Skip to main content
Normal View

Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 23 Jun 2022

Vol. 1024 No. 2

Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Housing Policy

Eoin Ó Broin

Question:

6. Deputy Eoin Ó Broin asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage if he will provide an update on the review of the social housing income thresholds; and if he will indicate whether he intends to raise the thresholds. [33082/22]

Bríd Smith

Question:

9. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage if he has plans to examine the income limits for social housing; if they will be increased and whether those who have been removed from the list over the last period will be reinstated to their position on the lists; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32965/22]

I understand the Minister received in December a copy of the review of the social housing income eligibility threshold from the departmental officials. This is a matter that requires an urgent decision. More and more people are being done out of access to social housing supports. More and more people are having their social housing supports withdrawn. We even have a situation where people in emergency accommodation who breach the limit are being written to and told their emergency accommodation will be denied. When will the Minister make a decision on this? Will he give us an indication of the type of decision he is considering making at this point in time?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 9 together.

Applications for social housing support are assessed by the relevant local authority in accordance with the eligibility and need criteria set down in section 20 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 and the associated social housing assessment regulations. The regulations prescribe maximum net income limits for each local authority in different bands according to the area concerned, with income being defined and assessed according to a standard household means policy. The income bands, and the authority area assigned to each band, were based on an assessment of the income needed to provide for a household's basic needs plus a comparative analysis of the local rental cost of housing accommodation throughout the country. A blanket increase of €5,000 was also introduced prior to the new system coming into operation.

Net income is defined as gross household income less income tax, PRSI, universal social charge and additional superannuation contribution. The policy provides for a range of income disregards. Local authorities may disregard temporary, short-term or once-off income. Determining whether an applicant household meets the income criteria is now based on its preceding 12 months' net average income prior to receipt of the application. This ensures the most comprehensive picture of a household's current and previous income is available when the eligibility assessment is carried out. It also better reflects the long-term nature of social housing supports and in doing so ensures fairness and equity in the system and that those with a continuing long-term need are prioritised. Eligibility may be reviewed by a local authority, for example, at the point of allocating support. Households are generally removed from the housing list if they exceed the income limits. They may re-apply for social housing at any stage but, if deemed eligible on re-application, they are not re-instated to their previous position on the list.

Housing for All - A New Housing Plan for Ireland was published in September 2021 and, as part of a broad suite of social housing reforms, committed to reviewing income eligibility for social housing. The review, which examined inter alia the efficiency of the current banding model and income limits applicable to local authorities, has been completed. The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, is considering its findings and recommendations. The review is being considered in the context of our affordable housing scheme and cost rental scheme, the amendment to Part V from 10% to 20% social housing and all of the affordability measures available in the State in the new Housing for All package. Local authorities have discretion on short-term or one-off income that can be disregarded when assessing a housing application. The key priority for the Government is to ensure the most vulnerable get the support they need. The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, will shortly make recommendations from the review.

Those on the list who, further to a review by the local authority, fail to meet the criteria and subsequently reapply will be reinstated at the position they had previously on the list. This is very important reassurance for people. Looking back over the previous 12 months is the fairest system to ensure that all income is captured. If there are changes, temporary changes or one-off income it can be disregarded.

I thank the Minister of State. My problem is that he did not answer the question. The information he has given us is very useful although I think everybody in the House knows it. The question is very simple. When will the review be published? What resolution of this is the Minister considering? People are being taken off the housing list week on week. I have been contacted about two cases, not in my constituency, where the income of people in emergency accommodation has increased and they have been given letters telling them they are no longer eligible for social housing support. Families are losing eight, nine or ten years on the list. In some rural local authorities a family on social welfare with a large number of children is above the threshold. The criteria have not been changed since 2011.

I appreciate the information the Minister of State has given me. I am not looking to create an argument but there are Deputies in every party who every six weeks come here and ask when the Minister will publish the review and increase the limits. These are reasonable questions. Given the conversation we have just had about rising levels of homelessness and the low and slow output of affordable housing there is an urgency in taking action on this. The sooner the Minister does so the better. I would be greatly appreciative of any information the Minister of State can give me on the question I actually asked.

