I congratulate the Minister of State on his appointment and wish him well.
Residential Tenancies and Valuation Bill 2020: Second Stage
I am grateful to the Leas-Chathaoirleach and to all Senators for facilitating the urgent passage of this very important legislation through Seanad Éireann today. I accept that the time allowed for debate is necessarily short. The Government is keen to deliver for renters today.
The programme for Government recognises the important role that the private rental sector plays in housing many people and we want the sector to continue to play this key role into the future. Through this Bill, the Government seeks to address challenges in the rental sector including standards, security and affordability for renters. I ask Senators to pass the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Bill 2020 to help mitigate the adverse social and economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic which, unfortunately, have been felt by many tenants in the residential rental sector.
Some tenants continue to deal with the fallout of Covid-19. The Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 was enacted on 27 March 2020. Part 2 of that Act modifies the operation of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 during the Covid-19 emergency period, initially for 3 months, to better protect tenants by prohibiting rent increases in all cases and tenancy terminations in all but limited and exceptional cases. Section 4(1) provides that upon the request of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, after consulting with the Minister for Health and with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, the Government may make an order to extend the emergency period for such period as it considers appropriate, if it is satisfied that making the order is in the public interest, having regard to the threat to public health presented by Covid-19, the highly contagious nature of the disease and the need to restrict the movement of persons in order to prevent the spread of the disease among the population.
On 19 June, the previous Government made an order extending the emergency period until 20 July in accordance with the aforementioned section 4(1). On 20 July, upon the request of the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, a further Government order was made to extend the emergency period until 1 August. This extra time has enabled the development of policy and law by my Department for the consideration of the Seanad today in the form of the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Bill 2020.
The recitals at the start of the Bill set out the policy context in which the temporary and limited restrictions on landlords' constitutionally protected property rights are framed, in Part 2 and section 12, for the social common good. Covid-19 has undeniably caused a crisis for the world and Ireland has not escaped, with significant adverse impacts being visited upon those who have contracted the disease and their families and friends. The broad social impacts of Covid-19 are closely interwoven with the adverse economic impacts. There has been a substantial and sudden increase in unemployment. Many in the residential rental sector have faced jobs losses, restricting their ability to pay rent and putting them at risk of losing their homes. There is a significant risk that some renters would have difficulty securing alternative rental accommodation and might end up in overcrowded accommodation at a time when the State is keenly focused on suppressing the spread of Covid-19. We want to minimise the occurrence of any overcrowded accommodation, and in doing so we want to minimise the risk of transmission of Covid-19 in Ireland, which has already cost the country dearly. We want the economic recovery to start now with the help of the July stimulus. Working together and continuing to adhere to the public health advice, we can arrest the fallout for our society and economy by getting people back to work.
The Bill recognises that Covid-19 has been hard on many tenants, particularly those working in the worst affected sectors of the economy, such as retail and hospitality. The Bill proposes short-term and long-term solutions. Where tenants make a written declaration that the economic impact of Covid-19 has rendered them unable to pay their rent and at a significant risk of tenancy termination, the Bill provides for increased notice periods for failure to pay rent due, from 28 days to 90 days, for notices of termination served on tenants in the residential rental sector during the emergency period from the passing of this Bill to 10 January 2021. Any notice of termination grounded on rent arrears and served during this new emergency period cannot specify a tenancy termination date earlier than 11 January 2021. The Bill also provides for a prohibition on rent increases on tenancies of dwellings during the new emergency period.
In the longer term, permanent amendments to the Residential Tenancies Acts in the Bill provide that before a notice of termination grounded on rent arrears can be served, a tenant will have 28 days to pay outstanding rent. Those 28 days will start from the date of receipt by the tenant or the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, of a written rent arrears notification from the landlord, whichever date occurs later. The Residential Tenancies Act will be amended to include specific requirements relating to the giving of notifications and notices of termination by landlords to tenants and the RTB in respect of arrears of rent.
The Bill also provides for the once-off extension from ten years to 12 years of the period under the Valuation Act 2001 within which a valuation list in relation to the rating authority area of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council shall be published, with the return to the usual ten year period in 2023. This temporary provision is required to counter the logistical difficulties caused by the Covid-19 restrictions.
We have to continue to address the immediate and drastic economic and social consequences of Covid-19, protecting as many jobs as possible and making sure that families and businesses can survive financially. The economic recession the pandemic has caused is the most rapid and dramatic ever experienced by anyone in the Houses of the Oireachtas. The emergency measures introduced in March, with all-party support, have prevented a much deeper social and economic crisis.
On Thursday of last week, the Government approved the proposals of the Minister to progress residential tenancy legislation before the summer recess to better protect tenants who remain vulnerable as society and businesses reopen after the Covid-19 lockdown. In light of the prevailing economic situation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the proposed Residential Tenancies and Valuation Bill 2020 provides further protection during a new emergency period, until 10 January 2021, for tenants who have been economically impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
There are three parts to the Bill, which comprises 14 sections. Part 1 includes preliminary and general provisions. Sections 1 and 2 contain standard provisions relating to the short title, collective citations and definitions.
Part 2, which covers the protection of tenants during the emergency period, provides key and urgent enhancements to protections for tenants during an emergency period where they have been economically impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and are unable to meet their obligations under the Residential Tenancies Acts to pay the rent due. Section 3 defines the emergency period to mean from the date of the passing of this Act to 10 January 2021. Section 4 provides that Part 2 shall not apply unless the tenant makes a written declaration that he or she is unable to comply with his or her obligations to pay rent due because he or she is or was temporarily out of work due to having contracted Covid-19 without entitlement to be paid by his or her employer; or is in receipt of, or entitled to receive, the temporary wage subsidy or any other payment out of public moneys provided for under statute and paid for the purpose of alleviating financial hardship resulting from the loss of employment occasioned by Covid-19, including rent supplement or a supplementary welfare allowance, and as a consequence is at significant risk that the tenancy will be terminated by the landlord. Such a declaration must be served on the RTB and copied to the landlord. It shall be an offence to make a false or misleading declaration.
During the emergency period and where the declaration has been made, section 5 provides that before a notice of termination is served by a landlord on foot of rent arrears, a tenant must have been afforded a minimum of 28 days to pay his or her rent arrears after a written rent arrears notice has been received by both the tenant and the RTB. A 90-day notice of termination period will now apply where rent arrears are the basis of the termination. The corresponding notice period for rent arrears terminations outside of the emergency period is 28 days. A notice of termination served during the emergency period shall not specify a termination date that falls earlier than 11 January 2021. A tenant cannot acquire Part 4 security of tenure rights as a result of this section.
Section 6 provides that no rent increase can take effect during the emergency period and no increase in rent will be payable in respect of any time during that period.
Section 7 provides that tenants can submit the relevant declaration to the RTB by electronic means to avail of the enhanced protections under Part 2 of the Bill.
Part 3 provides for amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 and the Valuation Act 2001. Section 8 provides that during the period from the date of the passing of this Act to 10 January 2021, tenancy tribunals are not required to be held in public. This is a continuation of the provision first introduced in the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 in the interest of safeguarding public health.
Section 9 provides for an amendment to the table in section 34 of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 to provide a new separate ground 1A for termination of a tenancy for reasons of non-payment of rent within the minimum 28-day period afforded for payment, following receipt of a written rent arrears notice by both the tenant and the RTB. The 28-day period commences upon receipt of the written rent arrears notice by the tenant or by the RTB, whichever occurs later. Section 10 is a consequential amendment to section 35 of the Residential Tenancies Act arising from the new ground 1A provided for under section 9.
Section 11 inserts a new section 39A into the Residential Tenancies Acts. The new section 39A provides that where a landlord serves a notice of termination in relation to the failure to pay an amount of rent set under the tenancy, a copy of that notice must be sent to the RTB at the same time as to the tenant. When the RTB receives a copy of the notice, it will notify the tenant in writing of his or her right to refer a matter in connection with the notice of termination to the board for resolution under section 76. In the resolution of any dispute arising, the RTB adjudicator shall have regard to any advice provided to the tenant by the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, when making a decision or determination. Where there is an appeal to a tribunal, the tribunal shall also have regard to any advice provided by MABS when making its determination.
Section 12 provides for a number of amendments to section 67 of the Residential Tenancies Acts. Paragraphs (a) and (b) provide conditions for the serving of a notice of termination where the tenant has failed to pay an amount of rent due. The conditions are that the tenant and the RTB have been notified in writing that: such amount of rent due, as is specified in the notification has not been paid, and that the rent has not been paid to the landlord within the minimum period of 28 days following receipt of the written rent arrears notification by the tenant, or by the RTB, whichever occurs later. Paragraph (c) provides that where the RTB receives a notification that an amount of rent due has not been paid, it shall provide information in writing to assist the tenant in getting advice from MABS. Provision is also made that any notice of termination for failure by a tenant to pay an amount of rent due shall be deemed to be invalid if the landlord fails to simultaneously serve a copy of that notice on the tenant and the RTB.
Section 13 amends section 5 of the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 in subsection (6) to redefine the revised termination date so that it cannot expire any earlier than 10 August 2020. This applies to tenancies where a notice of termination had been served but the notice period had not expired before the 2020 Act came into law on 27 March 2020. Section 5(7) of the 2020 Act is also deleted to ensure that Part 2, operation of Residential Tenancies Act 2004, of that Act ceases to operate at the end of the emergency period under section 3(1) of that Act.
Section 14 modifies the application of section 25 of the Valuation Act 2001 by extending the period from ten years to 12 years within which a valuation list in relation to the rating authority area of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council shall be published, with a return to the usual ten-year period in 2023.
