Current Housing Demand: Discussion

The topic of this meeting is a discussion of current housing demand with representatives from Circle Voluntary Housing Association, Clúid Housing Association and Respond! Housing Association. I welcome Mr. Justin O'Brien, chief executive officer, and Mr. Jerome Casey, chairman, of Circle Voluntary Housing Association; Mr. Brian O'Gorman, chief executive officer, and Mr. Simon Brooke, head of policy, of Clúid Housing Association; Mr. Ned Brennan, chief operations officer, and Mr. Pádraic Brennan, eastern regional manager, of Respond! Housing Association. I propose to take the opening statements in the order of the witnesses I have just mentioned - that is, in alphabetical order.

I ask the witnesses to bear with me as I go through the technical procedure of outlining the privilege warning. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. However, if they directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person or an entity either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. The opening statements and any other documents witnesses have provided to the committee may be published on the committee's website after the conclusion of the meeting.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

The issue of housing is a particular focus for this committee. There have been fluctuations in the housing market for many years and there appears to be growing demand again, particularly in the Dublin area. We must develop a housing policy and ensure that meeting demand in a sustainable manner does not contribute to another housing bubble or shortage of supply to meet demands for housing. It is a huge topic for the committee. None of us wishes to return to the situation of previous years, but that does not mean we should not monitor trends closely and tailor policy around that. This is the first of a number of meetings the committee will have with various stakeholders in the housing sector. We have invited representatives of the voluntary housing associations to today's meeting and at our meeting on 29 April we will engage with representatives of a number of local authorities and officials from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. We wish to explore all of the relevant issues and to engage in a comprehensive discussion so we can put together a set of practical proposals for the Minister. I hope today's meeting will contribute in no small way to that process.

I call on the representative of the Circle Voluntary Housing Association to make his opening statement.

Mr. Jerome Casey

I thank the committee for the opportunity to make a presentation today. We forwarded our submission to the committee a week ago, so I will try to summarise the key points and messages we wish to communicate in the context of the wider brief that was requested by the committee of Circle Voluntary Housing Association and the other approved bodies.

Circle VHA is an approved housing association with certified status from the Housing Finance Agency, HFA. We are looking at this issue from our perspective as an approved housing provider. The housing policy statement in 2011 was very important and significant in terms of how it communicated the paradigm of housing and the inequality between the different housing tenures. It was also significant in stating that approved housing bodies should have a lead role in the provision of social housing. We welcome it in that context. It was a forthright recognition of our role and of what we aspire to be in terms of delivering social housing for those who cannot afford it.

Since that policy statement was issued in 2011 the housing market has continued to evolve. It is very volatile. The structure and tenure of housing type have changed in the last ten years since the boom and from our perspective there should be a national policy and plan for housing, embracing all tenures and recognising the variation within urban areas, between urban areas and between rural and urban areas. It is a complex, changing market, but our policies have not adjusted to those changes. There is currently an under-supply of housing in urban areas and an over-supply of housing in non-urban areas. That is a real challenge for everybody.

We must also work in the context of reduced capital budgets. All approved housing bodies have been affected by that. The Department has tried to switch us from a 100% capital grant regime to a loan finance regime, where we get an average 20% CALF - capital advance leasing facility - grant from the Government and must secure 80% private finance. That is an extreme challenge for the sector. It is not that the Circle VHA is against that policy in principle, but the context in which we are expected to apply it in a very short period of time. In other European countries such as Holland and the United Kingdom it has taken 15 to 20 years for that policy to evolve with the ratio of capital grant and private finance. It is therefore very hard for us to address housing need. That is a key fundamental message.

The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government had the Housing Agency undertake a review of the CALF, the capital loan finance policy which gives us a loan grant, at 2%, to procure. It is repayable after the private loan finance is repaid via a revenue-based system of payment and availability. The agency conducted an internal review of it and tried to change from a net present value, NPV, ratio to an internal rate of return, IRR. It has a 3.6% return on capital.

We think the change to our ability to borrow private finance will not help us. It will make our chances of being able to acquire new units of accommodation or design and build unachievable. In our view the measure will affect our capacity to deliver new social housing units.

Another matter that is important currently, particularly in Dublin areas, is the lack of supply in housing in urban areas and increased rents in the private rented sector. This situation is having an adverse impact on families and single people presenting as homeless because rents have become unaffordable. Also, the Department of Social protection has a cap on the amount of rent contribution that people on low incomes can receive. Its rent policy and prices must be reviewed and we should adopt the German model which provides a return on housing of between 6% and 8%. The current inflation and bubble in property prices in Dublin and the private rented sector is also having a damaging consequence on housing need.

I have outlined our substantial points. We have given a response to the legislation planned by the Government, the housing miscellaneous provisions Bill. In broad principle, we welcome the broad proposals with regard to repossession procedures. We think the proposals are in line with the Supreme Court judgment in the case of Donegan v. Dublin City Council and the European Court of Human Rights.

The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government wants the sector to come under the remit of the Private Residential Tenancies Board, which would be a big change for us. We are not greatly in favour of the legislation that was enacted by the Oireachtas this year and will come into force in the next 12 months. Having said that, we have adopted a pragmatic view. The PRTB is finding it difficult to deal with the problems presenting in landlord-tenant disputes. How will it have the capacity to address difficulties that emerge with the addition of 26,000 tenancies?

Another issue of note is the tenant purchase matter. It has been a policy of Governments over the past 40 years and longer that tenant purchase applies in local authority housing. Our view is that the sale of local authority housing diminishes the supply of available housing stock. Also, it is often applied to purchasers who are on low incomes, but they end up getting into difficulty when they cannot repay the loan. There is a real challenge regarding the matter.

There is a serious difficulty with the affordable homes scheme. For the past ten years a lot of people thought they could afford to buy units via the scheme but they have not been able to make loan repayments.

We welcome the housing assistance payment scheme in terms of its creation and the transfer of the rent allowance scheme from the Department of Social Protection to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Politicians have said that the scheme will enable a new provision of between €500 million and €600 million for housing each year. I believe it will change the paradigm of housing because local authorities will take responsibility. However, the scheme will maintain people in homes, so we do not oppose it in principle. The scheme should give local authorities a more strategic role, but the key issue is whether they have the capacity to deliver and inspect the quality of housing, because they have been poor on that to date.

I wish to say one more thing about the housing assistance scheme. There are 98,000 people on the national housing list, as assessed by the Department, and many of them are in private rented accommodation. If the rent allowance is paid by local authorities, arguably it will reduce the number of people on the waiting list, which is welcome. The scheme is meant to help people get over the poverty trap in which they are working but not receiving rent allowance, but there may be a negative consequence for approved housing bodies. Those who remain on the housing list will often be people who are unemployed. That may be a challenge for my sector and the local authority sector.

I thank Mr. Casey for his opening statement and invite Mr. O'Gorman from Clúid to make his opening statement.

Mr. Brian O'Gorman

I thank the committee for inviting us here today. In my short introductory comments I shall attempt to outline the scope of work undertaken by the Clúid Housing Association.

Clúid is a not-for-profit housing association which operates to further its key objective to help households in housing need. The organisation is an approved housing body which was accorded approved status by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government in February 1994, which means it is 20 years old this year.

Clúid is led by a board of directors who delegate day-to-day operations to a team of paid staff. The board is comprised of volunteers who are not remunerated, who come from a wide range of backgrounds and bring much valued expertise to the organisation. In 2014, Clúid's board was awarded the inaugural board of governance award, which was presented by the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, at the Irish Council for Social Housing biennial housing conference.

Clúid is committed to good governance. It is a signatory of the Government's code for the community sector and the code issued by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government entitled Building for the Future.

We strongly support the inclusion of housing association tenancies within the residential tenancies board. The measure will promote good governance and provide important safeguards to tenants.

Clúid employs 111 staff across a range of disciplines. The association has two core activities - developing new housing and managing its existing property portfolio. At present the association owns and manages 4,770 properties and provides property services to another 713 properties. It also provides these services to other social landlords, mainly local authorities but also housing associations. All of Clúid's property management staff are licensed by the Property Services Regulatory Authority to undertake property management services. Tenants who occupy Clúid dwellings are nominated by local authorities from their housing waiting list. Tenants pay a differential or affordable rents in much the same way as local authority tenants, based on a percentage of their disposable income. That means that if their income goes up then their rent increases and if their income goes down - due to losing a job, for example - then their rent will decrease.

In our written submission we gave a breakdown of the supply of housing achieved by the Clúid Housing Association during 2013. We measure our success on the basis of the number of new households that we can assist in any one year. The housing environment remains challenging and waiting lists for houses continue to grow, so it is imperative that housing associations continue to provide social housing to those in need. In 2013 Clúid delivered 407 new homes through eight different routes. Private finance was raised to secure 151 new properties. An example of this was at Coneyboro, Athy, County Kildare, where properties were purchased from NAMA, which also carried out completion works. The loan finance was sourced through the Housing Finance Agency. The acquisition completed an unfinished private estate where the empty dwellings had been the source of much anti-social behaviour. Therefore, the scheme provided the dual gain of providing housing for those in need and bringing to an end a troublesome section of a new and otherwise thriving private estate. Under the mortgage-to-rent scheme 31 properties were acquired, which enabled Clúid to assist households with unsustainable mortgages. In applying for mortgage-to-rent the householder agrees to surrender ownership of the property and become a tenant of the housing association. This enables the householder to remain in their former home and community.

Leasing initiatives enabled us to provide housing to 28 households in the past year. There are properties located in areas of housing need. We lease these properties from private owners and make them available to housing applicants on local authority waiting lists.

The capital assistance scheme is targeted at special needs households. In 2013, the scheme provided 40 homes for older persons. Included in these 40 homes were 15 in Oakwood in Killarney which are located beside an existing housing development for older persons and a day centre previously developed by Clúid. In 2010 the capital loan and subsidy scheme was discontinued, but a small number of properties are still being completed. In 2013, Clúid delivered seven properties at Esker Hill, Ballinasloe, County Galway using funding provided by the scheme. Also, 23 units were provided in Mallow, County Cork, through the National Asset Residential Property Services, NARPS, which is NAMA's special purpose vehicle. A total of 74 homes were provided by bringing into use properties that local authorities had developed for sale but that remained unoccupied due to the collapse of the private owner-occupier sector. When a housing association succeeds in letting these properties, the local authority is no longer responsible for making local loan repayments and the money saved can be used to provide local services. The majority of the properties brought into use by Clúid during 2013 were in County Cork.

Management agreements where the Clúid Housing Association manages new property on behalf of other social landlords, mainly local authorities, produced 53 units for us during 2013. As many as 30 of them were acquired by Dublin City Council in Herberton in Dublin city.

We hope that Clúid can increase its level of delivery during 2014. We are acutely aware of the responsibility placed on housing associations to deliver supply to households on waiting lists and we will endeavour to meet this challenge. I thank the committee for their attention. I am happy to respond to any questions or requests for clarification.

Mr. Ned Brennan

I thank the committee for the opportunity to address it. Many of the issues raised by my colleagues will be reflected in my presentation. Respond! Housing Association is a not-for-profit organisation founded 32 years ago in 1982. We employ 300 staff across the country. We provide a development programme in the delivery of new houses and a support programme for our tenants. We have an extensive community development programme for our tenants and their children. We manage approximately 40 preschools, 40 after schools and a number of homework clubs and youth programmes for the children living on our estates and those living on nearby estates. We see ourselves as a community development organisation with housing as a part of our remit in the delivery of services to people in need of housing and in the delivery of services to low-income families living on our estates. I will address the issues of a national housing plan, spending on social housing, corporate partnerships with Government and measures that will support the voluntary sector in increasing the housing output.

