Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Housing Policy

Eoin Ó Broin

Question:

1. Deputy Eoin Ó Broin asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage his views on the latest data from the Residential Tenancies Board that indicated almost 4,000 rent warning letters and 1,100 notices to quit have been issued to tenants since the introduction of the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020. [34152/21]

Figures from the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, show within the last ten months 3,810 rent arrears warning notices have been issued and 1,122 notices to quit. Given that the general ban on evictions ended on 22 April 2021, there is a genuine concern that many of these tenants could end up losing their homes and becoming homeless. I ask the Minister to outline what he is going to do to ensure that this very specific group of tenants is protected in order that we do not see a rise in homelessness, and particularly family homelessness, in the coming months.

I thank Deputy Ó Broin for his question. Since 1 August 2020, the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020, and its successor, the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020, enhance tenancy protections where a tenant is in rent arrears due to Covid-19 and at risk of losing his or her home and make the necessary declaration. Indeed, coincidentally, we were debating the extension of the protections in this very Chamber yesterday evening.

Since August last, a landlord is also legally required to serve both the RTB and the tenant with both a 28-day warning notice - a notice period that has been increased from 14 days - seeking payment of rent arrears and also any related notice of termination that might ensue. Otherwise, the notice of termination is unlawful. I am stating that because it was a permanent change that we made last year in the legislation, with effect from 1 August. That Bill did not have unanimous support at the time. It was opposed by some in the Opposition, which, in fairness, was their right. It is a permanent change. It is most important that we are flagging rent arrears from the earliest opportunity as it arises.

On receipt of the warning notice, the RTB will acknowledge receipt to the landlord and the tenant and will provide information to the tenant to enable her or him to get advice from Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, on State income support, and will offer assistance to the tenant in obtaining this advice. The aim is to ensure that early action is taken to address rent arrears, to the benefit of both the tenant and the landlord.

As the Deputy correctly stated, the RTB received copies of 3,810 warning notices that landlords had issued to tenants in rent arrears. That is something that would not have happened but for the passing of the Acts last year that I brought forward. It also received copies of just over 1,120 notices of termination grounded on rent arrears. To put that in context, it relates to almost 300,000 tenancies. Perhaps I will expand on that and provide more detail on it, following the Deputy's supplementary question. It is an important issue and one which we must keep an eye on. I will speak more on it following the supplementary.

My question was very specific. While the information that the Minister has provided is very interesting, it does not actually address the question. I look forward to him addressing the question in his response.

The problem is as follows. The homeless figures for April 2021 show, for the first time in a long time, an increase the number of families with children in emergency accommodation. We know that the single largest cause of family homelessness is landlords issuing vacant possession notices to quit. In fact, looking at the most recent data from the RTB, they tell us that 49% of notices to quit are on grounds of sale and 24% are in cases of the landlord or landlord's family using the property. There is a real concern among front-line homeless service providers that now that the general ban on evictions has ended, we are going to see a return to the pre-Covid monthly increases in homelessness.

Specifically, I am asking the Minister that for those people who have notices to quit today, whether for rent arrears, sale of property or use of property by landlords, what is the Minister going to do to ensure that we do not see a month-on-month rise in homelessness, and in particular, family homelessness with children involved?

Homelessness is an absolute priority issue for me and the Government. Thankfully, in the last year, year-on-year, we have seen a significant reduction in homelessness, both in child and family homelessness and overall. There are issues with single person homelessness, rates of which remain stubbornly high. The overall number of people who are homeless is still far too high. All of us would agree with that assertion. The monthly figures will be published tomorrow. I have seen the preliminary figures and the trend within them is good. Having said that, it shows the challenge of the work that remains to be done in this space, particularly around the provision of permanent homes, and specifically for those to whom the Deputy has referred.

Of those who received notices of termination, 475 tenants sought protection under the self-declaration. I would ask any of those who have received a notice of termination to engage with the RTB and to look, in particular, at the protections that are there and the emergency rent supplement payments that are available.