This Bill is being debated in the Houses of the Oireachtas during an economic emergency. The measures that we take now have to target those who most need our help. The tailored approach in this Bill targets a prohibition on rent increases to those who most need it. It protects tenants from imminent tenancy termination caused by rent arrears. The earliest that they will have to leave their home is 11 January 2021. We recognise that some landlords also find themselves on the wrong side of Covid-19, and we also recognise constitutionally protected property rights. That is the reason this Bill balances the need to protect those worst affected by Covid-19 with the need to respect property rights and the legitimate interests of landlords.
On the back of our hard-won progress in suppressing the spread of Covid-19, Ireland now has to face the challenge of restoring society and the economy. This Bill will play its part in that regard. Our focus, heading into the autumn term, will be to continue the adjustment of our lives to living with Covid-19. We need a new normal that is safe. We must respect the efforts that all of society has contributed in getting us this far. The residential rental sector has been affected by the economic fallout of Covid-19. Tenants, landlords and professionals engaged in the sector all needed to adapt to the situation presented the pandemic. It has not been easy and uncertainty remains.
This legislation seeks to protect both tenants and landlords. Landlords accept that some tenants will face serious financial challenges over the coming weeks and months and I know that they will work to support tenants to the greatest extent possible. Landlords recognise that forbearance is required. The provisions in this Bill will help during and after the economic fallout from Covid-19. It will ultimately help landlords by ensuring early and active engagement by tenants with Government support structures where they find themselves in difficulty in making rent payments. The usual rental protections under the Residential Tenancies Acts will apply as normal from 2 August. It is only where rent arrears is a problem during the new emergency period to 10 January 2021 that the temporary prohibition on rent increases and tenancy terminations will apply.
Earlier this month, the RTB, in conjunction with the ESRI, published a paper entitled, Exploring the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Rental Prices in Ireland from January to June 2020: Early Insights from a Monthly Rent Index. The analysis shows that the annual growth rate of rent amounts declined significantly compared to the period prior to the lockdown. While the annual growth rate in March was over 3%, by April this had fallen to 0.4%, and it declined again in May to 0.1%. By June, the annual growth rate had turned negative, with prices falling by 3.3% compared to the same month the previous year. The findings clearly show early downward pressure on rental prices and a reduction in the number of registrations, the latter of which is consistent with the restrictions on economic and social life brought in to stop the spread of Covid-19. Early estimates for April through to June show annualised rental falls in Dublin, with a clear reduction in the year-on-year growth rate in other areas.
My Department and the ESRI operate a programme of collaborative research principally focused on housing economics. Under this programme, researchers from the ESRI and my Department prepared a research paper exploring the short-term implications of the Covid-19 pandemic on the private rental market. The research paper is focused on rental payment affordability and the potential incidence of arrears during the first three months of the pandemic among non-supported, private market renting households, that is, among renting households which do not receive a housing subsidy. Changes in consumption patterns arising from public health measures are also considered in the paper. The research findings published on 28 July do not identify a significant rent arrears problem emerging during the first three months of the pandemic. While tenants are legally obliged to continue to pay rent during this emergency, the Government is fully conscious that some tenants have seen a reduction in their working hours, some have lost their job, and others have been forced to self-isolate to protect their communities and in some cases have contracted Covid-19. The Government has made available a range of income and rental supports to anyone in financial difficulty. I encourage tenants who are experiencing difficulties to engage with their landlords and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection at the earliest opportunity to seek whatever income and rental support might apply in their case.
Covid-19 has presented this country and the global community with enormous challenges over the past five months. The pandemic continues to present challenges in the medium to long term particularly for those most vulnerable in society, and those working in sectors most heavily impacted by the pandemic. The Programme for Government: Our Shared Future, asserts the Government's ambition to meet the challenges, repair the damage that has been inflicted on people by the pandemic and take the renewed spirit arising from these challenging times and translate it into action.
This has been a very stressful and testing time for people. The economic impact of the pandemic will continue to be felt in all parts of the country and in society for a long time to come. We now need to move decisively to recover from its devastating social, economic and cultural impact. The key goal is to get as many people back working in a safe manner as soon as possible. The Government is committed to helping people who need help to meet their housing needs. It believes that everybody should have access to good quality housing to purchase or rent at an affordable price, built to a high standard and located close to essential services offering a high quality of life. We understand that the provision of more affordable housing has a profound benefit socially and economically and we believe that the State has a fundamental role in enabling the delivery of new homes and ensuring that the best use is made of existing stock.
As Minister of State in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, I know that people need to get back to work as soon as possible to be able to pay their rent and other bills. This Bill will help tenants when they most need it.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach. I thank the Minister of State for bringing this legislation to the House. I have not had the opportunity previously to address him and I thank him for coming in.
I am speaking as Fianna Fáil spokesperson for housing, local government and heritage. I was first elected to Dublin City Council in 2004 and was in Dublin City Council for more than 16 years when it was essentially established as a housing authority. For more than 16 years I have been dealing with people and trying to help them address their housing needs. I went from a situation when I was first elected to helping people apply to the local authority to navigate the process to secure a home, to helping them avoid becoming homeless. My constituency of Dublin Central is probably the one which has been hit greatest by the housing crisis. When I talk about this Bill I see it for what it is, which is very important legislation that aims to protect renters who cannot pay their rent and helps to protect them from becoming homeless. However, I have to ask the Minister of State to indulge me for a minute or two to talk about the housing crisis. The housing crisis is not just about the acute end of it we see in homelessness that hits the headlines but is affecting people of every age and, quite honestly, every income level.
In this example of one family, and there are hundreds of such cases I have dealt with on a personal basis, both parents are working with four young children, they are on a housing list for more than seven years in rented accommodation and became homeless. They ended up being put in a hotel out in Ballymun and had to take a shuttle to the airport, take a bus into town and then take a bus back out to Cabra to get their children to school. The children’s attendance at school suffered and it had never been a problem or had they been late for school. The parents' ability to get to work suffered and the grandparents and older siblings ended up with an overcrowded situation as well. It affected everybody including their employers because they were then without very valuable workers. As a Government, we have an enormous challenge to address the housing crisis and we need to do that by having a significant change in attitude in how we see housing. It must be seen as a vital social infrastructure and cannot be seen as a financial asset. This Government is committed to taking on the challenge and to ensuring that there will be a significant State-led public house-building programme so that we will recover the lost decade in social house-building that we have experienced in this State.
I wish the Minister of State well and he has all of our support in doing that but we have to act with urgency and ambition like this is an emergency, the way we did in the pandemic. We need to take this housing challenge and ensure that by the end of this four years there is a significant change in the delivery of housing in this State with public housing on public land and affordable housing to both purchase and rent. The Minister of State has our commitment to work with him on that.
On the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Bill 2020, this is the third extension of the emergency legislation that was introduced in March. It aims to target those renters. I am thinking primarily of those young workers, the young women, the retail workers and those working in hospitality whose incomes have been dramatically cut by the pandemic. This is a targeted approach which will ensure that those renters are protected from eviction or from rent increases. Most critically, it will also ensure that the State will actively support those renters to avoid homelessness, rent increases and evictions. In that respect it is very welcome. From my experience, knowing how many people who have come to me who have been renting for a long time like the family I described earlier and faced with a notice to quit on the basis that the home is going to be sold, it is very important that the Residential Tenancies Board is being resourced to tackle those scenarios. I have seen those scenarios in real life and it is important that the Minister of State’s Department is giving 15 extra staff members to the Residential Tenancy Board to ensure that there are no bogus attempts to evict renters and deprive them of their home.
What is also very important is the other practical response that the Department is taking with the call for housing. I got to the bottom of all of those cases by going to Dublin City Council. When the person came to me, I said to them to ask the landlord if they will sell the property to Dublin City Council. We would then know if the landlord was really selling it and if they were, Dublin City Council would engage with them. Dublin City Council, to its great credit, is the one local authority that has to a significant extent purchased properties and has managed to keep tenants in those properties and avoid homelessness.
The Minister of State’s call for housing from the Department is very welcome. What this does is it puts that call out there to all landlords who wish to sell properties. If they want to sell their property, they can sell it back to the State. If their tenants are on the social housing list they will be retained in that tenancy. That is a practical measure and is not one that requires any legislation and what the Minister of State has done is welcome.
That is the type of approach we need. We need to stop people being made homeless and to secure what tenancies we have but, most critically, if we are going to address the housing crisis, we have to address supply. We must get on with a significant State-led public house-building programme. We need to have public housing on public land and affordable housing in sustainable communities close to where people want to live, work and enjoy their lives.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach.
I warmly congratulate and tAire Stáit, Teachta Burke, on his appointment which is a well-deserved one and I will welcome him in what I believe is his first visit to the Seanad. He has a big job of work to do but no better man.
This legislation is very welcome. I will pick up on one point that the Minister of State has made which is about striking a balance. This is about being fair and supportive - and rightly so - of tenants who find themselves in difficulty and in desperately challenging situations as a result of this pandemic. It also recognises the constitutional rights of landlords which can sometimes be overlooked. This legislation is trying to achieve what we all want to see which is fairness.
Senator Fitzpatrick is very correct on the challenge we face with the housing crisis, particularly in urban areas. Since 2016, between private and public housing, 50,000 houses were built and in the fullness of time former Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, will get credit for at least doing his level best to manage the situation and to get stock built. The one way of dealing with the housing crisis is by building houses. There is a chronic shortage of houses and when one has a situation where supply and demand do not meet and where an equilibrium is not achieved, then, unfortunately, prices go up, and it is expensive for people to try to purchase houses. We have all dealt with people who were not in a position to get a mortgage even though they both had what would be considered well-paid good jobs.
The way one deals with properties for rent is by increasing the supply. The more houses that are built the more properties that are available for rent as well. It is certainly the ambition of this Government to deal with the housing stock situation head-on and to engage in a large-scale building programme. This, in itself, will create jobs in the short to medium term, outside of its long-term benefits to society.
Building houses in strategic areas to prevent the development of ghettos is extremely important. The planning process must continually be looked at to ensure that it is streamlined for people who wish to build houses.