I reflect what my colleague, Mr. Justin O'Brien, said earlier about the need for a national housing development plan. Fewer than 9,000 houses were delivered in 2013 and the recent housing agency report last week indicates that the economy needs approximately 80,000 houses over the coming five years, amounting to 16,000 per year. The figures from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government are somewhat at variance with Mr. Brian O'Gorman's figures. The sector produced 211 units last year, compared to 2009, when the sector delivered over 2,000 units. Last year we delivered less than 10% of what we delivered some seven years ago. At this point, there are nearly 90,000 families or 200,000 individuals on local authority waiting lists across the country. We need a national housing plan that is properly researched, properly planned and fully resourced. In the absence of a national development plan, we will not learn from the mistakes of the past and we are bound to repeat them.

The second area concerns the spend on social housing, which has decreased by 63% between 2008 and 2014. That is a massive shrinking of the amount of State funding available to support the delivery of social housing from the voluntary sector and the local authority sector. Another area that Mr. Justin O'Brien alluded to is that of corporate partnerships with the Government. The committee will consider the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill in the coming weeks. While we fully support the Bill in respect of tenants, we do not favour the idea that the voluntary sector should be shoehorned in under legislation that was primarily instigated ten years ago for the private sector. As I outlined in my paper, we share the same characteristics as the local authority housing sector and we feel it is more appropriate that tenants' rights should be vindicated through a housing ombudsman or through a social housing ombudsman, as is the case in respect of local authority tenants. Local authority tenants with complaints can have their rights vindicated through the ombudsman. It is a great waste of resources to set up a new structure in the Private Residential Tenancies Board when there is an existing structure under the ombudsman, which could service an additional 24,000 tenancies on top of the 130,000 tenancies it is supporting in the local authority sector. The ombudsman service has the expertise in the area of social housing whereas it is a whole new learning curve for the Private Residential Tenancies Board.

The third area concerns measures to support the voluntary sector in increasing housing output. With regard to the CALF scheme and the payment and availability agreement, the CALF is a capital subsidy of a percentage, varying from 15% to 25%, that must be paid back at the end of the period. An availability agreement is a revenue subsidy on the moneys borrowed by the housing association from a commercial financial institution to build or acquire houses. Two elements are contained in that, one of which is the funding and capital costs, and the other of which is the interest repayments on the loan over a 25-year period. A State guarantee or a Government underwriting of these loans, as is common in Holland, Denmark and parts of the UK, would greatly support the ability of the sector to deliver social housing over the coming years. Mr. Justin O'Brien has alluded to the fact that we were 100% capital funded until 2007. This has now been reduced by between 15% and 30%, and the transition in the UK from a high level of capital subsidy to a low level took 20 to 25 years. The only way the sector can continue to deliver the 2009 level of output, at 2,000 units per year, is through a Government guarantee on our borrowings.

The second aspect that will assist us in delivering is the subordination of local authority loan charges on the mortgages. At the moment, we sign a mortgage under the capital loan and subsidy scheme and under the capital assistance scheme with the local authority. It is a non-chargeable and non-repayable mortgage as long as we maintain the houses for the period of the mortgage, 25 years, and make them available to people in need of social housing. Some mortgages - we suggest 40% - could be written off without any cost to the State. It is a way of trying to leverage additional private finance into the sector. The capital loan and subsidy scheme must be more flexible in terms of geographical areas. Dublin, where rents are good, does not need the same level of subsidy as rural areas, where rents are low and where it is more challenging to deliver.

Regarding the payment and availability agreement and the CALF, some of the restrictions need to be revised to provide more flexible mechanisms so that we can borrow and deliver additional social housing. As Mr. Justin O'Brien alluded to, only 39 units have been delivered under the mortgage to rent scheme while 1,337 applicants have been approved. If all applicants were to be approved, it would amount to €133 million. Based on the €10 million set aside by the Government this year, there is no way we can cover the gap of almost €130 million. Other sources of funding could be successfully tapped, such as the European Investment Bank and other European sources of funding. We feel the Government should put together a model to deliver finance for the delivery of social housing and support services to those most in need. Programmes are available, under the JESSICA fund, of €150 million for the delivery of retrofitting or housing in disadvantaged areas or those in need of urban regeneration. This is useful and is of great assistance to the sector in the delivery of housing to those most in need of housing in our society.

This is a ten-minute slot, and I will warn the speaker after nine minutes. If a question has not been answered, perhaps the witnesses can provide the answer in writing.

I welcome the representatives of the voluntary housing associations and thank them for their presentations. The need for social housing is sometimes mentioned in the same sentence as the need for housing. The need for social housing has increased because of the collapse in the economy. More people have moved into the lower income bracket. Is the income threshold to qualify for social housing at an unrealistically low level? It is €25,500 for a couple with children in some counties.

There are those on such incomes, and up to €40,000 or €45,000, who cannot buy and would never have any hope of buying. What should happen to that lower middle income group? Do the witnesses see the need to move the income threshold upwards? In regard to local authorities, approximately €24,000 or €25,000 is provided by the voluntary housing sector through the various packages. Local authorities continue to be the major provider but not of new builds. Do the witnesses see local authorities continuing to play a major role in the provision of social housing, with the voluntary housing associations having a separate role, given that they have access to separate sources of funding?

Mr. Simon Brooke

The income threshold raises a very important issue because one of the characteristics of social housing in Ireland is that it is very residualised; it is a cluster of people on low incomes. Generally speaking, that is not good for those people and it is not good for the communities in which they live. There is an argument for saying those income thresholds should be increased. However, the difficulty we face is that there are far more people on low incomes on social housing waiting lists than we can house, or are likely to house, for the foreseeable future. In one sense, it is about priorities. One answer to the issue lies not with the housing association sector but with changes to private rented housing. If the private rented sector was seen to be a more viable long-term choice that people were able to make, people whose incomes may not be high enough to purchase but are above those which would make them eligible for social housing, that might be one housing route for those people. Overall, we would support an increase in the income threshold for people on housing waiting lists but the fact is we are having great difficulty in meeting the demands as expressed at present. In terms of the role of local authorities, we have always supported a joint approach, with local authorities and housing associations as providers of social housing in Ireland. We have put a great deal of work into establishing effective partnerships with local authorities and we think we have been successful in that to a large extent. We would hope very much that local authorities will continue to be providers of social housing and develop new social housing. The one thing we are able to do at present that local authorities are not able to do is to access loan finance. That means that under current arrangements it is easier for us to develop social housing than would be the case for local authorities.

Should local authorities be the main provider of social housing?

Mr. Simon Brooke

No. Our view is that we should share that responsibility.

The issue of funding arises. Obviously, if something is to be done, money is needed. One of the associations, in its presentation, raised the issue of accessing funding from the European Investment Bank. Are the witnesses in favour of the establishment of trusts within local authority areas to access that funding - in other words, that it is off the State balance sheet in terms of accessing money that is available from the European Investment Bank and other sources?

Mr. Ned Brennan

With regard to the two questions raised by Deputy Stanley, I concur with what Mr. Simon Brooke of Clúid Housing Association said. We need to have a radical reconsideration of housing because there is an awful lot of stratification and ghettoisation. We need to look at housing in a big-picture type of environment rather than under the existing structures. We are committed to integrated housing, building estates which contain social housing for families and housing for older people, with private housing and rental housing for private renters. We are talking about a whole new model of delivery of housing in an integrated manner, which happens in many European countries such as France, Holland and Belgium. In regard to accessing funding from the European Investment Bank, we would support the idea of setting up trusts so they would be off the State balance sheet. We are well positioned in our sector to advance those vehicles to access those levels of funding, particularly in deprived areas that are in need of urban regeneration. Many of the programmes, such as Joint European Support for Sustainable Investment in City Areas, JESSICA, are designed to alleviate poverty and combat disadvantage. We are well positioned to deliver in relation to those programmes.

Mr. Justin O'Brien

Apart from future funding from JESSICA and the European Investment Bank, our present concerns are that in respect of our loan finance under the CALF, the Government is suggesting that the maximum of 30% should be shrunk rather than increased even through prices and rents are going through the roof. The cost of capital that it will allow us when we go the private sources of funds is very much below the cost of mortgages, at 3.6% versus 5%, and probably rising. It is not doable. We will be using up our capital in order to fund projects because we are not allowed 5% across capital. It is an issue for the committee rather than for us, but some kind of German-style control of rents and house prices is probably unavoidable, and preferable to wringing our hands and saying something will turn up, as we did during the boom. We have to act responsibly as a society - provide a return by all means to private investors, as is done in Germany, but also ensure people can have rents which grow slowly and in line with the economy.

I have a question with regard to the selection of tenants. Accusations have been levelled against the voluntary housing sector that it cherry-picks tenants and that more troublesome tenants are left to the local authority to house. I have not found great evidence of that but I have heard from different parts of the country that those accusations have been levelled at various housing associations. Are the tenants it gets 100% nominations by the local authority from the local authority waiting list? Obviously, it has estate management issues to deal with. Is it the case that at times they may be refused on the basis of the tenant's history?

Mr. Jerome Casey

For most approved bodies - certainly for Circle Voluntary Housing Association - all nominations come from the local authority housing allocation section. We interview more people than we have units. We then try to create a balance within the scheme or the estate we are trying to create. That means that sometimes people who deserve a place do not get it. We try to have a mix.

One minute.

Mr. Jerome Casey

Garda checks are carried out by the local authority. That sometimes does exclude people. The information is given to us by the local authority from the Garda Síochána. That is how it works.

My final question relates to the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB. Staffing levels in the PRTB have been halved in recent years. Are the witnesses confident the PRTB will be able to police its functions while taking on the added burden of 24,000 or 25,000 units?

Mr. Ned Brennan

In our opinion the PRTB will not be able to do that. There is a different set of tenancies with which it has no experience. It is a whole new area for the board. Given the halving of its staff, those who remain will have a sharp learning curve in getting to understand the operations of the social rental sector, which is utterly different from the private rental sector. We do not think it is a good fit.

I thank Mr. Brennan. I call Deputy Michelle Mulherin.

I welcome the witnesses. Perhaps they would outline the policy on one-off rural housing which is provided by local authorities that have no money. This is pertinent in County Mayo. There are people in substandard housing who could do with a house and who have a site but have nowhere to go. On the issue of tenant purchase, it was not clear to me from what Mr. Jerome Casey said whether he was for or against it. I think it is a good scheme. There are local authority areas of varying age in my area. Where people are allowed to buy out, there is a better mix of tenants. It allows people to aspire ultimately to buy out and own their own houses.

Most people find it easier to deal with the council than a high-street bank.