However, it is an area that we are going to watch. Almost 300,000 tenancies were registered with the RTB by the end of 2020, and there were just over 1,120 notices of termination. Therefore, it needs to be put into context.

Again, the Minister did not answer the very specific question. The single biggest cause of the dramatic drop in family homelessness in the last year was the blanket ban on evictions. One of the first acts of Deputy O'Brien as Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage was to end that blanket ban. It was reintroduced when level 5 restrictions returned, but it ended again on 22 April 2021. That means that if landlords continue to issue vacant possession notices to quit and others, we could see a month-on-month increase in homelessness.

I am asking the Minister a very simple question. What is he going to do for those people who today have received notices to quit and who are not eligible for the very restrictive Covid-19 renters protections? What is the Minister going to do for those who have received notices to quit and are at imminent risk of eviction and, therefore, at risk of homelessness? What additional measures and interventions will be taken? Otherwise, the fear of many - not just in the Opposition but also in the homeless services sector - is that the progress made over the last 12 months, to which the Minister rightly referred, will start to be undone and homeless numbers will begin to rise.

Yesterday evening we brought forward the fifth piece of tenancy and rental legislation since I was appointed Minister. We have been to the fore in the areas of rent and protection for tenants. Last August, when exited out of the blanket ban on evictions that was in place, we did so on the basis of very strong legal advice that we had received, that any measures that we take must be proportionate. Whether Deputies want to acknowledge it or not, we must balance the rights of the property owner and, indeed, the tenant.

I said yesterday evening that I intend to bring forward substantial reforms relating to rent and tenancy reforms in the autumn but specifically for the people referred to by the Deputy. I remind him and others that when we exited the blanket eviction ban last August, there were many who predicted "a tsunami of evictions". This did not happen because the protections this Government and I brought in are targeted and proportionate, and are working. Even though only 475 people have sought that protection, the fact that they are there shows that we are serious about protecting tenants.

House Prices

Cian O'Callaghan

Question:

2. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage his views on the latest CSO residential property price index report that shows that house prices have risen by 4.5% over the past year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34134/21]

What is the Minister's response to the latest CSO residential property price index report showing that house prices have risen by 4.5% over the past year? The Tánaiste, who has made a lot of pronouncements on housing recently, defended these prices on the basis that price levels have not yet surpassed the Celtic tiger peak. What price levels does the Minister think would be acceptable?

The April 2021 price index released by the CSO shows in general a rising trend in house prices with some variations across areas and property type. These increases must be viewed in the context of the proceeding year, which included national lockdowns and restrictions on movement, which impacted severely on the construction sector and our supply. Obviously, there has been a lot of pressure on the second-hand market and the ability of sellers and purchasers to engage in normal sales activity, including physical viewings. We had a situation that was far from ideal in respect of virtual viewings and biddings but those changes had to be made in the context of public health advice. The ongoing easing of Covid restrictions will support a full reopening of the housing market and a return to a more normal supply of properties for sale. This will impact positively on the rate of price increases. The wide range of actions set out in the programme for Government will continue to deliver increases in housing supply and affordable housing, which is a priority for me, despite the challenges presented by Covid and will support a moderation in house prices.

The new housing plan entitled housing for all, which I will publish in the coming weeks, will set out a whole-of-government approach to outline how we get to a housing system that gives us sustainable supply at a price people can afford with appropriate housing options, particularly for the most vulnerable. We will bring the Affordable Housing Bill, which has passed the Seanad, into the Dáil for Second Stage later. This is the most comprehensive affordable housing legislation ever published by any Government. In particular, this Bill will help those in the unaffordability trap.

I would like to hear if the Minister has a view on price levels or if housing for all will set targets. In the past week, a house in Rathmines in poor condition and in need of significant renovation has attracted a bidding war with offers in excess of €530,000 above the asking price. These kind of bidding wars create huge anxiety and fear in prospective first-time buyers and have not been seen since the Celtic tiger years. Housing utility costs are 78% higher here than the EU average and Dublin has the second highest house prices in the eurozone. Prices are only higher in Luxembourg. The typical age of a joint purchaser has risen to 38 and the typical age of a single purchaser has risen to 42. Even the report of the Government's sub-committee on housing has warned that demand side measures could add to this so I am asking the Minister what kind of price levels he thinks are acceptable.