The various aspects of this Bill are, as the has Minister outlined, timely and appropriate. Legislation passed by this House at the beginning of the pandemic was essential and achieved what it set out to achieve. However, it is appropriate now to amend that legislation with this Bill.
My colleague, Senator Cummins, is the Fine Gael spokesperson on housing but he was not in a position to be here today. He has spoken at length about the challenges faced by provincial cities such as Limerick and Waterford. The Leas-Chathaoirleach has spoken about the challenges facing Cork. Sometimes the narrative about the housing crisis tends to get focused on Dublin but it also exists in other areas. We have seen the success of the rent pressure zones and I think that constant monitoring of those zones and the introduction of new ones, where appropriate, is a welcome measure.
The work that the Minister of State has to do is significant. He and the Minister know the challenge that lies ahead and I wish them all the best in trying to achieve a housing programme through which everyone who needs a home will get one.
Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit. I congratulate him on his appointment and wish him well in his brief.
I welcome this Bill. Tenants in Ireland have historically had far fewer rights than their counterparts on the Continent. This imbalance has been substantially addressed in recent years, and we should have no fear about continuing in that direction. This Bill places restrictions on property rights guaranteed under the Constitution. As such, the Oireachtas has a legal and moral duty to act responsibly but the measures in the Bill seem to be proportionate and in the public interest.
I was listening to Roddy Doyle speaking to Oliver Callan on the radio this morning. He was speaking in almost nostalgic terms about the accommodation that used to exist - people sharing bedsits, bathrooms and so on. It sounded to me as if he was being nostalgic about what were, in fact, terrible tips in which to live. We must acknowledge the fact that there is a great frustration for many people who cannot afford to be out of home, in a place of their own and able to enjoy the freedom, independence and human progress that involves. I wonder how far we are from imaginative solutions that look at quality high-rise accommodation in the city with the appropriate space and amenities. I am not a fan of the co-living model, although there may be potential for it. It should be possible to imagine new ways of providing accommodation while always keeping an eye on the importance of family life, the needs of children and so on.
As a person from rural Ireland, I would also like to see some kind of imaginative approach to getting people to move, if necessary, from urban areas to live in more rural towns throughout the country in order to try to revive them. I know there are employment and other issues in that regard but I would like to see serious and imaginative planning in that area.
It is not only because I take a small proportion of my income from a rental property that I want to mention that I do not like to see a general demonisation of landlords in the discourse that goes on. I followed the debate on this Bill in the Dáil and I was disappointed by the tone of many of the contributions. There are several categories of private landlord that one can think of, from large corporate landlords to buy-to-let investors. There are also others who own just one property which they may have inherited as a family property and rent out to supplement a small income. It is this last category of small landlords that I would like specifically to mention. Some of those landlords are old age pensioners who rely on small rental incomes from very modest properties to supplement their pensions. They are not profiteers or rack-renters. They already face significant pressure as a result of the measures introduced to protect tenants in recent years. Buy-to-let investors have been given some relief by the banks but there is no relief for landlords without mortgages.
I spoke to one such person recently who receives the basic old age pension and rents out a second property which they own, which yields an income of €140 a week. That is a modest rental income. The tenant has been laid off due to Covid-19 but the property owner has no desire to evict her and would have no objection to this legislation, although it would obviously expose them to serious financial hardship through loss of rental income. I wonder whether anything could be done, at a policy level, to provide relief to people in that kind of situation.
Tenants who have lost their jobs can apply for rent supplement and, later, housing assistance payment if they do not already qualify for it. We should be encouraging as many people as possible to do that. This would allow for rents to be paid, to some extent, assisting both tenants and smaller landlords. Threshold has been advising people accordingly. There are long delays in applications for those supports at present and it is important that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection tries to process them as efficiently as possible.
Could we look at other ways of alleviating pressure on smaller landlords and old age pensioners? Property tax liability continues throughout the emergency period and many property owners pay it on a monthly basis. Could we examine the possibility of a very limited exemption from property tax in cases such as the one I have outlined? Could this be something that would apply to those whose only income, apart from rental income, would be the statutory pension? From representations I have received, it seems that there are enough people in such a situation to justify a scheme like that.
The Covid-19 situation should also be used to finally address the issue of short-term holiday lets, the so-called Airbnb effect. Before the pandemic, 5,000 entire homes in Dublin were being used for short-term lets. In 2017, the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government proposed a series of measures to address this, some of which were implemented in July of last year, but that there are concerns that they did not go far enough. Airbnb has its European headquarters in Dublin and has lobbied strongly against changes in this area. Surely the present lull in the tourist sector gives an opportunity to address this issue once and for all. This is a chance to rebalance the market away from short-term holiday lets and towards long-term residential leases.
I again welcome the Minister of State and wish him well. I also welcome this Bill because it is important that we protect people at this difficult time in our national life. I also call for imaginative solutions to our ongoing housing challenges. We must remember that there are many different types of stakeholder in our society, including small-time landlords who are dependent on modest rental incomes for a portion of the income that they need to survive.
I want to sincerely apologise for not using up my full allocation of time and I promise it will not happen again.
The Senator is quite okay. I call now on Senator Moynihan, who has eight minutes.
I welcome the Minister of State and wish him well in his new position. No doubt there are challenges ahead but my party colleagues and I will do everything we can to work constructively to solve the housing crisis and, where appropriate, support the Government. We must keep people in their homes and allow them to have hope for the future of their housing security. The ban on evictions and rent increases introduced by this Government a few months ago helped people. Those measures saw the numbers from the private rental sector entering homelessness drop significantly. The Government decision not to privilege the rights of landlords over those of tenants gave renters hope that they would not have to go back to work before it was safe to do so. Renters were also given hope that the Government would stop treating all tenants like they were only ever trying to game the system and, given the slightest chance, would lie and refuse to pay. It gave them hope that they will be able to remain in their homes.
I listened to a number of previous speakers and the one issue that keeps coming up is whether what is proposed is fair, balanced and proportional in terms of the rights of landlords and the rights of tenants. I do not agree. I believe the Bill does not do that. It is neither fair nor proportional, and it does not balance rights. The Bill confirms to renters that the Government cares more about a vocal minority of landlords than it does about keeping people out of homelessness, that it cares more about punishing renters for not being homeowners or small landlords than it does about giving people a home and that it cares more about pushing through a flawed Bill than one that would actually provide effective, long-term and short-term solutions.
The Minister of State told Senators that this Bill adequately protects renters affected by Covid-19, that he has extended the eviction ban into the distant future, along with the ban on rent increases, and that those who need it will be protected. It does not, however, do that. It protects those who the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has deemed deserving and he has defined that group of people in an impossibly narrow and restrictive way.
This week, the Government has successfully pushed through a Bill that significantly tightens the availability of the pandemic unemployment payments, PUP. This week, it was confirmed that from 17 September the rates for the PUP would change again, putting people under even more financial strain. The Government is loosening protections for renters and cutting income supports before there is any indication that the pandemic is over. We are potentially facing into a second wave. I am surprised the Minister of State stood up in the House today and decided to spin the ESRI report published earlier this week. Contrary to the Minister of State's comments that there has been no short-term economic impact, the ESRI report notes:
... it is likely that the scale of the Covid-19 shock is such that, the longer the duration of the downturn, the higher the missed payments, and consequently, arrears rate will climb. This likelihood is magnified if the PUP or TWSS payments are withdrawn or are modified such that the effective rates of payment are considerably reduced.
With the exception of the short-term support, the ESRI report also states that some 70,000 people who are currently renting do not have sufficient income remaining after their rent is paid. The Minister of State would do well to read the whole report and not selectively pull out the one or two sentences that support his arguments.
The Bill does not provide any effective mechanism, beyond involving MABS, for dealing with inevitably increasing rent arrears. It is not much help to create a payment plan for people when they do not have any money to pay with. The Minister of State has previously noted that many tenants in the private rental sector have not applied for rent supplement despite the temporary loosening of requirements. I have asked some parliamentary questions, which have been artfully dodged, on what communications campaign was conducted by the Department in respect of rent supplement. The Department did not even update its website in the middle of the pandemic. The first time I heard any Minister refer to it was the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government following his appointment. For the duration of the deep lockdown crisis, there was no communication plan relating to rent supplement. The Minister failed to acknowledge this because, clearly, many people still do not know they are entitled to rent supplement, or even that rent supplement exists. Of the 700,000 people who receive the PUP, only some 8,000 rent supplement claims have been made since March. The Minister and the Department must not repeat this back-seat approach to informing people of the assistance available to them from now on. It is hard to believe that the only real mechanism for dealing with rent arrears is something of an afterthought in this Bill, which does not provide any clarity for the tenants it is actually supposed to help.
The Residential Tenancies and Valuation Bill 2020 leaves so many exceptions in the fine print in the context of evictions that there is a concrete risk that homelessness will be on the rise in September once more. On this occasion, however, we will be in the middle of the second wave of the pandemic, which will have an even worse impact on the economy.
The changes proposed by the Minister only afford protection from eviction until January to those who can prove that they have been impacted upon by an extremely limited set of circumstances. Unfortunately for renters, unless they have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and told to isolate or have been receipt of a financial supplement "paid for the purpose of alleviating financial hardship resulting from the loss of employment" as a result of a pandemic, they will no longer have any protections. Even if a person is a member of this limited group, he or she will still have problems and will still not be protected unless he or she provides a written declaration to the RTB and the landlord which proves not only that he or she is financially affected but also that he or she is in receipt of Government supports and, as a result, there is a significant risk that the tenancy will be terminated. There is no retrospective declaration included in the legislation and the Minister is not accepting an amendment I put forward in that regard. The Bill does not provide any guidance for what might constitute the significant risk to which I refer. The self-declaration process is unnecessarily cumbersome and places the burden on renters to prove they deserve to stay in their homes. If a renter makes a false declaration - and there is no clarification around what constitutes a false declaration - he or she is criminalised. No-fault evictions are back, substantial renovation evictions are back and evictions for the benefit of family members, including nieces and nephews, are back. At the same time, there is no provision to increase the staffing of the RTB for inspections and protection of renters. What is worse, the Bill provides for the introduction of an offence to criminalise tenants. It does not, however, provide the same treatment for those landlords who use other eviction exceptions under section 34 to get rid of tenants after August 1 in bad faith. If the House needed clear evidence of the thinking behind this Bill, it is clear in this provision. It is not fair or balanced, and it is not proportionate.