The problem with the response of the Minister of State is that he said social housing has to look after the most vulnerable. We know, and it has just been outlined, that those who may be eight, ten or 12 years on the housing list and who get a small increase in their net income are taken off the housing list. This makes them very vulnerable. Many of them do end up in homelessness and they do not have any housing support. The question needs to be answered. When will the review be published? It is not satisfactory to answer that the cost rental scheme will deliver this and another scheme will deliver that. What needs to happen is that people entitled to go on the social housing list remain there until they are housed and are not knocked off it because they get a small increase in their income. Dozens of families to whom this pertains come to us. I grew up in a housing estate that was so-called social housing. We called it "corpo housing". Everybody on the street had a job and an average income. This did not make us the most vulnerable. It meant the State had an obligation to house us and we paid rent.

I absolutely understand the concerns of the Deputies. Every week at my clinics I meet very vulnerable people who are concerned about inflation and the risk to their position on the housing list. We are committed to ensuring we get the right answer. As I outlined in my contribution this has to be balanced with the amendments we have made through Housing for All, having record delivery of social housing this year and other mechanisms to meet various needs in society. As I have said, to be very clear, the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, is reviewing the recommendations. He has a few concerns about some aspects of them and he is engaging with officials on these at present. As soon as possible we will make amendments. They will have to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected. I assure the House this is being treated with urgency in terms of trying to get the right answer balanced with the other mechanisms the State has. This includes record delivery of social housing as well as a €4 billion budget through Housing for All for social housing delivery.

I cannot stress enough the urgency of this. I will take the example of a couple in my constituency who are €500 or €1,000 above the social housing eligibility threshold. If they were to avail of the cost rental that is coming through Tuath in Kilcarbery, they would be spending almost 50% of their net income on rent. Cost rental does not work for that cohort. What that tells us is that we have to raise the thresholds. I absolutely appreciate it will take some significant assessment to determine to what level it is increased and how that is operated across local authorities. I do not believe, however, that it should take six months to make those decisions given that the work will have been done by the Department.

I appeal to the Minister and the Minister of State to come back with a formal recommendation as a matter of urgency. It is simply not acceptable for a working family on a hard income who have waited eight, nine or ten years on the list, to have to then decide whether to give up a promotion or some increased permanent overtime to keep their position there, or take that extra money to deal with the cost of living crisis and lose their social housing position and, ultimately, be worse off because they have to pay rents. This needs a decision this summer and I urge the Minister and the Minister of State to take that decision and announce it, for the good of all of those families affected.

I will go one further and argue with the Minister that he has a duty to publish that review, having sat on it for six months. Many people are going through agony, having been knocked off the housing list after years of waiting. This is not right. There are various schemes in the Housing for All policy which are really an attempt to reinvent the wheel. What we need is a massive investment in public housing that gives access to the housing list to those who need it and we need to stop, in the cruel way which the Government has been doing, knocking people off the housing list because their income increases. Sometimes their income increases by a very marginal amount after having waited for ten or 12 years on the housing list. This is not acceptable. We have dozens of families and maybe more, throughout the Oireachtas, coming to us with this problem. It is absolutely heartbreaking. It is argued that Housing for All or cost rental will resolve it. They do not and will not resolve it. What also impacts on this is that people get no housing supports whatsoever once they are off list. They do not get HAP or RAS or income supports to help them be rehoused. That is why we have working families consistently ending up in homeless accommodation. It is outrageous. We need to know when that review will be published, instead of having to come here week after week to ask the same question.

I assure both Deputies that this is being treated with the most urgency within the Department. The Minister has been engaging with other Departments, as well, to try to finalise an approach that will ensure the most vulnerable in society are protected. That is our modus operandi in trying to get these regulations right. There are three bands throughout the network of 31 local authorities which, obviously, need to be reformed. That is key. We can see that from meeting constituents, in terms of the problems that have been referenced here, who either have an increase in terms of income and, unfortunately, fall off the list and are faced with very difficult circumstances. We want to protect people who are faced with those decisions and ensure that they have options. That is why we are balancing it with the record investment in housing through Housing for All, in terms of that significant increase in housing supply into the State. I assure everyone that this is being treated with the utmost urgency.

