government, and I welcome that the Tánaiste confirmed that there will be a referendum on the right to housing on Leaders' Questions earlier. This is significant because that was ambiguous in the programme for Government. I urge the Minister to ensure that referendum is brought forward as quickly as possible. If the Government has concerns about constitutionality, it is in their power to bring forward the referendum, which would balance constitutional rights to private property and would mean, in all these areas, we could do more to protect tenants and to balance those rights. That is within the gift of the Government.

In addition, on the issue of constitutionality, significant intervention is made by the Exchequer and the Government in the private rental sector that increases and inflates rent. The massive amounts put into the rented sector, which have to be provided because there is a lack of social and affordable housing, through various housing subsidies, HAP, rent supplement and other schemes have an upward pressure on rents. If such Government intervention was not made, rents would be much lower. On that basis, it is justified and proportionate for the Government to take measures to control rent because there is such a large amount of taxpayers' money going into the sector and distorting rents. The Government has a responsibility to do that in the interests of those who are renting and not in receipt of State subsidies. They are paying higher rents as a result of the State's failure to provide sufficient social, affordable and cost-rental schemes on housing. There is a strong argument on that basis that this would be constitutionally justifiable.

I will conclude there in the interests of time and I look forward to the response from the Minister.

I will use as little time as I can to allow my colleagues to come in. I thank the previous Deputies who cut their time short. I strongly welcome the Bill that has been brought forward by my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin. This is something I have always strongly supported and I believe all of those in our communities who believe in fairness and justice will also support it. Only the vested interests would oppose it. I acknowledge there are decent landlords out there, whom I have met, who have not raised their rents to the horrendous levels that we are seeing.

It is disingenuous of the Minister, who has, disappointingly, left the Chamber rather than waiting for the end, to claim that one measure will solve the housing crisis. That is utter nonsense and he knows it. We know the housing sector is in a complete and utter mess but it is not by accident. It is by design. It is the failure of this Government and, in particular, previous Governments over the years who have failed to provide social and affordable housing for people in our community. That has created this situation. The desire and drive to push everything into the private sector and the abandonment by previous Governments of social and affordable housing has led to where we are now. That is important to note.

The Minister mentioned landlords who own one home, and we hear this all the time. However, he never talks about the influx of institutional landlords and vulture groups who come into this country. That is never mentioned in this Chamber. We see them in my constituency of Dublin West. They are buying blocks of apartments and rows of houses because it is extremely profitable. They see that this Government and previous Governments have made any attempt to rein in the ever-increasing rents.

Earlier this week, I received a message concerning a landlord renting two box rooms, one for €550 per month and another for €600 per month. Some landlords are moving families out of their homes to allow them to move individuals in because they can charge such amounts for small rooms and they do not get the same “value" when it comes to families. That is why a lot of families find it extremely difficult to rent accommodation. I met another family recently who had been in housing but had lost the house. They did not qualify for HAP. They were a working family and well above the threshold. They were in a bidding war with other people. It started at €2,000 and ended at €2,400 per month for a traditional three-bedroom house in Littlepace, Clonee. It is shameful that a person would stand there looking at families desperately trying to cobble money together to get up to €2,400 per month. They did it because they had no choice whatsoever.

I support the Bill. I am disappointed that the Government will not support it. It is time that we took on the vested interests, the institutions and vulture groups who are buying huge tracts of property in this country and stood with the people. We should build social housing and affordable housing. We should get people back into affordable rental accommodation to solve this problem for the future. We can do it but it will only be done if people really want to see it done.

I call Deputy Ó Murchú, who has seven minutes.

Gabhaim buíochas. It will be a first if I do not go over time. I thank my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, for bringing this forward. Everyone accepts we are dealing with a nightmare scenario as regards rentals. We have a situation that has been created by the fact that the State has failed to build houses. There was an acceptance that the private sector would sort things out and the market would regulate itself but that has not happened.