It says a lot about how this new Government sees renters that this legislation has been left to the very last minute to be examined, amended and debated by both Houses. All that renters want is certainty on the status of their home. Consistently leaving measures such as this to the last minute fails to do that. I thank the Leas Cathaoirleach for indulging me with regard to time.
I welcome the Minister of State. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the rental sector was already in crisis. We all know that rents were at unsustainably high levels. The daft.ie index for the second quarter of 2020 tells us that new asking rents average €1,400 across the State. In Dublin, the average new rent is more than €2,000. The RTB index shows an average monthly rent of €1,200 nationwide, and €1,700 in Dublin. The programme for Government promised to improve security and affordability for renters. Fianna Fáil's manifesto went even further and promised a new deal for renters. Yet, the first act of this Government is to remove protections for the majority of renters in the State. The bans on evictions, notices to quit and rent increases introduced on 27 March gave renters a much-needed break. Much more than that, the emergency measures proved what lots of us have said all along, namely, that the vacant possession notices to quit were the single biggest cause of families entering into homelessness. As a result of these emergency measures, we now have the lowest number of families living in emergency accommodation in three years. This Bill has just whipped the rug out from underneath renters' feet. From 2 August, rent increases will be back and eviction notices will be back. The Bill does nothing for the renter who may have lost part of his or her income due to the pandemic, and who cut back on everything else to make the rent. The couple struggling to save for a mortgage while simultaneously trying to pay €2,000 in rent once again face rent increases. The Bill does nothing for them.
The Government will tell us that it could not extend the emergency measures because their legal basis was a health emergency. Yet the Bill passed through the Dáil on the day we had the biggest spike in Covid-19 case numbers in weeks, with 85 new cases. We are still in the midst of a pandemic.
Is the Minister of State seriously saying that the families who are having their protections removed by this Bill will be safer in emergency accommodation if there is an increase in Covid-19 numbers? Not only are the protections so narrow that they exclude most renters, they are also cumbersome and complicated. Even Threshold, the country's front-line housing advice and advocacy service, has had to criticise them.
In drafting this Bill, the Minister clearly did not give any thought whatsoever to renters who have literacy problems, mental health issues or for whom English is not their first language. They will have to navigate their way through protections that are as clear as mud and that will be a gift to the small number of rogue landlords who will easily exploit the loopholes. My colleague, Senator Moynihan, mentioned that we only have to look at the poor uptake of the Covid housing assistance payment to know that not all renters are aware of their rights or how to access the supports that are available to them.
Perhaps the most telling demonstration of how bad this Bill is was the fact that the Government could not even get the Minister of State at the Department of Rural and Community Development, Deputy Joe O'Brien, to support it. What is very interesting about the manner in which the latter abstained on the Bill last night is that he has worked for years in homeless services. If he could not, in good conscience, support this Bill because he knows it will make matters much worse, I do not know how anybody could support it.
The Government criticised the Opposition and said we were being negative but it refused to accept any of our amendments, which are eminently sensible, constructive and try to help. It could have chosen to extend the ban on notices to quit, evictions and rent increases until the end of the year. It could have amended the emergency legislation to address the small number of cases of wilful non-payment of rent, serious anti-social behaviour or where a landlord is at risk of becoming homeless. Instead, it is dead set on ploughing ahead with a bad Bill that will negatively impact on the rental market, hurt renters and take money out of the local economy because with rising rents tenants will have less disposable income. I will table amendments to try to rectify some of the worst aspects of the Bill but I call on the Green Party Senators to do the right thing and follow the example of their colleagues.
We are rushing through all Stages of this legislation that deals with the biggest problem facing our society on this final sitting day. One would think that emergency legislation is rushed through Parliament to protect the most vulnerable in our society but that is not the case today. The pandemic exposed the truth that if one rents, one has little or no security. Also, much if not all of one's disposable income goes towards something one might never even own. This Bill does nothing to address rent increases. Senator Boylan has outlined the rental figures. There has been a nationwide annual increase of 5%.
There is much talk from the Government parties that the pandemic brought about certain changes and that perhaps we should not go back to the old days. This Bill provides landlords with a direct route back to the old days.
I know many good people who were and who remain in the Green Party but I am disappointed that many of its members voted for this Bill and will probably do so again today. It is a shame that the lasting legacy of the solidarity we all felt during the pandemic will be a greatly and much-needed enhanced cycle network but not an end to people having to live in tents next to them. Before the pandemic, rents were out of control. Rents are still out of control.
As a young person living in Dublin, I want to set out the reality of what happens if one is lucky enough to have a job. At least half of one's take-home pay goes on rent. That was the reality before the pandemic and it is the reality now.
This Bill is bad for renters. It is bad for the stability of the rental market. It will lead to an increased number of notices to quit and the exit of landlords from the market. It is also bad for the local economy because rent increases reduce the amount of disposable income renters have to spend on goods and services at this crucial time. I have spoken to many business owners in the constituency of Dublin South-Central, in places such as Inchicore, including Craig, who opened a coffee shop during the pandemic, and Ken, who owns the butchers and the local shop. How will their future viability be secured? Many of their customers face never-ending increases.
I look forward to the day when the Minister will come to this House with legislation that gives fairness in the long term to younger people and to renters.
I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for coming to the House. It is his first visit in his new capacity. We have learned a good deal. Much of what was said for many years became more clear during the Covid-19 crisis. Issues highlighted and points made by parties in opposition were reinforced. Some of those parties that are now in government should be very aware of that because they were present for those debates. I will take three or four of the lessons learned, because this is very important. We need a change in the way we deal with housing. It is not a mystery that needs to be solved. It is not something for which we need a new guru. For years, very clear messages have been coming from local authority councillors, activists, Threshold, housing agencies and the Opposition benches.
Airbnb is a problem. We saw that in the sudden increase in new properties available to rent during the pandemic. It told us just how much had been taken out. It also showed us why there was a real problem - resources were not allocated to track down Airbnb where it had been operating. It should not take the fact that the customer disappears for this effectively black market in short-term renting to be flushed out and become evident. It needs to be followed up now in that those who were acting inappropriately outside of proper legal permission before this crisis would be investigated.
Co-living is a disastrous idea which gives rise to massive health risks. I say this sadly because I believe there are versions of co-living which could be positive. I lived in shared accommodation in other parts of the world where it was done properly but the idea of co-living in the dormitory-style atmosphere being put forward is a serious issue. We know of cases internationally whereby apartment buildings have become the source for clusters of Covid-19 because people share stairs and elevators. We will see that happen much more when all those people are sharing a kitchen and the basic facilities.
We know that green space matters but a false tension is often created to the effect that it is only the green space that we can use for public housing because we could never interfere with commercial housing. We have had big empty commercial office blocks all around the country, many of which were never rented because their main benefit was the tax benefit they provided to those who invested in them. We know work practices will change. They need to change. Green spaces matter for people who live in cities. They are part of making our inner cities livable. We know that when we hollow out city centres as spaces where diverse communities can live it is bad for businesses also. There is a reason some businesses in the suburbs kept going while those in the city centres died. It is because the latter relied only on office workers who came in occasionally. They did not have the organic connection with the fabric of a vibrant, multi-use, multi-function, things happening together community that many communities within Dublin close to the city centre still have. However, those communities are hanging on by the skin of their teeth in that regard.
We also know, and these were points made eloquently by Senator Fitzpatrick, that local authorities are very important. There is a problem when we have an over-reliance on private landlords. That has been said maybe 5,000 times. It is a problem and it is also a choice. Our local authorities, as was said, were set up literally as local housing agencies. There is no reason the local authorities should not be providing the land. They should be positive landlords who can understand, adjust rent and balance the needs of communities and where people can plan. How many families that grew up in local authority housing increased their rent as their family circumstances improved and their children could go to the same school for six years? I refer to what that means for that next generation's opportunities.
Senator Fitzpatrick mentioned that the Dublin local authority was able to purchase houses. There was an explicit ban on other local authorities doing that. In certain parts of the country, they were banned from buying houses. Effectively, they paid the same amount for a ten-year lease on a house that they could have bought for, say, €5,000 more.
Now, when the market picks up, families that may be living in that, where their children may be located locally, may find themselves pushed out. I urge the Minister of State not to make that mistake again. Build or buy but do not lease. Do not store up a new problem for five or 10 years' time.
Those are the fundamental lessons. Within that, this Bill is looking at private rental. I recognise and this is good that there is an extension to some measures and in respect of rent. There are some positive elements in this Bill but they are deeply undermined by a couple of those same negative core assumptions which are there as legacies. I am not going to slam any Government party or person for how they act on this but we need to learn and to challenge the assumptions. We do not accept everything as given because it did not work in the past.
Some of the really problematic aspects are sections in this Bill which we will try to amend. Due to the poor timing of this Bill the Minister of State is not able to do them but I ask him to consider not commencing them. There are fundamental problems on the mistreatment of renters where they are required to sign declarations which could make them criminals. At a time of fear in a crisis this creates more fear. We do not do that for most other people. If a landlord, for example, under this Bill gives an inaccurate rental notification there is a presumption of good faith in so many areas but this simply states inaccuracies. These refer to inaccuracies as to what payments they are on. To be honest, it was very unclear to many members of the Government how some of those payments were working. Is the jobseeker's payment an income supplement? If one is on the working family payment, does that count? There are so many questions, ambiguities and a lack of clarity around some of these payments. There are also many very vulnerable people who can still be evicted.
