Priority Questions

House Purchase Schemes

Eoin Ó Broin

Question:

28. Deputy Eoin Ó Broin asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the status of the affordable housing plan. [28829/20]

On five occasions in July after he was appointed, the Minister made a very public commitment to announce both the details, targets and regulations of his new affordable housing scheme in September. That month has come and gone and we are very keen to hear as much about the scheme as possible. When he is going to announce it? Will he give us as much information as is possible at this stage about the scheme he is working on?

I am committed to ensuring that affordable, quality housing solutions are available to all and that is reflected in the programme for Government. I believe in home ownership and I have restated that on many occasions. I will come good on the programmes made in the programme. The programme details a wide range of measures to be brought forward over the lifetime of the Government to firmly put affordability back at the centre of the housing system.

This includes, for example, ensuring our local authorities are central to the delivery of housing solutions, the progression of State-backed affordable housing programmes and the development of a cost rental model that creates affordability for tenants. These are things most of us would agree with.

The Land Development Agency has also been tasked with working with Departments, local authorities, State agencies and other stakeholders, and it is assembling large and strategic sites to deliver social and affordable homes for rent and purchase. This is a key priority of mine and I have engaged extensively with key delivery partners and other stakeholders to foster a broad consensus on issues and, most importantly, potential solutions.

The Department is working to complete this required work to bring forward the detailed plans that will deliver on the programme for Government commitment. As I have said previously, including in the House, I will outline these detailed plans in the autumn, informed by the budget 2021 process. It is a firm commitment in the programme for Government. I believe in affordable housing for purchase and rent. I voted in the Chamber in opposition for this very thing when others opposed it. Working together we can deliver a good and robust affordable purchase and affordable rental scheme.

We will all judge the Minister by what he does and not what he says, and he would say exactly the same thing if the tables were turned. My question, however, was on when the scheme will be published and whether the Minister could give us more detail than what he has said until now. My concern is that, on the basis of what he has been saying in the media recently, a large portion of what the Minister appears to be working on is not affordable housing. For example, with regard to the comments at the weekend on extending the help-to-buy scheme at its higher rate into next year, while that is of benefit to the people who access it, although according to the Government's own report, 40% of those people who got that very generous subsidy did not need it, the scheme does not make houses more affordable. It locks in unsustainably high prices. I am also very concerned about what seems to be a shift towards a Government backed shared equity loan. This is a secondary Government loan on top of very large and risky banking debt, again locking in unsustainably high prices and not delivering for modest income working families. All I hear with regard to the serviced sites fund is possibly some tinkering around the eligibility criteria rather than the type of increase in capital investment we need. Is the Minister in a position to give us more details? It would be very helpful.

The Deputy will appreciate we are just a week from the budget and negotiations and discussions on expenditure for next year are at a crucial stage. I am not, therefore, in a position to give him any further details. This is not by way of being evasive; it is just an issue of timing. There are other measures, including affordability measures, that help people buy homes, one of them being the help-to-buy grant that I have supported in opposition and in government. The Deputy opposed the help-to-buy grant, which more than 19,000 people have used to get on to the housing ladder. Many of these people would not have been able to do so without it. We know there is an affordability issue and supply is key to delivering affordability. This year will be very challenging on supply in the overall housing market. We are looking at between 16,000 and 18,000 completions. As demand grows and supply lessens, there will be acute affordability issues next year and measures will need to be taken to assist people. This is what we are committed to doing.

The focus has to be on bringing down prices, both to rent and to buy. I have made a number of suggestions to the Minister and his predecessor, including amending the capital advance loan facility, and allowing approved housing bodies to purchase turnkey developments, many of which would be available to purchase now because of the slowdown in Covid-19 private sector supply, to deliver them as affordable homes. It would be much cheaper than those purchased through help-to-buy or shared equity loans. Likewise, increased capital investment is needed by local authorities to build genuinely affordable homes and sell or rent them at cost. We should also stop using public land to sell unaffordable private sector homes. The Oscar Traynor Road site is currently before Dublin City Council and 50% of the homes to be sold are at unaffordable open market prices. That is not the best strategic use of the land in question. Why not fund the local authority and have this site as a fully public scheme, with one third social rental, one third affordable rental and one third genuinely affordable purchase? This is the type of measure that will tackle the crisis.