I accept that there have been some useful initiatives from the Minister concerning voids. As my colleagues have stated, however, we need multiple solutions to what is a complex problem. We must ensure we have affordable cost rental opportunities, mortgages and rents. All that has already been detailed here. The baseline is set by HAP. It is necessary to ensure people who should be able to avail of social housing, which does not exist, can access HAP. Houses in towns like Dundalk, even modest houses in local authority areas, now have prices that we would not have been thought possible some years ago. Families are being charged from €1,200 up to €1,600 a month. That is absolute madness. Those families are also being outbid by groups of young people who may work in factories locally and can afford that level of rent. However, that means there are many people who fall between two stools and that is the story with which we are dealing. Many people have already mentioned that the PUP is being cut and that means we are now dealing with a cohort of people who need all possible protections.

I welcome that the Minister is going to meet Louth County Council soon, because we have a major issue with land banks that were bought at great cost on instruction from the Government in 2007, back at the height of the boom. These lands are costing Louth County Council about €1 million per year. We must ensure we deal with that problem as it impacts local authority funding. We must begin a proper housebuilding project. That is absolutely necessary. The underfunding of local authorities is another major problem. Not only were many voids let go for six months to a year, and we welcome the moneys provided to turn around some of them, but there is also a great deal of housing stock but an insufficient budget to deal with it.

This is only one small step, but it is absolutely necessary in stopping the rot of rising rent prices. We must deal with the difficult issue of institutional landlords and ensure we give protections not only to tenants, but also to decent landlords. Organisations such as Threshold and Focus Ireland have spoken about the need to professionalise the sector. I refer to landlords with three houses, or fewer, who want to do the right thing. The first thing we must do, however, is ensure that rents do not go up and that we allow them to fall by increasing supply. The responsibility here lies with the Government. If there are constitutional difficulties, it is up to the Government to offer another solution.

I thank all the Deputies for their contributions. We all meet people in our clinics with genuine concerns and the most vulnerable people we see are those affected by the issues raised here tonight. It is important that we respond in the most genuine fashion in trying to ensure we protect the most vulnerable. We all know that rents are unaffordable, that we need a sustainable rental market and that people want to own their own homes. We are also aware that there has been a major response to the problems in the housing and rental sector. One amendment, however, amounting to fewer than 100 words, will not fix our rental market. This is a simplistic, opportunistic headline to legislate by soundbite. There is supporting evidence attached to this legislation. I do not see any response from the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers, which is a service that Deputies can use to back up their proposed legislation with evidence.

Major actors in the rental sector, such as the ESRI, Threshold and the RTB, have highlighted rent arrears as a major issue. The Government responded to those concerns with a real solution by bringing forward the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020, which recognised, in a targeted manner, the need to protect the most vulnerable in our society. A ban was placed on the eviction of tenants with rent arrears because of the impact of Covid-19 to ensure they could remain in their tenancies until 10 January 2021, along with a freeze on rent increases.

Sinn Féin has put forward this simplistic Bill, with zero evidence, which will provide no solution to the issues outlined. The Government has taken action. We have 53 rent pressure zones, covering 75% of tenancies. The Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act 2019 made it a criminal offence for landlords to contravene the law regarding rent increases. We have increased the associated penalties up to €30,000 and there are 188 ongoing investigations. These are real solutions. I encourage all politicians, in every party and none, to work with the Government to provide genuine solutions, backed up with evidence, that will work.

I also strongly believe that this proposed legislation would have unintended consequences regarding housing supply. The legislation is unworkable, and that has been proved. My major concern, however, arises from Sinn Féin being the major Opposition party in our Republic. In the North, a proposed rent increase of 2.7%, supported by Sinn Féin, comes into effect in 13 days' time, which is at variance with what is being done in this Republic. What is proposed in the North, is opposed in the South. Conor Murphy constantly takes the credit for rates waivers and business supports, supports which I think were delayed. At the same time, Sinn Féin blames the British Government and claims it has no control. The exact opposite is the case.

Genuinely vulnerable people who are crying out for real solutions in our rental sector do not want to be misled by proposed legislation which is not workable and cannot be implemented. People want real responses that can make their week easier and genuinely secure their tenancies. I believe fully that the Government's response is the best possible in the current climate. It is a targeted response that protects the most vulnerable, including those in difficulties with rental arrears. As the rent supplement has been increasingly publicised in recent weeks, more people have availed of it. We want to create a way to get secure tenancies through a link with the Money Advice & Budgeting Service and other supports. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Department have worked hard to produce an affordable housing scheme that will provide homes at affordable rates to ensure people can realise the dream, to which so many rightly aspire, of owning their own home.