I am unsure which deputation commented on the idea that the housing associations could be brought under the remit of the Private Residential Tenancies Board and that they share the same characteristics as the housing authorities, that is, the local authorities, in terms of how they function and the service they provide. I wonder whether there is a problem with the way we support and allow our housing authorities to operate. They are operated by the councils. In my town an estate required rejuvenation. It was done well by one of the voluntary housing associations after it was handed over by the council, because the council could not access funding. The council must deal with people. Deputy Stanley referred to people from whatever background who end up coming to the council. It is unsatisfactory that housing authorities cannot get funding. The housing associations can get funding. The deputations have made suggestions and I do not blame them for that. They made reference to a Government guarantee etc. for the work they are doing. However, local authorities need to provide houses, including purpose-built units etc. but they cannot get the money. I wonder whether something is wrong with the system when we have come to rely so much on the housing associations. I realise it may be a case of asking turkeys about Christmas but I would welcome some comments. Obviously the housing associations are doing good work but it seems that there are some shortcomings.

Mr. Ned Brennan

I am happy to take those questions. Rural rehousing is important. We are currently taking over 21 units from Rural Resettlement Ireland. There is a cluster of 21 units around east Clare. They had been developed as a one-off houses in the past 15 years. Now, Rural Resettlement Ireland is giving up the business and we are taking over the management of those houses. Generally speaking, we would only develop new houses where we have an existing cluster of houses. That is the only limitation. We develop new houses where we have an existing structure in place already.

Reference was made to tenant purchase. We are not opposed to tenant purchase per se. However, there is certainly a case to be made for a portion or percentage of houses which are paid for out of the State purse to be available all the time for people in need of housing and this is the argument we have made for the past 20 years. Rather than selling off the silverware in a cycle every 20 years, some of the silverware should be kept for those in need of housing. Such people will always be with us and in our society.

Reference was made to the funding of the local authority sector in comparison with the funding of the approved bodies. The local authority sector has been curtailed because its source is Government funding and the funding shows up on the balance sheet. Given the role of the troika and the financial downturn in recent years, the State has been unable to leverage the amount of capital funding necessary to deliver social housing. However, with a little innovation and new thinking the voluntary sector has been able to continue to work to access funding with the assistance and support of the State, in small percentage terms, in the delivery of various forms of funding under different models.

As local authorities operate at the moment they do not sell all houses. Some are special units for the elderly or people with disabilities. For the most part they sell houses as they develop estates and I believe this system works.

Mr. Simon Brooke

That is an important point. We share Mr. Brennan's view that historically housing associations have not given tenants the right to buy. Historically, housing associations have been primarily special needs providers. Certainly, there would be difficulties in bringing in a tenant purchase scheme in a scheme for sheltered housing for the elderly, for example. However, for mainstream housing we have absolutely no objection to it - in fact, we would strongly support it - but it must be done in a way that means there is no reduction in the overall amount of social housing. This means it must not be done at a discount because we cannot afford to sell housing at a loss. We can afford to sell housing at market value because we could then replace the unit sold with another social housing unit. In fact, there would be an overall increase in the amount of social housing as a result. We are looking at putting together a scheme which we believe is feasible. We will be presenting it to the Department in due course and we have approval from our board for it. Another feature is that this would help with creating mixed tenure communities and there is considerable evidence that these types of communities are successful.

Deputy Mulherin made a comment about local authorities and asked whether there was something wrong with the system. Yes, certainly there is something wrong with the system. We have no wish to hog all the available resources. We have plenty of work to do and there is plenty of work for local authorities to do as well. If there were mechanisms by which local authorities could access funding that was off-balance-sheet - this is the only way such mechanisms can function at the moment - then we would strongly welcome them.

Mr. Jerome Casey

I wish to add a point following Deputy Mulherin's comments and what my colleagues have said. We need to recognise the reality that tenant purchase has been a significant element of housing policy and practice for the past 200 years. From my point of view the issue is the capacity of those in the sector to be able to sell off some of the assets they own which they have acquired through Government grants. If that is Government policy, it has not applied to us to date. As Mr. Brook has said, we have to get the value return on assets rather than sell them at discount. This is because we are operating on a small scale compared to the large stock transfers that have taken place in the United Kingdom and so on.

Alongside our work the Department is undertaking work. Mixed tenure is important. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is to undertake a review of the provisions of Part V of the Planning and Development Act. I believe that legislation should not be amended. It should be fully endorsed and implemented by local authorities because it enables mixed tenure provision of social housing, which has been beneficial and it works. Much of our housing is in mixed tenure schemes and there is no difference between the social housing and the owner-occupied housing. That is an important policy instrument.

Reference has been made to what is a real risk. There is a crisis in the provision of social housing as per the absolute reduction in capital grants. The expectation of the State is that we and our boards take the risk of borrowing private finance to acquire new units. As the chairman of my board has outlined, there are serious difficulties in respect of us being able to undertake this given the scale of what is required and the grants that we may get from the State to complement private finance.

Policy has evolved. Under the European model of social housing provision housing associations are the main providers and are designated as special providers. If this is what the Government wants us to do then we need to have the instruments to be able to deliver it for the State and its citizens. This is not to belittle local authorities; they have multiple and varied functions. We are more or less specialist housing agencies. This is what we deliver; it is our main core business alongside facility services. We do not have responsibility for rates, roads, water or the various other elements for which a local authority is responsible. I am suggesting that the change of role referred to is slowly evolving. The policy instruments to enable stock transfer or to enable us to have a greater role are not as developed as we would like them to be.

NAMA has indicated that of the stock it has offered up for social housing only half has been taken up by either the council or the housing associations. In other words, only half has been of interest. I am keen to hear the comments of the deputations on that in 30 seconds.

I do not think it is possible to respond in that way.

Mr. Brian O'Gorman

One of the difficulties is that much of the housing stock which NAMA took on is in areas where there is no housing need. We have no wish to push people out to the margins where there are no services and where they cannot access the facilities to enable them to participate in society. Unfortunately, in the case of some of the properties in NAMA there is no social housing and people have no wish to live there.

I agree with the point about the need for a national housing plan. Any such plan must be ambitious. We must think differently from how we have thought in the past. There is a real chance that we will go back to doing everything that we did before which caused all the problems. There needs to be a far larger rental sector with a far greater public emphasis in order that people can rent a home for as long as they wish to live in it, rather than rent a property, which is more a temporary thing.

There is some element of law that gives them a certain period of time to vacate but this is not stacking up in that people are being pressurised out of private rented accommodation.

The housing waiting list is at 89,000 and the very large number of repossessions coming down the tracks will add to that list. It should be noted that the list is not uniform in all parts of the country. Six local authorities - three in Dublin, two in Cork and Kildare local authority - between them make up 50% of that list. When the housing associations are considering locations for building houses, do they take into account locations where rents are highest and where Department of Social Protection rental caps exist?

Dr. Michelle Norris appeared before the committee recently. She told us there was €500 million available and that there had been an approach made by the European Investment Bank to draw down more money. She spoke about the key issue not necessarily being the availability of funding which to me was a real bolt out of the blue, but rather it is a question of the right structures being in place. She talked about the capacity of the housing association sector to avail of that funding.

What role can the housing association sector play in the short term to help in the current crisis and to contribute to a national housing plan in the medium term? On the issue of the ratio of funding from the State along with drawing down money from elsewhere, what examples are available from elsewhere with regard to drawing down funding from that kind of source? Will the housing associations have the capacity to increase the number of units if funding was available or funding in the right mix was available? If it was a question that there would have to be some sort of a guarantee or the Government would have to underwrite it, would this introduce a new impediment in terms of drawing down money from the European Investment Bank?

I have a couple of other questions and I will put them now so that delegates can respond to them. I refer to the significant issue of void houses. The problem is that the new procurement policy by local authorities is making the turnaround of voids very lengthy. It can take many months if a contractor has to be appointed. Is that same impediment an imposition for the housing associations or do they function under a different set of rules?

The Department of Social Protection will be moving to HAP, housing assistance payment. What role will the housing association sector play in this regard? That is one of the issues the committee is to address. This meeting was not organised to respond to the legislation the heads of which have just been published but it is timely that we can respond to it and it would be useful to hear the views of the housing association sector.

The housing associations say that there is not sufficient national funding provided for a take-up of the mortgage to rent scheme. The scheme is available in theory but the delegates maintain it is not available in practice. Is that because sufficient national funding has not been set aside?

Who wishes to respond?

Mr. Ned Brennan

I will give a simple example of how funding works. If a person buying a house for €100,000 is given a CALF subsidy of 20% which would be €20,000, the person would have to raise a loan of €80,000. If the house is in a rural town where the average rents are €500 a month for a three-bedroom semi-detached house, there would not be enough there to raise €80,000 so there is going to be a gap between the State subsidy and what the person can borrow. The voluntary sector can only take up that gap to a limited extent in that its balance sheet can only bear a certain amount of borrowings. That is where the difficulty lies. A Government guarantee would take the risk out of that gap of money and it would allow us to be able to develop more, knowing that we would be able to keep the thing moving at a sustainable level. The difficulty at the moment is that we are taking all the risk. We are going from a situation seven years ago where we had no risk - we were 100% capital funded - to today virtually taking on the whole risk. As charities we cannot take on that risk to that extent. We have to be more cautious in how we do our dealings and as a result of that caution we cannot really develop the same number as was possible previously. We have a strategic policy of delivering or looking for sites or developing housing in areas where there is the highest need, such as in the Cork city area, along the east coast and in the counties of Kildare and Meath.

On the question about the European Investment Bank, certainly the sector has the capacity to deliver. In 2009 RESPOND! had 1,200 houses or units under construction. We have the capacity and the technical capability to be able to deliver in that we have our own in-house engineers, technicians and architects. The funding piece of the cake is missing at the moment. We have the capacity to be able to deliver and we have the capacity and the experience to ramp up and start delivering again very quickly but without the State support in providing that safeguard or lifeline we cannot take on that level of risk.

With regard to voids we have a fairly quick turnaround and we do not have the same number or percentage of voids. Of course we are a much younger and newer sector so our houses do not probably need as much work as local authority houses may need when they are being re-let.

With all respect to Dr. Norris, all the talk about structures is window dressing. We have delivered in the past and we will be able to deliver in the future. The idea of having the structures right is only window dressing. We can deliver but the question is whether the Government will put that model together to support the sector in delivering more houses to those people who are in need in our society.

Mr. Simon Brooke

I will say a quick word on mortgage to rent. The current issue is not a shortage of finance; the current issue is that the main banks are not taking it seriously. That is the truth of the matter. The scheme has been running for nearly two and a half years and we and other housing associations, including RESPOND!, have put very considerable resources into it. We have 39 units completed and we have closed the sale on another 40. The Government's original proposals envisaged 500 units a year for seven years. We are nowhere near that and we never will be. The current issue is not finance, it is the fact that the banks are not taking it seriously.

I refer to the point about mortgage to rent and the attitude of the main banks. The finance committee has been speaking to the main banks. They are saying the opposite. However, I am more inclined to believe Mr. Brooks. I ask him to give an example because the example will always tell the story. He does not need to name the banking institution in question but I think I will be able to guess. I ask him to give an example of the delays and problems in a typical case.

Mr. Simon Brooke

One of the interesting distinctions is between the sub-prime lenders and the non-sub-prime lenders. The sub-prime lenders appear to have no difficulty with operating the scheme. Of the 31 units we have processed, I think 28 have been from a sub-prime lender, although I am not certain.

The system can be made to operate if that is what the lenders want. What we are up against with the main banks is that they express interest in a number of cases but that is where it ends. We simply do not get any further detail or any further processing of the cases from the banks. These delays occur all the way through the process, even, for example, where we have agreed everything and are closing the sale. In some cases, we have serious problems in getting the information we need from the banks - in regard to title, for instance - in order to close the sale.