We have to work very hard with local authorities to help them to deliver faster on the land they own. I agree with this and I have made and restated that point here. It is a priority for me as Minister. The Deputy mentioned the Oscar Traynor Road site. Four times, that site has gone out for expressions of interest. It is a fine plot of ground that could house hundreds of people. It is frustrating for me when I see these things taking so long.

The Deputy mentioned the serviced sites fund. The fund can be used better and to better effect. The concept behind it is good. It uses State-owned lands to enable people to buy affordable homes, with an equity stake as well within elements of it. We will look at other options. We will look at options around affordable purchase and affordable rental, which has not been mentioned yet this evening. We are well advanced in publishing a national affordable rental plan. This is what is needed. We will have a pilot this year. The Enniskerry Road scheme, which was announced in 2015, is not yet concluded or tenanted. It is about getting on and doing things and helping people to get onto the housing ladder with permanent housing solutions.

Housing Provision

Cian O'Callaghan

Question:

29. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the way in which the number of planned Housing First places compares with the identified need; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28488/20]

As the Minister is aware, internationally the Housing First model has proven to be very successful in tackling homelessness, providing housing for people and housing tenancies. What is the difference between the number of Housing First tenancies identified as being needed under the national Housing First plan and the number of Housing First tenancies that are planned to be provided as matters stand?

I thank Deputy O'Callaghan for the question. Addressing homelessness, as we mentioned at a committee meeting earlier, is an absolute priority for me and my colleagues in government and, no doubt, everyone in the House. The programme for Government commits to reducing and preventing homelessness and provides details on how the Government will approach this challenge. The national implementation plan for Housing First was published in September 2018. The plan, which includes an overall target of 663 tenancies in the period from 2018 to 2021, is a joint initiative of the Department, the Department of Health, the HSE and local authorities. Background information, national targets and regional targets are available in the Housing First national implementation plan document.

As of the end of June, the most recent figures for 2020 show that 449 individuals were housed under the Housing First programme, including 302 individuals who have been housed since the publication of the national implementation plan. The programme for Government further commits to a continued expansion of the Housing First programme. I agree with the Deputy that it is a model we should be following. It is one that is already working here and it should be expanded further.

There will be a focus on construction and acquisition of one bedroom homes and the provision of the relevant support services. I put that out through the call for housing earlier this year within four weeks of taking over as Minister. We need more one bedroom properties and we need to ensure that wraparound services are available.

An assessment of need is being undertaken to examine the number of individuals experiencing homelessness who require the supports of Housing First. This assessment will inform the future expansion of Housing First, including any increase in targets for individual local authorities and where we expand the Housing First initiative into other regions of the country.

When is the assessment of need due to be carried out or completed? As the Minister said, the national Housing First implementation plan identified 1,349 people with high support needs. They are people who have been sleeping rough or who have been homeless over the long term. It identifies a particular group of people who could really benefit from Housing First. The strategy also planned to provide places for half of these people who really need them. I welcome what the programme for Government says about expanding Housing First but what I really want to ask is whether the Minister will expand the initiative so that all of the finite targeted group with high support needs, who have been identified as those who would benefit from a Housing First tenancy, will be supported with a Housing First tenancy, instead of us continuing to put €4 million a week into emergency accommodation.

I will get the date of publication and send it on to the Deputy. The Housing First data are published quarterly and are as up-to-date as we can get them. It is expected that services delivered in Cork, Limerick, Galway and Dublin will be extended to the south west, mid-west and west. That is the plan. We have to ensure the requisite services, particularly health services, are in place.

I mentioned earlier that I chair a regional drugs and alcohol task force. I see on the ground the importance of ensuring we have HSE and health services available, particularly for those with addiction and-or mental health issues. I have met the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, at a formal bilateral ministerial meeting on the commitment in the programme for Government to bring health and housing together in delivering these services.

