I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire. Tuigim go bhfuil cúrsaí gnóthach go maith na laethanta seo agus aimsir an bhuiséid agus mar sin de orainn.
In the time since this Bill was first before the Dáil we have had a report from the Simon Communities of Ireland confirming that the problems in the private rented sector continue. The Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, now has a total of 323,271 tenancies registered, representing 172,121 landlords and 704,332 occupants. We are introducing the Bill to help Fianna Fáil fulfil a promise made in its manifesto to introduce rent controls. Under the heading, strengthening tenant rights and implementing rent certainty measures, its An Ireland for All manifesto stated:
Spiralling rent prices are driving families out of their homes, pricing young workers out of cities and alienating potential future investment in the city. We need to introduce measures to cool down the market and curb excessive rent rises. Tenants need enhanced security to ensure stability in their home. We will implement current rent certainty measures.
As Fianna Fáil included it in its policy which it brought to the people, I hope it will support this Bill. If it does not, the public is entitled to ask when it will be in a position to support it. Mar sin, iarraim ar Sheanadóirí Fhianna Fáil a bheith linn inniu agus tacú a thabhairt don mBille. Rent certainty should have been provided for in yesterday’s Budget Statement. Every week this Bill is held up, it costs families €1,000 extra a year. Any support of the amendment which is a kick-to-touch device will end up costing families substantially. Those Members who vote against the Bill will have to explain their actions - more precisely their lack of actions - to the people.
The Bill seeks to link rent increases with the consumer price index. In simple terms, this means rents should not increase more than the cost of living rises. There is criticism from some quarters that the consumer price index is not the best indicator with which to measure rent increases. They quote from the Central Statistics Office that it is not a suitable measure of the rise in the cost of living. If Seanadóirí hold this view, I ask them to support the substantive aim of the Bill, allow it to pass to Committee Stage and then propose amendments and suggest other more suitable indices.
This is not a panacea for the overall housing problem. The private rental sector is deeply flawed and will require much legislation to fix, as well as action by all stakeholders to reform it into a sustainable model. Supply will remain a constant problem as there is a lack of units being built, a large number of tenants in private rental accommodation who should be elsewhere and a significant number of vacant units. For example, in Dublin there are over 40,000 vacant units. These are not social housing units but private properties which have fallen into disrepair with the owner unable to carry out work on the property or sitting tight, refusing to do anything with it. This is not ideal but in a housing crisis, it is lunacy to allow this to continue.
Sinn Féin welcomes the initial steps announced yesterday to begin a scheme to provide rent payments upfront to renovate these vacant properties for rental. Rent certainty provides certainty for landlord and tenant alike. We are experiencing a continued rise in rents across the State. Rents were up 3.9% in the last quarter, the largest three-month rise since 2007. In 2007 there was a massive decline in rents which would also be avoided with the passage of this legislation. Many of the arguments against rent certainty claim the crisis has not reached such a level that legislation is required. The question is, when will it be a crisis for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael?
A recent report by the Simon Communities of Ireland called for exactly what is contained in the Bill to be implemented. It highlighted how inadequate the housing assistance payment, HAP, and rent supplement were when there was a lack of available houses to rent under these schemes. When available properties were surveyed in Galway city for the report, there was an average of 12 available, a decrease of 21 properties, since the last survey was carried out in May 2016. Out of these 12 properties, none was within the HAP-rent supplement limits for a single person or a couple. There was one such property available in May.
In the time since the Bill was voted down in the Dáil, the situation has become worse. It is not a problem which will be solved with the passage of time. Accordingly, I do not want to hear excuses from Fianna Fáil claiming it is too early for such legislation or we should wait for endless reports, consultations and studies before moving on the issue. Back in February 2016, the Fianna Fáil Seanad leader, Senator Catherine Ardagh, then a councillor, raised this specific issue when she pointed out the then Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, had taken 10,000 homes out of the private housing market in 2015 alone. Her statement continued:
To put this into perspective, there were fewer than 10,000 new homes constructed ... The only new homes made available to the market under the Minister’s strategy are the paltry 28 new social houses.
She then decried the issues in the private rental market, saying something needed to be done.
The Government with its Fianna Fáil partners are the experts at kicking to touch. Water charges were kicked to touch, with bin charges being suspended for a period. Legislation for banded hours contracts can be supported in nine months’ time. All of this has nothing to do with waiting for the optimal time for these to have effect. The average rent for a one-bedroom property was 42% more than the rental accommodation scheme-HAP limits for a single person. Sometimes these figures can hide the reality, which is that a single person would need almost one and half times the payments available to him or her to pay rent for one month. This is a stark sign that the current system is not sustainable.