The main difficulty for us in dealing with the banks is the occurrence of these types of delays. There are, however, other difficulties with the process, as we have consistently maintained. It involves two changes of ownership, for example, which inevitably makes it more complex than we would like it to be. There are changes that could be made to simplify the process, but it could be made to work as it is if all the stakeholders were genuinely committed to making it work.

I would be delighted to speak to Mr. Brook about this at another time. It is one of the main issues that emerged from last week's discussions.

Regarding NAMA's role in this, my view is that the houses are simply in the wrong places. That is why they cannot be sold and are in NAMA in the first place. The problem is that they are not located in places where people, in either the private or social market, actually want to live.

I also have a question regarding the 80% funding. I understand an experiment was done in the Docklands which has worked extremely well, involving a mixture of market, social and voluntary housing. Would pursuing that type of mixed development make the borrowing more secure for the organisations represented today or is there an issue in that regard in terms of their own governance? Would a model which included some element of market rent be more economical? I accept that the organisations' primary function is to provide social housing, but that type of model has advantages not only in the financial sense but also in that it would facilitate a good social mix. Unfortunately, I do not have time to go into the idea of a Government guarantee.

Mr. Brian O'Gorman

We developed one scheme in Sandyford with a mixture of private and social housing. Of the 58 units in the scheme, 34 are social and 24 are private. That works extremely well and there is no problem with demand on either the social end or the private. Indeed, they cross-subsidise each other very well, so to speak. It sounds perverse in some ways but where we take out loans, they are backed by a payment and availability agreement. We make the property available to the Government or local authority, which puts a payment agreement in place. When a lender looks at that, the guaranteed payment is worth a lot more than a private sector letting. A private sector tenant might leave in a year, for example, and there might be voids in the leasing, but the payment and availability agreement is guaranteed. In that sense, it is a better bet for a financier.

Clúid has developed housing using the current funding model. That model is not ideal but it is there to be used and it can be made to work. The difficulty with a Government guarantee is it would mean the Government having to take debt onto its balance sheet, which is simply not going to happen. We need to work within the current framework.

I understand the Sandyford scheme to which Mr. O'Gorman referred is in the Beacon South Quarter. If it proves successful, will Clúid or any of the other organisations look at rolling out that model on a broader scale? There is a social gain in providing that type of mix, quite apart from the benefit of providing houses.

Mr. Ned Brennan

We are currently managing some 14 integrated developments across the country at different locations. I am not referring here to rental integration but to schemes which included affordable houses. The developments include local authority affordable units, local authority rental properties, rentals for the voluntary sector, accommodation for older people and, in one case, Traveller accommodation. That integrated model has worked very well in all of those locations.

We are considering the development of a model in Dublin for a mixed scheme which would include social rental and private rental accommodation. In my view, that is the way to go in Dublin and Cork, in a context where we are not able to secure sufficient finance to fund the social side. It is particularly relevant in Dublin, where pent-up demand has begun to bubble to the surface in the past 12 to 18 months. It certainly is a viable option, in line with what is happening in many capital cities around Europe.

Is there anything the delegates can see in the heads of the Bill that might block or delay that type of development? On the other hand, do they see anything in the heads that would assist them to roll out such a model to a greater extent? Finally, does the model we are discussing have any negative impact on the 80% funding the associations can borrow? Specifically, will they be able to borrow at the same level where a market element is included?

Mr. Brian O'Gorman

The funding for social housing is the 80%, plus the availability. If one develops private housing, one is doing so privately and will not get any funding for it. That makes sense, because it is a different model. We are not-for-profit social businesses, so this amounts to a jump into a different sector, with different risks and so on. However, the Deputy has raised an interesting point in terms of the ability to lever off the private rental market. Certainly, in other jurisdictions across Europe, including the United Kingdom, it is quite a regular model. However, as was pointed out earlier, we have a very residualised social rented rector in his country, whereas it is much more mixed across Europe.

Mr. Brook made the point that resources are scarce and we need to target them at the people in greatest need. The result is that we do get concentrations or the potential for concentrations of low-income households. That is why the continuation of Part V is so important. During the Part V years we participated in developments in places like Dún Laoghaire, for instance, where we had never before been able to get in a social housing component.

Mr. Jerome Casey

Deputy Catherine Murphy mentioned that the Housing Finance Agency has €500 million to lend. However, the terms on which we can borrow from the agency are quite different from those available to local authorities. That affects capacity. We are borrowing at a rate of 5% compared with 2% or so for local authorities. In addition, the Irish banks do not have a strategic view on social housing as a long-term investment. They have not engaged with us in any serious way. There have been some once-off deals but no long-term strategic view. That is part of the wider context in which we are working to enable greater provision of social housing, with due regard to the potential risk that goes with moving into mixed-tenure development.

I have a word of caution on the mixed model to which Deputy Kevin Humphreys referred. The United Kingdom housing associations have gone considerably into private finance, which raises some questions as to whether they have lost their primary function of social housing provision. In a situation where their balance sheets and books are so large, they have got caught up in private finance and repaying the loans.

I thank the delegates for their presentations. I am not an elected politician and, as such, do not have the same level of experience as some colleagues of dealing with constituents on this issue. What are the delegates' macro views on the recently published legislative proposals? It is unfortunate that we have not had more time to deliberate on those proposals. We might have to invite the delegates back in due course to go through the details of that legislation. For now, however, I am very interested in the delegates' response at this point to what the Government is proposing.

Mr. O'Brien referred to German-style rent control mechanisms.

Could Mr. O'Brien please elaborate on that a little more for us and how he thinks it might impact on this country?

Mr. Jerome Casey

I will respond to the general view as per our submission on the legislation. It is important. It is a tidying-up exercise by the Department in terms of the Supreme Court judgment in the Donegan case, and the fact that when they were trying to get repossession against people involved in anti-social behaviour they were unable to do so because the procedures were not right and there was not some independence in it. We welcome that.

The housing assistance payment has been discussed for 20 years. It would seem to make strategic sense that it would go from the Department of Social Protection to a housing body that has overall responsibility for housing. We would support that. The approach with tenant purchase is that some of the value should come back if a tenant sells on a home and gets profit from it. Some of the profit should go back to the State that created the asset. That is the broad substance of the legislation. To me it is a tidying-up piece of housing miscellaneous provisions legislation which the Government tends to introduce every two or three years to deal with issues. In fairness to the Department and the Minister, it is a follow-on to the housing policy statement. Some of the policies that were enumerated in it in 2011 are being put on a legislative basis. In that context one would say the Bill is addressing policy via legislative methods. I will hand over to my colleague to comment on the German model.

Mr. Justin O'Brien

We could spend a long time on the German model but basically what it does is to provide stability, whereas the typical experience in the UK and Ireland is broad instability in housing. One can be sure when one signs up to rent a property in Germany that the rent will rise very moderately over the duration one wishes to remain in the property. As Deputy Catherine Murphy said, one can rent a house for as long as one wishes to live in it rather than rent a property. The Germans have managed over a long period to make renting at least equally preferable with purchasing. They have specialised funding through Bausparkassen, and various other such methods. Local authorities determine rents. One must leave the house or the apartment in the condition one got it in. That is important. They also involve both individuals and utilities – pension funds – in the provision of private rented accommodation because one allows them a reasonable return on property, which as I said is in the range of 6% to 8%, which is way above what one would get on German gilts at the moment. If one considers that the State is getting about 3% on its bonds, 5% would not be inappropriate for a return on private rent or a mortgage to the voluntary housing associations. I will not say any more. It is entirely different from the British and Irish version but it does give one what the Germans really like ever since the Weimar Republic - namely, stability in house prices and rents.

Mr. Simon Brooke

There are two problems. The first is that it drives a coach and four through the Government’s own policy of equity across tenure as set out in the housing policy statement of 2011, which basically says one should not give special deals to particular groups. By giving a substantial discount to tenants who can afford to purchase, the Government drives a coach and four through the stated policy. Second, it means that any scheme we would be able to offer would not be able to compete with the generosity of the scheme that is envisaged in the Bill. We are a not-for-profit organisation, but we are also a not-for-loss organisation, and we simply cannot afford to sell off-----

Who are the winners if the Bill is passed?

Mr. Simon Brooke

The winners are those who are lucky enough to be able to buy housing at a very substantial discount. What is crucial is that the people who really need help are the people who cannot even afford to buy at a discount – the people at the very bottom of the ladder. This is a very blunt instrument and poor housing policy.

The witnesses are very welcome. Housing is the top priority in this country at the moment. I am delighted the witnesses are present today. On local authorities, the bank loan scheme and mixed tenure, the latter is important. One must consider how one achieves it. Stability is an issue in local authority estates and voluntary housing estates. If people cannot purchase their own homes they might move away from the area and it will not be possible to achieve stability. How does one achieve stability if one does not allow people to purchase their homes?

Someone mentioned the JESSICA fund. Have any of the groups availed of it, and if not why not? It seems to be a good European fund and it is used in Scotland more than here. What problems have been found with it?

Shared ownership relates to local authorities only, but do the witnesses envisage going down that route? A response has been given to the question on the capital grant system and the loan scheme and how they should be made easier. There is food for thought in that.

The NAMA houses that were offered were located where people did not want to live, yet we have a good rural rehousing scheme. Have the witnesses matched applicants from the rural rehousing scheme to the areas of NAMA houses that were offered? A person who is now on a local authority housing list who is developing an IT business might love to live in a rural area. What matching is done by the various schemes?

A witness referred to a Government guarantee or capital underwriting. That is interesting, but could it lead to a bit of loose accountancy if everything is guaranteed? I am a bit wary of giving guarantees on everything. The best way to watch what a person does is to make him or her responsible.

Reference was made to 40% mortgage write-offs. Would one not have to equalise that across the private rented sector because of the way the Constitution is written?

I read the Clúid annual report. The organisation has 94 employees. Could the other housing associations inform the committee in writing how many employees they have, how many houses were delivered each year and the salaries of employees? We are aware of openness, transparency, responsibility and accountability. Is the information available online? The information is not in the annual report. I looked at income and expenditure. I am sorry for picking on Clúid, which has a good annual report, but it is not listed either on page 54 or in the director’s report. I do not know where the information is but I could not find it. Such information should be available online from all the organisations. I have said the same to every voluntary organisation that comes before the committee. The housing ombudsman is the local authority and not the Private Residential Tenancies Board. If rules are introduced for the PRTB to implement and the local authority rules are more lax, a local authority tenant will have more rights. I would be reluctant to say that everyone should be governed by the same yardstick. There should be important rules for each one.

Mr. Ned Brennan

I will take up two of the questions on mixed tenure estates and the right to buy. One can develop estates with proper structures in good locations with good infrastructure, transport, social facilities and community buildings, which ensures that people are provided with accommodation in the best of locations with the best of supports where people will want to live because the location is attractive. The right to buy does not necessarily make an area attractive for people to live in.

The Government is trying to put together funding proposals for the JESSICA scheme at the moment. We have not been able to access the European Investment Bank or other programmes directly; we have to go through Departments. We are trying to interface with some European agencies in order to access funding.

There is a public private partnership scheme that one could access.

The time is almost up. The witnesses might respond in writing to the other questions posed by Senator Keane.

I have a note of them.

We do not have time. We also have two non-members present. I thank them for their patience. The first is Deputy Boyd Barrett.