In the HSE winter plan, which has just been published, there is a commitment by the HSE for an additional €5.5 million focused on rough sleepers and the most vulnerable in our community. We need more and I am committed to address that in budget 2021. I hope we will have further opportunities to discuss it next week.

On the need for supports, there has been a 13% cut in the HSE funding for the ACCES community health team which works with people who are homeless in terms of mental health. Will that cut be reversed?

As the Minister knows, Housing First can be delivered as it is within the capacity of the State. Will the Minister secure the funding to ensure we can get Housing First tenancies in place for that finite number of people, instead of continuing to plough large resources into emergency accommodation? This could be a cost-neutral measure if it were implemented in time, or thereabouts, in terms of use of resources.

The quality of the supports, as the Minister said, is important. There are some concerns that some of the roll-out has not put enough emphasis on the quality of support. Will the Minister look at this?

I cannot give the Deputy a commitment today. I have engaged intensively with the HSE in this regard. One of the first things I did when I was appointed Minister was set up a homelessness delivery task force. It meets every week and is made up of the stakeholders such as the homelessness NGOs and the tenancy advocates, as well as senior officials in my Department. From that has evolved a formal team set up between my Department and the Department of Health. I want to see that engagement at a much greater level.

I agree with the Deputy that we can do much more in this space. Housing First has been successful and needs to be expanded further. We have to keep an eye on this over the winter. That is why we are at a detailed stage in the preparation for the winter plan with regard to additional capacity for emergency accommodation should we need it.

The focus has to be on providing the wraparound services. The Department of Health has a big part to play in that. I am glad to report to the House that it has been open in that regard in the first three months of this Government. I want to drive it on further.

Homelessness Strategy

Eoin Ó Broin

Question:

30. Deputy Eoin Ó Broin asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage his policy response to the increase in the number of deaths of persons accessing emergency homeless accommodation and-or sleeping rough. [28830/20]

As the Minister knows, we have had a significant increase in the number of tragic and untimely deaths of people accessing emergency accommodation or sleeping rough. By August of this year, we had 39 reported such deaths in Dublin city alone. That is more than the 30-odd people who died last year and the year before in the city. We are also hearing similar reports from Galway and Cork. What is the Government's response to this serious deterioration in the situation for this particular group of homeless people?

I thank the Deputy for his question. Every single death in this regard is tragic and a loss to a family, as well as the support network looking after those individuals and the many committed volunteers working in homeless services.

Tackling homelessness is an absolute priority for me. Since taking office, as I just said to Deputy Cian O'Callaghan, I have met a wide range of stakeholders and have established the high-level homelessness task force which I chair. I have also engaged regularly with the Minister for Health, given the linkages with the health services, along with homelessness charities and NGOs and tenancy advocates. That helps to inform not just policy but action every day and what is required across cities and towns.

There have been several tragic deaths in recent months of individuals who have been accessing homeless services. It is vital we continue to deliver the appropriate measures to ensure that all individuals experiencing homelessness are supported to exit homelessness into permanent housing solutions. The programme for Government includes measures targeted at the complex needs of many of those experiencing homelessness. These include measures to help rough sleepers into sustainable accommodation, the continued expansion of Housing First, as well as a focus on the construction and indeed acquisition of one-bedroom homes. I have specifically asked our local authorities, through the housing agencies, to acquire any additional one-bedroom properties that may be on the market this year.

Importantly, we must ensure the necessary health and mental health supports are provided to assist homeless people with complex needs. The provision of addiction and mental health supports features prominently in the discussions which I am having with my task force and in my bilateral meetings with the Minister for Health. The task force will continue to focus on the Government's homelessness response as a matter of absolute priority.

I thank the Minister for his response. We need something more and specific on this particular problem. We have had some of the most appalling deaths. We have had rough sleepers beaten to death on the streets, allegedly for their mobile phones. We have had people taking their own lives in emergency accommodation or people dying through overdoses because of an inability to manage their addictions.

