I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Sullivan, to the House.
Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014: Second Stage
I am pleased to be here to initiate the passage through the Seanad of this important piece of housing legislation which provides for innovative and necessary changes to social housing support and assistance in Ireland.
The Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014 before the House today will bring important changes to the framework of social housing support. With the publication of the Bill, the Government meets another commitment in the programme for Government and achieves one of the key reforms contained within the current housing policy statement, namely, that the main focus in terms of housing supports must be on meeting the most acute needs of those unable to provide for their accommodation from their own resources. This is particularly so because of the constraints on our resources. Nevertheless, there are clear signs that we are turning the corner on the Government's aims of achieving economic recovery and growing employment which, ultimately, will enhance what we can achieve in the areas of housing and will also help to reduce the numbers of those at risk. In line with these promising trends it is important to note that work is under way in my Department on reviewing and renewing the social housing policy, which will be published later this year.
We are all only too familiar with the issues currently arising in the housing sector, more acutely seen perhaps here in Dublin than anywhere else. The serious constraints and supply problems place a spotlight on the housing policy and finances. As public representatives we see the growing and changing demand for housing supports every day. We need a system of housing supports that is more effective, more efficient, more coherent and that better serves the needs of people. It has long been accepted that one of the key State housing supports, the rent supplement system, was ill-used and was becoming a much longer-term support than was ever intended. The Bill will reform how the State provides rent support. The new housing assistance payment, which is provided for in the Bill, will introduce a more coherent and joined-up system of housing support which will be better for tenants, landlords and housing authorities.
I wish to on the record of this House that the main avenue, in my view, is to tackle social housing demand is to create more social housing units, either through local authorities or the not-for-profit voluntary sector. That is the most important challenge in social housing policy.
To date this year, I have announced more than €200 million in funding that will be used to build, purchase or refurbish some 2,900 units in the coming 24 months. As the economy improves, I am determined to fight for additional housing capital resources to increase social housing supply. However, it is important to be realistic. More than 70,000 households are in receipt of rent supplement. A large number of households will in the short to medium term meet their housing needs in the private rented sector with State support. These households cannot be ignored. For too long, they were dependent on a rent supplement system that was not fit for purpose. It resulted in a fractured approach to social housing; it penalised people for taking up employment; it created a poverty trap; and it made inspection of standards difficult for local authorities. The Bill reforms how we support households in meeting their housing needs in the private rented sector. It is good for the State and tenants and recognises the problems faced by landlords.
In providing for a more coherent, responsive system of housing support the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014 places all long-term supports with local authorities, which will make for a better, fairer system. In addition, the Bill provides for implementation of mandatory direct deduction of rental contributions due to housing authorities from the welfare payments of housing assistance payment, HAP, recipients and local authority tenants, which is a key provision in avoiding and combating the build-up of rent arrears that cause significant financial difficulty for local authorities but more significantly for tenants. The HAP scheme is an opportunity to improve standards and levels of compliance, remove employment traps and create a more equal and fair social housing system where the rights and opportunities available to tenants in different forms of social housing are vastly improved. Households that move onto the new HAP will retain the ability to apply for other social housing options. I stress this point because it was raised frequently in the other House. These options include the traditional local authority house or a unit provided by the voluntary sector. As the household will be within the local authority system, they will do this by joining the relevant local authority's transfer list. The transfer list will reflect the specific priority or previous position the household had on the previous waiting list within the authority area in which they are resident. The principle will be that the reasonable expectations of households should be preserved. They will, therefore, be placed on a transfer list with no less favourable terms than if they had remained on the main housing waiting list.
Following the passage of this legislation I will, using my powers under section 22 of the Housing Act 2009, require every local authority to provide access to the transfer list to households that transfer to the HAP scheme and also to reserve a proportion of allocations for households on the transfer list. The Bill also provides for two other significant areas of reform, namely, the termination of local authority tenancies and the tenant purchase of local authority houses.
Section 62 has withstood judicial scrutiny during the years, but the passage of the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003 resulted in a stream of litigation claiming that the section 62 repossession procedure used by housing authorities was incompatible with the convention. The Supreme Court delivered a judgment in 2012 in two such cases, making a declaration under the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003 in respect of one of these cases. In its judgment it declared that section 62 of the Housing Act 1966 was incompatible with the convention where there was a factual dispute about the basis for the evictions as it did not provide for an independent hearing of the merits of the proposed eviction. However, the court made no such declaration in the second case, in which it found there was no dispute about the basis of the proposed repossession. New legislation is, therefore, required in this area to provide for repossession procedures compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights Act.
The changes proposed in the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014 deserve the widespread support of the Seanad. The Bill is set out in five Parts, with 58 sections, and I will refer in some detail to the main provisions.
Part 1 of the Bill contains standard provisions dealing with Title, collective citations, construction and commencement. It also provides for the interpretation of key terms, regulations, orders and directions, repeals, revocations and amendments to the Housing Acts, including the Housing Act 2009 which remains a core housing statute, as well as other technical provisions such as legal savers and provision for expenses.
Part 2 of the Bill repeals the repossession procedure set out in section 62 of the Housing Act 1966 and sets out a revised procedure for repossessing local authority dwellings where serious breaches of tenancy agreements have occurred, including anti-social behaviour and breaches of rescheduling arrangements for rent arrears.
Warnings issued to tenants by housing authorities for such breaches will include the right of the tenant to request a review of the warning.
Sections 7 to 11 set out procedures for tenancy warnings and their review. In the case of non-compliance with tenancy warnings for anti-social behaviour housing authorities will have strengthened powers under sections 12 and 13 to either recover possession of the dwelling or seek an exclusion order, as appropriate. Sections 14 to 17 deal with abandoned local authority dwellings and recovery of property in the case of death of a tenant and certain other cases. We can all agree that we have no wish to see very many tenancies terminated in this way but we also know the havoc and misery that anti-social behaviour can cause to communities. It is important to have a mechanism available that meets the highest standards of our human and civil rights obligations for all concerned. This part also provides a legislative mechanism to update all existing local authority tenancy agreements to reflect new legislation without the necessity to terminate all existing agreements for the purpose of entering into new agreements incorporating updated terms and conditions.
Part 3 provides one of the measures most sought after by tenants, that is, an incremental purchase scheme for existing houses which will cover local authority houses other than newly-built or newly-acquired houses and local authority apartments, which are covered by the existing incremental purchase schemes under the 2009 Act. The incremental purchase scheme detailed in sections 21 to 30 offers a number of key benefits. For families, the scheme offers the path to home ownership for those willing and able to undertake a house purchase. The scheme is structured to make it attractive for people to retain long-term roots in the community and to continue their commitment to an area, thereby contributing to more stable and integrated communities. On Committee Stage in the Dáil I deleted the requirement in section 25 on a tenant purchaser of an existing local authority house to obtain the prior written consent of the housing authority to carry out material improvements to the house during the period of the incremental purchase on the property. This will make it easier for purchasers to improve their homes with consequent benefits for the construction sector generally.
In due course, I will make regulations on specific aspects of the new scheme, including the qualifying conditions for applicants, calculation of discounts, the method used by local authorities to determine the purchase price and discount and the period of the charging order. The Bill also includes provision for a claw-back to enable the State to benefit appropriately from any resale of the purchased property. This is a worthwhile and innovative initiative deserving of the support of the Seanad.
Part 4 is probably the most important and certainly the most reforming part of the Bill. It provides the statutory framework for the introduction of the housing assistance payment. This new scheme is being designed to bring together all long-term social housing services provided by the State under the local authority system. The qualification of a household for social housing support will have to be determined by a housing authority through a statutory social housing assessment and the authority must be satisfied that assistance under the scheme is an appropriate form of support for that household. The provision of assistance under the scheme can include a path to alternative forms of support, where appropriate and where required. HAP beneficiaries will source their own accommodation in the private rented market, as currently happens with rent supplement, and will enter into a tenancy agreement with the landlord concerned. The housing authority will pay the rent for the accommodation directly to the landlord on behalf of the household, which will be required to pay a rent contribution to the authority calculated in accordance with the authority's differential rent scheme. To be included in the HAP scheme the accommodation must meet the statutory standards for rented accommodation and the landlord must be tax compliant. These provisions will provide a new framework for the provision of long-term rental assistance. They can, in collaboration with other measures, help to create a more coherent and effective system for all concerned. The new framework can also facilitate the removal of some existing barriers to employment by allowing HAP recipients to remain in the scheme if they gain full-time employment. The Bill includes provisions detailing ineligibility for HAP, the cessation of a HAP payment and amendments to the Housing Acts 1966 to 2013 that are consequential on the introduction of HAP. There are also provisions allowing for transitional arrangements to facilitate the roll-out of HAP in Limerick and the six housing authorities selected for participation in the first phase of HAP following enactment.
On Committee Stage in the Dáil, I put forward an amendment which provides for an internal review procedure for certain HAP decisions. This provision is contained in section 48 of the Bill.
Part 5 of the Bill includes a number of miscellaneous provisions, notably section 53, which provides for the implementation of mandatory direct deduction of rental contributions due to housing authorities from the welfare payments of HAP recipients and local authority tenants. This Part also includes provisions for data sharing and exchange between housing authorities, the Department of Social Protection, my Department and other relevant bodies for the administration of the housing functions of local authorities. This Part now also includes a new section 54 making a range of amendments to the rent supplement provisions in the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 that are required as a result of the introduction of the new housing assistance payment.
What was very clear from all the contributions during the passage of this legislation through the Dáil was the passion that representatives feel about the need to tackle housing issues. The same passion is strongly held by this Government and by me, as Minister of State with responsibility for housing and planning. I know it is also very strongly held by Members of the Seanad. The Government is committed to turning our passion into effective action and reform. This Bill provides long-awaited coherence and equity to long-term social housing support. I am confident that it will improve the ability of housing authorities to plan and deliver their services in a coherent, flexible and responsive manner by bringing all long-term social housing services provided by the State together under the local authority system. The Bill provides for legal clarity in respect of repossession procedures and brings coherence and consistency to tenant purchase within the State.