Do the witnesses agree that alarm bells need to be rung about the current housing crisis?

How would they characterise the housing crisis? It strikes me that with rising rents, the cuts in rent allowance and the chronic lack of provision of social housing, significant numbers of landlords are pulling out of the leasing arrangements the Government hoped would deal with the provision of social housing. All of those issues are now combining to produce a disaster. Would Mr. Brook agree with that? It is certainly the case in Dún Laoghaire where the council officials tell me that for the first time ever they are having to turn people away. They have nothing to offer them. They do not even have a hotel on the other side of the city, which is bad enough. The queue for their homeless accommodation is out the door. Even those on the top of the priority list will be waiting a year. They have nothing to offer in that regard. I would be very grateful if the representatives would use their presence here to ring the alarm bells. They might say categorically that there must be a shift away from this hoped-for provision of social housing from the private rented sector through leasing arrangements and so on. That idea was nonsense. It has failed and clear statements must be made to the effect that we must return to direct provision of social housing via the representatives' organisations or the local authorities. How would the representatives respond to that?

Mr. Simon Brooke

I am normally reluctant to use the word "crisis" but we are in a crisis. There is no question about it and the context for that is the economic circumstances in which we find ourselves. That has gone both ways making it worse. The demand for social housing has increased among people who have a severe need for it. At its extreme, people are homeless. At other levels, people are living in extremely poor quality accommodation. There is a greater demand for social housing while at the same time the output of social housing has collapsed in recent years. We face enormous challenges in addressing that but as Mr. O'Gorman stated at the outset, we produced 400 new units last year and we are extremely proud of that. It is a very small contribution but, nevertheless, it is 400 households off local authority housing waiting lists who are now living in good quality housing, and we want to do better than that. Part of what we urge constantly is to make the current systems work as effectively as they possibly can and, where possible, to bring in new systems. There is not one simple solution to the problem of housing in Ireland. It requires a range of different solutions, which may well include leasing, but we also must make the target finance model work.

To follow on from that, the other model hoped for was that leasing arrangements with the private sector would work. However, in many areas of Dublin the landlords, even if they entered into agreements two years ago when they needed tenants, are now pulling out of those because they are not a good deal for them. A big pillar of the plan, therefore, has collapsed and I do not see how it can be resuscitated. Do we not need to revert to what works, namely, the representatives' organisations and local authority housing?

Mr. Ned Brennan

That is the problem. It is the lack of planning. Mr. O'Brien and myself have been saying that there is a need for a national housing plan. A "mix'em and gather'em" of little bits have been pulled together and there are different programmes delivering different services. We need to start with a clear white sheet and decide where are the needs, particularly with regard to what Mr. Brook mentioned. The most marginalised people are homeless people. Their ability to get services are diminishing every day, and these are the most marginalised people in our society. If we cannot provide for homeless people, what chance do we have of providing for anyone else in need of housing? We need to start with a clean white sheet. There is a great deal of knowledge and strategic vision in the Departments and in the State agencies to allow us be able to begin to build up a housing policy, which is determined by analysing need, identifying the best places to live, identifying the resources, and putting that package together. We cannot rely on the private sector, as the Deputy rightly pointed out, because the private sector will go where there is the most money. Social housing was a cove in a storm. When it got cold and windy, the private sector came in for a breather. Now that the sun is shining again it is back out fishing in the middle of the ocean, and that is what will happen. We cannot depend on the private sector to deliver social housing.

I call Deputy Ellis and thank him for his patience.

I thank the representations for the presentations. There is no doubt we have a major crisis on our hands and that we need a national housing plan because I believe everyone has a right to a home. However, increasingly, the voluntary housing groups are being given more of a role when it comes to housing, even in terms of the way they raise funds. The local authorities do not have the same ability to do that. We know from the Minister, who states it repeatedly, that this issue will end up in Europe because we are borrowing money but not accounting for it. That was one of the reasons we suggested that local authorities would borrow in the same way as the voluntary housing groups and set up a similar system. The Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, says it is possible. The local authorities say it is not. I do not know, but with a little imagination I believe it can be done.

In terms of the homelessness problem, the Minister of State said she will end long-term homelessness by 2016. That is fantasy. It will not happen, but I know the local authorities nominate people to the representatives' organisations. Do their organisations insist on a percentage of homeless people coming to them or are we relying on the local authorities? I understand a certain percentage is taken, which is very important. We have to be careful with the terms we use. It is not "homelessness"; it is "long-term homelessness". That is not to say we will solve the problem of homelessness. It is playing with words, and it is deceiving.

On getting the best value for money, we have NAMA, new housing, etc., but looking at some of the second-hand housing, in the same way that the local authority buys for senior citizens or whatever, is there any value in examining that area because houses will be much cheaper? It might cost them to refurbish them, which might be an issue, but with a little imagination I believe it would work out cheaper.

It was mentioned that, overall, there are 35,000 units in the voluntary housing sector. Does that include HAIL and Fold Ireland? Is that the entire sector? We have seen Fold Ireland take over housing in Finglas east from the local authority. I am annoyed about that. I do not believe the local authority should do that but they do not have the funds. That is where we need to have a little more imagination.

I am aware NAMA has been given a role in terms of how it delivers housing, etc. It was written into the NAMA legislation that it had to get a gain in that regard. We should consider changing that legislation. This issue should be passed over to the local authorities or to the voluntary housing groups to deal with. For various reasons we have thrown away a chance of getting that good housing. We can talk about the housing the representatives say cannot be utilised in certain areas but with a little imagination some of those could be utilised.

On the scheme for selling off houses, we ran into trouble with Dublin City Council in terms of the flats, apartments and so on and it never happened. The representatives might comment how we might get around that.

We have about a minute remaining.

Mr. Brian O'Gorman

First, in terms of who our houses are allocated to, it is done through the local authorities. They nominate and we allocate the houses. Ultimately, it is their waiting lists and they choose who is allocated housing. If the applicants are homeless, they get it. It is at the behest of the local authorities. We take 100% nominations.

I would like to throw something back at the politicians. We have been involved in negotiations for many years with local authorities throughout the country and time and again the issue of homelessness and demand continues to arise. We put proposals before politicians, particularly elected members, on short-life housing. Where there is a crisis, as there is in Dublin, and there are large numbers of voids in local authorities we would take that accommodation and bring it up to a standard to allow it be allocated to somebody who is homeless on a licence basis so that when the local authority gets funding to develop a particular scheme, it would be available to go back to the local authority.

This goes nowhere. Whether it is quoted as an industrial relations issue, it simply cannot get past the members on the council floor. They consider it a transfer of responsibility and are not willing to engage with us on that level.

That concludes this session. The committee would be grateful if the delegations could reply in writing to any outstanding questions. I thank the delegations for their informative and timely exchange with us.

Sitting suspended at 4 p.m. and resumed at 4.15 p.m.

The committee will continue its consideration of the topic on meeting current housing demand with representatives from the Community Action Network, Focus Ireland and Simon Communities of Ireland. I welcome Mr. Peter Dorman, Mr. John Burns, Ms Ciara Faughnan, Mr. Joe Donohue and Ms Lyndsey Anderson, the Community Action Network; Mr. Mike Allen, advocacy director, Mr. Mark Byrne, acting chief executive officer and Ms Martina Larkin, research and policy analyst, Focus Ireland; Mr. Sam McGuinness, head of Dublin Simon; Ms Louise Lennon, Simon national office, Mr. Pat Greene, Dublin Simon, Ms Helen McCormack, Simon national office, Simon Communities of Ireland. We will take the opening statements in alphabetical order.

I thank witnesses for their attendance.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. However, if they directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person or an entity either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. The opening statements and any other documents witnesses have provided to the committee may be published on the committee's website after the conclusion of the meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

We are discussing issues in the housing sector and using these exchanges to make a report to the Minister. We are all aware of the recent boom and bust economic cycle and the paucity, in particular, of social and voluntary housing and the re-emergence of a property bubble. We are looking forward to the views of the organisations on what is coming down the tracks and the issues that affect them.

I call Mr. Dorman to make his opening statement.

Mr. Peter Dorman

I thank the Chairman. Community Action Network is a community development organisation that has been working to resource local communities over the past 25 or 30 years. In recent times we have been asked by the policing forum based in the south inner city of Dublin to look at how the experience of community safety issues on the ground might be brought to bear on legislation. The Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014 is important in that regard. The policing forum is a multi-agency group comprising community workers who have been involved in their communities for many years, Dublin City Council, the Garda, the Canals Communities Partnership, the drugs task force and so on.

There is significant local authority housing in the canals area. Community safety is a key issue for residents, as they do not feel safe in their communities. The policing forum has come across a number of issues that can only be resolved through legislation. The committee will be familiar with the contradiction between the European Court of Human Rights and the power of the District Court to deal effectively with cases of anti-social behaviour and we understand the Bill is trying to address that. The concern of the communities is the time it will take. Our understanding is the legislative process can take up to two years. I have submitted figures on evictions. We do not wish to see evictions but, in some cases, it is the last resort in pursuing anti-social behaviour. Our concern is not that the issue is not being addressed but the time it will take to address it.

It has also been suggested within the policing forum that a dedicated court is needed because the experience is court cases can take a long time and judges who are not familiar with the cases act on them and things get lost, especially the right of appeal. The cases are appealed almost automatically. We suggest that the committee considers a dedicated court to consider estate management matters perhaps once a month overseen by a judge who is familiar with the experiences of people living on local authority estates.

We also recognise that people feel they know what is going on in their communities but nothing ever happens to those who are causing difficulties for whatever reason. As well as using hard evidence, provision should be made for local knowledge or soft intelligence that people have about what is going on.

Exclusion orders are an important tool in combatting anti-social behaviour. They are usually for one year but can be applied for three years. They are often made and the person could be in prison. The order continues to run but the process has to start again. We would like the committee to consider a proposal for the person to enter a bond whereby the exclusion order can be reimposed if the person acts out in the area from which he or she has been excluded.

Another concrete difficulty that is experienced is somebody, for example, selling drugs or involved in serious anti-social behaviour away from his or her own dwelling. This is a common experience where they move to another place. The hands of Dublin City Council are tied in terms of calling these people in and making a provision against their tenancy because they are acting out like this. We would like the committee to consider expanding the definition of the word "vicinity" to mean other areas generally where there is local authority housing.

Local authority housing is increasingly being taken over by approved housing bodies and this needs to be streamlined so that, for example, if somebody from a local authority estate is acting out on a Clúid housing estate, the local authority should be able to act and cannot just say, "They are up in Clúid so we can't do anything about them".

The committee might consider a reasonable probationary period for tenancies specifically related to anti-social behaviour. There should be provision to act on serious anti-social behaviour such as drug dealing which usually shows up within the first year of a tenancy.

I referred to the need to streamline the rules applying to local authority housing to approved housing bodies as well. There is also concern that a plan to deal with anti-social behaviour originating in private housing on local authority housing estates where people own their own houses or in private rented accommodation needs to be devised and implemented. The committee is overseeing the private residential tenancies Bill, which contains a provision for complaints to be made to the Private Residential Tenancies Board, but we are concerned about the power the board might have and the need to consider other actions to address the problem of anti-social behaviour emanating from privately-owned and privately-rented dwellings.