Regarding the marketplace, some 86% or more of landlords own just one or two properties. We must ensure that supply is maintained and that we have a fair and affordable rental market. What is key in doing that is not for a political party, in fewer than 100 words, to claim it has the silver bullet that will secure and fix our rental crisis and keep vulnerable families in their rental properties, when that claim is not true. Anyone proposing a Bill in this House should come forward with real evidence and legal advice - in this case, evidence from Threshold, the ESRI and the RTB - to demonstrate that he or she is pursuing an avenue that can deliver the desired results for the public.

I thank the Minister of State. To conclude this important debate, I call Deputy Ó Broin.

It is regrettable that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, did not stay to listen to the contributions of other Deputies and to the conclusion of the debate. I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State. It gives the House the impression that the Minister is not interested in a genuine debate, where we thrash out differing opinions to try to reach the best solutions. The former Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, unfortunately developed a similar habit and his Minister of State, Deputy English, often had to come in to do the graveyard shift. In the few short weeks that the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, has been in that position, he is increasingly sounding and acting like his predecessor, which was something he told us he would not do when he was on this side of the House. I thank the Minister of State for his comments.

If he had been here for my speech, he would have heard me address one of the key points he went on to make. This measure on its own is not going to solve the crisis in the rental sector. I went on to list another eight or nine measures for which Sinn Féin has been arguing for years and which the Government has previously ignored. In the round, those measures would resolve these problems.

I must also say that both the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, criticised the Sinn Féin Minister for Communities in Northern Ireland for increasing council rents by just over 2%. That is not the same as what this Bill is about. This Bill is about the private rental sector and I would have thought that a Minister of State would know the difference between social housing and private rental housing. Rents in the social rental sector in the North had not been increased for five years and because of a lack of funding from Westminster, the Minister for Communities did the right thing to provide additional funding. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil councillors across the country are also increasing council rents because of a failure of central government to provide adequate income.

In the quarter-on-quarter rent index of the Residential Tenancies Board, one will see that rent pressure zones, the centrepiece of the policy of Deputies Coveney and Eoghan Murphy to constrain rents, have been an abject failure. Not in a single year have rent pressure zones constrained rents within the designated areas by 4%. They have not worked. The Minister of State should read the data that he is telling me I should present to him before he comes and makes arguments that are factually incorrect.

The Minister should not doubt for one second my seriousness in bringing forward these propositions or the work my colleagues and I do. He may disagree with me, and I respect that, but to suggest that I am bringing forward Bills that I know will not work is deeply disrespectful to any Member of this House.

The Minister made some other points. He criticised Sinn Féin councillors for voting against a housing development in Killinarden in South Dublin County Council. Our councillors did the right thing. Up to half of the homes on that public land will be sold at unaffordable prices on the open, private market. That is not a good strategic use of a vital public asset, public land. All of that development should be social, affordable rental and affordable purchase homes and I must say that any councillor who allows houses to be sold at prices of €350,000 to €450,000 clearly does not understand the crises facing working families to rent or buy.

The Minister criticised me for not doing any legal research and I am surprised he made that comment because we have had this discussion before and I told him them what I will tell him now. I consulted with two of the country's leading constitutional law experts at some length between the presentation of the most recent Bill and this one. Professors Kenny and Walsh from Trinity College are so eminent that they are two of the five authors of the standard academic text on the Irish Constitution. They have not told me any secrets. After Fianna Fáil issued the legal advice it had received from a non-constitutional law expert last December, Professors Kenny and Walsh published in The Irish Times and on their conclusions that such measures could well be constitutional. They criticised the repeated attempts of Governments over the years to hide behind the Constitution because it is ultimately only the Supreme Court that makes that decision.

I do not have the advantage of having an Attorney General. If the Government wants to share that service with the Opposition, we will happily take them up on it. I am willing to say that, if I were the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, I would go all the way to the courts to defend the rights of renters and if the Constitution needed to be changed to do that, so be it. There is quite a lot of legal weight behind the proposition we have outlined today.