We heard about the small owner, the older person who has one property that he or she rents out. There are also older people who have no property and who might be evicted. I am also worried about them and what it might be to be of a cocooning age, walking the streets trying to get a new place to live in Ireland. Those people matter and the Bill does not address them.
One further point as I come to the end of my time - we will get to address all of these points in the course of this debate - is on the question of property rights. It is time to start moving on this. We know that there are rights such as common good, family life, and right to privacy, all of which are in the Constitution. The State needs to start testing this. It is acknowledged in the programme for Government in its commitment to the right to housing because people need the right to housing and it is something that the State needs. As a preamble to that referendum, which I hope comes very soon, let us start taking test cases and let the State start making good decisions and good policy that we know is for the common good. If landlords want to challenge this, let them challenge it and let this take us through the courts and see what they have to say. That will be useful information in how we frame that right to housing when we put it into the Constitution, as is long overdue.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach.
I will begin by congratulating the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, in his new job, which of all the Ministers of State is one of great responsibilities. Perhaps he is first among equals where he is in the eye of the storm. Our country, both landlords and tenants, will be looking for leadership from the Minister of State. This is the crux of the matter. The Government is not an advocacy group but must protect the rights of landlords and tenants and act in the common good. It also has a statutory responsibility to support the good work of the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB. I am quite familiar with the work of the RTB, formerly the PRTB. The Green Party-Fianna Fáil Government appointed me to the PRTB and the subsequent Government of Fine Gael-Labour Party reappointed me. There was an examination then for the third appointment, where one was just a number, which I liked most of all as everyone was completely anonymous. I was reappointed then having passed the exam. I have sat for many years and I believe I was the longest-serving barrister on the RTB’s dispute appeals committee listening and adjudicating on appeals. I have many memories from my days there and they are all good.
The administrative staff of the RTB worked heroically and were understaffed at the time. They called us up during weekends and outside of normal working hours, without any extra remuneration. It was most disappointing to hear Deputy MacSharry have a cheap shot at public and civil servants. That is not my experience of the hard-working people in the administration wing of the Residential Tenancies Board who one never hears about.
Then one has the adjudicators, to whom the dispute goes first, followed by the tribunal hearings - in my time it was three but under the new legislation it can at times sit as one person - all of whom were expert in going to Cork and other places, always under the law taking public transport and arriving back in their homes at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. I know that this is the wrong climate in which to say this to the Minister of State but in better times, which I hope are not too far away, he will consider better terms and conditions for the good, hard-working, expert people who adjudicate and sit on tribunals for the RTB because they need more recognition. At all times, all parties, be they landlords or tenants, were treated with the utmost respect by the RTB.
I will debunk a common myth that the RTB is a pro-tenant decision-making place. It was anything but that. It was fair and equal. On the statistics from the RTB, in my tenure I have probably written more appeal judgments than most, and they are all published on the world wide web at this stage, because its administration is done in public. I appreciate that in this Bill, due to the pandemic, we have to forsake temporarily the administration of justice in public which is unfortunate but I fully understand this. Both sides in the RTB always got a fair hearing but what is not widely known was that many landlords came before us who were in tears because, contrary to public perception, they were not millionaires but were facing homelessness themselves. My heart went out to tenants and one does everything possible within the legal parameters where one is in within a quasi-judicial role, which is very restrictive in its interpretation by the Act. The landlords were facing a situation where they wanted to sell their property or use it for a family member because of tough times. I am aware that there are hedge funds as well but I am talking about a cohort of landlords. I call them the accidental landlords who are leaving the rental sector.
I understand that the Minister of State must strike a balance and there are legal restrictions in how to strike that balance between constitutional property rights as enshrined in our Constitution and as interpreted by jurisprudence, including in the well-known Madigan cases where what I would like to see and what is perhaps legally and constitutionally permissible are two very different things.
I would do everything possible for tenants. I always have. I was a founder of the New Beginning group of lawyers who kept mortgage holders in their homes when there was no legal aid or personal insolvency regime on a statutory basis in this country. That may be yesteryear but I was involved in the RTB up to a couple of years ago, or less. It is so important to strike that balance. This Bill clearly extends notices of termination periods, and prohibits rent increases but in certain circumstances, and this is obviously not enough for this part of the House. I accept that, but to do more, under legal advice which I am sure goes with every proposed Bill that comes before the House, one does not want to see something struck down in its entirety.
If we are really serious about this, the place to tackle it is the Constitution. An amendment would give us the power to do the things we would love to do. We should take a cross-party approach. A right to housing is called for in the programme for Government. Enshrining this right would strengthen the hand of tenants, who, through no fault of their own, have come under incredible pressure. It is important to address this in a way which balances both rights or droves of accidental landlords will leave the market.
The rental system in Ireland is broken. I accept that. However, it is so disproportionate to think that a blunt instrument contained in one Bill can fix the rental system, which is a part of the overall housing system and affects homelessness. It does not deal with the problem we face. Over-reliance on a silver-bullet solution in the form of this Bill cannot work. We need a much more holistic approach to keeping people safely in their homes. We must take an evidence-based approach and balance the rights of landlords and tenants. I fully agree that this should come before us on a regular basis. Right now, I do not hear a huge clamour to sell properties. If I did I would be very concerned.
I will conclude on this note. If a tribunal makes a declaration calling for a property to be vacated, it is usually very generous and gives a long stay of execution. Then a landlord must go to the courts to enforce it. There is time to get this right and keep it under regular and constant review. I will be very open-minded about that.
I now call Senator Davitt, who, I believe, is sharing time with Senator Murphy.
I would like to welcome a fellow Mullingar man to the House. I have known the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, for a long time. I served with him on Mullingar town council before the great decision to dissolve the town councils was taken. I also served with him on Westmeath County Council. I have no doubt that he will excel in his new position as Minister of State. We are delighted to have two new Ministers of State in Mullingar, Deputies Peter Burke and Troy. It has certainly been a great addition to Westmeath.
I would like to build on the points made by Senator Martin. I have listened intently to the arguments made by the Opposition. Some good points have been made. However, there are many which do not stack up. I have an in-depth knowledge of the property market and, in my experience, the Government has devoted a wall of money to this problem. I am sure the Minister of State can provide an exact figure. I do not wish to argue over facts with a particular Senator, but my experience has been that councils are actively looking to purchase houses. A huge amount of money has been spent on this. The Minister of State did not argue this point because he was listening to the various contributors, but I am sure he can give us a figure.
In the previous crisis-----
I will explain the rules with regard to how much time speakers are allowed. If Senator Higgins wants to intervene, she must ask the Senator. If he agrees, she can speak for 30 seconds, but she must ask.
Senator Higgins has already intervened and I am sure we are happy with her statement.
She has contravened Standing Orders.
I am sure the Minister of State will give us the figures. My experience and the experience of the people I talk to throughout the country is that if a case can be made for the purchase of a particular house by a council, the purchase happens. I have seen this personally; I have been involved. I ask the Minister of State to clarify the position.
There are a couple of other points. I have listened intently. Based on some of the opinions that have been expressed, Senators must have been reading a different Bill than the one I read.
There is very little time to express everything I want to say but nevertheless I will abide by the time constraints. The legislation seeks to protect both landlords and tenants. I do not own any property and neither does my family, but we must accept that we need landlords in the system. As has already been stated, many people are left houses by parents, uncles or aunts. Such people will say that renting property out is a nightmare, particularly if they cannot sell it on.
In the few seconds I have left, I wish to say that homelessness is a blight on our society. Whether one is in a rural meeting in County Roscommon or a meeting in inner city Dublin, one can see that it upsets people. We all have a responsibility to deal with the matter more effectively than we have in the past. That is why I want to acknowledge the contribution of every Member here. Many valid points have been made.
At the moment, we are in a crisis but this is an ongoing situation. I welcome the Minister of State and wish him well. I hope that we will be able to use his Roscommon connections to solve all our housing problems. This is an ongoing situation and it is particularly difficult at present. I acknowledge that we will all have to do better when this crisis hopefully comes to an end. We will all have to do things differently to ensure that tenants are not pushed out onto the roadside or forced to live in a hotel room or, as has been known to happen, in the back of a van. That is upsetting to everyone and it must change. I am sorry my time is so limited. I welcome this Bill. It will give some protection to tenants.
I intended to specifically address section 14 but, having listened to the debate, there are a couple of other points I wish to discuss. I have been struck by the piety of some contributions, particularly on the part of Sinn Féin Senators, and the contradictions contained therein. As is their wont, and as they did before the election, those in Sinn Féin promise everything but are not in a position to deliver anything. In fact, the vacant promises we have heard from them are more damaging than anything else. We heard from one Senator that this Bill must not be allowed to continue because it will remove caps on rents and enable evictions. A second Sinn Féin Senator stated that the Bill would drive landlords from the market. Nothing is surer to drive landlords from the market than a situation in which they cannot control the rent they are levying and have no way of dealing with tenants who wilfully refuse to pay it. Such tenants do exist. Landlords are expected to just suffer through it.
The reality is that all of these provisions are balances of rights, in most cases between a tenant and a landlord. Landlords are not always bad. Many landlords in Ireland are small individuals with one or two properties. Some did not even intend to become landlords. They are all beholden to the banks. Perhaps that is the root of the problem. No quarter is ever given by the banks to people who are having difficulty in paying their mortgages. Many of us have been here before. I have previously stated that the banks will give a borrower an umbrella on a sunny day and ask for it back when it rains. They do not care about people. They do not care about small landlords or the tenants who are beholden to them. They are a major part of the problem.
I also want to respond to something Senator Higgins said. I respect her contribution and I agree entirely with what she said about allowing local authorities to do their job and to become the housing agencies they were in the past. The Minister of State and I have had this conversation before.