A great deal of work in the canal communities area has gone into providing support for families. Much of the anti-social behaviour is a result of the social inequality that exists and the fact that people are often in chaos and crisis. In particular, where children are involved, there should be a provision to refer those cases to an inter-agency body. We have at work a family welfare initiative and there are similar bodies around the country. For those facing eviction or exclusion orders, supports should be available for the families.

Mr. Mike Allen

I thank the committee for the invitation. Focus Ireland is one of the leading homeless and housing organisations in the country. We are not just a homeless organisation; we are also an approved housing body. We have more than 600 housing units across the country for families and single people. We span a range of the concerns the committee is addressing.

I will make a general comment on the heads of the Bill before moving on to the housing supply issue we have been asked to address. The legislation is extremely important and I hope we will be able to engage in discussion as the legislation is drafted and proceeds through the Dáil. While we recognise there is a requirement to provide for evictions and amendments are needed to deal with the human rights issues and so on that are problematic in the current legislation, the heads as drafted at the moment are simply a mechanism to achieve an eviction and we strongly believe that is the next but worst outcome that could arise.

Much more needs to be included in the legislation so the underlying problems which lead to the threat of eviction might be addressed, not as an outside issue which officials may bring into play in particular circumstances but as a clearly specified legal part of the process in which organisations which can help people sustain their tenancies should be engaged. We and our colleagues in the Simon Community have prevention teams in the city which work with local authorities and both organisations have an extremely good record of intervening with families and households threatened with eviction and helping them deal with the problems which caused the threat in the first place to the satisfaction of the local authority and the neighbours, which is crucial. This is missing entirely. While we can understand how a community faced with families behaving in an antisocial way would wish simply to see the family moved elsewhere, as a society making families homeless is not a solution to any social problems we face and we need to closely examine what can be done to prevent it while the legislation goes through the Dáil.

Moving to the question on more general housing supply, homelessness is a very complex issue with many causes, one of which at any given time has to do with a shortage of housing, but there are usually many other factors such as mental health, social behaviour and poverty. At present the extent to which homelessness is caused simply as a housing supply issue is coming to the fore. In our submission we identify one of the areas in which we particularly work is with homeless families. In January 42 families in Dublin presented as homeless. This is three times as many as there were 18 months ago when we started this work. Of the 42 families, 40 had no previous experience of homelessness. The cause of their homelessness was housing supply. It was economics and not any social problem or issue.

The question of housing supply is central and it is a problem throughout society, including for relatively well-off people trying to achieve the home they wish. We make no apology for stating the part of society for whom we speak, namely, those at the bottom for whom the choice is not between a better home and a less good home but between homelessness and any type of home, are those whom the Dáil, Parliament and committee should prioritise in what they do. We do not believe simple measures to create an aggregate increase in the amount of housing in a rising tide will lift all boats way will solve the problem for those at the bottom. We need measures specifically designed to provide housing for people who cannot afford to provide it on their own in the free market. We need it through subsidies to existing housing, ring-fencing housing and policies leading to the building of public, social and community housing of one form or another.

We lay out a number of short-term measures in our presentation, which all committee members have read. A key element is our argument that rent supplement needs to be reviewed. It was reviewed almost a year ago and the Department of Social Protection states the review will last for 18 months and it will not re-examine it until the end of this year. According to the laws the Parliament has set down, landlords can review rent on an annual basis. It is our belief the way in which the State responds to the needs of tenants should reflect the laws of the land and we should also review rent supplement on an annual basis. This means we should examine it now with a view to revising the figures at the end of June.

We recognise that increasing rent supplement levels would have an impact on the cost to the State and there is a risk that rents will increase. The argument for rent regulation and rent control has never been stronger. The legislation we are discussing today which committee members will examine over a period of time is where this argument can be progressed. We should not wait several years to do it. We should do it now. We have put forward a number of ideas on rebalancing tax reliefs in the private rented sector so landlords would no longer be able to get rent relief for behaving in what we believe to be a blatantly discriminatory manner whereby they state they will not accept rent supplement tenants, while at the same time they receive tax relief on 75% of their income. This should be rebalanced so there is a tax incentive for landlords to take people from the bottom of the pack who are in greatest difficulty.

These are short-term measures, which we need, but we will not be able to deal with this problem with short-term measures only. We need to consider long-term measures also. In particular we draw attention to the important issue of reforming and retaining Part V. If a decision is taken to abolish it there would be little hope for providing sufficient social housing for our people.

Mr. Sam McGuinness

I will make some comments about the Simon Community and then speak about the Bill itself. I will also speak about housing and homelessness. The Simon Community in Ireland is made up of a network of eight regionally-based independent local communities in Cork, Dublin, Dundalk, Galway, the midlands, the mid-west, the north west and south east. All eight communities work collectively with our national policy office to conduct valuable research and inform and influence national policy.

Our main concern about the general scheme of the Bill is that some aspects may impede the Government's target of ending long-term homelessness by 2016. Every effort must be made to ensure evictions and exclusions for anti-social behaviour are the very last resort. People must not end up in emergency hostels and accommodation or sleeping rough and proper processes must be put in place.

The extension of the tenancy purchase scheme should not impact on the availability of social and affordable housing with almost 90,000 households on local authority waiting lists. The transfer of rent supplement to a housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme is very much welcomed but issues remain to be addressed, including maximum rent caps reflecting market prices, the acceptance of housing assistance payments by landlords and outstanding deposit guarantee issues. In addition there is a need for a national scheme similar to the rent supplement initiative within the HAP scheme. This would make provision to allow higher rent payments to be made under the HAP scheme nationally to secure accommodation for people who are homeless.

The present homelessness situation has been described as a tsunami and desperate. It is the worst most of us have seen during the duration of my career with the Simon Community. Last night 70 people were sleeping rough in the area between Harcourt Street, Amiens Street and Jervis Street. This is the highest number we have seen and it is at a time when the accommodation put in place for the cold weather initiative remains. Last night up to 1,600 people shared emergency accommodation in the greater Dublin area. As Focus Ireland well knows this includes many families. The number of families experiencing homelessness has increased.

Simon Communities are very supportive of the commitment to end long-term homelessness and the need to sleep rough by 2016 and the work of the homeless oversight group. We firmly believe with sufficient resources and national direction this can be achieved. The prolonged economic crisis means more people are at risk of homelessness. More people are becoming homeless and more people are turning to the Simon Communities for support. Last year we saw a large increase in the number of people we supported, as did other agencies. We are doing everything possible to address the crisis. We have increased our capacity and opened up new projects, sometimes with little or no funding from the Government and we had to rely on our own resources and donors. We are developing new ways of providing housing with support for those who are homeless, such as the Cork rentals initiative with Focus Ireland and other organisations. We are experimenting in a number of areas with shared accommodation. Dublin Simon has increased the number of new and refurbished units available, which we bought and revamped ourselves. Some of the revamps have been with the help of the State. We now have more than 70 units which is a huge opportunity for us.

We have housing shortages and rent increases and there is no end to it. It is a conundrum and a bubble which keeps getting bigger. People state it is exploding. This morning on the radio I heard a discussion during which the unemployment rate next year was projected to be 10%. If this is made up of people coming home to work in the construction industry we will have a real problem because the supply problem will increase.

The construction of private and social housing is urgently needed. This will require funding. Finance is required for approved housing bodies. Currently, only six housing bodies are approved by the Housing Finance Agency. There are many more such bodies in existence. NAMA must also deliver social housing. However, to my mind despite the requirement for NAMA to deliver as time goes by it has fewer units of accommodation available for various reasons.

As already suggested, the introduction of rent control in the private rental market is critical because rents are spiralling and will continue to increase because of demand and a shortage of housing. Transfer of voids to approved housing bodies and NGOs is critical. However, this, too, is not a bottomless pit. In addition, some of these voids may be beyond use at this stage. The establishment of a national social rental agency is a strong option, be that in the form of local authority groupings or otherwise. There is only so much rental accommodation available and there must be controls around it.

As already stated the promotion and funding of early intervention and prevention is critical. While the Minister of State has allocated additional funding for this purpose, unfortunately, that funding was taken from another space. The intention is to provide additional focus in this area. In terms of where urgent action is needed, we are expecting a miracle. We are expecting the big ticket item to come out of the homeless oversight group and the homeless policy implementation team. However, there has been similar expectation in the past. My hope is that this time we will get what we expect. Sustained funding from the Departments of the Environment, Community and Local Government and Social Protection and the HSE is critical for the next three years. Unless Government is imaginative in terms of the steps needed to get this country back on its feet and to achieve a reduction in unemployment we are heading into a crisis.

Members will note the many issues facing us which have been highlighted on the balloon I have drawn, including a housing shortage, housing quality issues owing to what is available, an increased risk of illness among long term homeless people, all of which is a draw on resources, a reduction in rent supplement despite that rents continue to increase, limited funding to assist those in mortgage arrears and increased unemployment. Many of the people who have returned to live with their mothers and fathers will in future need to rent accommodation. We are heading for a real problem and would like the assistance of the committee in solving it.

We will now have a questions and answers session, with members having ten minutes each to put their questions.

I recognise the crisis in this area. I meet every day with the people affected, some of whom I would never have expected to have to rent a home. Some of these people are working and others are unfortunately unemployed. The rent caps are a significant part of the problem in areas of high demand. As a public representative, I have run out of things to say to people who come to my clinics about this issue. There are no solutions at the moment. As stated, there is a need for short, medium and long-term measures to address this problem. There is also a need for Departments and agencies to work together in finding solutions. This problem must be addressed on a multi-agency basis. We must ensure we have homes that are acceptable as places for people to live. There is little of this type of approach which would break a cycle in the context of anti-social behavioural problems. There is a mountain of work to be done.

Most of my dealings on this issue are with families with children. Last week, I met with a parent who, with child, had slept the previous night in a car. When I raised this matter with the local authority I was informed that this person should seek a relative who would allow them sleep on their couch because there was no hostel, B&B or other accommodation available. This problem must be acknowledged for what it is, namely, a crisis. Up to now I have not had any dealings with the Simon Community in my area. However, I now find myself in regular contact with it. Some people think that because there are a couple of big industries located in north Kildare it is a well-to-do area. However, homeless is very prevalent in areas where the local authority lists are lengthy.

On proposed solutions, the rent caps set for many areas are way below the market rents, particularly in urban areas of high demand. Last year, €403 million was spent on rent supplement. The more one takes out of people's pockets in rent the less there is for the economy. We need to view rent caps from the broader economic perspective also. I am interested in hearing the witnesses' views on that issue.

On the housing assistance payment, the heads of the Bill dealing with this issue were published recently. I foresee two major issues arising in this regard. First, some of the local authorities do not have the resources to deal with this, particularly those located in areas of high demand. Are the witnesses concerned about this? Second, I do not know of anybody in private rented accommodation in my area who is not paying a top-up. In all of the cases concerned, these are illegal top-ups but people are forced to pay them or face homelessness. Would the witnesses agree that this is an issue? I would also welcome their views on whether people are obtaining accommodation at rent rates which are below the market rents.

Were the Deputy's questions directed at anybody in particular?

I would like to hear a response from all witnesses in relation to the rent caps and HAP.

Mr. Mike Allen

On top-ups, during research a year or so ago on the experience of people on rent supplement we found that a huge number of them were paying top-ups. We also did another piece of research towards the end of last year which focused on families that had become homeless in Dublin, the vast majority of whom had previously lived in private rented accommodation, in respect of which they had been paying large top-ups which they later could not afford and got into debt with their landlords and ultimately lost their homes.

