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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 20 Feb 2018

Vol. 256 No. 4

Housing: Statements (Resumed)

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the House. It is a great pleasure to welcome my neighbour. It is not relevant to the debate but we had a serious victory over Meath last Sunday in Breffni Park. I am happy to welcome the Minister of State. We will resume the debate with five minutes per speaker. The next speaker is Senator Clifford-Lee.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House for this very important debate on housing. Housing is a key priority for Fianna Fáil. It is the biggest issue in the country. Whether one is in Dublin or outside Dublin, in rural or urban areas, housing is a key priority and a key issue. The Government has been out of touch on this issue. Numerous strategies have been proffered by the Government but delivery has been sorely lacking. It is the people who are suffering as a result of Government inaction and the inability to grapple with the issue in a coherent fashion. We have had numerous strategies but none has delivered. Fianna Fáil has put forward a number of Bills over recent years in an attempt to help the Government deal with the issue. The Vacant Housing Refurbishment Bill put forward a strategy to deal with vacant units over commercial premises which would have delivered 4,000 units in a quick manner, but the Government has not seen fit to act on it.

The Government is out of touch. There were comments as recently as last week from Ministers saying rents are okay if one goes to the north side of Dublin or outside the more fashionable parts of the capital. Rents are not okay. They are completely unaffordable. People are living in desperate conditions to keep a roof over their heads. The Taoiseach suggested people get gifts from their parents to afford a deposit for a house. He also said our rates of homelessness are low by international standards and that has been shown to be completely false.

Ordinary people cannot afford to put a roof over their heads, whether it is people who want to buy their own homes and who traditionally would have been in a position to do so or people who want to rent in the private market or from the council. Council housing is virtually non-existent. The population of the country is increasing rapidly and we do not have enough private rented housing, social and affordable housing, or council housing to meet this demand. People come to my office daily and into my constituency clinics right across north County Dublin who are living in desperate situations. It is back to tenement times with people living in overcrowded, dangerous houses. They are afraid to say anything to their landlords for fear they will be given an eviction notice and would have no place to go.

I have been speaking to families who are rearing their children in hotel rooms and it is having a detrimental effect on the health and well-being of children. Their developmental outcomes are being seriously hampered and they will not be able to make it up as time goes on if their housing situation is not addressed. There is a vital gap in children's development, and if certain milestones are not hit when they should be, they will never be hit. The result is seriously to stunt a whole generation. I call on the Minister of State to look seriously at this and to redouble his efforts. The efforts the Government has been making have not been making an impact.

I will refer to the proposed sale of the Permanent TSB loan book to vulture funds. In the proposed sale, 20,000 loans will go into vulture funds. It is not fair to say they are people who are not engaging. Many people have engaged and they have split mortgages. The people who have not engaged are perhaps unable to engage because they are suffering from severe mental health issues and are not able to cope with their situations and the homeless situations their families are facing. I call on the Minister of State to look at this and work with Fianna Fáil and other parties in the Houses to ensure 20,000 families are not plunged into homelessness, which would add to the problem.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I welcome the funding that has been provided for the Cork area over recent months. I make no apologies for putting pressure on both the city council and the Department in that respect. The Minister came to this House to announce a €39 million budget for seven projects. We will have 134 houses built by the city council. The Boyce's Street project, which has just been approved, will have 51 houses. Those developments have been in the past three months alone and are welcome. Contracts for 50-odd houses in Carrigaline were signed yesterday. I welcome the progress that has been made. We face major challenges in housing. We will be rolling out the national development plan. One of the problems in this country is we are building small pieces of the jigsaw at a time when we should be building all the pieces. I live within ten minutes' walking distance of UCC. Development is very welcome, but an adequate supply of housing is not being built in the areas around UCC and CIT. I was at a meeting last night in my own area where a four-storey building that will be used as student accommodation is going up alongside bungalows in the middle of a residential area. This is what I am talking about. There is inappropriate planning when we are trying to put the jigsaw together and it is far more difficult.

The situation is similar with building hospitals. We always have young staff in training and students who will be in and out during their time in training and we do not build accommodation for them. In the UK there is accommodation for nursing staff and junior doctors on the hospital grounds. We are not doing that. In the area around UCC, there are an awful lot of houses that were built for families but are being occupied by students. We need to have more joined-up thinking about when we grant planning for development, whether for a hospital or academic development. We should also make sure that we have land set aside for the building of accommodation.

One of the other problems I have is there is a whole cohort of people who, no matter what we do, will not be accommodated because of the way the cost of housing has developed. Someone gave me the breakdown of the €39 million for the 134 units which will be built by Cork City Council. My understanding is each housing unit will cost €291,000 on land the city council already owns. I am concerned that the cost of housing seems to be far higher than any other European country. I accept we have increased the standard of regulation and everything else, which is very welcome. There is a cohort of people who will qualify for local authority housing but we have to deliver it in a timely manner. There is another cohort who will qualify to borrow from the financial sector, from banks or building societies, and will be able to buy. There is also a big group of people in between who are working extremely hard and renting but have no security of tenure where they are.