Part of the problem is the right to buy. I have been a strong supporter of that in the past because it is a really important opportunity to allow certain families to move beyond the particular place that they are in, but the other side of that coin is that it significantly reduces the stock that is available to local authorities on an ongoing basis. That should be examined.
I implore the Minister of State, in a broader context, to empower local authorities, specifically to empower the members of those local authorities, the councillors, throughout this country who want to do good things for the people they represent, to action the things they need to action to get solutions on the ground in areas that they know better than anyone. The Custom House needs to release power to local authorities to allow them to do a better job on the ground than they are being allowed to do at the moment. That is a really important part as well.
I wish to speak about section 14, which is the last section in the Bill. Essentially, it makes amendments to the Valuation Act. This is something I discussed with the then Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, around the beginning of the lockdown due to the Covid situation. It specifically applies to my former local authority, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. The valuation system in and of itself is an antiquated one. It involves the juxtaposition of the Department of Finance in one regard and the local authority in the other in the creation of commercial rates. A local authority strikes the annual rateable valuation, the multiplier essentially of the valuation applied by the Department of Finance or the Valuation Office, which I think has now moved out of the Department of Finance. The difficulty is that the Act requires a revaluation every five to ten years. The maximum it can be is ten years. What this does, essentially, is it delays the revaluation in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown by up to a further two years. That is really important because we are in such a state of flux at the moment that the inflexibility of the Valuation Act means that the Valuation Office has to proceed with the valuation, notwithstanding the fact that right now it is very difficult to assess the real value of property.
Unfortunately, we had this ten years ago in Dún Laoghaire because the revaluation took place for us in 2010 and at that time the marker for the valuation of properties was the 2007 figures, which was pre-bust, which meant that one had a situation whereby properties were revalued at massive rates and almost every retail business in the county saw a significant increase in their rates. Revaluations are always supposed to be revenue-neutral for the council, so it increased the rates for some and decreased the rates for others. What actually happened was the rateable valuation of the retail properties went through the roof and those retailers could not afford the rates increases. They appealed them to the Valuation Office and subsequent to the rate having been set by the council, their rates were reduced, which meant that Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council was left massively out of pocket. I am really pleased this provision is included in the Bill because it will mean that is less likely to happen again, but in the broader context we should be looking at the Valuation Act and whether the rigidity of it is appropriate or if we should be giving more flexibility to local authorities.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke. He has a very difficult task. I am particularly interested in local government. For the past four years I sat on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government and I would like to sit on it again. There is a lot more work to do.
Fine Gael has been in government for nine years and with no disrespect to the Minister of State, I am quite tired of people coming in here talking about a programme for Government. My colleague, friend and Senator on my right speaks about his involvement in the Residential Tenancies Board and makes a very eloquent case to support all of these amendments, if the Minister of State were to take them on board. I took the trouble of checking the membership of the Residential Tenancies Board before I came into the Chamber. This is the Residential Tenancies Board of which one of our colleagues in the House is a member. The board states: "No one can be made to leave their accommodation (other than in limited and exceptional circumstances where a breach of tenant obligations takes place and an RTB Determination Order is sourced through the dispute resolution process)." That is a good start. That is something I think everyone would agree with. I do not see why anyone could vote against the Bill.
I am somewhat amazed by the backlash or resistance to these amendments. I thank the Labour Party, Sinn Féin and the Civil Engagement Group for going to the trouble of preparing 40 amendments. From inquiries I made before coming in here, I understand that the Government is not going to accept any of them. Perhaps the Minister of State has not told the House that yet, but that is my understanding. If that is the case, it is an absolute disgrace that people could come into this House and nod their heads as if it were all very enlightened and interesting but the Minister of State has already signed up to reject the amendments. I had not even spoken when I heard that all the amendments would be rejected. What does that say about our Parliament and our democratic process? I hope and appeal to the Greens here today, with their track record on this issue, to at least support some of the amendments, or if they have a real difficulty at least to abstain, because we cannot have them talking out of both sides of their mouth.
Let us consider the Rebuilding Ireland document. It was introduced to the House by the then Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney. He said no one would be in a hotel within a few months. I spoke to six people today who are in emergency accommodation in a hotel. Then he asked the committee to give him another few months, and then a few months after that he ran out of the Department and he did not achieve what he set out to achieve. We have not heard too much from him yet about housing.
One could ask the reason for the tenancy problem. It is because we have a shortage of good, public housing. Everybody should be allowed rent in good public housing and it should be managed according to the principles of the RTB. I say to the Senators here today that they should push their amendments. Let the Government Members come to vote. A simple majority is all that is required. Half of them have more than likely left the House. If they have gone, perhaps they will turn back from Kerry, Cork and Donegal to vote.
How many Senators are tenants and landlords? How many people are up to date in terms of their declarations? I presume they all are. There are no journalists here, but I say to them that they should dig and find out who are the landlords who are Deputies, Senators or Ministers and why is there resistance to bringing in some decent protections for people. I spoke to a man and his partner yesterday who went to view accommodation and the first thing the landlord said is that it is a shared house so cash would be required. The second thing he said was that he did not want them in the house for more than three hours in the middle of the day because they live there too. Is that acceptable?
Members can come in here in a few months' time and say that it is all awful. We should remember that Fianna Fáil was sitting on these benches in the Dáil six months ago. Let us remember what it told the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government about how he had failed and was not delivering. Fianna Fáil is in government a few weeks later and it is acquiescing. It is part of this old act. I say shame on those Members. How many of their daughters and sons are in unfit accommodation? How many people are forced to pay under-the-counter top-ups? Lots of people are. Members know it and I know it. I spoke the other day to a woman with three children who told me she was paying €2,500 for a flat in Bray but she had to get the last €500 from her mother because she has to make an under-the-counter payment. Do Members think that is good enough? I do not believe they do, but we now have an opportunity to bring in legislation to do something. I appeal to politicians with any sense of decency about tenants' rights to support some of these amendments.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, to this House and formally congratulate him on his appointment. I support the Bill because of how it is going to further protect tenants.
I wish to respond to a couple of the issues that were raised. I strongly agree with my colleague, Senator Ward, when it comes to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. We do not have a Department of local government in Ireland, we have a Department of centralising government. In the coming years, we must ensure that powers, in particular with regard to housing, are devolved to local authorities so that they are in a position to fulfil that very crucial function.
I also agree with what Senator Ward said about a review of the Valuation Act, although I would go a lot further. This is something we need to look at. We need to consider abolishing the commercial rates model as a way of funding local government entirely. It dates back to the era of King George IV. It is a completely anachronistic model for funding local government. I would be even more radical than Senator Ward in terms of what he proposes.
Building supply is crucial. I agree with what Senators Fitzpatrick and Higgins said about the importance of getting local authorities back to building local authority homes but I am a little nervous about them buying because what we have often seen is that when local authorities look to buy homes, in some cases it distorts the market and it is often first-time buyers who lose out.
I would prefer to see an emphasis on local authorities building. I will address some of the specific concerns about the implementation of this legislation. It should be ensured that there are sufficient staffing levels in the Residential Tenancies Board and the local authorities so that people will be on hand to answer questions about these regulations and to help people go through the process. It is all very well having the necessary protections in place but if we do not have the staff in the RTB or the local authorities, we will have a problem. I would like assurances from the Minister of State in that regard.
In response to issues others have raised, there should be an information campaign in simple English and a number of other languages so that the rights and obligations of tenants and landlords under this legislation are clear. The crucial point which a number of speakers, including my colleague, Senator Fitzpatrick, have raised is that the biggest challenge in this area relates to supply. We have to start building again. The lack of supply has driven up rental costs, which has made it more difficult to rent. It has also given rise to the increase in homelessness which is, as Senator Murphy said, a blight on our society.
These high rents have meant that tens of thousands have been excluded from aspiring to own their own home. In my hometown of Gorey, it costs approximately €1,200 a month to rent a three-bedroom house if one can find one. The housing assistance payment, HAP, comes nowhere near meeting that cost. For many individuals and couples, a mortgage would cost a lot less. We must ensure that the rent those individuals and couples have paid is considered when they apply for a mortgage.
The appointment of the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, will make a real difference. This comes back to a crucial point. A number of people have criticised Fianna Fáil but this is what differentiates Fianna Fáil from other parties. I disagree with Senator Conway's earlier comments in praise of the approach of the former Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. The difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is that Fine Gael believes in a market-led approach. We support free enterprise and understand the construction industry and its workers but, where the market fails, the State has to intervene. The State must intervene in order to ensure supply.
We are also different from those in Sinn Féin and on the hard left who do not believe in the right of individuals to aspire to own their own home. We support the idea that individuals or couples should have the right to build or buy their own home. Senator Boyhan might reflect on the market-led approach to issues adopted by his former party, the Progressive Democrats. This approach has failed in the area of housing.
I welcome this Bill. It provides sufficient short-term protections but it must be remembered that it is not a silver bullet. The real solution to the housing crisis is to increase supply. The test of the success of the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, over the coming years will be the number of social and, in particular, affordable houses they build. They should get to it.
I welcome the Minister of State to the Chamber and congratulate him on his new role. We worked together in Longford-Westmeath for a number of years and I know that he is an extremely capable public representative. He will do an excellent job in the Department and I wish him well. I will back up what Senator Davitt said. Having been a member of the local authority in Longford for the last ten years, I have seen the support that has been given with regard to purchasing housing within the county. This is real money, unlike the Apple money which Sinn Féin was spending prior to the election.
I welcome the Bill. It is necessary to protect tenants who are having difficulty paying rent due to Covid-19 and I will fully support it. I acknowledge the numerous issues that have been mentioned. Homelessness has been mentioned. I praise the work of the Simon Communities in the midlands. It does a tremendous amount of work for people in the midlands who have been made homeless.