Housing Schemes

Thomas Gould

Question:

7. Deputy Thomas Gould asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the targets the vacant homes unit in his Department is working towards to tackle vacancy and dereliction. [32972/22]

I will ask the Minister about the targets towards which the vacant homes unit in his Department is working, to tackle vacancy and dereliction.

Housing for All, which was published in September 2021, provides a new housing plan for Ireland to 2030. Its overall objective is that every citizen in the State should have access to good-quality homes through a steady supply of housing in the right locations, with economic, social and environmental sustainability built into the system. The strategy sets out, in four pathways, a broad suite of measures to achieve its policy objectives, together with a financial commitment in excess of €4 billion per annum.

The suite of measures under the pathway to addressing vacancy and efficient use of existing stock includes the Croí Cónaithe towns fund, which will be delivered by local authorities for the provision of serviced sites for housing, to attract people to build their own homes and to support the refurbishment of vacant properties. The consideration of the approach to the Croí Cónaithe towns fund is at an advanced stage. It in proposed that this fund will provide 2,000 homes and sites by 2025.

In addition, a new local-authority-led programme to help local authorities buy or compulsorily purchase vacant homes which can then be sold on the open market, will ensure homes do not lie vacant. My Department is working with the Housing Agency on the underpinning steps to ensure and support this programme. The objective is for all local authorities to acquire at least 2,500 vacant units and present these to the market by 2026. All of these measures will have a transformative effect on the landscape and I look forward in particular to the launch of the Croí Cónaithe towns fund in the very near future.

Many of these measures are being balanced with the work currently under way with regard to having full-time vacant homes officers in situ in our 31 local authorities, as well as ensuring that we are acting on our compulsory purchase orders, CPOs, through the local authority network. We can see that Waterford and Louth are doing incredible work in that regard. We are waiting to hear from the Law Reform Commission in terms of what reforms can be made with regard to that. The Department of Finance is also working on a proposal for vacancy, on foot of the revaluation of the property tax.

On 5 May, the Minister of State confirmed to me through a response to a parliamentary question that he had no targets for social housing voids and that local authorities should set them. On 26 April, the Minister confirmed to me, again through a response to a parliamentary question, that he had not instructed local authorities to set targets for any area of vacancy, either voids or private, but that it would be kept under consideration. Overall targets for Housing for All, as the Minister of State has just outlined, are for 5,500 homes by 2025, with 2,500 of those through local authority purchase of vacant homes and 2,000 through the Croí Cónaithe fund. The GeoDirectory in quarter 4 of 2021 showed that there were more than 90,000 vacant homes in the State. The Government has set a target of 6% of these. The Minister has confirmed that there is only one full-time staff member in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage working on the vacant homes unit, which is a reduction of three from the unit was originally set up, and that has no idea of how many staff he intends to employ. This was confirmed through a reply to a parliamentary question on 5 May. This Minister is now two years into the job. He has not set any targets. He has no plans and he has failed to deliver on vacancy.

We clearly outlined the target numbers in the parliamentary question response for local authorities in terms of vacancy. We have had the biggest voids programme in the history of the State to bring in 6,000 voids over the past two years. It is highly inaccurate to say that the Department does not have targets when the evidence does not back up that assertion. Unfortunately, sometimes people feel that repeating things that are not correct in the Dáil makes them true. Unfortunately, it does not. As I have pointed out, we are working on a number of other measures to ensure that we bring in voids on a timely basis. It is interesting the Deputy quotes the GeoDirectory in terms of 90,000 units, which would be approximately 4.4% of a vacancy with regard to more than 2 million houses in the State. There are significantly conflicting responses in terms of the various reports into vacancy. We are waiting on the census results, which will give us a greater insight into some of the measures we are tailoring within the Department.

What I heard from what the Minister of State said was that having 90,000 vacant houses is not an issue because that is only 4.5% of the overall stock of housing. That is not good enough for a person stuck in the middle of a housing crisis who is looking at vacant and derelict houses in every city, town and village. In 2018, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, referenced voids and said:

It beggars belief that we are here talking about this issue again when we cannot even get our act together in terms of the properties we own. It is a scandal.