What connects all of these deaths - the Minister is right that each is an individual tragedy - is that the young people in question have an added vulnerability. The fact that they are rough sleeping or in emergency accommodation puts them at greater risk. This needs a focused response by the Government, separate from but within the overall response that the Minister outlined. We need to see an accelerated withdrawal from the use of congregated and dormitory style accommodation. That is a commitment in the programme for Government and I would like to hear more about that. We need a greater focus on the small number of individuals whose homelessness, addiction and mental health concerns overlap to make them most distanced from emergency accommodation. Crucially, we need to look back at these particular deaths. In Britain, they use a measure known as adult safety reviews. It is a good mechanism for learning the lessons from these unnecessary and tragic deaths.

I agree with the Deputy. I am focused on doing whatever we can to ensure that the deaths in our homeless community are reduced as much as possible. It is obvious that we need to do that. That is why the first measure I took was establishment of the homelessness task force which I chair. Addiction services are important, as are mental health services and health teams.

We have seen through Covid is that the better response to more vulnerable in our community, particularly the homeless sector, with better health outcomes for many is due to the wraparound services being available with people not actually having to deal with the bureaucracy that they may have had to in the past. That requires a HSE, Tusla and local authority response in the relevant areas, as well as from my Department. I am confident that with the programme for Government and the measures we have taken already, we will make strides in that area.

Each individual case is an absolute tragedy. Some of the cases are incredibly complex. It is my job to do everything I can to reduce that as much as possible.

A good place to start would be to establish the number of these deaths annually. The information is based on media reports. While we have some data for Dublin, we do not have data from other cities. I encourage the Minister to look at that.

I also encourage the Minister to look specifically at the recent increase in those deaths to see if there is something underlying it and if it requires more specific attention. It is six years since Jonathan Corrie tragically lost his life only a stone's throw from the front of Leinster House. That generated significant public anger, as well as protests and a demand for action.

While much has happened, some of it good and some bad, in housing and homeless policies, the number of people dying has increased. In the context of his engagement with the NGOs and his officials, will the Minister please give this specific attention, help us quantify the level of problems and what level of additional interventions is required to ensure next year we have fewer deaths as we are moving those people, rightly, into Housing First tenancies?

That is something we do in the context of every death that takes place. The issue of quantifying such deaths is that there is then a push to comment on each individual death. We have to respect the privacy of the individual and his or her family, as well as the fact that in many instances there are issues other than homelessness, such as serious health issues. We have to be cognisant of that. I understand how people feel when they see someone dying on the streets in a modern country like Ireland. It is not something any of us want to see. We want to see it stop. There is sometimes a rush, however, to comment on each of those cases. That would be counterproductive. We need a decent and good policy response.

In the short term and as winter approaches, as I have said to Deputy Cian O'Callaghan, the HSE winter plan, which I have been involved in on the housing side, includes an additional allocation of €5.5 million for service enhancements for people who are homeless.

That is up from €3 million in 2020. We have to look at targeting the resources in the places they are needed most but I take the Deputy's point on board.

Rent Controls

Paul Murphy

Question:

31. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage if the ban on evictions will be reinstated in view of the reinstatement of Covid-19 restrictions and the increase in cases. [28327/20]

We have a frightening second wave of coronavirus. The country is moving to level 3 tonight and I believe it is only a matter of time before we move to level 4 and then level 5. The Government took the decision to lift the evictions ban and a wave of evictions has restarted. In my constituency, I could give many examples. Does the Minister not agree that now is the time to reinstate the evictions ban to prevent people being made homeless at a time of coronavirus and of restrictions?

I thank the Deputy for the question. The Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 provided a temporary moratorium on tenancy terminations, other than in exceptional or limited cases, and on all increases in rent during the period from 27 March to 1 August 2020. The emergency measures aimed to assist in restricting the movement of people to suppress the spread of Covid-19 and applied to all tenants irrespective of their financial circumstances. The Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020 targets enhanced protections to the most vulnerable tenants until 10 January 2021 and respects the constitutionally protected property rights of landlords. As we learned to live with Covid-19 these provisions enabled the residential rental sector to resume activity in as near normal a manner as possible.

With effect from 1 August 2020, the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020 introduced protections for those tenants who are facing rent arrears and, as a result, are at risk of losing their tenancy. If a tenant's ability to pay has been impacted by Covid-19 and the tenant meets specific criteria new procedures and protections apply by way of a very simple self-declaration. Tenants who follow these procedures cannot be required to vacate their rental accommodation before 11 January 2021 and are not required to pay any rent increase in respect of the period ending 10 January 2021.