I have raised the need to introduce long-term leasing like there is in other European countries. The sooner we start doing that, the better. I can rent a premises for commercial use with a 20-year lease and five-year rent reviews. I have security of tenure, knowing full well that the landlord cannot put me out on the street. This is a matter we need to look into in the private rental sector. There is nothing worse than a young family, with four young children going to the local primary school, being told by their landlord to move out because the lease may be up or the property is being sold or refurbished. The family then must find accommodation reasonably close to their children’s primary school but cannot do so. That insecurity needs to be dealt with. We should now look seriously at long-term leasing and do much more for residential accommodation.

I spoke to a developer recently who bought nine apartments in Germany for €450,000. He does not have to furnish them as it is the tenants who must do so. The developer in question is getting 8% return on his investment with rent at €6,500 per annum per apartment. Accordingly, the tenants have to borrow far less but have security of tenure. While they may have to borrow to furnish the properties, at least it is manageable. We need to examine continental-style letting. No matter how much money we make available, there will be a cohort which will not fall into any category regarding access to finance. We need to give security of tenure to people. We must ensure young families are not forced to move and, therefore, cannot get anywhere to live within a ten-mile radius of where their children attend school. It is a serious major challenge with which we have to deal.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy English, to the House.

We all understand adequate housing is one of the most basic human needs and, consequently, one of the most important human rights. Last week, published an in-depth analysis on whether it was cheaper to pay rent or get a mortgage in the State. The article brought up some stark realisations. In Dublin 7, where there is a mix of housing options, the average monthly repayment on a mortgage for a one-bedroom accommodation is €782. However, to rent a similar property, tenants will pay €1,432, an 83% difference. A two-bedroom home in Kildare will have a mortgage repayment of €534 a month, while rent prices are 90% higher at €1,015 for the same type of property. The average monthly repayment on a mortgage for a three-bedroom house in Cork city is €914 with corresponding rents running 32% higher at €1,203.

In every instance and every scenario, renting was at an inflated cost to paying a mortgage. Accordingly, the likelihood for first-time buyers and those seeking affordable housing is they will be caught in the rental trap. Paying bloated rents as a portion of one’s income is particularly prevalent in urban centres where many young people have relocated for work in recent years. Despite the initiation of rent pressure zones, there are major issues with the increase caps being simply ignored or landlords using different loopholes in terms of suggesting they are refurbishing properties to justify the increases. Has the Government any proposals to deal with this?

The Government has previously committed to the notion of an affordable rental scheme in 2014, yet it remains a notion as no detail has been announced. All the Minister committed to was that a pilot would be started at some undefined point. Will the Minister of State expand on that? Rental prices have spiralled out of control and will only spiral further if action is not taken soon. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has been consulted on such a scheme. Will the Minister of State give further details about this?

In the Government’s proposals for the sites identified for affordable housing, no building has taken place yet. Some do not even have planning permission. The full details of the affordable housing programmes have yet to be developed. It is becoming abundantly clear these housing units will not be delivered in 2018. When does the Minister foresee these units will actually be ready to be delivered?

Regarding the proposals around a help-to-buy scheme, in instances where it is subject to expert scrutiny it has been proved to simply increase house prices rather than alleviate the cost. Incentivising the private sector to meet affordable housing demand through subsidies, tax breaks and low-cost loans just does not work. I am concerned the council loan scheme proposals allowing prospective buyers to breach Central Bank rules will lead to them buying overpriced homes. While the 2% rate will be of benefit to some, in reality it does little to improve affordability. It can simply tie people to mortgages on bloated housing prices without tackling the realities that the prices are bloated in the first place.

Sinn Féin has been articulating a need for affordable housing for some time now. We would deliver 4,500 affordable homes in year 1 and 9,000 affordable homes in year 2 with an appropriate mixture of rental and purchase homes determined by local housing needs. These homes would be delivered as part of mixed-tenure and mixed-income estates on public land. The proposals were recently detailed in a Dáil motion. I commend Deputy Eoin Ó Broin for his work on these proposals. Will the Minister of State reconsider the steps taken by the Government to provide affordable housing and propose more robust schemes which will truly make a house affordable for first-time buyers?

Civil Engagement has tried to track some of the issues which have been neglected in housing. We used our first Private Members’ business to successfully pass a motion on disability and housing. Will the Minister of State update us on what is happening around the issues of disability and housing access, and proper planning in our housing infrastructure for disability? There was a specific commitment in the motion that there would be regular reviews of the Government’s progress around the delivery of adequate and sustainable housing for persons with disabilities. I noted that, in the first half of this debate, the Minister of State indicated he would be interested in having a specific discussion on that matter. Will he confirm if it is his intention to bring in a specialised discussion on housing and disability? We have persons with disabilities who have been in a housing crisis, unable to find suitable housing for a long time, even before the recession and deeply intensified since then.

Civil Engagement has also raised other issues such as Traveller accommodation and lone parents who are increasingly at risk of homelessness. The latter group find it difficult to find private rental accommodation.