This is what the Minister said in this Chamber in 2018.

We are doing something about it.

We can send the quotation on to the Minister. Here we are in 2022, four years later. Deputy Darragh O'Brien is the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and he cannot even fix the problem he called a scandal four years ago.

What incentives exist to encourage and support people who own private vacant properties to make them available for housing, either for sale or for rental? What plans does the Government have in that regard? Does the Minister agree that in a county like Cork, which is the biggest county in the country, we should have three full-time housing officers looking after vacant homes and trying to get people to bring them back to use, rather than one who is very much working on a part-time basis?

As I have said, repetition in the Dáil, unfortunately, does not make something true. As I have said-----

I am quoting the Minister.

As I have said, 6,000 voids were brought back into use. That is the evidence over the past number of years.

They were not voids. The vast majority were not voids.

There is a significant programme going forward, as I also referenced.

With regard to Deputy Stanton's question on the current suite of measures, in the first instance we are ensuring that by the end of June there must be full-time vacant homes officers within local authorities. With the Croí Cónaithe scheme, we are awaiting regulations that will be launched shortly to try to bring properties back into use. It will be a key fund for towns and villages. There are other measures, such as the buy and renew and repair and lease schemes. Some counties, such as Waterford and Louth, have made huge inroads in that. We also have the compulsory purchase order, CPO, process being reformed by the Law Reform Commission, and that will be a significant body of work to improve how local authorities-----

How many of the Minister's staff are working on vacant homes?

Will the Deputies stop?

It is true what they say about empty vessels. They absolutely make the most noise. Will the Deputy stop interrupting?

Answer the question. It is a simple question.

Can the Deputy stop interrupting?

I asked a question but did not get an answer.

If the Deputy keeps interrupting, I will not respond.

The Minister of State does not have the answers, if we are honest.

I gave the answer.

The Deputies should try to behave themselves. They were doing well up to then.

The Ministers just provoke us too much.

Question No. 8 replied to with Written Answers.
Question No. 9 answered with Question No. 6.

Defective Building Materials

Pearse Doherty

Question:

10. Deputy Pearse Doherty asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the reason the remediation of dwellings damaged by defective concrete blocks Bill 2022 does not provide for the replacement of the foundations of homes that will have to be demolished, given that he has asked the National Standards Authority of Ireland to examine the need for this to be done in their ongoing review; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33087/22]

Pádraig MacLochlainn

Question:

81. Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage if the remediation of dwellings damaged by defective concrete blocks Bill 2022 will reflect the ongoing review by the National Standards Authority of Ireland of IS 465 regarding testing and diagnosing remedies for the full range of deleterious materials that are affecting homes in the west of Ireland, including pyrrhotite and the need to replace foundations in homes that have to be demolished. [33019/22]

Is í an cheist atá os comhair na Dála inniu ná an fhadhb atá ann le míoca agus le pirít. Why has the Minister ensured the remediation of dwellings damaged by defective concrete blocks does not provide for the replacement of foundations of homes that must be demolished, given that the Minister has asked the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, to examine the need for this to be done in its ongoing review? The scheme that was published required households to build on potentially shaky and damaged foundations, which would be a serious waste of taxpayers' money. We understand the Bill to be published later today or afterwards will be silent on this measure but will the Minister clarify that? If that is the case and there is to be replacement of foundations, will that cost be covered?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 81 together.

Following the Government decision of 30 November 2021 in respect of the enhanced defective concrete blocks grant scheme, the Government approved the remediation of dwellings damaged by the use of defective concrete blocks Bill 2022 on 21 June and I intend to progress the legislation before the end of term in order to ensure we can have the scheme ready for homeowners to access by the end of the year. There are hearings today that the Oireachtas joint committee will hold with residents affected, along with experts who have fed into this highly significant work. I certainly look forward to listening to those contributions.

It is important that the Bill will allow us to progress on key decisions made by the Government last November, including a 100% grant, to an overall maximum grant amount payable to an applicant under the scheme in the sum of €420,000, up from €247,500. There is the removal of the financial barrier to scheme entry, a feature of the current scheme, thereby reducing the cost for homeowners from up to €7,000 to an estimated €500 or €700, which will be recoupable under the scheme once the applications are approved. We have already been issuing refunds of those payments that have been made. Counties Clare and Limerick will be included in the enhanced scheme upon commencement and further local authority areas can be added as the necessary evidence supports inclusion.