The Minister and the Minister of State have said that they are concerned that temporarily banning rent increases will have a negative impact on supply. Think about for a moment. What that means is that institutional investors who pay no tax on their rent roll or capital gains, have access to large volumes of cash and the highest rents in the history of the State, will stop investing. The Minister of State is actually telling us that the only way we can see the increase in supply that he says is needed is if we allow those institutional investors to keep increasing rents. That is what he is saying. The proposition I have put forward is that we freeze rents at their high point. We are not taking anything from those institutional investors or landlords, we are simply saying that rents cannot go any higher and tenants cannot pay any more. I believe that if that measure is combined with the other measures I outlined earlier, particularly a major capital investment in affordable cost rental by the Government in the budget, renters will be protected and supply will be increased at the same time.

The Minister criticised me for not putting every other proposal around protecting renters into this Bill. That is because I want a single focus on this issue but the Minister should rest assured because I have five other pieces of legislation currently with the Bills Office and there will be many more to come. The one thing the Minister will know from when he was on this side of this House is that we are not short of propositions or ideas.

I must say that the defence by the Minister and Minister of State of the appalling piece of legislation that they rammed through the House in a short period of time in July is a disgrace. That legislation stripped vital protections from thousands of renters. The Minister and Minister of State have said that is a good thing. Of course, the very small number of renters who will receive the new protections will welcome them but I am concerned about all renters and that is why I opposed that Bill and would do so again.

I have to laugh when I hear the Minister talking about the voids programme because, when he was in opposition, he agreed with us that the then Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, was being deliberately misleading when he presented the small amount of top-up funding for refurbishing casual re-lets as somehow bringing voids back into use. There are virtually no long-term voids left in our housing stock and certainly not in urban areas. What the Minister has done is give a small amount of top-up funding to local authorities to refurbish vacant units that have recently been vacated by a tenant but because the Government traditionally would not give the local authorities enough money to vacate and refurbish properties, it is now giving that top-up. Those are not voids, they are casual re-lets and the Minister and his officials know it. It is time we are honest about that.

The Minister also criticised Sinn Féin's opposition to the help-to-buy scheme. It is one of the most appalling housing policies that was introduced by the previous Government. It has without doubt helped some people but it has disadvantaged many more because it inflates house prices. It locks in house prices and, in fact, 40% of the households who got significant sums of money did not need it because they had the deposit before they applied for the scheme. Even still, we gave them another €20,000 of taxpayers' money that should have gone to struggling families who cannot save a deposit, buy or rent a home at affordable levels.

I am not surprised at the policy positions of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael because they have never stood by renters and that is why our rental market is so dysfunctional. Not once, for decades, have renters got a good turn. The idea that a balance has to be struck between landlords and tenants suggests that somehow there is an equivalence between the two when landlords will always have greater power because they own the asset whereas tenants will always be more vulnerable. I do not like to criticise the new Chairman of the housing committee because we are only beginning to build a relationship but I am disappointed that the silence of the Green Party in the debate has been deafening. Of course, that is because this is a policy the party previously supported. The fact that nobody from the Green Party has come in to explain their position will be seen by many people as the beginning of a substantial shift in the policy of that party on housing and that is disappointing. I mean no disrespect to my colleague who is here.

First-time buyers and struggling renters will judge this Government by what it delivers. The Minister of State said that his party did a great job with renters when, in fact, the rental market is worse today than it was when the then Minister, Deputy Coveney, published his rental plan a number of years ago. That is true by every single indicator of the Residential Tenancies Board, the Economic and Social Research Institute and the non-governmental sector. We have a new Government and we will judge it by what it does. If it delivers large volumes of generally affordable homes for working people to rent or buy, I will applaud and commend it from this side of the House. However, if it continues to do what Deputies Eoghan Murphy and Coveney did, which is to promise much but deliver next to nothing for struggling renters, we will hold the Government to account, criticise it and demonstrate that better policy alternative are available until such time as the tables are turned and Sinn Féin is on that side of the House, delivering real change for the renters and potential home buyers who need the support of a Government, which they have not got since 2016.

Question put

In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Wednesday, 23 September 2020.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.30 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 22 September 2020.