It is an important reform. However, as I mentioned earlier, it is by no means a panacea. The real challenge in social housing is to supply more social homes, so that families are not left on waiting lists or transfer lists for an inordinate period of time. We are currently using every euro available to us to increase the supply of homes. I mentioned that funding for 2,900 has been approved this year, but much more must be done.
I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the Minister of State. I and my party have serious concerns about this legislation, which fails to address the scale of the housing crisis facing the country, in particular for those who are homeless or on social housing waiting lists and those on low and middle incomes who are renting.
The economic recovery's most tangible impact is to make the prospect of home ownership and stable accommodation a more distant possibility than was the case previously. The Bill does not address the chronic lack of supply of housing units and the Government's inaction on this matter. The switch to the housing assistance payment, in the absence of any details of how it will work, smacks of a desperate move by the Government to try to massage the social housing waiting list figures. The Government's strategy should be to get its act together and pursue a viable housing strategy. My party has already put forward its housing strategy, which the Minister is aware of and from which the Government could draw.
The ultimate failing of this Bill is its complete lack of solutions to the crisis of adequate supply to the housing market. This is crazy in view of the major oversupply that existed during the property crash. The Government's plans to reform the housing assistant payment fail to confront the primary issue behind the housing crisis, the shortage of supply. Not only will the measures contained in the Bill adversely affect the cost of rent paid by the householder, but the sheer shortage of supply will severely reduce the number of people who can avail of the scheme. The volatility of the rental market at present, with rents reaching runaway levels, is severely hindering the capability of RAS and the rent supplement. Increasing rents are forcing tenants to pay a top-up from their social welfare payment, undermining living standards and driving tenants back towards substandard accommodation that is not approved under the scheme. Whereas I have seen this in places such as west Cork and in other rural areas, it is obviously far more acute in parts of Dublin, particularly on the south side of Dublin where property prices as well as rents are rising.
The Government has established HAP without any clear outline of what will happen to people who are moved onto it and off the social housing waiting list. The Minister's claims about transfer lists have not been supported with any clear guidelines or information. We appreciate that there may be extenuating circumstances by which continued breach of a tenancy agreement may require extraordinary action to be taken, but surely the focus should be on dissuading the tenant from committing such breaches. There must be an independent appeal mechanism to ensure the process is fully compliant with constitutional obligations. If a housing authority is to recover such a dwelling, who becomes responsible for housing the tenant who has been evicted? Removing people from their homes simply feeds into the cycle of homelessness and passes the problem back to the local authority which is legally obliged to house such people.
The most recent quarterly report from the property website daft.ie and written by Ronan Lyons, assistant professor of economics at Trinity College Dublin, identifies some alarming trends in the rental sector and states the country is in the midst of a serious housing crisis. The report also states rental prices are approaching the levels which obtained at the peak of the boom and that rents rose in all cities, with Cork and Galway experiencing a 6% rise, Limerick a 5% rise and Waterford a 1% rise. The biggest annual increase in rents - some 14% - occurred in Dublin and the trend in this regard is continuing. The supply of accommodation in Dublin must be quadrupled, otherwise those on lower incomes will be further marginalised and pushed out of the market. The lack of social housing means that there is now little or no safety net for a housing market that is fast becoming the preserve of a few at the expense of those on middle and low incomes. Homelessness levels continue to surge in the capital and across the country and Inner City Helping Homeless recently stated the issue had surpassed crisis point. Each day Senators on all sides express their concerns about the number of people - particularly in the capital city - who are homeless and sleeping rough.
There are over 90,000 people on social housing waiting lists and the figure appears to be increasing. The aim behind the new housing assistance payment, HAP, is to reduce these lists by transferring those on them to the new scheme and removing them from the register. This is merely massaging the figures. The Government has failed to clarify the status of people transferred from the current lists onto the HAP and how they will access permanent homes. The Minister of State's claim that they will be put on transfer lists must be confirmed. In addition, full details must be provided of how existing credits will be used.
Legislation introduced by the Government such as the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Bill has further exacerbated the problem by giving banks the power to repossess struggling homeowners' properties. There have been consistent delays in transferring NAMA properties, which only 500 being transferred to date, this despite the fact that ten times that number have been identified by NAMA as suitable for transfer. Perhaps the Minister of State might comment on this matter, either in her reply or on Committee Stage or on Report Stage because there is a serious roadblock in place.
In 2012 the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, stated 2,000 housing units would be made available in 2012 to people on social housing lists through NAMA. Two years on, the Government has made no progress in this regard. Only 450 properties have been acquired to date and this figure represents a tiny fraction of the actual number in need of housing. What is the position on NAMA which has huge numbers of houses in its portfolio? Is it selling these houses? There are certain towns and villages in west Cork where there is a need for social housing. Obviously, the position there is not as acute as in Dublin, but I recently wrote to NAMA to inquire why houses it owned in these locations were not being sold privately or to local authorities in order to alleviate this need. I have not received a satisfactory reply. Perhaps the Minister of State might address this aspect.
Overall capital expenditure by the Department has been reduced from €740 million in 2013 to €311 million in 2014. That is another serious issue. I was a member of Cork County Council for many years. At one point, with many other local authorities, it introduced a programme of acquiring land near towns and villages and providing serviced sites for those with housing needs. The programme worked admirably in places such as Skibbereen, Bantry, Schull and Clonakilty. The council purchased land in these areas and provided serviced sites which those who were on the housing list and trying to get onto the property ladder were able to buy at a reduced cost and then build their own homes on them. As a result, the numbers on the housing list decreased. I accept that many people would not qualify for such a programme. However, a percentage of those on the housing list are caught between two stools because they are not sufficiently well off to buy homes and get onto the property ladder. Perhaps the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government might re-examine the position in this regard. NAMA has land banks throughout the country. I am aware that it possesses several around Cork city. Perhaps the proposal I am making in this regard might be taken into consideration.
My party has outlined a series of steps which need to be taken to tackle the interlinked private and social housing crises. They include the establishment of a new social housing construction programme; the development of voluntary housing associations to a scale where they could access credit and start to build; the use of the tenant purchase scheme to fund future investments by local authorities; allowing families on waiting lists to move into vacant homes and defray the costs of refurbishing them from future rent payments; the creation of specialist NAMA transfer units in local authorities to spur on transfers; the easing of restrictions on planning permissions and reducing development levies; the reduction of windfall zoning tax to encourage development; the introduction of a vacant site levy; and the full protection of Part V and the establishment of Part V teams in each local authority area.
While I welcome the Minister of State to the House and the idea behind the Bill, I do not believe it comes close to solving the serious circumstances that obtain. There is a large number of people on the housing list in every town and village. It galls me that since the property boom there have been several empty houses in many villages and towns throughout the country, but perhaps not in Dublin, completed or half-completed. Something should be done in that regard. Is there a lack of cohesion between NAMA and the Department? Something is radically wrong if houses are left unoccupied for several years although they would be suited to greatly alleviating the social housing crisis.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. She is doing trojan work in her Ministry trying to resolve a very serious set of circumstances. There has been much misleading and grossly inaccurate information on the HAP. I am delighted the Minister of State has clarified once again in the Seanad today what the payment means. Representatives of various agencies have appeared before the Oireachtas committee, of which I am a member. Those representing the homeless are closest to my heart and that of the Minister of State. Very many people who cannot afford escalating rents are ending up homeless. Landlords do not want to take tenants receiving the HAP. The Minister of State has done some service by ensuring it will be easier for landlords to take on tenants in receipt of the payment and that they will not be fearful of non-payment of rent when the legislation is introduced.
The Bill deals with three major strands of housing policy: providing a legislative basis for the housing assistance payment; introducing a new tenant purchase scheme, as the Minister of State said; and reforming the process for the termination of local tenancies. The important housing legislation will bring about the most radical reform of public housing support, which has been badly needed for decades. Considering that we had the boom and plenty of property, one would think there should be no homelessness at all. However, there were still homeless people during the boom. That the problem could not be sorted then must be considered. Despite the fact that the Minister of State has her hands tied behind her back, she has done a good day's work in bringing in this measure.
It has long been accepted that the current rent supplement was and is not fit for purpose. The Minister of State is taking the necessary action to change the system. Data from last May suggest 78,000 people, or perhaps more, are in the rent allowance scheme. I may have the figure wrong. The new HAP will be better for tenants, local authorities and will be representative of a more coherent and joined-up system of housing support. It will be better for landlords in that it will encourage them to take on tenants in receipt of the HAP. The arrangement will benefit those who require assistance with their housing needs and it will ensure that all long-term household support will be assessed through each local authority rather than through the current, fractured system that involves the Department of Social Protection making payments. In addition, importantly, it will ensure that people will be able to take up employment and still retain housing support, and it will improve standards of accommodation for tenants with a more coherent inspection system under the control of the local authority.
I welcome the removal of the possibility of tenant arrears for landlords as it will encourage more acceptance of housing tenants. If one is on the housing list, one can take up the HAP. As the Minister of State said, and contrary to what I have heard in the media, one will be able to seek a transfer to a council house, RAS unit or accommodation from a housing association, provided that suitable accommodation is available. The Minister of State has outlined that very clearly today. One will be able to move to the system if one's needs and circumstances change. This is worth reiterating.
It should be recognised that not everybody in receipt of rent supplement or who will be in receipt of the HAP will want a traditional form of housing support. However, access to the supports will be provided, despite what I have been hearing. I will not ask the Minister of State to confirm this again.
The allocation and transfer policies will be reviewed throughout the piloting phase. There are seven or eight in the pilot programme. How long will it run for? Will seven more come in after the first pilot? Under the new scheme, the tenant can find his or her own accommodation provided the council is happy that it is up to standard. The HAP scheme will ensure that the standard of accommodation is sufficient. As I stated, that is important. Tenants will make their contribution to the council, in contrast with the arrangement under the RAS.