To get to the point of the question, the decision made by the Government last November called for a number of reviews to be completed, which are very important. The scheme will be with us for ten or 15 years. This included a review of the IS 465:2018 standard and the consideration of the issue of other potentially deleterious material, such as pyrrhotite and the impact, if any, on foundations. I am acutely aware of homeowners' concerns in this regard, which is why I have asked the NSAI to review IS 465 and carry out all necessary research as a matter of priority. I briefed Deputy Ó Broin informally on this earlier. It is currently understood that foundations are not impacted and there is currently no evidence to support claims they are. However, when the Bill is published, if there are issues with foundations, we will revisit the scheme and amend the legislation accordingly. That is very important.

I wish to confirm that once the necessary review has been concluded and any revised standard is published, the defective concrete blocks grant scheme will be reviewed at that point, having regard to any amended standard. We need to conclude the research being done independently of me and we need scientific data to support this work. If the standard at that point provides for the inclusion of foundations, the Bill provides that I will be able to make regulations to provide for a new remediation option. That will be seen later today. If foundations in some homes are found to be impacted, we will not be slow to act. I have kept my word heretofore in greatly enhancing the scheme and putting much more resources behind it. There is a 40-year guarantee as opposed to a 20-year guarantee and a second grant option. The alternative to this approach would be to wait until the NSAI did the work and to pause the scheme.

The Deputy will see very clearly in the legislation that we will be allowing for further regulations once the evidence comes back. It is being done scientifically and independent of me. If there is a problem with foundations then, we will amend the scheme by regulation and include a relevant provision in the scheme. Not every house will be affected and there will be homes where other materials have not been found in the infill. We can proceed with a number of them and we should do that. We must get people's homes and lives back on track. I am absolutely committed to doing that.

Part of the question I asked related to the costs associated with this. The Minister has triggered a review into deleterious materials in foundations and other materials in the blocks but he authorised the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland to carry out a study of the cost of rebuilding while asking them to exclude the cost of foundations. The Minister has acknowledged a change from the published scheme, in that the legislation will be silent on the question of foundations and may change in future if the evidence suggests there is a need.

I take issue with the Minister stating there is no evidence; at this stage there is plenty of evidence and the committee will hear there is a need to deal with foundations. There is a question about taxpayers' money being used in this regard. The core issue is that if it is decided that foundations must be included, will there be an increase in the cap for householders and is it not the case that the Minister is prevented from increasing the cap until at least next year, according to the scheme as published?

We want to get the scheme up and running. Apologies, I did not realise Deputy Mac Lochlainn was to ask a question.

I was awaiting direction from the Acting Chairman. As Deputy Doherty has said, when the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland was asked to cost the demolition and rebuilding of a home earlier this year, the terms of reference did not provide for the foundations. IS 465 underpins the current grant scheme and, unfortunately, will underpin the legislation until it is reviewed. It has been discredited. It is well known that pyrrhotite is a very serious feature and it is playing a much more significant role than mica in Donegal, based on scientific tests that have been done. I ask the Minister to put it to the National Standards Authority of Ireland whether its work is linked to international best practice. Is it ensuring its review reflects the tests that are being done in Britain and international science?

To repeat, IS 465 is discredited, therefore foundations should be provided for.

I thank the Deputies. I have been very clear. We need scientific evidence on this and it is being done independently through the review by the NSAI of the standard. We need scientific research and testing on infill as well. If the Deputies were on this side of the House they would do the same. We need to bring forward the legislative basis to provide for what is effectively a new scheme. This scheme is night and day different from the one in 2020. That should be acknowledged too. There is the second grant option, the extension of the guarantee for the works from 20 to 40 years, which is something the residents looked for and is incredibly significant. There is the upping of the caps as well. At a minimum, more than likely we are looking at the State providing, rightly so, about €2.7 billion to help people get their lives and homes back.