When one raises this issue with the Department of Social Protection the response is that there is no evidence of this. When we then ask if we sent to the Department a person who was engaged in paying top-ups and could prove this was happening the response is that they should move out of where they are living because that is against the rules. One cannot present evidence of this because the Department of Social Protection will penalise the whistleblower. In my view it is the only area of social welfare fraud in which the State is complicit in that it is the poor defrauding the poor. That is a very controversial thing to say but people seem to be perfectly happy with the poor defrauding themselves and no resources are applied to put this right. This leads to the issue of rent control. Greater regulation in the area of the receipt of and control of rents would help to control the issue of top-ups. Obviously, in introducing rent control one would have to ensure that making property available on the market remains attractive to landlords.

That should be a given. It is not simple to design such a system, but every other country in Europe, other than Britain, has managed it and there are many lessons we can learn from it. The State has a policy of increasing the number of people who live in private rented accommodation but it has done insufficient work on putting policies in place to ensure that people can also have a home in the private rented sector as well as just an apartment.

Ms Louise Lennon

We found that many of our services are topping up as well. It is impossible to find accommodation within rent caps. It was a problem even before they were increased. They were increased in some areas and reduced in other areas last June and it is still causing difficulty for people. Another issue is that landlords are now advertising that they are not accepting rent supplement. We have said in our statement that when rent supplement is transferred to HAP there must be something in place so landlords will accept people who are in receipt of HAP. Top-ups cannot continue. The limits must be set in accordance with the consumer price index and the rental index.

Mr. Pat Greene

With regard to the second query relating to the HAP roll-out in local authorities, we are concerned that the local authorities do not have the resources, manpower and staffing, particularly with the embargo in place. We are familiar with one county council in a county quite near to the city that is struggling even to secure funding for a homeless services worker. We have provided that funding from our own pockets, so there is a concern regarding the roll-out of HAP nationally. We have said in the submission that it is not just the question of the roll-out but also that the supports, infrastructure and resources are applicable as well for each local authority.

Mr. Sam McGuinness

My understanding in the Dublin area is that the local authorities would be encouraged to take on the challenge of a HAP pilot so they could at least understand what is required to do it. HAP is better than rent supplement if we can fix the issues, but we must work at it as soon as possible.

What is the experience with a multi-agency approach? Does it work or is it happening?

Mr. John Burns

I can honestly say that it works in our area. We have had several initiatives with it in the housing area. So far, we have a family welfare initiative in the Rialto area and another one in the general Bluebell-St. Michael's area and they have been working quite well.

I welcome the witnesses. It is a pity we must welcome homeless agencies at all, but it is a fact of life. It is sad in this day and age to see the figures for last night, with 74 people sleeping rough, particularly when one constantly hears about vacant properties. It is a pity we cannot match social housing need and vacant properties.

The witness spoke about the dedicated court system. Obviously, that would speed up the process to ensure community safety. In my 20 years on a local authority the issue of community safety and anti-social behaviour arose regularly. There is always a root cause of anti-social behaviour. It is not just the person being anti-social for the sake of it. The witness spoke about supports. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has recognised this with the establishment of the Child and Family Agency. It is the first time there has been such a dedicated agency and a Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. Steps have been taken in that regard but a great deal more must be done. It is better to stop the horse before it bolts, as it were, with the problems. What initiative could be taken there that is not being taken at present? What would the witness recommend?

With regard to Focus Ireland and intervention teams, that is an issue that should be addressed in the Bill. It should be included there. I will see if there is a reason it cannot be included or if it could be included in another Bill if it is not in this one. Deputy Murphy addressed the issue of landlords and the top-ups that are taking place. The entire issue of supply, demand and the market must be addressed. It is very difficult when there is limited supply. Somebody mentioned a big ticket item. What is the item they would recommend? If one can only do so much, where does one start? It is a huge problem and there are so many items, but what do the witnesses consider to be the priority or most important?

Somebody mentioned the establishment of a national social housing agency. There are many agencies and representatives of a number of agencies have appeared before the committee today. Could they not all be brought together? There must be co-ordination but is the establishment of another agency the way to go? Personally, I doubt that it is. I hate too many agencies because one gets lost when finding out what each one ultimately does.

The witnesses have welcomed the housing assistance payment, HAP. Hopefully, it will work a great deal better now when it is co-ordinated under the local authorities than was the case in the past.

To whom have you directed those questions, Senator Keane?

Whoever wishes can answer. All of them have aims and responsibilities regarding homelessness.

They can be answered in the order they were asked.

Yes, perhaps Mr. Peter Dorman will reply on the community issue.

Mr. Peter Dorman

Did the Senator ask what the big ticket item would be with regard to anti-social behaviour?

The big ticket item was on housing in general. Perhaps the witness would discuss the early intervention for the community. If there is something that is not being done in that area or by the family agency or the intervention scheme, what would the witness recommend?

Mr. Joe Donohue

I work for the family resource centre, which is funded by the Minister's agency. We have many services that focus on families particularly in terms of intervention. The big thing for us is when one makes the intervention, particularly with regard to young children who are involved in serious anti-social behaviour. The people involved in the distribution and supply of drugs in our communities generally do not cause a major nuisance, it is the young children they have running for them. It is extremely difficult to get them into the system, because they are not seen as being highly problematic. Some of these children are now attending school. They are still in school so they would not be deemed to be a high risk category but the reality is that they are on that train. For me it is about early intervention, but an early intervention that deals not just with the child but also with the family and the community. That would be the big thing for me. It is early intervention and not waiting for somebody to go so far as into the criminal justice system. That is a big challenge for the new agency, particularly with the limited resources available at present.

Is the witness proposing preschool and family intervention for everybody?

Mr. Joe Donohue

Obviously preschool is an important contribution. The report that is being launched in the next couple of weeks indicates that those children who attend preschool benefit, but one of the biggest indicators for children not progressing is where there is a concentration of poverty and social disadvantage and there are continuous problems of anti-social behaviour and criminality. Unless we deal with those issues, we will not make much headway.

Mr. Mike Allen

The question on the big ticket item or what would be the one thing is always difficult to answer because in the area of homelessness, in particular, many different things are happening. Using the metaphor of preventing the horse from bolting leads one to look at the issue of prevention. Much of the work we are doing with people involves finding them a home. The people who are not yet homeless already have a home. If we could do more to keep people in the homes they have, it would allow us to focus more of the resources on the other people. We have included a number of things in our submission in that regard.

To elaborate a little further, there is no process either in the private sector or in the local authority sector for when a process of eviction is begun. Nobody needs to be informed.

Even though a person has become homeless the first time that homeless services need to be informed is when he or she is homeless. By that stage it is too late for prevention and dealing with the issues. We have looked at the Scottish system but there are other systems in a number of jurisdictions where informing the authorities is part of the eviction process. This is done not to prevent an eviction but to allow other institutions to intervene in a timely manner and see whether something can be done to remove the underlying cause for the eviction. We strongly argue for such a system and for a much better use of the teams referred to by the Senator that Focus Ireland and Simon have, and maybe others have, who already work with local authorities and can prevent evictions. There are safeguards in place which are not sufficiently used or integrated into the system

With regards a national agency, it is probably not a good thing to include "national" or "social" in a name. Such places tend not to have a good history anywhere in the world.

That is why I questioned the title.

Mr. Mike Allen

At the moment there are 26 agencies working in public housing that all work with the local authorities and there are probably more agencies. Recently rationalisation took place which means town councils are no longer involved. More than 300 approved housing bodies also exist. Having a national body does not mean there should be another agency or player. There must be some way in which the combined efforts of all of the many players are made more effective. One of the biggest problems faced by approved housing bodies and local authorities when delivering social housing is the scale needed to get the system going. I refer to private funding, credit rating and so on. Bringing that work together in some form of a national housing agency is a very positive idea and needs to be explored further. I refer to a way of reducing the number of agencies, not to add another one.

I thank Mr. Allen. Focus Ireland has just over a minute left.

Mr. Sam McGuinness

I shall be as quick as I can. I agree with everything that Mr. Allen has said about intervention. Early intervention is critical because it can save time and money and keep people in their homes.

With regard to the agency piece, there are too many of us desperately searching for rental accommodation. An agency would be much more effective. I do not mind if Savills or some other commercial body does the work because it can give example.

The big ticket for me is to somehow push back on the State and Government in terms of believing in themselves, believing in what they have done, and believing in the future and having hope. We need to invest in people. It is not as if there are no funds in certain coffers to be availed of. On the one hand we have the current expenditure, but that is being nailed. On the other hand, we must have development money. There is development money to get new industry and business and spread the food industry. Where is the money for developing homes? Housing is a real issue. I am sure that we have a number of billions of euro in the NTMA or as part of the pension fund. Half a billion of that money could be taken out as was done in Finland. When Finland had a housing crisis they said: "Okay, this is how we use it." If that money was given to the Minister of State responsible for housing it would remove an awful lot of pressure on her. Plus, we would all be delighted to work around her and help her spend the money.

I welcome everybody and thank them for their perspectives but I cannot help but feel even more despondent now that I have heard them. In the previous session we talked about the crisis and in this session we have talked about the crisis bordering on a disaster, particularly the statistics on families from Focus Ireland and the image that last night, between Jervis Street, Amiens Street and Harcourt Street, in excess of 70 people slept rough. That situation is a terrible indictment of society and an extraordinary statistic of which to make sense.

I have a question for Focus Ireland and the Simon community and apologise for not directing a question at the third delegation. Focus Ireland and Simon are aware of the Homelessness Oversight Group which made a recommendation at the end of last year. Is it feasible to believe that homelessness will be ended by 2016 which is just two years away?

The oversight group's main recommendation is to have a single unit established with responsibilities. In other words, it wants one group to adopt a multi-agency approach. I would like to hear the views of both organisations on the matter.

Early intervention and prevention is a big ticket item. Is the next big ticket item rent control? Is that the elephant in the room? Should the Government, without apology, introduce rent control? Mr. Allen of Focus Ireland made a statement on the matter and I ask him to elaborate further. Does he think rent control can be included in legislation? I ask the same question of the Simon Community.

I have a final question for both organisations. Perhaps my other colleagues share my view about the awful image given by Mr. Allen about the poor defrauding the poor. For the sake of the record, I ask him to elaborate on the matter for people like myself, public representatives who do not have a constituency office. I ask him to elaborate so that we can visualise what he meant by his phrase.

I must attend a Vote in the Dáil Chamber and ask Senator Landy to take the Chair. I shall give him the list of speakers. Senator Mac Conghail is due to get a response to his queries and Senator Landy is next to speak after that.

Senator Denis Landy took the Chair.

We will start with Mr. Allen.

Mr. Mike Allen

Focus Ireland's 2016 target is to end long-term homelessness. That means nobody should be homeless for longer than six months which seems a hard target to reach considering the circumstances that we have talked about. In theory, one could have the same number of homeless people but make sure that they are moved on within that period. That would not be everything we would wish to achieve but it would still be better than having people homeless for very long periods.

The Homeless Oversight Group was not sceptical but said the target is not going to be achieved unless a whole range of other things are done.