The Bill also contains reforming provisions on tenant purchase and tackling anti-social behaviour. Those of us who have been local authority members know that anti-social behaviour takes place. I am pleased that a new tenant purchase scheme is being introduced in the Bill. It is only fair that tenants have the opportunity to purchase their own homes in a transparent and equitable way. It makes for a coherent community working together when people are allowed to purchase their own homes, with the highest discounts to be available to the families in the lowest income bands who can sustain the mortgage payment. The scheme aims to enable tenants to become homeowners in their communities. It is a fundamental policy pillar to assist people to own their own homes by providing them with the necessary flexibility to do so. The Bill contains provisions to discourage the sale of a home immediately after purchase, which I welcome. One would obviously have trading on and trading up with the dilution of local authority housing.
The Bill reforms the termination of tenancies on which I have a couple of questions. As the Minister of State has said, termination of tenancy is a last resort, but there are occasions when tenancies must be terminated or repossession embarked on by a local authority. The new system will be transparent and include review provisions for tenants while facilitating local authorities to recover possession of dwellings. If a house has been vacant for some time, is the HSE informed or could it be? A tenant may be in hospital for four weeks unbeknown to the local authority. If there was a notification to the HSE, it could automatically inform the local authority and the tenant would not come out to find his or her home repossessed after four weeks. I do not believe it could happen, but it is important to put it in there.
The manner in which repossession takes place is set out in the Bill. I note the court judgment, on which the Minister of State may wish to comment, which recommended a proportionality test. It was brought to my attention and I raise with the Minister of State as it is easier to fix it than to let it happen. A proportionality test should apply where a person is proposed to be put out of his or her house. If it is not, there might be a problem from a human rights perspective.
I note the extension of the remit of the Private Residential Tenancies Board, which is to become the Residential Tenancies Board, to include voluntary housing association tenants. I ask the Minister of State to consider going a step further to include local authority tenants, if not in the Bill then in later legislation having considered all the recommendations. It would be useful if the Minister of State required an explicit statement of landlord obligations in tenancy agreements to ensure that the rights of tenants and landlords are all on the same footing.
Homelessness must be avoided. I note the 2016 aim of the Government on which it is working hard. NAMA is offering buildings to local authorities, which I welcome. However, I also want to ensure that it does not offer a huge number in a single location as with the offer of 500 units in my own local authority area. The policy of integration must stand true. I ask for a diktat to be issued to local authorities on the current integration policy of 20% social housing. Getting the planning rules right is also important. Building housing down the country and in the middle of nowhere are issues. If we get planning rules, lending for building and service sites right, the Minister of State will have done the State some service.
I welcome the Minister of State to House and thank her for setting out the arguments for the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014. The Minister of State's brief involves an extraordinary responsibility but it is one she wears well and with the utmost commitment on housing and homelessness. A mark of the success of the Government will be whether housing and homelessness, which issues are linked, can be resolved or hope established in relation to them in light of the Government's aim of eradicating homelessness by 2016.
I have not prepared a Second Stage speech but I have a few points I would like to make and a few questions that will determine which way I might vote. I wish to put on the record that there are many reasons families become homeless. I will then speak about the Bill. The main reasons are structural and economic, be they insufficient housing, high rent or poverty. The next one is the underlying reason for homelessness concerning the individual, be it addiction, mental health issues or relationship breakdowns. Making a sweeping statement that homelessness is just about accommodation and shelter does not necessarily involve understanding the overall crisis.
The recession has also resulted in an increase in the number of families becoming homeless, primarily due to the structural economic costs, particularly in Dublin. The vast majority of families who have become homeless over the past 18 months were previously living in the private rented sector. The main external reason families give for becoming homeless is that they are unable to afford their rent because the maximum rent supplement levels are insufficient to meet it in a number of cases or because at least one parent is working and, therefore, the family is ineligible for rent supplement. There are many examples of new types of families who are increasingly finding themselves homeless.
The Minister of State recently launched the homeless strategy national implementation plan. In response to that, Fr. Peter McVerry came up with a more nihilistic or less positive approach to that. While the implementation plan might be achieved by 2016, the changing profile of the homeless population will increase the pressure. Although I support the Minister of State in this, I am not so optimistic that it will be eradicated by 2016.
I am broadly in support of the Bill, particularly in respect of the HAP being transferred from the Department of Social Protection to local authorities. However, I have a few caveats. One of them is my anxiety over delay and local bureaucracy and the question of whether there is sufficient staffing and support to ensure that these payments will be implemented. Perhaps we could look at monitoring and measuring that so that within six months of the implementation of the Act, we could examine whether this is achievable. I would worry about that. I know the Minister of State is rolling it out over a certain amount of councils. Perhaps we could look at monitoring how quickly that response takes place.
I know Barnardos is very particular about the quality of housing. It has called for a certification system, which I do not see in the Bill. Under the Bill, the landlord is responsible for tax clearance certificates and being tax-compliant but I do not see a measure to improve the standards of private rented accommodation by establishing a certification system whereby landlords seeking to lease a property would need a certificate stating that the property is of sufficient quality and compliant with legislative standards. I would like to hear the Minister of State's response to that to reassure me. Local authorities must be resourced to monitor and enforce standards across the private rented sector. Those two issues are interlinked for me. One is the application of the HAP and the timeframe for it, and the other is a certification system. Tax clearance requirements for landlords are very detailed but how clear are we regarding whether a property provides reasonable accommodation for a family?
I am disappointed that rent controls are not included in the Bill. I know it is something the Labour Party might be keen on. I sit on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and Gaeltacht.
Introducing rent control to stabilise the market and ensure rent prices rise at a modest rate in line with inflation will result in tenants in the private rented sector living in a more stable community and having a better quality of life. It is a feature of many European states where renting is seen as a viable, long-term option and if we are to encourage more use of the rental market, rent control is important. That came across clearly in our committee meetings when we met with many non-governmental organisations including Focus Ireland, Barnardos and so on. The Department of Social Protection argues that an increase in rent supplement levels will be swallowed up in rent increases. I have heard that but I believe those fears are exaggerated, and the risk of this happening could be offset to strengthen the existing measures in place to regulate rent levels. Bureaucracy, rent control, certification of standard of accommodation are the issues.
The final key point, and the Minister has been embroiled in a debate on this in the other House, is that in Part 4, a new scheme of housing assistance payment, HAP, by housing authorities in respect of rent payable by households that qualify for social housing support and who are long-term recipients of rent supplement from the Department of Social Protection will transfer to a new housing scheme. It is the infamous section 35. The Minister has calmed down the hysteria that emanated from the Dáil debate but I would like to hear her interpretation of section 35, which states: "Subject to regulations made for the purposes of subsection (4)(f) of section 20 of the Act of 2009, the provision of housing assistance under this Part shall be deemed to be an appropriate form of social housing support for a household that is determined by a housing authority under the said section 20 to be qualified for such support." My interpretation is that this Bill means a family will be deemed housed once they are provided with the housing assistance payment and will therefore be removed from the social housing list. The Minister might consider providing reassurance on that on Committee Stage by way of an amendment to allow me to consider how I will vote on Committee Stage.
I welcome the Minister to the House again. I raised a number of these points with her in the past but will do so again now. I watched the Minister speak on a television programme last night. It was great politically to throw figures about on the number of people on the housing list but I have said consistently that the figure of 89,000 is most likely not accurate because many people on the housing list are only on it to get rent allowance. They are forced to do that. I have dealt with these people all my life and I know they do not want to be forced to go on the housing list to get rent allowance. We determine the accurate number of people on the list in need of council housing.
I refer to somebody on the rental assistance scheme living in a town such as my town of Ballaghaderreen, Castlerea or Boyle where there is no work, and no work in the service industry. If their only option is to move to a town like Galway or Athlone to get work, they cannot come off the rental assistance scheme. Having spoken to councillors into whose jurisdiction they would move I am aware they have tried to get on housing lists in those counties but they are not allowed do that. The only way they can be dealt with is if they present themselves as homeless. I explained that to officers in the community welfare service and they said that if they present to them having given up RAS accommodation they will not be granted rent allowance. Can somebody who is on RAS transfer to the housing assistance payment, HAP, to allow them acquire work in another town where work is available?
I welcome the measure in the Bill to deal with anti-social behaviour. I have seen local authority tenants engage in anti-social behaviour and it was not dealt with by local authorities. The last case I recall was a family that moved from Dublin with six young boys. They are grown up now but at the time they wrecked a house in an adjoining estate. The council's reason for not dealing with that anti-social behaviour was because it did not happen in the estate in which they were living, despite the fact that it occurred just around the corner in another estate.
Local authorities have bought houses in private developments. In my town the local authority bought six houses, three of which are now vacant because the people could not tolerate the anti-social behaviour taking place in the estate, which involved "wise-guy" children bullying other children. Parents are afraid to let their children out to play. The problem of anti-social behaviour must be tackled robustly.
On the way local authorities do their business, I know of a family who bought a house 13 years ago on the shared ownership scheme. They borrowed €60,000 for the mortgage part from the county council; the local authority share was €35,000. Thirteen years on they owe approximately €38,000 on the mortgage side, and they have another 12 years to pay off their mortgage. When the 12 years are up the local authority share that was €35,000 will be €78,000. The shared ownership scheme is a major issue. It does not make any sense. There is no way those people will be able to pay €78,000 to the local authority in 13 years time. The shared ownership scheme should be reviewed and cases such as this one dealt with because what is happening is illogical. Furthermore, this family is in arrears to the tune of €3,116 with the local authority but for genuine reasons. It was not because they were unwilling to pay or co-operate. They have engaged with the local authority on a regular basis about their rent. When they bought the house the couple was married. The man was working and she was on invalidity pension. Three years after buying the house he left. He has not paid any maintenance to the children and she has been left to try to pay the mortgage and the rent every month on an invalidity pension. Last January, she agreed with the local authority to pay €300 a month, and she has not broken that agreement. Last week she got a letter from the local authority's solicitor informing her that she has 14 days to come up with the arrears or she will lose her house. Where is the logic in that? This woman does not have the money; if she did she would not be in arrears. That issue must be addressed. I hope the Minister can do that because what she is doing in this Bill is throwing somebody out of a local authority house and making them homeless when we are trying to deal with the problem of homelessness, as well as other problems. I await the Minister's response on that.