The Society of Chartered Surveyors of Ireland, SCSI, will be presenting to the committee today and I do not want to prejudge what it will say about the work it has done. I commend its work heretofore. The committee will also hear from Paul Forde, chair of the expert group. He did an incredible amount of work and is definitely the most eminent expert in this field in the country. The standards and the material itself are being tested independently and scientifically so we can be very clear that it is not just opinion. I am not dismissing people's fears at all. That is being done. I cannot speed it up. This work is being done independently of us. Today's meeting will be very informative and I welcome the fact that the committee is holding those hearings.

I do not think the Minister answered the question. Maybe it was an issue of timing. The question I was asking was what happens if the NSAI comes back, as we expect it will, and says we need to deal with foundations. There are old Irish sayings about not building on sand. The idea of taxpayers' money going into building a structure on foundations that are at least questionable and are not even being tested is a serious issue. If the Minister decides at a late stage to include foundations, is it not the case that he cannot revise the upper cap limits until a year after the legislation has been enacted and therefore they cannot be revised until the end of next year? Does that not mean that many of these applications will be stalled, first until the NSAI makes a determination because householders do not want to build on foundations there are serious questions about, and second because the issue of finance would then have to be sorted?

This goes to the nub of the issue. The Minister has given terms of reference to the SCSI and it has given him a costing. That instructs to a certain extent the cap of €420,000, which includes €20,000 for relocation so is really a cap of €400,000. I trust that if the foundations are tested and found to be in the same condition as the blocks, the NSAI will recommend that they have to be replaced. The Minister is then going to have to look at that cap. He needs to do it now. He needs to be thinking ahead. It is very likely that the NSAI is going to recommend a new approach based on science and lab tests. I know the Minister has worked with this legislation and with the families. I acknowledge that. I hope he will continue to do so in these next couple of weeks. There is going to be a need for change to the legislation. I ask the Minister to pay close attention to the two hours from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. today.

The Deputies can trust me on this----

Deputy Ó Broin is indicating.

Is this permitted?

I will be super quick. It is not just the cap. It is also the rates. Head 13 is very clear that the Minister cannot review the rates until 12 months after commencement. Even if a property is well below the cap, if the NSAI recommends foundations to be included, if somebody has a 1,000 sq. ft. home, for example, they will not be able to enter into the scheme and get full remediation until the Minister revises those rates, which would be at the latter end of next year. The Minister should confirm that to the House because people have a right to know it.

No one will dispute the level of work that has gone into bringing about this legislation. When Deputies look at what is in it and see the published Bill later today in the hearings, it is a significant improvement on the previous scheme that was simply set up by way of regulation itself and was not on a sound footing. I said yesterday in response to Deputy Ó Broin that I will continue, as I have done over the last year, to engage directly with residents and Opposition Members. We will work through Committee Stage of the process. Where reasonable amendments are tabled that we can work through I will absolutely be open to looking at that.

I cannot prejudge what will come out of scientific research. None of us can. Let us be straight on that. I ask Deputies to enter into this process in a positive and constructive way. One way or another, gentlemen, we are going to need this legislation passed by the summer. There are homes that can start remediation pretty much now. I want to see homes starting this year. I have seen homes that have had outer leaves replaced. I have seen work that has been done there as well. We have the second grant option, which is really important, and the extension of the guarantee. Of course during the legislative process we will be open to looking at contributions.

Today will be important as well. We will hear from the experts as well as the residents. In conclusion, I want to thank the Mica Action Group and all the other groups and individual residents who have engaged in a very constructive way on what is understandably an emotive issue and a really important one for them. Our focus should be getting it right. I believe we absolutely have the basis of a really good scheme that is going to help them put their lives and their homes back on track.

Question No. 11 replied to with Written Answers.

Housing Provision

Aindrias Moynihan

Question:

12. Deputy Aindrias Moynihan asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage if his attention been drawn to the lengthy processing times for both social housing applications and housing assistance payment applications; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33206/22]

Social housing applications can take some time to be processed. In the meantime applicants are without rent support and possibly struggling to pay. For many applicants for social housing, their primary focus is to get up and running on the housing assistance payment, HAP. Secondary to that is being considered for social housing. The length of time it takes to process applications is hitting people hard in the pocket. What kind of targets are set out for those processing times and are they being met?