In many cases, they are concerned that if they join the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme, they may find themselves being taken off or moved to the bottom of the housing list. They are thinking of what will happen in the long term in bringing up their child.

We spoke previously about the housing issue. I will recap what I said about a vacant site tax, rather than starting from scratch. In this House we proposed the introduction of the measure and asked that the rate of the vacant house tax be increased from 3% to 6%. However, we were told by the then Minister that this would be inappropriate and would present a danger to property rights, yet only a few months ago the Government raised the rate of the vacant site tax to 7%. I was glad to see it being raised, but can we get to a position where constructive proposals from all sides, be they from those who have proposed innovative social measures or those who are bringing rental cost proposals to the table, will not automatically be rejected but listened to and taken on board? That needs to happen. I regret, however, that the Government has not taken on board or co-opted our proposals for the removal of some of the exemptions. There are far too many exemptions that allow somebody, for example, to paint a property black or in other ways to obscure it such that it will no longer fall into the vacant or derelict house category. People can get around the pressure exerted by using such exemptions and loopholes. Tackling the hoarding of land must be a priority.

A key focus of our group is the issue of rent protection, in respect of which we proposed a number of amendments to housing legislation. There has rightly been outrage across the Houses at the recent decision to sell a number of mortgages to vulture funds. Given that we recently had the debate on whether AIB shares should be sold, it is particularly ironic and harder to listen to concern being expressed from the Government side when the power the Government had in the case of AIB was not exercised effectively. However, I want to focus on an issue that is not touched on enough. As well as the terrible damage vulture funds may cause in increasing homelessness by causing families to lose their homes, there is also the question of the kind of landlord vulture funds wlll become after they come into possession of the houses in question. The capital gains tax waiver was introduced to effectively invite vulture funds to buy up large portfolios of properties from the National Asset Management Agency. They are the landlords who are waiting until they have the capital gains tax waiver in place to sell on the properties. They will seek to sell them with vacant possession and will ratchet up rents to seek to do this. There are concerns about the kinds of landlord we are encouraging into Ireland and their practices. That issue needs to be tackled.

I had hoped to speak about the HAP scheme and social housing. I want to highlight one issue-----

The Senator is in injury time.

-----on which I wish to put a direct question to the Minister of State. The concerns about the scheme have been aired at length, but I have a major concern about leases which are being included in the social housing solutions. However, they are not a long-term solution. There was a concern in 2008 when houses that could have been bought for €120,000 or €200,000 were instead leased for perhaps a figure of €80,000 or €100,000. Many ten-year leases will expire soon. If we are depending on the private market to fix this problem, we are in a dangerous position. Will the Minister of State confirm what his approach is to social housing and rental cost housing? How does he plan to ensure we will not be held hostage when leases expire in the next few years, as we want to ensure families can have security and send their children to a school right through a six or 12-year period?

The Senator went over her allotted time by one and a half minutes.

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for coming to the House to discuss the housing issue. It was the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, not the Minister of State, who was in Limerick recently when close to 100 houses were opened. I compliment the Minister and the Minister of State on that achievement. The Minister of State was involved in the planning stages. It was a very good news story to see people who deserved a house being accommodated. I pay tribute to the housing staff in Limerick City and County Council as one group they very much considered in the allocation of housing was single men. The issue of housing provision for single men needs to be highlighted because it tends to be forgotten by many local authorities. Single men are the forgotten group. Obviously, families take precedence, but some single men are living in deplorable conditions. The issue of housing provision for families and people with disabilities has been referenced. It is important when houses are being allocated that we look across the spectrum and take into account the needs of people with disabilities, families, single men and women, many of whom have fallen on hard times and cannot afford to buy a place of their own.

Some local authorities are seeking to secure on a ten-year lease houses that have been lying vacant. I would like such leases to be for a longer period, if possible, because a number of the houses have been lying derelict for a long time.

There are also former local authority houses that are privately owned which have become vacant and the local authorities cannot do anything about them. They are lying derelict and some of them have become a litter dump with people dumping rubbish in the front of them. The local authorities cannot clean them because they are privately owned. It would be helpful if many of them could be cleaned and a measure could be put in place to allow the local authorities to take them over. There are at least 20 such houses in private ownership in my area. They would make very valuable properties for people in which to live and it would help to address the housing crisis. That is another issue that needs to be examined.

There has been great positivity or a number of moves in the right direction. Modular housing was opened in Limerick recently. A number of families moved into them at Christmas time and since. It has been a positive development.