The issues dealt with in the Bill are extremely important. Reading the explanatory memorandum I note the tenancy warning as an alternative to evictions. FLAC has made the point to the Minister that evictions should be the last resort, particularly in a country with a strong attachment to history and what happened when people were evicted in large numbers.
One of the reports on Irish housing that has stood the test of time was prepared by Mr. Gay Mitchell when he was on the Lord Mayor's Commission on Housing. Garret FitzGerald, the former Taoiseach, was the chairman. It also included the current city manager and Professor Yvonne Scannell.
The context at the time is interesting. Local authority housing was found to be extremely expensive to maintain compared to what was on the open market and it was felt that some of the monopolistic practices of the trade unions that were maintaining local authority housing deserved scrutiny. I was quite surprised to see somebody like Garrett FitzGerald say that so strongly. He compared the maintenance charges in Dublin Corporation with those in the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and they were substantially higher here.
Recent research by Ronan Lyons at TCD also confirms that our construction costs are still higher than those in Germany, although we have been in a recession for five or six years. The required adjustment has not taken place, which makes the job of the Minister of State extremely difficult. Reference is also made to a dependency culture among tenants, who keep calling for extra maintenance expenditure, which again places a burden on the Exchequer, because not much is received in rent in comparison to the cost of these houses. Therefore, we face a major problem.
I would like to see housing treated solely as a place to live. I abhor the property supplements, which announce as good news the fact that prices are up 22%. Perhaps interest rates in Europe have been kept too low, but I would prefer if people invested in paper assets rather than buying houses for their pensions. Housing is an inelastic supply. As the great American economist Anthony Downs from the Brookings Institution said, we can have too much capital for housing, thereby inflating the prices of the existing houses and not inducing much extra supply into the market. We need more renting, with security of tenure for tenants. This is much more the custom in mainland Europe, as we have, perhaps for historical reasons, become much more attached to owner occupancy. We are also very attached to the rate of return, despite the slump in recent years. The rate of return on housing substantially exceeded anything else. Therefore, we wrecked the banking system and did not invest in small and medium enterprises, but instead bought and sold each other's houses. This was a contributory factor to the bubble. I believe the banking inquiry will address this issue.
From our current perspective, a house should just be some place in which to live, not a means by which to get tax-free capital gains or tax breaks. We on these benches were worried when real estate investment trusts were given favourable tax treatment. The problem previously was that we kept favourable tax treatment going long after it was needed. I hope the Minister from Limerick, Deputy Noonan, will look at this when he is preparing the budget. He should consider whether that stimulus was needed at all and whether it is needed now. Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, has set new rules for banks there in regard to the loan-to-income ratio and the required deposit relative to the value of a house. This sector is prone to bubbles, which can have disastrous effects, such as we have seen in Dublin in the past year. It is now 22% more expensive for the Minister of State to look after homeless people on the housing list because of what has happened to house prices. Nobody's income has risen by that much, and certainly Exchequer income has not increased to that extent.
On the issue of anti-social behaviour, I note the new chief constable of the PSNI went to a restorative justice seminar in west Belfast yesterday. This issue must be a priority for community policing. We must strengthen communities so that people can live in their communities and not become involved in spending their time annoying their neighbours and giving their neighbourhoods a bad name. The Garrett FitzGerald solution to this was to confine the maximum size of local authority estates to approximately 30. If all those on the housing lists live in the one place, some of those elements engaging in anti-social behaviour can give the place a bad name, which affects everybody else in the neighbourhood and makes life miserable for people.
Trying to make houses affordable is probably the major problem following the bust of the economy. Senator Cummins, our Leader, got figures from NAMA suggesting that it had offered 5,000 houses in the past six months but that local authorities had accepted only 1,000 of them. What is the blockage in that regard? We have a housing problem, yet local authorities are turning down offers made by NAMA. Another issue in regard to housing is that there is an incredibly long turnover period for local authority houses. The Minister of State said in her speech that she is trying to deal with this. However, Senators have referred to houses which have been boarded up for months on end after a tenant leaves and before the next tenant takes over.
The issue is either urgent or not. It is urgent, so let us go and do this. I commend the Minister of State on getting the extra money for this, if she can bring in rules for county managers so that they do not leave properties idle. We do not do that in any other accommodation areas. They should get the new people in as quickly as possible. This would help. Perhaps the Minister of State can also address the NAMA situation in her response. What is the problem and why has four-fifths of what was offered by NAMA to local authorities not been taken up? I wish the Minister of State well in her endeavour, because we will have a major problem if we do not tackle the issues now.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I wish to concentrate on two aspects of the Bill, the first being the termination of local authority tenancies. Section 62 of the Housing Act 1966 has a long history of litigation before our superior courts, going back more than ten years at this stage. As Senators will know, that section gave the relevant council wide-ranging, unfettered and summary powers to deal with tenants whom they considered to be in breach of their tenancy agreements. This more often than not concerned allegations of anti-social behaviour and, to a lesser extent, non-payment of rent. While I acknowledge the more recent decision of the Supreme Court in Donegan v. Dublin City Council, the matter began with a decision of the Supreme Court in 2005 in a case that had already come before the District and Circuit Courts. That decision was in the case of Dublin City Council v. Fennell. The council won that case on what could be described as a technicality, given that the Supreme Court held that the European Convention on Human Rights Act did not have retrospective effect.
Then came the High Court case of Pullen and Others v. Dublin City Council, in which two judgments were delivered, in 2008 and 2009 respectively. In the first of those judgments the judge found that the State body - in other words, the local authority - had breached its statutory duty under section 3(1) of the ECHR Act 2003 in seeking to evict the plaintiffs from their home without affording them certain procedural rights. Those rights were, of course, in the nature of a review or appeal. The court awarded €20,000 to each of the plaintiffs on account of the distress, anxiety, loss of reputation and damage suffered. The second judgment concerned what injunctive reliefs were open to the court in the case and do not concern us here.
Lastly, we have the decision in Donegan, handed down in 2012, on which the revisions to section 62 contained in this legislation are based. While I acknowledge that the Department wanted the conclusive guidance of the Supreme Court before advancing amending legislation, it was surely obvious to them, as it was to legal practitioners in the area, that such legislation was warranted some years ago. This time lag again illustrates the very great need for the soon-to-be-established Court of Appeal. I wish to pay tribute to the former Minister for Justice and Equality for bringing about the establishment of such a court.
In regard to this Bill, it seems to me to provide warranted safeguards in regard to tenancy warnings and repossessions. I am glad to see that in regard to repossessions, an application to the District Court, appealable to the Circuit Court, is to be the way in which such matters are handled. It is positive that in place of granting the possession order to the local authority, the court may instead, if it so wishes, grant an exclusion order against an individual without affecting the right of the other members of the family to remain in the dwelling. It is a sensible provision. I also welcome the provision allowing for some or all of the proceedings relating to possession orders to be held in camera, given the sensitive matters that will be considered. Given the various decisions of our superior courts on this issue, the Bill is a very good response to the issue and gives a workable right of appeal to tenants while preserving and protecting the ability of local authorities to deal with anti-social behaviour and the non-payment of rent.
The second issue I wish to address is the housing assistance payment. This is the most radical shake-up of State family housing support in decades. It will, for the first time, allow those in receipt of housing assistance payment to take up employment, something current rent supplement recipients cannot do. At present, working families who work more than 30 hours per week are not entitled to the supplement. This Bill will do away with that requirement and allow full-time work. We are all aware of the difficulties faced by working families. This Bill will help them. Threshold, the voluntary housing assistance organisation, has strongly welcomed the HAP.
In its 2014 budget submission it stated, "The new housing assistance payment, HAP, is recognised as a critical measure to improve employment activation." Additionally, the Dublin City Council pilot scheme will specifically target the homeless which is very much to be welcomed. With the present difficulty with landlords accepting tenants in receipt of payments, the new scheme will see landlords paid directly, accordingly removing the possibility of arrears and making such tenancies more attractive. It is simply untrue, as some in the Opposition have claimed, that those on HAP payments will be excluded from other social housing. Any such person wishing to avail of other forms of social housing will be able to be included on a transfer list from which housing will be allocated when available.
I very much welcome the Bill and commend the Minister of State for her very thorough legislation which will provide much needed assistance to working families.
It is widely acknowledged there is a serious housing crisis. All of us privileged and honoured to be public representatives are dealing with severe housing cases with people in really difficult situations. In some cases, people do not have a house in which to live. I have had a case where a family of five was considering moving into a one-bedroom apartment which belonged to a parent’s sister who also lived there.
Part 2 deals with the termination of local authority tenancies. With this crisis in housing which every agency involved, including Focus Ireland and Society of St. Vincent de Paul, acknowledges, our clinics are filled with people with housing problems. The message sent out, however, is that the Government’s priority is to terminate local authority tenancies. That is not a serious response to a serious crisis. Instead, it is outrageous. There may well be legal issues to be dealt with but these should not be the first priority in a housing Bill or any legislative response. Legislators should not be telling the public this is what they have done about this problem. That is a disgrace.
Part 3 deals with the tenant purchase scheme which is putting back in place a scheme the Government ended three years ago. This is at a time when homelessness is increasing. Last week, a young woman with five children came to my clinic because she had nowhere to live. The Government’s response in Part 3 is repossessions and clawbacks.
HAP is being lauded by the Government when it is in fact the privatisation of social housing, putting people on a transfer list for private accommodation and a second-class position. This is occurring when there is no increase in housing supply whatsoever. Where there is a limited supply of housing in the private sector, we are pushing more public tenants into that sector. Directly, as a result of that, demand is sky-high, supply is reducing while rents are increasing dramatically. The Government’s policy on social housing is playing directly into that.