This is an important matter. I will give the Deputy the official response as to what the target is. Applications for social housing support are assessed by the relevant local authority in accordance with eligibility and need criteria set down in the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009. The regulations require that local authorities, subject to conditions, deal with social housing applications within 12 weeks. Local authorities prioritise housing needs assessments for those in greatest need and seek to process their applications within that prescribed timeframe. Some applications are taking longer than 12 weeks. I have had that experience myself. That can be for various reasons including incomplete information provided or simply the level of work that is there. Housing assistance payment application processing times vary across local authorities. I discussed this last night with officials to see if we can make sure there is more consistency in the timeframes. Applications are only accepted when the relevant sections are fully completed by the tenant and the landlord and returned to the local authority with the required supporting documentation. My Department and local authorities absolutely recognise the importance of minimising HAP processing times. I have been at pains to reiterate that to my colleagues in local government. We recognise the importance of keeping processing times under review at a local level so they are minimised to the greatest extent possible. Last year, we tracked the average processing time for HAP applications. At the end of 2021 that average was 29 days. To be honest with the Deputy, in some areas it is done better than in others. I want to see more consistency. All applications are not uniform in the sense that cases are different. The Deputy has raised a very important matter. I want to see us minimise the processing time as best we can to a reasonable level.

The average processing time last year, as I said, was 29 days.

There are almost two processes going on, namely, the social housing application and the HAP application. I will focus first on the social housing application, because that is the slowest part from what we have seen. It is a very cumbersome application form and there is a great deal of documentation associated with it, whether it is original birth certificates, getting translations and so on. This is an issue that throws up a great number of challenges for applicants. Is there a way of making the social housing application more streamlined, practical and doable for people? It is taking more than 16 weeks to complete the process in many places. Yesterday, a lady who had just got a request for further information on an application submitted on 31 January – more than 20 weeks ago - came to my constituency office. She will, like many others, be starting back to get documentation reassessed. Is there some way of following up with the councils and making sure they are meeting the 16-week target? Are they being questioned on it? What process is in place?

I understand the point. We actually simplified the form and made some changes to it last year to ensure that it was in compliance with the plain English guide. We simplified the form and removed some questions that were not required. An application to put someone on the list for social housing is obviously an important application. The Deputy is right that there is a parallel process with the HAP application.

Before I say what we will do next, we track local authorities’ average processing times. I have them to the end of 2021. We have them per quarter. Our local government section can see who is doing well and who needs support. There could be resourcing and other issues. There are no questions that over the past couple of years that was impacted as well by staff not being able to be in work in some instances because of Covid.

On the foot of the Deputy's intervention, I will seek a further update from the 31 local authorities and get the most up-to-date processing times, particularly for his county, and send that on to him.

As I said, there are almost two processes – the HAP application and the social housing application. I just want to acknowledge that, for example, in Cork County Council, we see a very fast processing of the HAP application when it is up and running. The focus and the big challenge is very often on the social housing application.

Councillors represent the public. The CEO represents the Department and is the Department’s person within the council. I understand that targets are always being set. What effort is being made to follow up with the CEOs to ensure that those targets are being met? Where they are not being met, what happens? What are the repercussions where CEOs are not meeting those 12-week targets within local authorities? It is hugely important because it is not just about numbers and targets. There are families who are having to pay huge rents in the meantime because those applications are not being processed. It is very important that would be driven to the CEOs in the various local authorities to ensure that they serve the public.

There is no question about me agreeing with the Deputy. I meet with the CEOs on a regular basis. We engage with and meet them individually. I have had two recent housing summits where all chief executives and directors of service for housing from all 31 local authorities attended. That was very much focused on housing delivery. As I mentioned earlier, we will deliver more social homes this year than in any year in the history of the State. That is being supported very well by our colleagues in local government.

On processing times, again, that is tracked on the HAP side and for social housing applications. Following the Deputy’s question and intervention, I will seek a further update on the matter. I would engage directly with the LGMA as well. That is our channel to the CEOs. The latter are not necessarily our representatives in every local authority. They are the CEOs of their authorities. We have very good engagement with them. I will take that matter up. It is a serious issue, but the application is also a serious matter. It requires time to process. A period of 12 weeks for the social housing application is reasonable, as long as it is adhered to. Where issues arise, they need to be picked up sooner in the process in order that people are not waiting ten weeks before they find out if there is information outstanding.