During the period I served on a county council a number of pre-1960 houses that had been joined at the roof were knocked because they were a fire hazard. There are still a number of such properties that need to be considered. Local authorities may have made submissions on this issue. Some of the properties have been lying derelict for the past ten to 15 years and should be prioritised. There is a commitment in the Ireland 2040 project to regeneration throughout the country. For a long time we tended to knock houses, but that was not the right solution. I was delighted, therefore, when the Fine Gael-led Government started to revamp houses. In old local authority estates there was one road in and one road out, but that day has gone and it is a welcome good news story as the model did not work in a number of estates. The knocking of houses took the heart out of a community. People are now seeking to move back into the local authority estate from which they were moved. It is a positive news story when people seek to go back from where they came. The more emphasis that can be put on the taking over of private houses which are derelict, the betteer and the more we will see the heart being put back into the community.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, for whom I have great regard as he knows his brief inside out, upside down and from every possible angle. That is commendable as it is something that cannot be said about everybody, including us at times. The ministry he holds suits him because he has a genuine passion for housing provision.

There are a few people in this House who have a genuine passion for housing. There are such people across the board, to be fair. Two in particular come to mind, namely, the Minister of State who is present, Deputy Damien English, and Deputy Bernard Durkan. We must consider the obligations of the State to ensure people have affordable homes and can aspire to owning a home. The value of our society is reflected in how we meet these obligations and how we treat people and respect people and create a sense of ambition among them.

Much good work has been done, particularly in the past couple of years. We have been in a position to do good work in this period. It cannot be forgotten that in the ten-year cycle from, say, 2011 to 2021, we will have started with the seesaw totally weighed against us but will have slowly and surely seen it rise because of the sacrifices of the Irish people, the good, difficult, challenging Government decisions, and a bit of faith. To a degree, the housing crisis was exacerbated during the recession because we simply had not got the money to build houses. That was a great pity. Not only does one have to keep building houses but one also has to maintain them. We all know from our own houses that if we do not paint them for a few years, they deteriorate. It is not rocket science. The same principle applies to local authority housing. Therefore, we must maintain, improve and modernise the existing housing stock while at the same time building and acquiring more houses, which is equally important. There are many initiatives that the Government has launched in this regard. Some are working better than others. There is nothing wrong with launching schemes and putting a few euro into them. Some schemes work better than others; that is the reality.

I have more experience of rural areas, although there are some very urban areas in my county. Practically all the calls I am receiving at the moment are about housing, particularly in the Ennis area. There is considerable demand. If one uses to find a property to rent in Ennis, one notes the number of properties available to rent is in single figures on many days.

There are schemes that I would like to see the Minister consider. One involves turning shop units that will never be shops again into housing units. The units will not be shops again simply because retail practices have changed. Shopping is now often online and oriented towards multiples and bigger towns. There should be a 100% tax allowance and a grant to turn former shops into residential units. There are thousands of such units all over the country. This should be done. It should come up in the next budget. There should be a five-year plan whereby many of the shop units that have been closed for the past ten years could be turned into residential units. There has to be a financial incentive for older people living in big houses to consider putting a flat on the ground floor. While we all want to see people building on their own land, which is great and welcome, we need people living in towns. Especially when people get older, it makes more sense to live in a town.

We need to deal with another problem associated with buying properties, namely, gazumping. I have said here before that we need legislation urgently to deal with the scourge of gazumping. I had a client last week who had a booking deposit paid on a property in Dublin where he and his wife - two teachers - were going to live but who got a call from the real estate agent six or seven days after having paid it and having started to make plans to inform him that a bid €15,000 higher had been made. The couple were asked whether they could match the higher bid and were told that, if they could not, the booking deposit would be refunded. It should simply be against the law to sell a house to a client within six months of the acceptance of a booking deposit from another client on the same property. If it were against the law, people would feel the day on which they paid the booking deposit was the day they got their house. If things do not work out within six months, it is reasonable to put the property back on the market. These matters need to be examined.

We have very good schemes. I have spoken to the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, about one of them, namely, housing aid for older people. There are many cases in which a grant of €20,000, €30,000 or €40,000 is paid to install a downstairs bathroom or renovate a room to create a downstairs bathroom. Consider the circumstances that obtain where the beneficiary of a grant unfortunately passes away six months after receiving it and where the house has gone up in value significantly. If somebody gets a grant of €40,000 to build a bathroom that enhances the value of the house and then passes away, his or her estate should pay 50% of the grant back if the death is within a year of receiving it. It should pay back 40% if the death is in year two, 30% if it is in year three, 20% if it is in year four, and 10% if it is in year five. After five years, it is reasonable that the State would write off the amount completely. If a scheme such as this were introduced in respect of housing aid for older people, it would be beneficial. The vast majority of old people will live healthy lives requiring no repayment. The scheme I propose would create another income stream for the State. At the other end, it could put more money into the scheme. By and large, with some exceptions, the scheme for housing aid for older people is extremely good. It allows people to renovate their homes.

There is a lot happening in the housing market in respect of social and affordable houses. We have come quite a long way towards putting a fundamental plan in place that will see thousands upon thousands of houses built over the coming years. We have a responsibility to ensure anybody who is working can legitimately expect to buy his or her own home and that anybody who qualifies for social housing can expect that, with a reasonable period, he or she will get a social house. An older person who, based on his or her health, expects he or she will need to build a downstairs bathroom or bedroom should be able to have that expectation met in a reasonable period.