One issue that has arisen during the Covid-19 pandemic is that of remote working. I believe we will see the housing market in Dublin freeing up as more people live back down the country and work from home. This will have an effect on the market in Dublin, increasing availability and bringing down prices.
I will pick out a couple of points in the Bill. At one point it refers to the Residential Tenancies Board as an intermediary with regard to disputes. I firmly believe that the powers of the RTB need to be increased. We need to look at stronger legislation, including legislation to protect some landlords. Many of them are accidental landlords. We must also protect residents who live close to tenants who have been involved in anti-social behaviour. I know of numerous cases in which tenants have been found guilty of such behaviour yet landlords and local authorities cannot get orders for them to be removed.
Senator Keogan and I spoke yesterday about the help-to-buy scheme. It is not available to anybody who wishes to purchase a second-hand house. It only applies to newly-built houses, of which there are none in many counties. In my own county of Longford, no newly-built houses are available for purchase. We need to develop an affordable housing strategy to create sustainable communities. I ask the Minister of State to make this a priority not just for my own area but for the country as a whole.
When we are developing and planning these communities, we need to consult with the existing residents and families and to listen to their concerns so that we do not impinge on their quality of life. I ask that the Department look at a number of these points. I am confident that the Minister of State will deliver in his Department and I wish him well.
I wish to raise a couple of points and will try not to repeat the points that have already been made if possible. We must talk about how we got to where we are today. The simple fact is that we are in this difficulty because, for the last couple of decades under both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, there was very little or no building of public housing. That is how we got into this mess. Both of the conservative parties decided that the market would do. That is the fact of the matter. That is what happened under Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
That is not true.
That is why we are in the mess we are in at the minute. I want to talk about Limerick, where rents have increased to more than €1,200 for a two-bedroom apartment. There has been double-digit growth in rents. Let us be very clear; this Bill will allow rent increases to commence once again. We in Sinn Féin do not believe rents should be increased right now. I actually believe that if a landlord is getting more than €1,200 for a two-bedroom apartment on the Dock Road in Limerick, that is plenty. Surely to God, before we allow rent increases to begin again we should build in further protections for tenants.
One thing that always amazes me, perhaps because I spent time abroad, is the stumbling block both conservative parties have about giving tenants real security of tenure. The idea that, if a house is put up for sale, the landlord has the right to remove the tenants is fundamentally wrong. In the rest of Europe, tenants have a right to stay in those buildings. What is wrong with Irish tenants? What is wrong with the conservative mindset of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael that they will never make that move?
It is interesting that, when it was in opposition, Fianna Fáil backed a motion in the Dáil which would change this provision. That reminds me of a quote from Marx, by which I mean Groucho Marx. He said, "These are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others." That is Fianna Fáil summed up in a nutshell. When it is in opposition, it tries to play the role of a party that is slightly on the left. Now that is in government and nicely ensconced under the wings of Fine Gael, it is a different matter. The people I will meet over the weekend and next week, the terrified tenants, know there is no difference between the parties.
I will provide a concrete example of this. In my village of Castleconnell, there is a rogue landlord who has already told his tenants that, as soon as these restrictions are lifted, he will increase their rents. These are working people who struggle from week to week and from month to month to pay their rents. What the Government is doing today will allow this man to increase these people's rents. They will have no protections. That is the reality. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil stand for rent increases while Sinn Féin stands for tenants. I am proud of the side I am on.
I will begin by offering a clarification. The previous speaker said that Fianna Fáil did not build local authority houses. I have just checked the data and they show that when my party was last in government, in the period up to 2011, it built an average of 5,000 local authority houses per year. It is important to put that on the record.
That number was not even half what was needed.
I thank the Minister of State for being here and wish him and the Minister well in their roles. They have a huge task ahead of them and the people of Ireland are depending on them to deliver on it. I wish that we did not need the legislation we are discussing today but we do need it because of the very broad impact of the Covid-19 crisis. There has been a huge increase in unemployment and many people in the residential rental sector have faced job losses, restricting their ability to pay rent and putting them at risk of losing their temporary homes. The legislation imposing restrictions on evictions that was introduced in March led to a 56% drop in the number of families presenting as homeless and in need of emergency accommodation. Those legislative provisions clearly have worked and it is important that we continue with them for the time being.
The private rental sector was in crisis before Covid because rents were and continue to be at an unsustainably high level. In County Kildare, for instance, the average rent is €1,440 a month, which is an increase of 4.5% on last year. The rental sector is in crisis because we do not have enough affordable housing provision and there is not enough social housing being built by local authorities. That is not the fault of the councils but is the consequence of a legacy of problems with red tape over the past nine years that has hindered their efforts to get the funding to build houses. Since I became a public representative, housing has, year on year, become the biggest issue I deal with. People contact me about it every single day. It is the issue about which I feel the most frustrated and worried that I am letting people down. I cannot do anything to support them in their absolute need for a home in an area in which to put down roots, know where they can send their children to school and be part of a sustainable community. On average, people are waiting ten to 12 years in Kildare for a home. In recent years, I have been particularly sad to find an increase in men and women, particularly single people, in their 60s, 70s and 80s not having a home to call their own. I find that incredibly depressing and a really sad thing to see in the Ireland of today.
One of the problems we are seeing is the proliferation of housing agencies. When I asked the director of housing in Kildare County Council about this last year, he told me he was dealing with 57 different housing agencies throughout the county. That is wrong. Local authorities should be getting the finance and support directly to build houses as opposed to having to deal with 57 separate housing agencies. I would make the point that housing co-operatives cannot buy their own houses. The principle of home ownership should apply to them as well.
Let me be clear that I am not and never have been a landlord, but I have been a renter. I rented for 16 years, including three years in Dublin when I was in college and 13 years in Newbridge when I moved there to start teaching. I do not see younger family members and friends of mine being in the position that I was, after 13 years of renting, of being able to buy my own house. That is the problem we are facing today. People of all ages and all incomes cannot afford to buy a home because there is not a sufficient plan in place to provide affordable housing.
I support the Bill. It is very important that we have it in place for the reasons I have outlined. There is a mentality out there that all landlords are bad. That is completely wrong. I want to stand up for the majority of landlords and tenants who work well together. They want compliance and transparency. Everybody needs to work together to ensure housing is delivered for those who need it, including those who are vulnerable and those who are working hard to get to a position whereby they can have their own homes.
I welcome the Minister of State and wish him well in his role. I look forward to working with him. My party's spokesperson on housing, Senator Moynihan, outlined our concerns regarding what is a very flawed Bill. Senator Boyhan noted that there are 40 amendments tabled for debate on Committee Stage. Senator Moynihan and other colleagues will talk us through those amendments in due course, which seek to address the flaws in the Bill.
I have several points to make that are relevant to the debate. The first is to address what Senator Davitt said about the wall of money made available to county councils. I can only say that this Wall has not seen the wall of money to which he referred. Both Senators Fitzpatrick and Higgins noted that local authorities have an opportunity to purchase one-off houses. I draw the Minister of State's attention to a case in County Kildare - one of several such cases - where contracts were signed with the homeowner in November last year for the sale of the property to Kildare County Council. That person has now been told that the council, on the instructions of Government, can no longer go through with the purchase. This is directly in opposition to what is happening in Dublin City Council and other local authorities. Clearly, Kildare County Council is not part of this particular purchasing policy. As I said, I am aware of a number of such cases. Senator Fitzpatrick correctly noted that some landlords will sell their houses to maintain a tenant in the property, but Kildare County Council is being told this is not an option. Will the Minister of State confirm whether that is the case? It is what I have been told.
I want to place on record my thanks to the public servants who deal on a daily basis with housing queries. I am sure we will all join in thanking them for their work. There has been a lot of talk in the past week about what public servants do or do not do. I totally abhor what has been said in some quarters. Day in and day out, public servants go about their work. In particular, the staff at housing counters throughout the country deal with people who are at the limit of what they can endure. Their quality of life when they come in to engage with our public servants is at an all-time low. It is important that I take this opportunity to record my thanks to those public servants who deal with people who are going through the trauma of not having a home.
The HAP scheme was mentioned by a number of speakers. There is a serious problem in County Kildare in regard to what I refer to as inter-county HAP arrangements. To give an example, in my town of Athy, a house recently became available 1 mile from the town boundary but over the county boundary in County Laois. A person who was in a homeless situation was not able to take that property under the HAP scheme, even though it would have resolved her situation. My colleagues in the Dáil have put in a number of parliamentary questions on this issue and the response from the Department is that such decisions are a matter for the local authority. However, Kildare County Council is saying that its direction from the Department is otherwise. Can the Minister of State tell us whether something will be done once and for all about inter-county HAP arrangements? I am sure other Members have encountered the same issue in their areas. It would help to solve the housing crisis if local authorities could override county boundaries and offer HAP properties that are located only 1 mile or 2 miles from a particular town or village.
I heard this morning on my local radio station, Kfm, that 167 people were in homeless accommodation in County Kildare in May. When we take into account the corresponding numbers of 124 for County Meath and 27 for County Wicklow - all three counties being part of the mid-east region - it paints a very bleak picture.
I received up to ten phone calls relating to housing before I came to the Chamber today. Senator O'Loughlin referred to our reliance on voluntary housing. We have to get away from this. We must get rid of the hubs that have been created. Once and for all, we have to build council houses. They were good enough for generations of people. Let us go back to building council houses. Our reliance on voluntary houses has to stop. Less than two hours ago in a WhatsApp message, a person asked me to "Get me out of here". This legislation will do nothing to help that person.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Seanad to explain the Bill. Many of the Bills that have come before us this week have been completely rushed. I will support several of the amendments that have been tabled.
Earlier this week, Senator Fitzpatrick spoke about the number of people who have died in our city of Dublin. People are dying in many cities throughout the country, whether in hostel accommodation or on the streets. This should not happen. It is probably one of the reasons Fine Gael lost the general election. The biggest catastrophe the State has experienced relates to how we look after those who are most vulnerable. When I saw a child eating off a cardboard box on the streets of Dublin, it certainly did not make me proud to be in local government at the time.