Questions Nos. 13 and 14 replied to with Written Answers.

Housing Schemes

Thomas Gould

Question:

15. Deputy Thomas Gould asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage if he will provide an update on affordable housing in Cork city; and if he is satisfied with the progress of the scheme. [32973/22]

Will the Minister provide an update on affordable housing in Cork city? Is he satisfied with the progress the scheme is making?

As outlined in my response to an earlier question, two affordable housing fund supported schemes will deliver affordable housing in Cork city this year. Cork City Council has advised my Department that the first two phases of the Boherboy Road project in Cork city, involving a total of 117 affordable purchase homes, will see 37 of those homes completed. They will be advertised for purchase in July. In addition, the advance purchase development at Cluain Chaoin in Tower will deliver 36 affordable purchase homes in two phases. I understand that the scheme of priority in respect of phase 1 of this development is to be presented to Cork City Council on Monday, 11 July and, if adopted - we need the city council to do that - that scheme will also be advertised in July. That is an advance purchase arrangement that we provided the funds for to bring more affordable homes in.

Approval in principle has also been confirmed for approximately 900 new cost rental homes to be delivered in urban centres by approved housing bodies, AHBs, under the cost rental equity loan scheme to the period 2023. Of these initial approvals, approximately 150 are scheduled to be delivered in Cork city in 2022 and 2023, across four different sites. The first 73 cost rental homes in Cork city at Lancaster Gate will be later this year. I had the pleasure of visiting that last year and seeing the work ongoing. The Land Development Agency, LDA, is currently developing and working on the former HSE site at St. Kevin's Hospital in Cork city. The LDA has secured planning, thankfully, for 265 social and affordable homes. These homes are expected at the end of 2023. We expect to break ground in St. Kevin's in Cork this year.

I will come back with further information in my supplementary response.

Cork City Council was only set a target of 78 affordable homes on average each year between now and 2025. That target is too low. Something the Minister has to be very aware of and the Government has to be extremely careful of is that they are creating the expectation for people who are trapped in a housing crisis that affordable homes and cost rentals will be delivered. The Minister outlined statistics. I do not disagree with any of them. It is the timeline that I disagree with, because I do not believe those developments will be delivered in that time. Some 78 homes for a city with the population of Cork does not go anywhere near meeting the need that is there.

Let us be honest. The Minister signed the affordable housing regulations in April, even though the legislation was passed before the summer recess last year. We engaged very constructively with the legislation at the housing committee, even though there are flaws in it. We saw it as probably the only way someone could get an affordable house under this Government. The Minister is not meeting the targets and the targets are not ambitious enough.

There are further advance purchase schemes coming to us that are under consideration by me and the Department, because the affordable housing fund is open. It is an open call where we bring schemes forward, so the Deputy will see more than this being delivered. The Deputy will also see the first home scheme, which will support affordable purchases of new homes in the private market, and that will operate nationwide. It is targeted at first-time buyers or those eligible under the fresh start principle. The scheme will be delivered via a strategic partnership between the State and participating mortgage lenders and it will be launched in July. It will improve access to newly built homes by using a shared equity model to bridge the gap between the mortgage finance someone has and the finance that they need. I assume that, in the context of Cork, the Deputy will be advising his constituents and helping them to apply to the first home shared equity scheme, which he has criticised throughout this entire process.

It is going to work. We are going to deliver affordable homes through our local authorities and we are going to deliver affordable homes through the LDA. The Deputy’s party does not want the LDA to develop any homes. It does not even want the agency to plan to deliver homes. I hope that when the homes at St. Kevin's in Cork are opened, the Deputy will not turn up that day because his party did not want the LDA to even exist.

We are out of time, unfortunately.

I just want to make one point. The average cost of a house in Cork under this agency is €323,000, which is €50,000 more than the average purchase price. That is what the Minister will be supplying in Togher this year.

Top
Share