I credit the Minister for the great work he is doing. We are all with him. Dealing with the housing crisis should really involve an all-party effort.

There are many difficulties with housing and many proposed solutions and suggestions for solutions. A suggestion made by Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, at one of our parliamentary party meetings was that we should not take away people's social welfare benefits if they allow family members to move back into their home. I do not know whether this subject has been raised since the Minister of State came into the House. If, for example, my daughter moved out of my house and then needed to move back to my home with her children, I would not lose my benefits if the Minister of State's suggestion were taken on board. It would not cost me money to take family members back into my home. There would be some sort of incentive to allow this to happen so families would not find themselves living in hotel accommodation. We all know this accommodation is just not suitable for children. This really needs to be examined to alleviate some of the problems.

With regard to the lease-and-repair scheme in the action plan for housing, what was the uptake? Why did people not regard it as a good idea? There are several houses in Athlone that have been left empty after the passing away of an elderly person. People cannot afford to do them up to make them habitable and obtain the required BER certificate. Under the lease-and-repair scheme, one could borrow up to €40,000 from the local authority. Is it that the local authorities are not pushing the scheme enough and are not advertising it or trying to sell it? There are very many houses in my home town that could be dealt with through the scheme.

I raised a suggestion with the then Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, when he was in the position. It related to giving incentives to shop owners to convert the area upstairs over shops. I grew up in Connaught Street in Athlone over a pub. When I was a child, every business on the street had a family living overhead and it did us no harm. It might have made me cheeky on occasion - I was known to be lippy - but it did not really do me any harm.

That has all changed now.

Obviously, it has all changed and I am the perfect lady now but it did me no harm. The street was our playground. Everyone knew everyone else and everyone looked after everyone else's children.

I realise times are different but there is no reason there could not be schemes to encourage shop owners to convert the upstairs part of a building to allow accommodation for single people. That is another issue. Many people are looking for single accommodation, whether they are separated or whatever. This accommodation would be perfect locations for them.

Other people are getting their businesses re-evaluated for rates. They find that they are being rated on the upstairs part of their business. I know a girl in Athlone who has a business. Since the upstairs part of her building is empty, she is being charged a higher rate for it. If there was an incentive for her to do it up and turn it into a couple of apartments, then it would be a good idea. It might alleviate the problem and take some single people off the housing list, which is what we want to do. They are some suggestions. I would like if the Minister of State gave me an answer on some of them.

I should point out to Senators and the Minister of State that the order of the day from the Leader was agreed. The order stated this item was to be taken at 5.15 p.m. and concluded within one hour, if not previously concluded, and that the Minister be given not less than six minutes to reply to the debate. If the debate is to go on, we would need a proposal from the Leader or the Deputy Leader – I am so advised. There are no Senators offering so I must now-----

Does Senator Dolan wish to speak?

He has spoken already. I call on the Minister of State to conclude.

If I have a minimum of six minutes, does that mean I have a maximum of 13 minutes?

You have six minutes.

I had thought you were giving me endless time.

You can speak for eight minutes if you wish because some speakers went for a minute and a half over time. One went between two and a half and three minutes over time.

I know but they were being complimentary so I had no problem with that.

I thank you for the chance to answer some of the questions, a Leas-Chathaoirligh. Some of the issues were raised by speakers on a previous day in January while others were covered today. I do not have all the answers, but if there are any questions I do not answer I will forward any details to individual Members. I will try to provide the answers in order as best I can. Senator Clifford-Lee, who is not here at the moment, spoke about it being a key priority for Fianna Fáil. It is fair to say that it is a key priority for everyone, no matter what his or her party or background. Certainly, as a Government, it is a key priority for us. It is priority number one. That is why at the early stages when the Government was formed the Rebuilding Ireland - Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness strategy was put together. The idea was to focus the minds of all Departments and Government and to make housing the number one priority. Much work went into that and all political parties contributed. All political parties are represented on the Committee on Housing and Homelessness. The committee worked hard and came up with suggestions, many of which are in the document. It is fair to say that some political parties want to go further. I accept that, but I imagine the majority accept all that is in the plan and simply wish to push it further. That is acceptable as well.

As a Minister of State in the Department, along with the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, anywhere I go I try to clarify that this is our party's number one priority. Everyone is committed to trying to resolve housing. We try to press this as hard as we can.

I wish to emphasise that local authorities are a key part to solving housing and dealing with it. I thank local authorities for their efforts during the past 18 months in putting the teams together. Now that they have the resources again, they are back in the business of delivering housing solutions. That is what they are best at and that is what they should be doing. It is something they wanted to do but they did not have the teams to do it.

Senator Martin Conway touched on how Governments - at least Governments I was part of - wanted to tackle this earlier, but the resources were not always available. Thankfully, they are available now. Apart from that, policy decisions were made by previous Governments - those not led by Fine Gael - that removed the power of local authorities in the delivery of social housing. That has had a major impact. It has taken us some time to put the teams back together, get local authorities focused on delivering housing and getting money into the system. That is all coming together now. That is why we should see more housing solutions this year and in the coming years as well.