One factor which exacerbates this problem is that many of the private rental properties in Galway and other areas with third level institutions are being rented to students. This is due to the lack of adequate student accommodation. In many cases the private rental sector is completely unsuitable for students and places pressure on parents. Many parents have had to take out loans or even use credit cards to provide third level accommodation for their children. The building of social housing is necessary, not only in terms of investment in our future but also in playing a direct role in easing the crisis in the private rental sector.
Social housing tenants are in private rental properties and this is one of the causes of the market being flooded. If there was adequate social housing, just as if there was adequate student housing, it would free up thousands of private rental properties.
The budgetary housing measures announced yesterday were nothing more than a sop to the construction industry. Since the first-time buyer scheme was mooted several months ago, house prices across the State have risen by 2.9%. It is not difficult to discern a pattern whereby developers simply factor in the cost of any scheme into the overall cost.
Our Bill is common-sense. It is common-sense to provide certainty for all parties in the market. Where the Government failed to use the budget to positively impact on the thousands of households who rent from month to month, uncertain of their future, Sinn Féin has put forward a positive proposal. I am constantly hearing the question from our oppoents and colleagues in Fianna Fáil about where our positive proposals are. Here is a positive proposal that we are asking the House to support.
The Committee on Housing and Homelessness, as well as many other charities and NGOs, have called for precisely this measure on many occasions. Accepting the Bill would let them know that they are finally being listened to. Nuair a tháinig foireann Shinn Féin le chéile ag tús an téarma Oireachtais seo, bhí muid uilig ar aon intinn go gcaithfí dul i ngleic le géarchéim na tithíochta ar bhonn uilepháirtí. Cosúil le mórán daoine eile, labhair mé leis na mílte duine le linn an fheachtais olltoghchánaíochta agus ba léir dom go raibh an fhadhb seo fós ag dul in olcas. Ardú meanma a bhí ann chuile dhuine ó na páirtithe uilig a fheiceáil ag obair as lámh a chéile chun teacht ar chomhréiteach ar an gcomhchoiste tithíochta. Ach ní leor an comhoibriú féin. Caithfear beart a dhéanamh de réir briathar agus tacú le reachtaíocht a thabharfas éifeacht don dea-thoil a tháinig amach as béil Fhianna Fáil gan stad roimh an toghchán. Tá dul chun cinn ag teastáil ó na daoine atá i gceist leis an mBille seo. Mar sin, iarraim ar Sheanadóirí gan bheith mar iománaithe ar an gclaí. Iarraim orthu a bheith linn ar an bpáirc ag tabhairt aghaidh ar an bhfadhb.
Let us consider the issues on a more local basis. Organisations throughout the country are doing great work to support people who are in difficult situations of homelessness. Many of them cite issues in the private rental sector as having an impact on other issues. It is stark to read the annual report of COPE Galway, an organisation that does fantastic work to help people. The annual report from 2015 states the organisation worked with 659 households and that 369 children were affected by homelessness in Galway. The figures include 166 families, 493 single people and seven couples. Those involved tell us the most significant issue is a lack of housing. The impacts of this on the COPE Galway domestic violence services are severe. In 2015 the organisation worked with 380 women and their 180 children who were experiencing domestic violence. COPE Galway provided 780 outreach appointments, 205 court accompaniments and answered 1,100 crisis calls. However, the organisation was unable to accommodate 288 women and 405 children who requested refuge due to a lack of space. I believe this is part of the knock-on effect of the issues in the private rental sector. COPE Galway also does wonderful work with older people and provides older people's services.
There is a section in the COPE Galway annual report on the increasing incidence of family homelessness. There may have been a belief up to some years ago that homelessness only affected people who were down and out. COPE Galway tells us that a total of 56 families, comprising 36 lone-parent families, as well as 20 non-lone-parent families, including 133 children, were provided with emergency accommodation in 2015. This represented a 107% increase on the figure for the previous year, when 27 families, all lone-parent families, including 55 children, were provided with emergency accommodation. COPE Galway has stated the loss of private rented housing was the reason these families became homeless, with most experiencing homelessness for the first time. Many first came into contact with COPE Galway homeless services at the point they had been issued with a notice to quit by their landlord. The planned sale of the property was most often the stated reason. Anecdotally, we know that the notice-to-quit methodology being used by many landlords is actually simply a mechanism to increase rents. That is another reason I am putting forward the case that we need to introduce rent certainty.
I am disappointed that the Government has put forward an amendment. I call on the Government Members to retract the amendment at this stage. I appeal to colleagues across the House to do the right thing on rent certainty. It is actually the right thing for the landlords and tenants. It gives far more certainty. It is a simple act. I hope Members will support the Sinn Féin Bill. Tá súil agam go dtacóidh Fianna Fáil ach go háirithe linn mar tá polasaí Fhianna Fáil chomh maith leis an pholasaí seo againne. Taispeánfaidh muid go bhfuil cumhacht ag an Seanad difríocht a dhéanamh.