The measures I have brought forward in the Affordable Housing Bill and housing for all are supply side measures because we need to get supply up to at least an average of 33,000 per year. Last year, there were just over 20,000 completions. This year, on the best projections we have so far, there will probably be up to 18,000. The reality is that when the market, production and capacity are constrained, there is additional pressure on the second-hand homes market in particular. The Deputy referred to the bidding war relating to the house in Rathmines, which I watched myself. The bids are approximately €500,000 over the original asking price. That is not sustainable and is not something I want to see but we are in an unusual position where we are coming through post Covid and are building up capacity in the sector. There are also some cost implications and cost increases in materials and labour that I hope will be temporary.

Will there be targets for price levels in housing for all or does the Minister and Government have a view on that? There are only 7,000 or 8,000 new build homes available on the open market each year. The rest are bought by institutions or for one-off houses or social housing. In the context of some of the highest house prices in the eurozone, the warnings that prices could reach Celtic tiger levels, the sharp increases in the cost of construction building materials mentioned by the Minister and the warnings from the Central Bank and the ESRI about adding a demand side shared equity scheme to this and adding fuel to the fire, will he reconsider those measures that will increase house prices even further given the pressure at the moment, bearing in mind the fact that the people who lobbied for that scheme did it at a time house price inflation was much more stable?

This Government believes in home ownership. In his earlier contribution, the Deputy bemoaned the fact that the average age of someone buying his or her first home has increased to 38. I have been raising this issue for a number of years but the difference is that we are doing something about it. A shared equity scheme is part of the Affordable Housing Bill, which will come to the House this evening and which I hope the Social Democrats will support. This shared equity scheme is focused on those who need it most. It will work. It has been passed by the Central Bank, has received approval and will help those caught in an affordability trap by helping them bridge that affordability gap with the State taking equity in their home. The State will take equity in direct build affordable homes built through local authorities such as the scheme in Donabate of more than 1,200 homes, 200 of which are social and 238 of which are affordable, passed by Fingal County Council a number of weeks ago but which the Deputy's party voted against.

Housing Provision

Eoin Ó Broin

Question:

3. Deputy Eoin Ó Broin asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage if his target of 33,000 new home completions a year will not be met until 2025. [34153/21]

On Sunday, writing in the Mail on Sunday, John Drennan included a startling revelation. Apparently, a high-level memorandum from senior civil servants to the Cabinet sub-committee on housing said that the 33,000 new home completions that will be in the housing for all strategy will not be met until 2025. I do not expect the Minister to confirm or deny the content of a confidential memorandum to a Cabinet sub-committee but could he tell the House when he believes the target of 33,000 public and private home completions will be met?

I know the Deputy has a close relationship with that particular publication. I cannot say I read the article. My Department engaged the ESRI to undertake independent research into structural housing demand in Ireland right up to 2040. The findings of the ESRI on structural housing demand at county level were published last December so I am familiar with that. Based on that research and factoring in existing demand together with future projected demand, we know the State will probably require an average of 33,000 new housing units per annum and we have fed this into our housing needs demand assessment, which includes every local authority. While there has been a significant fourfold increase in output since the lows of 2013, some of this ground has been lost due to the effects of the pandemic and we all know that. As I said earlier in response to Deputy O'Callaghan, we estimate that housing completions will be between 18,000 and 20,000 this year. We hope to make up lost ground through some activation measures. Last year, the sector performed better than was originally projected.

To answer the Deputy's question about when we will reach that number, in the coming weeks, we will produce our new housing policy entitled housing for All. This will have targets. I neglected to tell Deputy O'Callaghan about that. The plan will set out a pathway to the sustainable supply we need at a price people can afford with appropriate housing options for the most vulnerable, including the areas around social, public housing, cost rental, affordable purchase and private housing supply, which we also need in this country. I will outline the steps in the ladder to get to those figures of 33,000 in the housing for all plan.