People will judge and say that the housing action plan is not moving fast enough. Previously in the House I referenced the connection with the Action Plan for Jobs. Likewise, the first year of the existence of that plan, people began to doubt whether it was working because they could not see all the jobs coming on-stream. The Action Plan for Jobs was a five-year plan. It put in place numerous changes in the first 18 months that delivered hundreds of thousands of jobs over five years. Likewise, Rebuilding Ireland is a five-year plan. A total of €6 billion of taxpayers' money is the minimum committed, and it has increased as we have gone along. It will take five years to tackle this.

We said that in year one, or over 18 months, we would make changes that would deliver housing in year two and year three. That is now happening. Over 7,000 new homes came into the system last year. These included new homes that were direct build, purchased, acquired, leased and voids coming back into the system. These 7,000 houses were not available the previous year and are now in social housing. They are helping people to get houses. In total, 26,000 housing solutions were found for different people through all the housing schemes. Some were short term and some were long term, but it is all progress.

I am the first to admit to everyone here that it is not enough - I accept that. We have to keep pushing further. Thousands of people are still living in emergency accommodation and we have to deal with that. We will not rest in our Department - likewise Senators will not rest here, no matter what party they are from - until that is dealt with. We have to get those people affected into permanent accommodation and houses. We know that. That is our end goal and we are committed to doing it. That applies to every party, to one and all.

Senator Clifford-Lee raised the Vacant Housing Refurbishment Bill. My understanding is that it is still being discussed at committee. We have taken certain provisions from it and we have implemented them straight away. I brought through some exemptions recently on vacant properties. They were in that Bill. We acted on that Bill. We take on board good ideas when we can and we move on them as quickly as we possibly can. Some of that work is ongoing. We are not convinced that other provisions can be fully teased out the way Fianna Fáil is suggesting. However, we are working on it with that party to try to see how we can make it better, if we possibly can.

Progress is being made on social housing. Last year, over 4,000 people left an emergency situation in a house or home. That is progress. It is not enough when there are thousands, including children, still living in accommodation. No one, no matter what the party or Department one is in, wants to see children raised in hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation or emergency accommodation. That has to end. Thankfully, we are making inroads. This year, ahead of us, we will see an additional 8,000 social housing units coming on board. It should help us to get people out of hotels and into permanent housing. We know the numbers are still far too high and we have to move as fast as we possibly can. Many supports have been put in place to try to make it a little easier on those families and children in emergency accommodation. It is not satisfactory and it is not enough. The idea is to try to help a little while we try to build the new homes as quickly as we can.

The question of Permanent TSB and vulture funds was raised by several people. No proposals have come forward yet in respect of who is buying that loan book. This was discussed again in the Dáil today. People keep referring to vulture funds. That question is not even on the table yet.

Who or what is going to buy up these loan books? Loan books are sold on a regular basis by different banks throughout the world. What is important is that people are protected in their homes regardless of who owns their loans. Those protections are there and they are the same whether it is Permanent TSB, Bank of Ireland or some other bank or fund. People are protected the same way. They do not change no matter who buys a person's loan. I want to be clear on that. We work a great deal with people to keep them in their homes.

In the past, I have heard those from Fianna Fáil referring to tens of thousands of people being forced out of their houses or losing their houses. That is not true and the figures do not back up the claim. There have been housing repossessions in recent years but the figure is not in the tens of thousands, as suggested by the way Fianna Fáil people talk. It is unfair to say that. It is scaremongering and such talk is making people afraid. The majority of people are protected in their houses. We help them to work through their mortgages. We have put supports in various Departments to make that happen as well. We will continue to do that. We know that in the context of the housing problem, it is best to keep people in their homes if we possibly can. We have made many changes to the mortgage-to-rent scheme to make it more of an option for people to stay in their homes when there is an unsustainable mortgage and we will continue to do that. That deals with Senator Clifford-Lee's concerns.

Senator Colm Burke referred to funding in Cork. I have been in Cork numerous times. There has been some progress but it is still not enough, something I imagine Senator Burke would agree with. Senator Burke is pushing hard, as are all the political representatives in Cork. We want to try to do more there. Cork City Council and Cork County Council have been given specific targets on social housing, affordable homes and local infrastructure housing activation fund sites. The funding is there to back it up. Part of our job in the Department is to drive the activity and to work with local authority members to make it happen even more quickly. That is what we are trying to do. Over 720 projects will deliver 12,500 houses throughout the country for social housing. About 3,600 of them are on site at the moment.

We want to make that happen even faster and asked the local authorities at the recent housing summit to double, if not treble, that pipeline. We want them to really increase activity across all of their sites and will work with them on doing that.