Mr. Mike Allen

We support that viewpoint. Homelessness is a multi-factoral issue and one of the things that the group asked for is a central unit that can say to various groups - whether that is the HSE, the Department of Social Protection, etc. - the following: "Hold on a minute. This is a Government target. We know that you have got other concerns over here but pay attention to this issue because it is a national and Government target that must be delivered." We believe that it is crucial to have a centralised command unit. Focus Ireland, like all of its colleagues in the homeless sector, is committed to doing everything within its power to achieve the 2016 target but whether the conditions for succeeding will be created by the rest of the actors in the sector is beyond our control.

My comment "the poor defrauding the poor" is a controversial image and some of my colleagues do not like me using the term. I meant that people are defrauding themselves. For example, people on very low incomes break a rule by topping up their rent by taking money that they are supposed to spend on food - and legislation says that it should be spent on food and other living needs - because they need to keep a roof over their head. That is a breach of their conditions for rent supplement and could result in them losing their tenancy but their alternative is a loss of tenancy. We have a good rule that is right in the heart of our anti-poverty legislation which says one cannot pay so much rent that it will leave a person with insufficient resources to provide for the needs of that person and his or her family. Every elected representative in this House knows that people are doing exactly that and it is widespread throughout the system yet no action has been taken to address the matter.

I am not sure if rent control is the elephant in the room. We are trying to name it. The nature of the argument is that one does not name it so let us name it as central to the matter. There are a number of ways one needs to go about rent control. At the moment rents fluctuate simply due to supply and demand and landlords, tenants and the State are extremely vulnerable to changes in rents. We must move to a system of rents being more based on the cost of providing accommodation rather than current market rents.

The Department of Social Protection could do more to assist tenants in challenging changes in rent to the PRTB within current legislation.

For someone stuck for words, Mr. Mike Allen did very well.

Mr. Sam McGuinness

I do not think rent control appeals to the average person who has bought a buy-to-let property. In the current situation, rent control is needed for everyone trying to get into any premises, not just homeless people. I do not know how close people in this room are to it but people looking for an apartment are queueing outside and are being gazumped. We used to talk about being gazumped for buying a house but now they are being gazumped for getting a flat. The shortage is dire. We also made a submission about quality. There could be a BER mark for quality. With regard to income tax relief, the withdrawal of the measure was a shame because it put control on the market. Now, there are no controls.

With regard to the homeless oversight group, Mr. Mike Allen, myself and Focus Ireland must believe this is manageable; otherwise, we could not go to work every day. We work in a very sad state of affairs and the most unfortunate people are getting more unfortunate as things improve. Everything is falling on top of them and the situation is getting more dire. Last night, there were 1,600 people and their family members in emergency accommodation. That is fixable. The combined group could come up with a robust, Government-supported action plan and we could get somewhere. There are two and a half years to go and much could be done. All of us are walking in the same direction. People with large titles are on the oversight group and if they can come up with a plan and influence local authorities, a lot could happen. However, it will take funding and the funding must come from the side of the balance sheet that we put aside for investment. Unless we invest in our beliefs, we will not get there.

I thank the witnesses for attending. With regard to the homeless figures for last night, is there any evidence on the number of people coming out of the rural Ireland into the city? I make it my business to stop and talk to the homeless people around this building every day. Most of them are from rural Ireland. I am curious as to whether the groups have any information on that.

With regard to antisocial behaviour, I spent 27 years on a local authority. One of the problems in recent years has been those who are in private accommodation within local authority estates or the mix of the rental accommodation scheme, long-term leasing and local authorities being in the same estates. How will the legislation cut through this and deal with people equally? The options were outlined in respect of taking this through the various stages. At the end of the line, people who have refused to abide by any rule of law and intervention end up back in rented accommodation paid for by the State. What should we do in that situation? Should we accept it?

Mr. Mike Allen mentioned rent control and rent regulation in his submission. It has gone from south to north. People were pleading with local authorities to take buy-to-let property through long-term leasing when they had 20 properties. Now, they are trying to get out of the agreements because they are stuck on a certain figure. How will rent regulation happen? Will it happen at the level of local authorities or will there be an overarching system? Colleagues in Dublin talk about astronomical rent levels that, by virtue of demand, do not compare with what I experience in Tipperary. I do not see rent regulation happening at a national level. It must be broken down.

Mr. Peter Dorman

Two questions were addressed to me, one on private accommodation and one on hard cases. With regard to private accommodation, there is public housing, approved housing bodies and private accommodation and some cases in between where people on local authority estates are being helped to buy their houses. The question of vicinity is important. It is very much an issue outside Dublin as well as in Dublin. If there is a local authority estate where someone has purchased a house or is renting it privately and is engaged in serious antisocial behaviour involving criminality through the drug trade, the local authority says there is nothing it can do as a sanction. If local authorities take responsibility and say they have a duty to protect their tenants who live within the estate, the question of vicinity is important. If a person is in private accommodation but dealing drugs around the estate, the local authority can say that it must protect its tenants.

Can I clarify that this suggestion will require legislation?

Mr. Peter Dorman

I am not a legislator so I am not sure. It is a crucial issue. The Residential Tenancies Act refers to antisocial behaviour coming under the remit of the board. We discussed this in the policing forum and thought it might help. It depends in what capacity the tenancies board can respond to those questions.

The second question concerned early intervention and supporting people facing eviction. I agree that once eviction becomes a possibility, support should be mobilised straightaway. There is a sense that we cannot intervene and change people but in many cases nothing is tried or it is very haphazard. In many cases, intervention would make a difference. From our experience, the drug trade is the organising principle around much of this. Even if young people are not directly involved in drug dealing, the atmosphere created on an estate where this happening leads to all kinds of chaos. It is important to recognise that, where there is a drug dealer seen by everyone to be living the good life who seems to be untouchable even if not dealing drugs directly, it feeds into the aspirations of young people on the estate and leads to a particular culture.

There are two kinds of hard cases. There is a person who is so chaotic that all kinds of intervention will not help. There may be a need for specialised housing for folks like that. People may be on their own and chronic alcoholics and causing problems for their neighbours. Their place becomes somewhere where people can deal drugs. They need supported housing that can help them because they will not change easily.

Mr. Joe Donohue

We often refer to the carrot and stick approach. With the regeneration of Fatima Mansions, the incentive was for people to move into new houses. Mr. Peter Dorman referred to the recent Donegan case. There is an air that people are untouchable and that there is no sanction for bad behaviour. In the new Act, there must be some sanction. No one wants to see people and families evicted but the simple reality is that six or seven families cause trouble on an intergenerational basis in our community.

There is a need for new and innovative ideas in response, otherwise they are destroying entire communities. There is a responsibility on the homeless. It is easy to find somebody a house but suddenly he or she disappears. I do not think there is enough follow-up. There are cases in our community where people have been placed in the service and, perhaps because of lack of resources, disappear and the cycle returns. There is a need for intensive intervention.

Ms Lyndsey Anderson

If I could just add to that. In terms of early intervention a couple of initiatives are run very successfully in Inchicore, having been piloted in St. Michael's Estate. Bringing it all Back Home is one initiative that has been very successful. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, has more on it. Another is the family welfare initiative. Both initiatives are early intervention and preventative programmes. Obviously eviction will be necessary in some extreme cases. If we get in at the early intervention stage and try to break that generational cycle, relationships between and within families can be improved and that can lay foundations for a better sustainable community in the long term.

On the issue of the supply of housing, anything that can be done to increase the void turnover rates in local authority and the approved bodies housing stock would be welcome. In addition to providing an increased supply of rental accommodation, it would act to stabilise the communities within which those units are based. If a community has 20% vacant or void units, that can act to destabilise the community and it is aesthetically displeasing. It can add to the whole environment of a difficult community.

Mr. John Burns

Senator Cáit Keane asked if there was a need for another agency. I would candidly say, definitely not.

I am sorry, I was not advocating another agency. Somebody there mentioned another agency.

Mr. John Burns

I said the Senator asked if there was a need for an agency. I would agree with the Senator that there is not a need. However, there is a huge need for the existing agencies to work much closer together and to be encouraged and, sometimes, directed to work closely together around an identified issue, such as homelessness and problem tenancies, which are related. There should be a direction on the particular departments to work closely together until something is done with it.

Mr. Mike Allen

I wish to pick up on the points made by colleagues in Community Action Network, which were extremely valuable. Many of the problems we are talking about, anti-social behaviour and so on, essentially arise from our problems with drug abuse, the drug trade and criminality. Currently, in terms of the legislation before the committee, one is trying to address those problems with an eviction policy. While an eviction policy might be part of it, as Mr. Peter Dorman said we also need a housing policy. An eviction policy is not a housing policy; it is part of it. A much more sophisticated housing policy and a whole range of other services and supports, both criminal justice supports and community supports that communities need, are required. It is not possible to deal with a problem so complex simply by having an eviction policy. The current legislation attempts to do that and I think it will become badly unstuck. The homeless services will fill up with people with whom we are not able to deal because the system is already unable to deal with them.

Senator Denis Landy asked about rent control. Clearly, we should not think the answer is simply a guy in a suit somewhere deciding what the rent should be across the country and that everybody will have to stick to that. Clearly that would not work. There is already rent regulation right across the private rented sector in Ireland. One is not allowed to change the rent more than once a year and one is allowed to change it only in line with the market. That allows for the fact that it will probably be more expensive to rent in Dublin than in Tipperary and elsewhere to be reflected. We could look to what extent we identify that. We could say that it cannot be changed more than once a year and that one is not allowed to vary it by X amount. Additional controls could be inserted as to when the landlord wishes to move it to change the rent. There are limitations as to how they can do that and over what what time period and with the reasons they might do it. Landlords have already gone through a huge collapse in rent levels in various parts of the country. Given how the housing market works, this will work both ways. The people who want to invest in housing want to know the bottom will not fall out of the rental market from time to time, rendering them unable to pay their mortgage and, equally, people who want to live in rented accommodation want to know that the rent will not suddenly sky rocket and make them unable to stay there. Some form of moderation, through regulation, not formally rent setting in an old-fashioned sort of way, is the way to go. We recognise this is a sophisticated question and we would need some elaboration to get a system that would work.

The last question was on the figures.

Mr. Sam McGuinness

I do not think the rural gentlemen that the Senator meets outside-----

Mr. Sam McGuinness

-----and ladies, whether from outside the country or otherwise have been denied accommodation. Local authorities would prefer if people sought their benefits from wherever those benefits were sourced. It may be the case that many are eligible to collect their benefits in Dublin but in most cases they would be connected with wherever that local authority is. The difficulty is that in many cases there is not a place to bring them in to work on those issues, because there is not the accommodation. The number of sleeping bags handed out per week could be up to 200. There is a huge conundrum of stuff. People will say there are some people who could collect a sleeping bag every night and God knows what they are doing with it. The situation on the street and the situation in emergency accommodation is at more than capacity. Unless something happens, we cannot deal with the capacity issue without having a medium and long-term plan.

I was hoping there would be recognition of the fact that there are no services in rural areas, therefore people drift to the cities where there are services, albeit in sheltered accommodation or sleeping bags. I have been made aware of this from speaking to people across the country.

Ms Louise Lennon

The services are not available in some areas. We have outreach services in some rural areas. People are in accommodation but do not have the supports. There are difficulties in getting to appointments due to the unavailability of public transport. There is a greater need for such people to drift into the cities to access services.

I wish to conclude this session. I thank the witnesses who appeared before the committee for their contributions on this important topic. Obviously, their views will be of assistance in the compilation of our report to the Minister.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.28 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Wednesday,16 April 2014.