As our No. 1 priority, we must restart, somehow, large-scale local authority housing development. We have to have the large-scale local authority estates that people had before, that workers aspired to, that provided housing to working families who could not afford to buy proper housing and from which fantastic communities were formed. We must be ambitious about this. If not, we will have more families becoming homeless and, as is a particular problem in County Meath, more people living in unsuitable accommodation. Housing which would have been empty for a long time in rural areas is now being re-used because people cannot find any other accommodation. I do not welcome HAP in the way the Minister has put forward because it will privatise the system.
This Bill is a shameful response to the serious crisis in housing. I do not know how it could be put forward by any politician, especially by the Labour Party. We see the housing problems in our clinics. We must put all our efforts and resources into increasing housing supply, putting more public housing in place, creating better and new communities and giving people hope. I was going to invite some people I know on the housing list into the Seanad to listen to this debate. I am glad I did not because it would have raised their expectations that they would be put up the list when, in fact, they will not be. I am ashamed this is our response to this serious crisis in housing. The Minister must listen to challenging statements like this and fight at Cabinet level for much more moneys for this sector. It must not just be for the refurbishment of existing local authority stock but for the provision of actual housing units. If the Government were to provide a greater supply, not only would it help solve our outrageous housing crisis but it would impact on the general market and assist the rent and price situation about which Senator Barrett spoke.
I welcome this Bill which aims to improve social housing and the social housing landscape as part of the commitment in the programme for Government. The last contribution was made in all seriousness. When one looks at the record in social housing of the previous Fianna Fáil Government, however, between 2007 and 2010 the delivery of social housing units for people on waiting lists dropped by 73%. That is the stark reality of Fianna Fáil accusations of privatisation.
I would be the first to commend the Minister of State and her Department on tackling void social housing units with €15 million this year and a further €64 million being set aside to deal with them. No Member on the Opposition or Government side, is blind to the fact that when council houses become vacant, it takes too long for them to be filled. These moneys are being provided to speed up that process and ensure local authorities leave no house vacant for more than a couple of months. The Government has also put moneys into energy efficiency for local authority houses with a further €10 million for unfinished housing schemes. This has been positive for anyone who wants to look at this objectively. This Government, despite strapped resources, is tackling the social housing problem.
This Bill deals with the issue of the employment trap which, as has been said by other Members, is a real threat. The Government will remove this poverty trap by ensuring those on rent supplement can take up employment. In an ideal world, if the Minister of State had enough money, I have no doubt she would start a stimulus package of house building. It is makes absolute sense that we increase the number of start-ups of old-style council housing projects in the next budget, a point for which the Minister of State will fight at the Cabinet table. Much has been made of HAP with much misinformation about it bandied about by the Opposition. I am pleased the Minister has clarified the entitlements and position on housing lists of those who take up HAP. Will she confirm that, not alone is she using section 22 of the 2009 Act, but that she will bring in further regulations to ensure that, for those in receipt of HAP, dwellings will be reserved for them under the new system of priority lists for local authorities?
This is important, given the disinformation on this matter. Our party has discussed it a great deal. When responding to this debate, I hope the Minister of State will comment on her commitment in respect of the regulation.
During the Lower House's debate last week, a Member of the Opposition stated that we should not tackle anti-social behaviour because doing so could create homelessness. I was a member of a local authority for almost a quarter of a century. We were powerless to do anything about anti-social behaviour in local authority houses. At long last, we now have a legal mechanism. The greatest fear of anyone partaking in anti-social behaviour is that he or she might be put out onto the side of the road. This is only right. We need the big stick because these people have been running riot in council housing estates across the country for years, frightening people out of their wits and destroying local residents associations and goodwill while we have been unable to do anything about them. A Government has finally decided to do something about this situation. I commend it in that regard. No longer will such people take control of and ruin local authority estates, be it through drugs or other means.
I commend what the Minister of State is doing in this Bill and look forward to her response to my comments on the housing assistance payment, HAP. I hope to see a house building stimulus package in the next budget.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. In my contribution on this issue, I will mention the wider problem of homelessness. A couple of weeks ago, someone came to speak at our party's meeting. One point made was that some of the exits from homelessness were closing, as there was not enough social housing and there were issues with high rents and a lack of availability in the private rental sector. We need to be realistic - another tsunami of homelessness is coming our way, and it will be one of the defining issues of the coming years. We would be naive to ignore it or to believe that the current plans are sufficient to deal with the issue. There will be additional homeless people by the end of 2015, but there is no plan to deal with them. When the resources allocated to the current plan have been used, that will be it. As television adverts say, when it is gone, it is gone. We need a steady stream of social housing to be made available.
We know the facts of the crises facing social housing and low-income private rental tenants. There are at least 90,000 applicants on the waiting list, with 77,000 people in receipt of rent supplement at a cost of more than €340 million. The dogs in the street know that we need more housing, private rents are too high and more families are facing homelessness or are in emergency accommodation. Many people who did not wish to acknowledge this problem in recent years have finally been forced to, particularly after comments by activists such as Fr. Peter McVerry put the issue centre stage. There is no more room for a see no evil, hear no evil attitude. Homelessness is more visible on our streets every day. While it used to be just the odd person here or there, it is increasingly common for families - little children with their parents - to be on the streets. This is heartbreaking and we cannot ignore it anymore.
This is the first substantial housing legislation to be introduced in recent years, but not only does it fail to provide concrete solutions to the problem, it also partly seeks to sweep the problem under the carpet and redefine the parameters of what constitutes housing and housing need so that we might pretend that a solution has been found. For the 90,000 applicants on the waiting list, the problem is not a definition. They are men, women and children in need of secure, affordable homes.
The HAP has been mentioned by many Senators. At first, it was presented as an opportunity to review many of the glaring problems in the rent supplement that we have all encountered in our time as public representatives. Allowing HAP tenants to work will be a positive step, but the negative elements of the plan are unacceptable. Under the Bill, HAP would constitute adequate housing and, as such, tenants would no longer be considered to have a housing need, resulting in their being removed from waiting lists.
Following firm questioning on this issue, the Minister of State replied that HAP tenants would be able to apply for transfers to council-owned homes and incremental purchase schemes, but the problem is that not all council areas have transfer lists and most have preconditions that would disadvantage new HAP tenants and wipe away the many years they had already spent waiting for housing. Some people will be damned if they do and damned if they do not. The Minister of State has claimed this is not true. Given what we have seen in this Bill, however, it constitutes an attack on the notion of social housing.
By its definition, private accommodation is insecure and open to the whims of the market and the landlord, and it has not served as a good, steady and affordable option for those who are unemployed, on low incomes or in precarious employment. In recent years, many more families have fallen into danger of losing their homes and being put onto the streets because of the whims of their landlords, especially when the latter have decided that they can get more rent from someone else. The people being squeezed do not trust that this Bill is enough.
My party submitted amendments in the Dáil and will do so again in this House to bring clarity to the Bill, protect the interests of those with a real housing need and propose better models for tenant-authority engagements on issues such as rent repayments. We oppose the plan to deduct rent arrears from source with no stipulation as to when this model can and cannot be enforced.
As most would agree, housing is a right and those in need of it, as well as social housing tenants, need to have that right protected, upheld and treated with equal dignity and respect. I look forward to the Minister of State's comments and further engagement with her as the Bill progresses through its Stages.
I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate her on introducing substantial housing legislation that was badly needed. I have been pressing for HAP for many years because it gives people an opportunity to return to work without having to worry about losing their rent allowance payments. However, I have a number of concerns and observations that I wish to raise with the Minister of State.
If someone is to be evicted from a house because of anti-social behaviour, the ten-day period is too short. There should be at least 15 working days. I am doing a bit of house renovating and had to pack up a great deal of stuff. I would hate to have to move out of the house and have sworn never to do so again having done just that much. There is a lot of work involved in moving out of a house.
Beyond that concern, the issue will invariably go to the District Court, where a judge will either agree or disagree that the eviction can take place, before being appealed to the Circuit Court. This process takes at least six months, during which time no rent is paid despite people still being in the house. They are being evicted for a reason, be it anti-social behaviour or not paying their rent.
The law strengthens the local authority's power to act, but what then? If people are evicted, they will inevitably end up being helped by the HSE because they have nowhere else to go and will be considered homeless. The HSE will simply revert to the local authority, point to the homeless people and tell it to help them. The HSE could make the case that, due to the use of drugs or alcohol, the people in question were not responsible for their actions. The issue is open ended.
HAP, the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, and leasing are the only game in town. Landlords do not need to produce birth certificates or tax clearance certificates or undertake radon tests. If one comes from a place like Kerry, where radon levels are high, it should be obligatory for a landlord to produce a radon test before a council rents a house from him or her.
I am afraid the following provision might be a little bit discriminatory towards people with disabilities. Due to the fact that this is the only game in town, local authorities cannot carry out adaptations to a privately owned house. What I mean is that if a person with a disability wants to go on HAP, RAS or whatever, he or she cannot get adaptations done to a house because local authorities are precluded from enhancing the value of a privately owned house. That is something we might look at.
Section 16 refers to abandonment of houses due to ill health "or otherwise" which is very open to interpretation. The provision should be more specific, because anything can be included under "otherwise". We know of cases in which people have closed up their houses and gone to the Netherlands for six months. Does that situation qualify as "otherwise"? Is that acceptable? The provision needs to be tightened up.
With regard to tenant purchase, the legislation dates back three years. What happens if people were in arrears and have caught up with their payments now? In that case, going back over the years might be open to challenge. For example, people might say the provision had just come in and nobody told them. Would it be better to state that a person will be eligible for the tenant purchase scheme if he or she keeps up payments for the next three years?