These protections are having a significant effect on the level of tenancy termination. Of the 844 notices of arrears issued since the protections were enacted on 1 August, less than one in four has led to a notice of termination actually being issued. One in five tenants have availed of the protections available under the Act and their tenancies cannot be terminated until 11 January next year. The remaining 487 tenancies have not yet received any notice of termination. As the pandemic may or may not become more prevalent within society, I and the Government will keep a very close eye on the situation and bring forward any additional protections that are required at that time.

The Minister is trying to tell us black is white. He lifted the eviction ban. The consequences are beginning to come through now and all the spin in the world will not change that reality. The second Act of 2020 that the Minister brought in is extremely limited and only relates to situations involving arrears, inability to pay and so on.

I will give a concrete example that shows how landlords will continue to get around this. A woman, let us call her Jane, who lives in Knocklyon was subject to an eviction attempt by her landlord. She is a taxi driver and she lost her income as such. The Government then cut her pandemic unemployment payment, PUP. She then fell behind in her rent and so established rent arrears. Her landlord then attempted to evict her but he was smart enough not to say he was evicting her because of rent arrears due to Covid. Instead, all of a sudden a relative wants to move home. She does not get protection under the Minister's legislation and there are more and more situations like that. The chair of Threshold has warned that, unless action is taken, we face a homeless crisis worse than anything we have seen to date.

The facts simply do not bear that out. The Deputy voted against these protections in July this year that we brought forward to put protections on tenancies. These were not just temporary protections relating to the pandemic but also in relation to dealing with rent arrears, the extension of the rent arrears notice, the fact that if a landlord issues a rent arrears notice, it has to go to the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, and the fact that the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, is now linked into the process to assist tenants at the very beginning of any arrears that happen. The Deputy voted against those measures and others on the hard left did likewise. This wave of evictions the Deputy refers to is not happening and the figures do not bear that out.

I have said to the Deputy already that, should there be an escalation of the pandemic in this country, I as Minister with responsibility for housing will be watching that very closely and will not be found wanting in bringing forward further protections should they be needed.

I have another two cases in Tallaght of people who have notices to quit from their landlords. In this case, the excuse the landlord is going for is that they are selling the property. I do not necessarily believe that they are selling the property. I have seen this many times in the past. There are definite holes in the Minister's legislation, which is why we favour a reintroduction of the full evictions ban. We are bringing forward legislation to do precisely that. We know that a ban on evictions works. We have the proof from earlier this year when the ban saw the number of homeless families drop by 1,500. The number of homeless children fell by over one quarter in the six months that the ban was in place. That is why the ban was introduced in the first place, it is why the ban is needed now and it is why all of the major housing and homeless groups are calling for it. What the Minister has provided is not a ban on evictions. It is just another mechanism that landlords can walk around to get away from. What we need is the complete ban on evictions that we had previously in place. We need it right now.

If the Deputy has any information or facts around landlords who are trying to circumvent regulations, he should bring it to the attention of the RTB. Since the RTB was empowered to initiate sanctions against landlords, it has processed information in relation to 704 tenancies and this has led to commencing investigations on nearly 200. That is what needs to happen. That is why we need to beef up the RTB as well, not just giving it the additional powers but the additional resources it needs to carry out its work and we are doing that.

The premise of the Deputy's argument that we have had a wave of evictions or homelessness since this legislative came in is just not true. Homeless numbers have continued to drop. I want to see them drop further but that is the fact of it. They are the facts and the numbers and behind all of those numbers are people. There will always be individual cases and that is why we need the RTB and orders to be tooled up to assist it. That is why I have MABS involved now at a very early stage in the legislation that this Government brought forward that the Deputy opposed in July.

Housing Policy

Joan Collins

Question:

32. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage if a commitment will be given that public land to be developed for housing can only be used for public housing. [27756/20]

According to housing statistics from Dublin City Council, the council housed 517 households last year, most of whom had been waiting for a home since the mid 2000s, according to the documents. That is nearly 15 years. The average waiting time was more than 12 years and one of the households had been on the list since 1996. We are in a housing crisis in the middle of a pandemic. Will the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, give a commitment to build public housing on public land?