It is still being worked on but I know when it is published the Deputy will have intense interest in it. We can debate it in detail at that stage.

Hopefully the Mail on Sunday will let me write a critique of the Minister's plan and I can sing its praises or highlight its weaknesses, depending on its content. For the second time today, the Minister has not answered the question, which was a simple one. When does the Minister believe we will reach the 33,000 new home completions target that will be in his strategy? If he will not answer that, will he tease out his last comments by confirming whether there will be targets for social housing and, crucially, affordable purchase and affordable rental for each year from 2022 to 2025? The average of 4,000 affordable homes has been widely reported, I presume on the basis of briefings from the Minister's officials or office. That target, on the basis of information given to the Oireachtas housing committee from Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage officials in the Land Development Agency, will not be met by 2025. Will the Minister have annual targets for, in particular, affordable housing? When will he meet the 33,000 target?

We will have annual targets. I hope the Deputy's party and other parties opposite will recognise that, to reach those targets, they need to support development. They need to support building and stop voting against housing developments and proposals brought forward at local authorities across the country. I referenced to Deputy Cian O'Callaghan probably the most significant scheme in Dublin this year, comprising 1,200 homes, which both Deputy Ó Broin's party and Deputy O'Callaghan's party opposed. There are also the ongoing difficulties with Oscar Traynor, which I am working with the local authority to try to resolve.

All of us need to focus on delivering homes and stop talking about it. My focus in Housing for All is on a housing plan backed with resources to deliver affordable homes and public homes that people need and put home ownership back at the centre of our response to the housing crisis. I am confident we can make up the lost ground over the last year. We will have targets in the plan for delivery and affordable housing.

Sinn Féin makes no apology for opposing sweetheart land deals for developers that will see 50% to 70% of the homes on public land sold at prices over €400,000. That is bad housing policy and reckless use of a public resource. I remind the Minister that Members of his party sided with Sinn Féin and the Social Democrats in opposing the appalling sweetheart land deal in Oscar Traynor Road. Despite the fact the Minister has been given an alternative proposal supported by a majority of councillors on Dublin City Council in March, he is setting delay after delay on the delivery of those much-needed 800 social and affordable homes. Does the Minister believe he will reach the 4,000 affordable homes target by 2025? If so, how much will be invested year on year to meet the target?

There will be a number of measures to help us deliver the affordable homes we need. One will be the Affordable Housing Bill, which I hope the Deputy's party and others will support, and another is the Land Development Agency, which will enable us to use our State land productively. I was taken aback when Deputy Ó Broin and his party admitted they wanted a Land Development Agency but do not want a State agency involved in residential development or building and, more strikingly, the Deputy said on the record of the committee that he does not want to master plan for housing.

The State owns enough land to deliver about 114,000 homes for our people, and probably more. We need to utilise the State land we have, get it into the market and use it productively. I have been focusing with colleagues on getting the Land Development Agency legislation passed before the recess. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating very soon when we see whether the Deputy and his party support the legislation. Alternatively, will they continue to let their perfect be the enemy of the good for all?

Housing Schemes

Mattie McGrath

Question:

4. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the amount provided by his Department to Tipperary County Council for 2020 in respect of housing supports (details supplied). [34133/21]

I ask the Minister how much money was provided by his Department to Tipperary County Council in 2020 in respect of the rental accommodation scheme, the long-term leasing scheme and the housing assistance payment.

The rental accommodation scheme has been an important contributor to social housing supply since its introduction on a pilot basis in 2005. Expenditure under the scheme covers recoupment made to local authorities for contracted rents due to private landlords and approved housing bodies, administration costs and a damages contingency fund for newly acquired accommodation.

Exchequer funding of €6.9 million was provided to Tipperary in 2020 to support 1,071 tenancies. Funding for leasing projects is provided under the social housing current expenditure budget. This supports the delivery of social housing by providing financial support to local authorities for the long-term leasing of houses and apartments from private owners and approved housing bodies.