At the moment we have a housing crisis and, therefore, people who are being offered a house should be given just one refusal, not two. In a housing crisis people should take the houses offered. If they are badly in need of a house then they will take one or another. To refuse it twice and still be eligible for the scheme is not suitable when there is a housing crisis.
The Cathaoirleach is looking at me so I shall mention one last thing. The HAP will go to local authorities. Will resources to cover the administrative cost of putting the HAP in place for local authorities? The work will be transferred from the Department of Social Protection, thus creating a whole new workload for the housing department. Will the housing department be able to cope with the workload if it does not have the staff resources to deal with it?
I welcome the Minister of State and thank her for her genuine interest in the housing portfolio. I hope she will retain the portfolio following the Cabinet reshuffle. I would like her to hold that portfolio at senior Cabinet level. We have reached a stage of difficulty - I will not say crisis - in the broader remit of housing policy and provision. Therefore, the Cabinet table is the place at which the housing Minister should sit. One of our weaknesses in public policy is that we are very conservative in how we look at policy areas, and certain Departments appear to be untouchable and unchangeable. There should be a dedicated Cabinet portfolio for housing policy not just for the course of the next two years of this Government but for the next five or six years, and the Minister of State would more than admirably fit the bill. The portfolio would cover a wide range of issues, such as housing provision, supply, planning and ethos, which could be tackled. Housing is at the very core of every human's existence. Where one lives defines where and how one is educated, and it defines one's job and career opportunities. Basically, where one lives defines the rest of one's life. Therefore, it is crucial that we attempt to get housing right and put the correct policies and proposals in place, a matter that has been ignored over the past decade or so.
I welcome what the Minister of State has presented in the legislation. I am sure, like any proposal, it does not cover all the bases, but it is a positive step as long as we recognise that it is not the only necessary step.
I listened with very great interest to Senator Sean Barrett making a case that he has made many times in this House. We are again reaching the dangerous political point at which we are equating house prices with economic well-being. There seems to be a desire on the part of some Ministers and speakers in the other House and this House to welcome and cheerlead house price increases as if it is a sign that we are returning to the economic good times. In my view, an increase in house prices must be looked at with great alarm because it could be a return to the bad old days in which it was not the Government but developers who decided housing policy.
Developers do not see houses as places where people, families and communities live. Developers in this country see housing as nothing but a method of getting rich pretty quickly. If we want a proper housing policy, the central aspect must be to ensure that houses - be they individual houses, housing estates, or community or voluntary houses - are built around the concept of community and not around the concept of making people multimillionaires overnight.
Obviously, anybody living in a house today that is worth €250,000 or €300,000 would, in the short-term, like to see its value rising to €350,000 or €400,000. That is one's initial instinctive economic view. However, over the past decade we have seen the tragedy of grossly exaggerated house prices ruining families, communities, an entire economy and almost the whole of Irish society. Therefore, we must try to ensure this situation will never happen again. That is why I feel the argument must be led not by somebody who is beholden to a so-called wiser Minister for the environment but somebody who sits at the Cabinet table and makes the case for a new housing policy. I make the plea that a senior Cabinet place be set aside next week for a housing Minister.
I welcome the provisions announced, including HAP, and the Minister of State's comments on RAS, voluntary housing and the broad variety of housing. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem; we need a multitude of solutions. I do not want to see a housing list of between 30,000 and 50,000 people leading to a mad housing spree which would corral these people into what I call ghettos. We do not have to name names, and the Minister does not have to name names, but we all know the communities that have been ruined by such a housing policy.
I would say - and I am not saying this to my friends in the Labour Party - that it suits certain politicians and certain political classes to create areas of entire State dependency. I refer to cases in which a politician pretends to get a person a house and pretends to get him or her a weekly social welfare payment or medical card and thus ensures that the person remains dependent not on the State but on him or her. We should not fall for that political trap. Let us see housing in a broad holistic fashion. Let us see a mix of private and public. Let us see a mix of local authority housing, RAS-type housing and HAP-type housing. If a constituent of mine felt that his or her housing need was best suited to private rented accommodation which is paid for by the State, then that would be good enough for me. I do not want to lecture him or her by insisting that he or she live in a more traditional form of so-called council house.
I appeal to the Minister of State - I do not think she is far from my thinking on the matter - to see a broad mix as the best solution to housing. We have a long way to go but we must start with a fundamental statement of how important housing and housing policy is for this country, and that is led by a mindset in which houses are for families and communities, not something to fill a field for a developer. Let us not go down that tragic road again.
Ministers and people higher than Ministers like to be seen as wining and dining the developers. However, I want the Minister of State and her colleagues to set the housing policy. I appeal to the Taoiseach to ensure that the importance of housing is recognised next week, or whenever the reshuffle takes place. As I said, housing sets the agenda for a person's entire life. The reshuffle would be an opportunity, for the first time in the history of the State, to have a full Cabinet Minister for housing, a post which is quite common in many European countries. Housing is one of our great national problems at the moment. I do not want to dismiss the importance of any particular Department, but no Department, at the moment, would be more important than one dedicated to housing.
The Minister of State is welcome. I support the words uttered by Senator Paul Bradford. I wish her well in the mammoth task she is faced with. There are 90,000 people waiting for social housing, 10,000 of whom are on lists in Galway, for example, and 30,000 of these have been on a list for over four years.
There are a total of 90,000 people waiting for social housing, with 10,000 on the lists in Galway, and 30,000 have been on waiting lists for over four years. All of my comments aim to be helpful, to see how we can work through this problem. When one looks at those extraordinary numbers and considers that the Minister has secured funding this year for 2,900 units, and well done to her for that, one sees how difficult it is to decrease those long lists.
A question has occurred to me and a number of other public representatives, particularly at council level. Why do we not decouple the social housing list from rent allowance? I presume rent allowance will now be called HAP. I believe there should be two different sets of criteria for people who receive rent allowance or housing assistance payment. It is very easy to work out who needs a leg-up temporarily and might need rent allowance in the short term. In my view, they should never be on a social housing list. Then there is the other set of people who will meet the at-risk criteria. Those people should be on a social housing list. By carrying out that exercise the Minister will radically reduce the overall numbers on the social housing lists. To be honest, those lists are used as a stick to beat the Minister because that target is unattainable in the short term. The Minister should look at the criteria and divide them accordingly. That does not mean housing assistance payment would not be required by both sets in the short term.
Second, I welcome the measure to deal with anti-social behaviour. To get a house for free from the State is a gift. To abuse it is dreadful. A house is a person's sanctuary. One sees the stress families have been under due to debt and the fear of losing the home they have bought. On the opposite side of the coin, one sees somebody not only wrecking the home they got for free but also wrecking the community. I listened to Senator Moloney's comment that if there are two refusals, the person should not be left on the list. Sometimes it is not that simple. I have dealt with a number of people on the east side of Galway city whose homes and communities have been wrecked by anti-social behaviour. One example is a lady with intellectual disability, whom I was very grateful was able to come to see me, whose windows and doors were covered with human faeces. She could no longer go into the house and had to live with somebody else. The house then became vacant.
Another young woman, a lone parent with three or four children, had to get a psychiatric report to prove she could no longer stay in her house. She has since been offered two other houses, but they are in the same area so she is still in the area where she feels under threat every day. She is now talking about making herself homeless. I cannot recommend that. There are incredible situations where people are living in human misery because of anti-social behaviour, so I am glad the Minister will empower councils to tackle it.
I also welcome the tenant purchase scheme. The Minister has done well. I visited Chicago a number of years ago and was very impressed by the mayor, Richard Daley. At that time there had been 40 years of mayors named Daley. However, his goal was to ensure that he could wipe out social housing, on the basis that everybody could have their own home. That should be our goal, so everybody will have a home in which they can live and of which they can be proud.
On the issue of boarded-up houses, at the time of the local elections a month ago there were 78 such houses in Galway. They had been boarded up for months. Senator Colm Burke and I have spoken in the House about having a seven day turnaround rule for councils. They should know the houses are due to become vacant and be ready to move in with a team. A family is waiting for the house and they should be housed in it. The Minister should incentivise such a turnaround at council level, be it through an extra minuscule percentage from the local government fund, extra property tax retention or, if they still exist, bonus payments for directors of services. There should be outcomes-based payments so there is an incentive to help people get into the house quite quickly.
I have a question for the Minister. A number of lone parents have approached me about their desire to get on the RAS so they can work, as opposed to being on rent allowance. Will it be easier to work if one is on the new housing assistance payment? Will it be easy for somebody who is currently on rent allowance to get onto RAS? To give an example, I am aware of a lone parent who has three autistic children. Her husband has disappeared and she is getting no support from him. She wants to get a few hours of work while the children are at school, but she cannot do so because she needs the rent allowance. Will this scheme make a difference to that woman's life? She needs the work not just for the money but also for the mental stimulation, the release of getting out of the house and to be productive. Perhaps the Minister would clarify that.
Finally, I wish to alert the Minister to another crisis coming down the tracks. It is in student accommodation. At present, the Daft.ie and Rent.ie websites are advertising houses for rent but no students need apply. One previously heard about no blacks or Irish being allowed to apply for accommodation in other countries, now it is a case of no students need apply. The Minister will also be familiar with the phrase "no rent allowance" in advertisements. Given the crisis in private accommodation, if students are not allowed to apply we will have homeless students. Many of these young people are quite vulnerable because they are only learning how to transition from home into private rented accommodation. I accept that some students have been less than good when in private property, but there are other ways of dealing with this, for example, through higher deposits for houses available to students and so forth. There should be a block on stating that certain people cannot apply. Perhaps the Minister would comment on that and on whether she is familiar with this situation. I have incredible figures which I can give her.
I appreciate the Minister's attention to this issue and the amount of work she has put into it. Well done to her and I wish her every success. Senator Bradford's comment on the need to have a senior Cabinet Minister with responsibility for housing makes a great deal of sense. Senator Healy Eames supported that as well.