I thank the Deputy for her question. The programme for Government commits to the State playing a greater part in directly providing affordable and social homes with a focus on middle income earners and developing sustainable mixed tenure communities. These principles will guide our housing policy and the work of the Land Development Agency, LDA, in assembling strategic sites in urban areas and ensuring the sustainable development of social and affordable homes for rent and purchase. This will include ensuring the public housing rental stock on public lands is under the control of local authorities, approved housing bodies or similar bodies. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform issued an update to the public spending code in October 2019 to include a requirement that, prior to seeking approval from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to dispose of land and buildings on the open market, all non-commercial State bodies must first consult with the LDA in relation to the appropriate disposal of these lands. This requirement will further be strengthened by a commitment in the programme for Government that any State lands offered for sale will automatically be offered first to the LDA. This would mean that these lands could be acquired by the LDA, ensuring they remain in the ownership of the State and are used to provide appropriate housing within its mandate.

Nine sites have been initially prescribed to deliver 3,600 homes. It is clear in the programme for Government that the basis for this will be enshrined in social and affordable housing and cost rental to ensure that we have a significant increase in the housing supply.

We have a situation in the Central Mental Hospital site in Dundrum which the Land Development Agency is supporting. That is a significant project. The agency should be supporting and developing public housing on public lands. The Donnybrook Partnership plans to sell 14 apartments in a development at Eglinton Road to Dublin City Council for €9.18 million as part of its Part V obligation to allocate 10% of any new private development to social housing. That is a mad situation because on what should be substantially discounted housing units, it puts an indicative price tag of €762,916 on each of the nine two-bedroom apartments and €469,000 on each of the five one-bedroom apartments in the development. We are paying money to private developers when we have land. We have seen what happened with O'Devaney Gardens and what will happen with the available land on Oscar Traynor Road, which the council will try to dispose of to the benefit of a private developer. This has to stop. We have a housing emergency and the Government needs houses for people on the housing list.

I thank the Deputy. It is clear that the Land Development Agency wants to deliver public housing on public lands. The make-up of that is clearly directed and includes affordable housing, cost rental and social homes. Actions speak louder than words. Planning permission has been granted for lands at Shanganagh, the application for which was submitted by the Land Development Agency, in tandem with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. That development will comprise 597 homes, 34% of which will be social housing, 54% will be cost rental and 15% will be affordable purchase. The key issue underpinning the Land Development Agency is to try to get affordability into the sector to ensure that we can provide homes at affordable prices. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is working hard to deliver a scheme to underpin that over the coming months. It is obviously important that we get affordability into our housing market.

There are lands belonging to the Dublin City Council at O'Devaney Gardens and Oscar Traynor Road. There are lands across the country belonging to other local authorities. We need to build public and cost rental housing on those lands. We do not know what "affordable housing" means because no one has ever given us an idea of the cost of an affordable house and I would like to see that soon. We cannot clear housing lists in Dublin City Council and all local authorities while, at the same time, more than 10,000 families are in emergency accommodation, others are in the streets, the Housing First initiative is ongoing and all of that. We have to be much more vigorous in targeting these public lands for public housing and strategically building units for people who need them. I believe the Land Development Agency can play a crucial role but there must be a clear indication of what "affordable housing" means and we do not have that indication.

The Land Development Agency will play a key role. The Deputy mentioned O'Devaney Gardens in Dublin. The project has been approved under the second serviced sites fund. That project and another in Killinarden were approved in August 2019. Those two projects will assist in the delivery of 465 affordable homes, with 165 in O'Devaney Gardens and 300 in Killinarden. The Department is constantly working with local authorities to progress projects like those, as it should.

The key thing is that when the State is in possession of significant land banks, we have an agency that can drive the delivery of these projects at a time of crisis to ensure that we are providing cost rental, affordable and social homes. That is how to ensure that our citizens have the best possible chance to get secure accommodation in the future.