Tipperary County Council delivered 40 additional properties under the social housing leasing scheme in 2020, with a total spend for the year of €2.5m in relation to all leased properties.

The housing assistance payment, HAP, is a flexible and immediate housing support available to all eligible households throughout the State. Funding for HAP for Tipperary in 2020 amounted to €7.1 million, with 1,868 active tenancies at the end of 2020. This funding represents the portion paid by my Department after receipt of the differential rent which is paid by the tenant to the local authority. It does not include administration costs related to the scheme.

It is very disappointing because HAP payments from Tipperary County Council went to 1,178 tenancies in 2019. In 2020, it was more than 1,800. The total cost in 2019 was more than €6.8 million; in 2020, it was €7.1 million.

The housing leasing scheme is only one third of that, according to the figures the Minister of State has given. That scheme, which offers tenants long-term security, is not being promoted or advanced by most local authorities. It could and does provide longer term security for tenants of ten or 20 years. This would be also more cost effective for the State. There are sizable administration costs at county council and Department levels.

The Government has front-loaded money into HAP and it is not delivering homes for people. I accept it is putting roofs over people's heads and was needed but the overemphasis on HAP is damaging to the building of new homes.

The Deputy will be aware that the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, has been keen to redress the imbalance in terms of direct build in our housing. That can be seen on the ground in Tipperary. There has been a 32% reduction in the housing list in the county in recent years. A total of 526 new homes have been built since 2016, including 274 social, 14 under the Part V process and 238 which have been brought back into use from vacancy. The Minister has brought huge impetus in the last year to driving local authorities to bring vacant properties back into use for our citizens. We are making progress. There are 234 homes across 19 sites that are going through the design process and 138 at pre-tender stage. There is a drive to get direct build new homes on the ground for the citizens of Tipperary.

I respect the Minister of State but he must have been listening to the Tánaiste at his Ard-Fheis last weekend. In the past five years, there has been a complete failure by the Government to fund local authorities building houses. In 2016, there were only 320 local authority new builds; in 2017, there were 1,014 new builds; in 2018, 2,022 new builds; in 2019, 2,271 new builds; in 2020, only 2,300 new builds; in 2021 so far, there have been 1,995. The Tánaiste at the Ard-Fheis last weekend must have been in cloud cuckoo land to think he could pluck 40,000 a year out of the sky. This has not been happening. Fine Gael has been in government for ten years and nothing is happening. It was supported by Fianna Fáil in the so-called confidence and supply agreement for five years. Now Fianna Fáil promises to build 9,500 social houses per year. The spin does not get it done. We are not getting houses built. We were to build them in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and everything else. Now it is all spin and veneer and houses are not being built for people.

We should go by facts in this House.

I have the facts.

Will the Deputy will let me finish? I did not interrupt him. I would appreciate it if he could give me a bit of time. In the first instance, there has been an increase of 300% in housing supply since 2012. The Government has also delivered 34,000 new social homes, homes that are right for our citizens, since 2016. That represents a 300% increase in supply. While I accept that there are frustrations, there is a record budget within the Department, totalling €3.3 billion, to deliver social and affordable housing. As the Deputy will be aware, the Affordable Housing Bill has been going through the Houses of the Oireachtas and is nearing completion. The Land Development Agency is going to deliver houses at scale. There is nothing wrong with having ambition to deliver housing on the ground for our citizens. But for Covid, last year we would have delivered well over 20,000 units. The Deputy will see continued delivery over this year and next year. The facts speak for themselves with regard to the number of units on the ground. We have increased the numbers from a very low base and we will continue to increase them with a record budget in the Department.