There has been much talk about using National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, owned buildings for social housing and a number of people have been calling for a new social housing construction programme. Perhaps we should discuss some other ideas in this area. Why can we not consider other ways to meet the massive demand for housing, such as timber framed houses that can be constructed in one or two months compared to a year or two to construct a traditional house? This is obviously much faster and such houses are the norm in Scandinavia and are common in countries such as Germany. For obvious reasons, some people in the building industry have opposed such houses or criticised them as unsuited for Irish weather, even though Scandinavia has much harsher weather. We certainly cannot complain about the weather at present. Timber framed houses can be extremely eco-friendly. Some would argue that we could construct thousands of timber framed houses far quicker than constructing regular houses. We could thus make inroads on the problem of ensuring people are adequately housed.
The Simon Community has called for the Bill to establish a national social rental agency which would rent properties from the private rented sector at market rates and sub-let them to long-term homeless people who have significant support needs. It says that this model has the advantage of providing homeless people with complex needs with a social landlord and removes perceived risks for the superior landlord relating to fears of non-payment of rent, anti-social behaviour and so forth. The Minister should consider this as I believe the proposal has merit.
I welcome the Bill's provisions, but more is required to address the wider housing problem. As a first step, the Government must examine the international options in this area as part of the solution, for example, by examining housing in Europe and how European local authorities manage property to ensure that the maximum amount of housing is available.
A number of other suggestions I wish to make have been made by others so, rather than delay the passage of the Bill, I will come to a conclusion. The Bill is certainly worthy of consideration. The Minister of State deserves support on it because of the work she has done on it. It will benefit the community as a whole. I wish her well with it.
I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate her on this Bill. I do not believe it goes far enough, however. From my experience over recent years, I believe there are a number of points that have been overlooked. This could be dealt with if the Minister gave local authorities autonomy in bringing in by-laws on housing, because no legislation will cover housing needs, discipline, etc., for the whole country. Realistically, circumstances are different in every county. Local authorities should have the wherewithal to deal with their specific problems and issues through by-laws. I ask the Minister of State to comment on or consider that.
The vast majority of tenants are fine because they are well vetted by the local authorities. Could the Revenue Commissioners be involved in the allocation of houses? It is quite galling for people who have been on the housing list in my area for six or seven years, or maybe more, to see a BMW with a 141 registration outside a local authority house that has been gifted or given to a family. People find it very upsetting if they have been waiting for housing for an equally long period. If I bought a BMW with a 141 registration in the morning, I would probably be asked by the Revenue Commissioners where I got the money for it.
A gentleman who delivers for a hardware company approached me during the local election campaign - he was being facetious - and said we should vote for a certain candidate because if one wrecked one's local authority house, that candidate would get it done up. The gentleman said that if one wrecked one's house a second or third time, it would be done up yet again. The man to whom I was speaking said he had delivered hardware to certain houses three times after they had been wrecked by the tenants on three occasions.
We must tackle the issue of single people living in three-bedroom houses. One way to do that is by building two-bedroom houses. I have no audit in this regard but I have sought the figures and hope to have them soon. There are many people who want to scale down who are in three-bedroom houses. Two-bedroom houses would do them. Scaling down would help address the housing crisis.
People coming out of prison are not catered for, despite their having served their time. They seem to be moving to certain areas. Something should be done in this regard through the justice system.
In Kerry, the prominent names are O'Sullivan, O'Connor and O'Donoghue. At present, there are 151 Wards in Tralee seeking housing. Is it right for people who are relocating from one area to another to expect a local authority to provide housing to them during a crisis? Must a local authority house anyone who comes knocking on its door from another local authority area or county? Through by-laws, something could be done in this regard.
A disappointing feature of local authorities, on which I may be contradicted, is that they do not really engage with the long-term lease scheme. They could go to the private sector and rent houses for ten or 20 years, thus giving applicants security of tenure for that term. The local authorities have not really engaged in this regard. Their doing so would have ensured security of tenure. If tenants have security of tenure, they are happy.
I welcome the positive elements in the Bill, most notably the measures on anti-social behaviour. There ought to be strong sanctions for those who engage in anti-social behaviour, be it in a local authority housing estate or rented accommodation attracting the rent supplement or any subsidy from the State. If they are involved in very extreme forms of anti-social behaviour, which unfortunately is characteristic of a small minority of tenants, there should be sanctions to protect the majority living in the affected areas.
It was said earlier that we all have constituents who come to us with problems. Often, when people seek transfers it is because they are victims of anti-social behaviour. The solution is to deal with the people causing the problems rather than having to take good families out of housing estates. Local authorities do not address this and people are left in circumstances in which they have to put up with the anti-social behaviour of others. Any move to deal with this will have my full support.
Senator Tom Sheahan referred to exceptions rather than the norm in respect of some of the examples he gave. I would imagine that very few social houses have 141 BMWs outside the door. There are very few examples from my city of Waterford. Having made representations for people who need genuine works carried out in their homes, I realise it is very difficult to achieve this because the budgets of local authorities have been cut. The housing maintenance budgets have been cut and it is much more difficult to get the council to move on anything. Therefore, if there are councils that repair homes three times because of damage caused by tenants, it should not happen. What the Senator described is an exception. It is certainly not the norm in the part of the country in which I live.
There are significant elements of the Bill that I oppose. In the second week of this Seanad's term we had a debate on housing, during which I made the point that there has been an unfortunate drift in recent years away from social housing and towards the privatisation of social housing. It is increasingly becoming the norm that the vast majority of people's housing needs are being met through the private rental sector, be it through the rent supplement, the RAS or the new HAP scheme. In reality, we are subsidising landlords and people in private accommodation, and the people who are benefiting most are the private landlords.
I agree with Senator Healy Eames that everybody has a right to and should have a home. The problem for many people in the private rental sector is that they do not have a choice. They want to have a permanent home. They want a place to call home, be it a social house or otherwise. They do not want to have to move their children around every five or ten years. Unfortunately, an increasing number of people are being locked into circumstances in which they have no choice but to move every now and again because of the way social housing has developed and the privatisation of social housing. People should have a choice. There should be a balance between where we were ten or 15 years ago, when we exclusively built social housing estates, thereby causing problems, and today, when we do not build any social housing. We do not even purchase social housing any more to any great degree, yet the vast majority of people's needs are now being met through the private rental sector. There has to be a balance.
There was a time when the local authorities and voluntary associations engaged in building social housing. Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000 deals with the integration of social and private housing in new builds. All of this building has dried up. Few houses are being built by the voluntary sector and the local authorities are building practically none at all. Part V housing has completely dried up because the private sector is not building at all. There is an increasing demand for social housing but yet the vast majority of people's housing needs are being met by the private rented sector. For a large number of people this is not by choice but because it is the only option available to them. I think we must look at choice and ensure that people who want to own their own home or live in a place they call their home, even if it is social housing, can do so. People want a place where they can anchor their family and become part of a community instead of having to uproot and leave their house because of the system that is in place. I do not agree with that system. We are also spending hundreds of millions of euro every year subsiding people in private housing estates. The real winners are not those who occupy the houses but the private landlords who are making a great deal of money. With respect, it is the landlords who are driving the BMWs, not the tenants in the houses.
I do not like the concept of a housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme. I see it as a continuation of what I would argue is the privatisation of social housing. I do not like the fact that if one is living in a house under this scheme, one is deemed to be adequately housed and taken off the housing list. I know the Minister of State states that one can apply for a transfer, but if the procedures in Waterford city and county council are anything to go by, it is almost impossible to get a transfer at this time. There are very few cases of people being transferred unless there is a real medical need or the person has a disability. Due to cutback it is very difficult to get a transfer. It might be different in other parts of the country but that is the case in the area I come from.
It is not true that they are off the housing list.
They are deemed to be adequately housed. I have read the legislation and I know what it means. I have seen examples already where those people in the RAS scheme have been told they are adequately housed. They might be on the housing list but have no chance of getting a local authority house. As far as the local authority is concerned, the people are adequately housed. That is where this will go as well. To pretend that is not the case is to bury one's head in the sand.
The Senator's time is up.
I will finish on this point. There must be an element of choice. One cannot force people into the private rented sector if that is not their preference. It might suit some people but it does not suit everybody. It certainly suits the developers and the people who want to buy multiple homes to make money, but it does not suit the people who may have to live there temporarily and then are forced to move every couple of years, through no fault of their own.
As there are no other Senators offering, I call on the Minister of State to respond. She must conclude at 6.25 p.m.
I thank all of the Senators who contributed to this wide-ranging informed debate. Many Members addressed the general issue of housing supply. I accept absolutely that the Bill does not do a great deal about housing supply. I agree that we need to increase the supply of houses. I certainly intend to fight for any money that is available in terms of addressing that whole issue. There are broader issues around the supply in the private sector. In the past two stimulus packages, some 33% in one and 25% in the other package went to social housing supply. We were able to announce albeit a relatively small mainstream housing construction programme this year. I intend to continue to fight for that.
A point strongly made by a number of Senators was that housing should not be a commodity, and should not be a means of making money. Housing is about homes and that must be the centre of our policy across the board. I agree with these general points. A number of other general issues were raised that may not be specifically covered in the Bill.
The role of this legislation is not to supply housing but to make law on housing. Three particular issues in regard to housing needed to be addressed in the legislation. We have had a long debate on the issue of rent supplement, which was envisaged as a short-term measure but in effect has become a tool in the long-term supply of housing. There is a poverty trap. I will address the specific case highlighted by Senator Healy Eames. If one goes on the HAP scheme, one will pay a differential rent, in other words one pays rent in accordance with one's income. One will not lose the social housing support. That gets rid of the poverty trap of somebody losing all of their rent support when they go on the HAP scheme. That is one of the fundamental reasons that we are introducing the housing assistance payment scheme so that we get rid of the poverty trap. There will still be a short-term rent supplement scheme under the Department of Social Protection in line with the original intention of rent supplement which was to be a short-term payment when somebody could not meet their own housing needs through losing a job. There will be a short-term rent supplement payment under the Department of Social Protection in which the client will not undergo an assessment of housing need. That provision will be retained.