Project Ireland 2040 is exactly as Senator Colm Burke outlined in terms of looking ahead and filling in the full jigsaw, rather than just putting in one piece here and one piece there. Under Rebuilding Ireland, we will get back to delivering over 10,000 social houses per year and the commitment thereafter is to build approximately 12,000 per annum, which is similar to what Sinn Féin wants. Its members are arguing for a minimum of 10,000 units per year and we agree with them. That is what we are trying to do but it will take a little time to get there. I wish we could do it faster but we cannot. However, we will get there and are committed to delivering the number of units that Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and others are seeking. We are on track to do that. Project Ireland 2040 is about that as well as being about overall long-term planning.

In terms of student accommodation, specific plans are in place in my Department, working with the Department of Education and Skills, which will deliver a lot more on-campus and close-to-campus student accommodation. Some of the projects are going through the planning system at the moment, with varying levels of success. There have been objections to some developments in Cork and other areas, which I understand. However, that is what the planning process is all about - analysing the proposals and working them through the system. I am glad to say that since we announced Rebuilding Ireland over 9,000 student accommodation units are being worked on and are coming through the system. We are committed to delivering over 20,000 such units over the term of Rebuilding Ireland. That is in play and can happen but we must also make sure we get the planning aspects right.

The cost of housing is an issue. The current regulations guarantee a better build but we are still trying to work on the costs. While it compares quite well internationally, that does not make houses any cheaper. We are constantly working to see how we can keep the cost of building houses down. We can intervene a lot in terms of the price of sites by making public lands available and funding ancillary infrastructure but it is important that we also keep an eye on the price of building actual houses. I am not familiar with the figures for the houses in Cork to which Senator Colm Burke referred but, in general, social housing units cost €200,000 or more to build, depending on their size. That is quite expensive but one is getting quite a strong family home for that price. Long-term leasing is being considered in the Department. Senators made specific reference to the Berlin model and in our rental strategy we are specifically trying to find new ways to encourage investment in the rental market that will give greater security, increase supply and improve the overall level of service for tenants. Many more people are choosing to rent and we are looking at new models for build-to-rent schemes and are making some progress in that regard. In that context, the German model is also being considered.

Senator Warfield raised a number of issues, including the disparity between mortgage and rent levels and he is correct in that regard. We all recognise and agree that current rent levels are not sustainable. That is why our focus is on increasing the supply of housing. It is predicted that the market will build about 23,000 new houses this year having built approximately 19,000 new houses last year. This new supply of houses will help all of the different housing sectors, including both social and private. We had thought that we would be doing well to get 20,000 units built this year but it looks like we will go beyond that. However, we need to build on that and get to a stage where we are delivering 28,000 houses by the end of the Rebuilding Ireland term. We will then commit to building approximately 30,000 units per annum thereafter.

As I said, Project Ireland 2040, the national planning framework is about making sure we have the housing supply coming on stream so that we can deal with the costs of housing and rents in the long term. We cannot fix the problem overnight but we will get a handle on it. I agree with Senator Warfield's point about mortgage repayments being more sustainable but I disagree with his view of the help-to-buy scheme. Experts have not said that it has contributed to an increase in the cost of housing. The scheme has helped thousands of people to buy a home who could not do so prior to its introduction. The aim of the scheme was to encourage the market to deliver homes for a cohort of people for which it was not providing housing. If one analyses the data closely, one will see that there are starter homes being built now that were not being built 18 months ago. I disagree with Senator Warfield on that point and would argue that the scheme has been a success. However, I accept his overall argument.

The Senator also asked about the affordable rental pilot scheme being developed by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council in conjunction with the Respond Housing Association and I will forward details on that project to him. It is but one pilot scheme and we would like to see a lot more such schemes, as would Senator Warfield and his party. The idea is to provide State-owned lands to bring forward more of those projects. We have asked the local authorities to look at those concepts and to bring forward proposals for their own lands. Likewise with affordable housing, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, will announce the details of a scheme in the coming weeks. It is well designed and well worked out and there is ample opportunity to build over 10,000 affordable houses in the coming years. We hope to do more than that using State-owned lands. We have identified approximately 50,000 acres of public land which will be used for private, social and affordable housing. We look forward to working with all parties on that as time goes on.

I must also disagree with the Senator on the home loan product which does not encourage people to buy houses they cannot afford. Affordability is carefully assessed and there are caps in place. The product is attractive because people will know what their interest costs will be over the term of the loan, that is, 2% fixed for 25 years or a little higher for 30-year terms. People can budget for that which is a major factor when people who are trying to buy a home that they can afford. When interest rates increase, people find it harder to budget and manage their repayments. Our scheme can work in that context but we will not use it to enable people to take on debt they cannot afford. I can assure the Senator of that.

Senator Higgins raised a few issues relating to housing for people with disabilities and the disability strategy. I touched on that issue at the end of a previous debate with Senator Dolan but would be more than happy to take part in a specific debate on the issue in this House. Tomorrow we are due to discuss a few issues related to that area but if the Senators wish to schedule a specific debate on housing, I would be more than happy to participate.