Construction Industry

Michael McNamara

Question:

5. Deputy Michael McNamara asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage if his Department has consulted the construction sector regarding the growing impact on housing construction on the shortage of timber and the inflating ever cost of same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33843/21]

As the Minister of State will be aware, small one-off builders and self-builders are also important to the supply of housing in Ireland, particularly in rural areas. Accessing materials is increasingly difficult. I refer to timber in particular. The supply is drying up. A simple length of 4" X 2" was €8 last year and is now €13. One of the main builder's suppliers in Clare is no longer stocking timber. Builders will not give quotes of more than a month's duration because of inflation in the cost of supplies. I refer not just to timber, but to materials generally. What is the Minister's Department going to do about this? What can it do?

Increasing the supply of housing is a priority for the Government and for our Department in particular. I am fully aware that the construction sector has faced a number of considerable challenges over the past year, not least the restrictions on construction activity introduced to combat the spread of Covid-19 and the impact of Brexit and related supply issues. Throughout this period, colleagues across Government have engaged with representatives from across the sector. Indeed the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, met with the Irish Home Builders Association recently, on 12 June, and the issue of increases in materials was one of the issues raised.

Across Europe, supply issues have been affecting the price of timber due to increased demand. Other construction materials such as steel, concrete and plastics have also been affected and these developments are being monitored closely internationally. However, while the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland tender price index reveals that national construction tender prices increased by 1.3% in the second half of 2020, it is still significantly less than tender price inflation levels being experienced before the Covid-19 pandemic. While there was elevated construction sector inflation in 2019, construction price inflation slowed overall in 2020 as a result of Covid-19.

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform facilitates the construction sector group. This group considers opportunities to introduce reforms to assist with tackling inflation in the wider construction sector.

I find it a strange construct that one asks the Minister a question only for his junior Minister to read out a prepared script telling us all the wonderful things the Minister is doing. It is to be hoped this is a time for questions and answers rather than propaganda. I appreciate that the supply of building materials is, by and large, a private endeavour but if these issues are preventing the supply of housing in Ireland, which it is and increasingly will, is there anything the Government can do? I do not really mind who answers the question. I am particularly concerned about timber. There is a lot of timber growing in Ireland and much of that is past the point of maturity. Many landowners across Clare are looking for felling licences. There is chaos in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, particularly in its forestry section. As the Minister of State answered, perhaps he might talk to Senator Hackett, who is the Minister of State with responsibility for this, and tell her to get things moving.

To clarify, the three Ministers are here to answer questions on the issues being raised today. I am very aware of the current challenges in the forestry sector and I acknowledge the implications of delays to the granting of licences for the wider industry and for the construction sector. We are fully aware of that. I am in regular contact with my colleague, the Minister of State, Senator Hackett. She is working with a range of stakeholders to address this issue, particularly through Project Woodland. It is a very difficult situation and we acknowledge that. We are hopeful that the current process will resolve the problems and work towards a solution to address the issue of felling licences in particular.

The Government has been in place for more than 12 months. This Dáil has been in place for a bit longer again. This problem predates this Government. I acknowledge that the problem did not arise under Senator Hackett's watch but she has been in officer for a while now and I am not hearing of any increase in the number of felling licences granted. I appreciate that there are environmental issues around forestry policy but these are not the problem here, although we need to address them. One can blame people who object to planning or felling licences but other countries have much more environmental protection in place and do not have the same problems sourcing timber as us. There is a logjam in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine with regard to issuing felling licences. I sometimes question whether there might be a degree of market manipulation being carried out by large plantation owners and whether the Department is complicit in that. One or way or the other, there is a very significant problem. Timber mills cannot get timber so they cannot mill it and sell it on. Small builders just cannot get timber as a result.

The Deputy is correct. It is a significant challenge. As I have said, the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, are determined to resolve these issues, the logjam about which the Deputy has spoken. There is no doubt but that this has had, and continues to have, a significant impact on the construction sector in Ireland. The Deputy specifically mentioned small construction companies and small one-off builders. This issue is particularly impacting on them, although it is also impacting on the larger-scale builders in the sector. I am convinced and remain confident that Project Woodland and the measures taken by the Department will resolve these issues within a reasonable period and bring supply back into the market. That is something we all want to see.