I will deal with specific issues raised about the Bill rather than some of the more general issues. Senator Mac Conghail raised the issue around standards. That is dealt with in section 39(1) which states, "it is a condition of the provision of housing assistance to a household in respect of a dwelling that the housing authority concerned is satisfied that the dwelling complies with standards prescribed under section 18 of the Act of 1992."
Senator Kelly raised the issue of anti-social behaviour in instances where those engaged in anti-social behaviour are doing so in other areas where they do not live. The Bill makes provision for exclusion orders that relate to other places other than where those engaged in anti-social behaviour live. There was a wide debate on the issue of anti-social behaviour and the need for proportionality. Some Senators believe strongly that there are measures in the Bill to address anti-social behaviour and that tenants can be evicted for anti-social behaviour or excluded from certain places. If one person is causing problems in a particular area, that one member of a household can be excluded from the area but it does not mean the whole household has to lose their home. There was a lacunae and Senator Naughton described the legal case where section 62 of the Housing Act 1966 was struck down. What we now have is a fair procedure whereby if a tenant is disputing the reason that he or she is being evicted, he or she has the right to fair procedure. That was the issue under the human rights convention that needed to be addressed. It restores the ability of local authorities to evict if the situation warrants it. We all know of situations where whole neighbourhoods are destroyed by one individual or a family. It is restoring the right of the person who believes he or she is being wrongly accused to defend himself or herself and have proper representation.
Senator Landy wanted me to restate the position on the rights of a person availing of the HAP scheme to access a local authority house. Let me repeat what I said, namely, the transfer list will reflect the specific priority or previous position that household had on the previous waiting list within the authority area in which they are resident. The principle will be that the reasonable expectation of households should be preserved. They will therefore be placed on a transfer list with no less favourable terms than if they had remained on the main housing waiting list. I will use my powers under this legislation and under section 22 of the 2009 Act to require every local authority to provide access to the transfer list to households which transfer into HAP and also - to address a point raised by some people - to reserve a proportion of allocations for households on the transfer list. One Senator said that in some cases there are no transfer lists. Under housing legislation, all local authorities are obliged to have a transfer policy. Senator Sheahan was concerned that the local authorities should have more local autonomy in by-laws and so on. The local authority sets the scheme of letting priorities but within national policy.
Therefore, on national policy, I can direct, but there is a certain degree of flexibility for local authorities also.
On the other point the Senator made about people wrecking houses and so on, local authorities have an obligation to manage their stock appropriately and well and to maintain it. I do not believe we should take all of these responsibilities away from them. They have rights and obligations and many Senators argued for more powers for them in many cases. Again, it is a matter of getting the balance right.
Senator Cáit Keane asked specifically about the pilot schemes. The first is ongoing in Limerick and I am obviously familiar with it. There will be a mix of six local authorities included in the next phase, including one in the Dublin area. There will be a mix of urban and rural local authorities and we intend to learn from the pilot schemes. The programme will then be spread to the rest of the country.
In regard to homelessness, there is also a proposal to have a pilot scheme. The Dublin local authorities, in particular, are very interested in piloting the HAP scheme among the homeless population. Many Senators referred to the importance of addressing the issue of homelessness, rightly so, while several Senators referred to the Government's implementation plan, under which a new scheme is being rolled out to encourage prevention. Part of it concerns people who are at risk of losing a private rented property because of the rent cap, rising rent and so on. There is a protocol in the four Dublin local authorities whereby they will have a process aimed at prevention. For example, they will have flexibility with regard to the rent cap if somebody is in danger of losing his or her home. This provision is particularly geared towards families where the rent cap is a particular issue. There is also a telephone line, while Threshold is involved.
In the Dublin area 80 new emergency accommodation beds will be coming on stream. The big thing we are trying to do with the implementation plan is to move people who are inappropriately in emergency accommodation to supported housing - a home of their own in which they will have the relevant supports they need. This is a central part of the plan to deal with homelessness.
I am a little bemused by Fianna Fáil suggesting that, somehow or other, we suddenly have this crisis and that we should be doing huge things to tackle it. In the Celtic tiger years - 2007 and 2008 - the numbers sleeping rough actually reached a peak. The housing waiting lists were building all the time and during the boom there was very little social housing construction. We inherited the problem. However, I am not saying we do not have responsibilities; of course, we do and we have to address the problem. I was interested in the comment of Senators Paul Bradford and Sean D. Barrett that this was a very serious matter for the Cabinet. I sit at the Cabinet table because I am Minister of State with responsibility for housing, holding the housing and planning portfolio and the Senators made an interesting point.
Senator Feargal Quinn talked about learning from our European neighbours in the use of timber-frame houses and so on. We have a number of proposals on the types of housing that might be quicker to bring on board. In fact, a Dutch person I know gave me a newspaper that I could not read because it was in Dutch, but it contained an article on this issue. We will look at all issues. We particularly need to learn from our European neighbours in having a more stable private rented sector whereby people will have security, an issue raised by several Senators. We are looking at the issue of rent control, while the Private Residential Tenancies Board is conducting a study to see whether this would be feasible within Ireland. Certainly, we need greater stability.
We are not privatising housing provision. I assert a very strong commitment to the role of local authorities and that of approved housing bodies in the delivery of housing. However, the reality is that there are over 70,000 people in receipt of rent supplement. They are in a poverty trap and will lose rental support if they obtain significant work. We cannot just ignore them while we are in the process of trying to build capital moneys and other ways of securing significant funding to deliver social housing. We have to address their issues, which is why we are introducing the housing assistance payment. It is a significant reform which will make a very big difference to them, including the person referred to by Senator Fidelma Healy Eames who wanted to go out to work but was afraid of losing their housing support.
Senator Marie Moloney raised the issue of adaptations for people with disabilities. The reason the grants are not available is that, in effect, one would be adding value to a privately owned house from which the person concerned might have to move very quickly. However, in the limited amount of money available for social housing, we have prioritised people with disabilities. I have allocated money to local authorities specifically to house people with disabilities. The Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, and I have spoken specifically about addressing their needs. Nonetheless, the other side of the coin is that somebody with a disability would be adding value to the house. We have to find some way of securing it for a longer term. For example, long-term leasing was referred to. If there was long-term security, it might be possible to consider making the grant available. I would certainly be willing to look at that matter.
The number of refusals was mentioned. A view expressed was that only one refusal should be allowed, whereas it was said in the Dáil that there should be three. We have to make a judgment on that issue to see what is the appropriate number before a person moves down to the bottom of the list. On the one hand, people should not be offered something not in their area of choice. On the other, if they are genuinely offered something in their area of choice and refuse twice, it is fair, as they are depriving somebody else of an opportunity if they keep refusing.
The issue of NAMA units was raised. The commitment was that there would be 2,000 units during the lifetime of the Government. It is correct to say approximately 4,000 have been offered by NAMA. It is partly about having them in the right places to address the need identified. There are still unfinished estates and houses available in parts of the country in which simply there is no need for housing; therefore, it would not make sense for the local authorities in these areas to take the NAMA units offered, particularly as they do not get them free and have to pay for them with Government funding. We want to obtain more units. As the housing market and the nature of those in need of housing have changed somewhat and we now have more families than before, some of the units that might have been considered unsuitable may well be suitable now. I have, therefore, asked local authorities to see if any of the NAMA units offered might now be suitable for use as social housing.
We want to make sure there is social integration. In this context, Senator Paul Bradford and others referred to social mix. We do not want social segregation. That did not work in the past and in our policy on housing we want to make sure there is a social mix.
The last time we had a debate on housing in the House Senator John Kelly asked if a person in the RAS who found a job in another local authority area could transfer to a similar house in that area. I said I would look at the issue. We are considering whether this needs to be done by way of a direction to local authorities.
It is an issue for people who have to move because of their jobs or other reasons.
Can they transfer from RAS to HAP?
They would not transfer from RAS to HAP. They would probably transfer to the other local authority list either through RAS or another means. We will examine it, because it is a genuine issue.
The issue of landlords stating in advertisements for rental properties that no students or rent allowance recipients need apply has been raised. I will have to get legal advice. Although they are privately owned, we have anti-discrimination and equality legislation and I will have to see whether we can specifically prohibit the practice. The fact that I suspect landlords will find ways around it does not mean we should not try to address it.
It is fine if a landlord rejects a prospective tenant on meeting him or her.
We can examine it. It has been raised before, and the "no rent supplement" stipulation is very frequently seen.
The issue of empty houses was raised and I am trying to use a carrot and stick approach to it. I have allocated funding to bring back 1,700 boarded up, empty houses. I have also met the directors of service for housing and told them they must speed up the process by which they allocate houses. Some of them are much better than others at reallocating houses quickly. I think I have covered most of the issues raised and I thank the Senators very much for their contributions.
- Bacik, Ivana.
- Barrett, Sean D.
- Bradford, Paul.
- Brennan, Terry.
- Burke, Colm.
- Coghlan, Eamonn.
- Coghlan, Paul.
- Comiskey, Michael.
- D'Arcy, Jim.
- Gilroy, John.
- Healy Eames, Fidelma.
- Henry, Imelda.
- Higgins, Lorraine.
- Keane, Cáit.
- Kelly, John.
- Landy, Denis.
- Moloney, Marie.
- Moran, Mary.
- Mulcahy, Tony.
- Mullen, Rónán.
- Naughton, Hildegarde.
- Noone, Catherine.
- O'Donnell, Marie-Louise.
- O'Keeffe, Susan.
- O'Neill, Pat.
- Quinn, Feargal.
- Sheahan, Tom.
- van Turnhout, Jillian.
- Byrne, Thomas.
- Crown, John.
- Cullinane, David.
- Daly, Mark.
- Heffernan, James.
- Mac Conghail, Fiach.
- Ó Clochartaigh, Trevor.
- Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
- Reilly, Kathryn.
- Zappone, Katherine.
When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?