There are strategies in place which have been extended out to 2021. Each local authority has been asked to bring forward its plans to provide accommodation for people with various disabilities in the present as well as to provide an estimate of what they will need in the future. In the past, such accommodation was provided in response to demand but we want to see a certain percentage of all new local authority accommodation being appropriate for people with disabilities. That is happening now and we have commitments from most local authorities at this stage. I am happy to analyse this with the Senators to see if the provision being made is sufficient. There are lots of different schemes to contribute to the costs of adapting accommodation which are being utilised in some cases but we can push them out more if necessary. A lot of disability groups are involved in various housing projects and we are happy to do more in that space if we can. In some ways, it is about bringing a focus to this, which I know Senator Dolan will do and further discussion in this House would be helpful in that regard.

Senator Higgins also raised the issues of a vacant house tax and a vacant site levy which are two different things. We had a discussion in this House on a vacant house tax recently and the Government made changes to the vacant site levy in the recent budget. The scenarios are different but both need a lead-in time. A decision was made to introduce a vacant site levy a couple of years ago. There was a lead-in time on that and it kicks in this year. People will be charged a levy on their properties this year. We are recommending an increase, based on discussions here and the Lower House, from 3% to 7% but that is different from a vacant house tax. The latter is being analysed at the moment but the constitutional advice is that there must be a lead-in time before any such tax is introduced. In other words, before we tax someone's house we must give him or her a chance to bring it back into use.

We are making changes to the Traveller accommodation budget. I am not happy that the money is not being spent. I met the chairperson of the national Traveller accommodation committee again today. We have set up an expert panel to examine how we can change the system and the laws to make sure that we spend the money allocated for Traveller accommodation. In my view, some local authorities are not pulling their weight in this space and are not providing enough Traveller specific accommodation. We must deal with that and will do so.

Concern has been expressed in this and the other House that the HAP scheme is failing, but 32,000 people are on that scheme and the majority of them seem quite happy with it. I accept that it does not work for everybody and that there can be problems, as with any tenancy. However, there is a misconception that participation in HAP prevents people from transferring to permanent social homes but that is not the case. In the last year, approximately 1,000 people who were in HAP tenancies moved to a permanent social house. There is a belief that if one is on HAP one will be left to one side and never considered for permanent housing but that is not true and the statistics do not back up that argument. I am happy to discuss that further with the Senator if necessary. The Senator raised a number of other issues which I will not be able to deal with today.

Senator Byrne made reference to a development on Lord Edward Street in Limerick, which I visited before work began. I am glad that it is now finished and was delivered on time. That was a brownfield site that was brought back into use along with some new properties as well. That is the kind of scheme that we want to do more of and I am glad that it worked in Limerick. I know that Senator Byrne drove that project. She also made reference to single person occupancy accommodation. We have asked the local authorities, at the design stage of housing projects, to bear in mind those on their housing waiting lists. Housing waiting lists include people with disabilities, older people and single people. Indeed, approximately 45% of most local authority housing waiting lists are comprised of single people who do not need three or four-bedroom houses. What comes forward in the plans should reflect the need that exists.

In terms of housing waiting lists more generally, I am glad to say that the figures have come down by about 4,000 over the last year. We can count that every year using the same criteria and can check the movement in that regard.

The Minister of State is up against the clock now.

I am very conscious of that.

We are really trying to focus on vacant properties and I would point out to Senators McFadden, Byrne and others that there is a range of schemes in place in that regard. The repair and lease back scheme had a very poor uptake, which was very disappointing. I thought that scheme was well designed and that it could have been a great success. We have made changes to it to make it more attractive, including reducing the length of time to which property owners had to commit, which was a minimum of ten years. Some property owners felt that they could make more money in other ways and good luck to them. Others felt that the housing was in the wrong area. Only nine or ten have fully come through the system but there are approximately 800 applications in the system at the moment that are being assessed.

The new scheme will work better and deliver that because it is major plus. It will help to bring vacant properties back into use. The scheme was designed for people who have vacant properties but no cash to do them up. Once people had committed to making properties available for social housing, they could have up to €40,000 spent on each property. In most cases, only €20,000 was needed. Some people do not have the cash, but others do. Those who have the cash will do their own work. We would like to encourage them to come back into the system. This scheme is there for that. It is also specifically designed to help those who own units located over shops on high streets and elsewhere. It is an ideal scheme.

I agree that local authorities have not had the time or resources to push the scheme. The Minister, Deputy Murphy, and I have asked them to push it hard. I ask every political party to push it hard to all local authorities because it is a no-brainer, yet the uptake is too low.

We recently made exemptions to the planning code for properties which are vacant or are located over shop units, which includes office accommodation or shop fronts. We have made it easier to turn such properties back into housing without planning permission or contribution levies. We are working with the sector to bring those properties back into use because we want that to happen, as does everybody here. It is not true to say that there are 200,000 vacant properties; the figure is a lot less. We want to bring those properties which are vacant back into use as quickly as we possibly can.

We will have to bring the Minister of State back into the House on another day.

There are other questions which require specific answers.

I am conscious that we are in excess of the order of the day. I thank the Minister of State and all Senators who contributed. When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.20 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 21 February 2018.