This week alone, while I may be sitting in this Chamber I am also dealing with people who are being evicted from their houses by mortgage companies and banks. I am dealing with people who are being evicted from their houses because the landlords are selling them. They cannot find anywhere to rent. I do a lot of good things in my life but I just do not have the time to focus on trying to find houses for people to rent. I just do not have that ability. I do not have the time to do it. They are crying out for houses to rent. People cannot get landlords to take housing assistance payments. In parts of County Meath, where I am from, the housing assistance payment does not even meet two thirds of what people are looking for. In Dunboyne, Ratoath and Ashbourne, for example, people looking to rent a two-bedroom property will pay €1,500 to €1,800 for it. The HAP may only provide €900 to €1,000. We will have to look at this or we will end up with more homeless people.
One good thing about Covid, and there is only one good thing that I can see, is that it reduced our figures for homelessness, according to Focus Ireland, from 10,000 to 8,000. Whatever we did right during that time, we need to continue to do it for these people. We look at the level of supply and we realise that there is simply not enough. If we look at the local development plans, whether in Kildare or Meath, we are told that fully serviced land has to be dezoned. We are told we can only build 4,000 houses between now and 2024. This will not meet the needs of those who require housing in County Meath. We will have to look at the development plans being done throughout the country and see how we can improve the supply of housing in these areas.
With regard to section 4, the written declaration could cause problems for people that I and county councillors deal with on a daily basis. There are 500,000 people in this country who cannot read or write. I do not know how many times I have filled in documents for people who cannot read or write. Many local authority members throughout the country do the same. I do not know what the Minister of State will do about this. The document will mean absolutely nothing to these 500,000 people. I do not know how the Minister of State will communicate to the most vulnerable but he will have to get the message out to them that help will be there for them. I can jump up and down here with my colleagues, I can object to every amendment or I can propose and second every amendment but it will not do anything because it will be defeated. I want the Minister of State to do better for those who are most vulnerable and those who need support, whether it be the tenant or the landlord. I want the Minister of State to be there for both.
I thank all of the Senators for their comments. I listened to them all intently and have taken notes on each one. I appreciate the genuine comments because we need to assess all sectors of society we represent and ensure we are as informed as possible as we legislate.
Senator Fitzpatrick made the case for getting more houses for local authorities and meeting the targets. Obviously, this is very important. Last year, there were 25,000 and, up to the end of March last, there were 10,000 social housing units through blended measures. It is very important that we continue at pace to serve the needs of those who are most vulnerable. I note the programme for Government places significant urgency on this and renews it, which is very important.
With regard to the points Senator Fitzpatrick raised, it is very important to note that the ESRI and Threshold have made a determination. Threshold's most significant concern relates to rent arrears. This is what we are responding to. We are legislating to protect the most vulnerable tenancies in our State to ensure we get through the very narrow gap as the Covid-19 pandemic evolves from a stark position whereby everyone was in lockdown and the movement of people was prohibited except where essential, to now, as we are restarting our economy and moving through each phase. The issues are reverting to rent increases and protecting tenants from this and from eviction. It has to be linked to a sound determination. It is very important that I say this.
I appreciate Senator Fitzpatrick's kind comments on our call in respect of housing. This matter is very important. I am working very closely with the Minister on it. I look forward to having a very good relationship with him. It is essential for the programme for Government that we work well together. I am sure we will do our very best to respond to this crisis.
Senator Conway spoke about the local authority building programme and building and buying houses. It is very important that we get a blend of measures. Significant urgency is now being placed on our local authorities getting back to building houses. This is very important. It takes time to get this shift but the programme for Government is also very clear on this. Senator Conway mentioned planning for housing and the emphasis on the mistakes that were made in the past. This is why it is very important that we have a national planning framework to deal with planning and ensure that we are building in the correct areas and that our towns and villages do not suffer.
That is one of the key elements of our towns first policy. There is a significant amount of positive action in the programme for Government to deal with these pressure points.
Senator Mullen also raised matters relating to housing in rural Ireland. Again, I revert to the national planning framework and Housing First. He mentioned the case of some of our smaller landlords, a point that is missed by a significant proportion of people in this debate. I have figures from some research I did this morning. From 2016 to 2019, 6,500 fewer landlords have been operating in the residential market, which is a 5% reduction. When we house people we need a model to ensure there are tenancies but there is a reason landlords are leaving the system. We must ensure any legislation we produce does not have an adverse impact as there must be housing for people. It is also very important to note that 70% of landlords just own one property, with 86% owning one or two properties. It is a significant proportion of landlords and we must be careful not to demonise one sector. Senator Mullen articulated the point very well.
Senator Mullen also mentioned the property tax and there is a deferral mechanism contained in the legislation for people who fall into difficult circumstances. That is there for all to see. He commented on Airbnb, which has been contentious, and the Government takes this point seriously. Local authorities have been given funding to increase and review cases where properties are used for Airbnb. There have been 757 properties identified over the past number of weeks as we move to putting more resources into the area and 633 warning letters have been issued. In the Dublin area especially we are really working on this to ensure we can protect tenants and make properties available. Properties used for Airbnb require planning, which is a key point.
I thank Senator Moynihan for her comments. I have different views from her perspective on the Bill. She said I was spinning the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, report but that is absolutely not the case. I am working to get legislation through here that would strike a balance. If there is a change and we experience a second wave of the virus, neither I nor the Government would have a problem with responding through primary legislation to meet demand. I am currently legislating for the circumstances in which we find ourselves today and ensuring protections are advanced to tenants, including the most vulnerable tenants, which is a key point. It is all about trying to get a balance between the sections.
The Senator commented on the narrow scope of the Bill but there are a significant number of employers using the wage subsidy scheme, with employees effectively underwritten throughout this crisis. Such people have key access and if they feel their income is under pressure or they may fall into rent arrears, a response is provided for in this legislation. Senator Moynihan said there is no retrospective element in the legislation. If she read the legislation, she would see section 5(4) applies and her point was not well made.
I have heard the concerns set out by Senators Boylan and Warfield. I am trying my best to advocate this legislation as a measure to protect the most vulnerable, which is the most important action we can take. The Senators' views on how to respond to a very significant crisis are different from that of the Government; that is quite clear and the Senators are fully entitled to articulate those today. Ultimately, we must ensure there are more homes each year for people, and that is what we are doing. It is very easy to identify problems when one would not be accountable for it. We can see in the North of Ireland the changes made were minimal and in this jurisdiction we are going much further.
I dealt conclusively with the Airbnb matter raised by Senator Higgins a moment ago. It is not the case that local authorities are banned from buying houses. My local authority in Westmeath is currently buying houses. The Senator may wish to interrupt-----
To make Members aware, the rules of the House are that Senators may only make one contribution. On Committee Stage Senators may intervene until the cows come home but they are not coming home yet. The Minister of State has possession and Senators are not allowed to intervene and interrupt him.
I take the Senator's point on the building of homes. We must have a blend of measures, including getting back to home building in local authorities. It is what we are trying to do and there is a renewed emphasis and strength in that with the programme for Government, which is very important. The Senator also mentioned the right to housing and related significant matters, and we must respond to those. The programme for Government takes a view on them. Action on the ground, such as putting infrastructure and houses in place, will make life better for people than just changing the wording on something but I also note the aims of the programme for Government in this regard.
I listened to Senator Martin's contribution and it is great to have somebody who has experience working with the Residential Tenancies Board. It was interesting. He spoke of the common good and we are working to achieve a balance in the common good so we can respond to ensure those in our most vulnerable tenancies in our State can be protected. This Bill achieves that through a narrow scope. It is important to strike the balance mentioned by Senator Martin.
I thank Senator Davitt and all Senators for their good wishes, which I genuinely appreciate, as I will need them in this job. It is a very challenging role, as we can see. The Senator mentioned acquisitions and 2,772 houses were acquired in 2019 through the local authority process. Senator Eugene Murphy spoke of the blight of homelessness and I absolutely agree with this. We have all met people in our clinics affected by this and feel for them, and we are all trying to resolve this matter as fast as we can.
I thank Senator Ward for his remarks. He spoke about the Valuation Act 2001 as referred to in section 14 of this Bill, articulating the challenges that existed in local authorities before this. He also responded to remarks from other Members in the Houses.
I listened to Senator Boyhan's remarks, which were very partisan, if I might say so. He may take the view that he is fed up of some people coming to this House over the past number of years but I have come here to do my best. I am not a landlord but the Senator implied we are in certain categories or boxes. I am a husband, a father and I hold clinics where I meet people from the most vulnerable parts of society. I have not heard any big ticket solutions from the Senator. I am trying my best to put through a piece of legislation that would respect the most vulnerable people in our society. We have done a good job in this regard and the programme for Government does a similarly good job in articulating the actions to be taken.
There is an idea that people can throw others into categories, saying X is this and Y is that. The majority, if not all, of people in this House and the Dáil are trying to do their best for others. They have been elected with a mandate. The Senator might speak about amendments not being accepted but we all have a democratic mandate. This House will decide anything I wish or do not wish to press. It is not me but the House that decides such matters, and that is democracy in action. The Senator might argue the points on any other issue but that is what it comes down to.
Senator Byrne articulated well how we are trying to change from acquisitions to house building, which is very important. We have a renewed urgency in this regard. There were references to the past and the former Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy. From 2016 to 2019, he met his targets: in 2016 the target was for 4,240 units and over 5,700 were delivered; in 2017 the target was 5,050 units and 7,095 delivered; in 2018 the target was 7,869 units and 8,422 were delivered; and in 2019 the target was 10,000 and more than 10,000 were delivered.
This was through a blended approach that involves all the different measures. He did his best. We must work harder to provide solutions for people. It is great to hear problems being identified. I am in the business of providing concrete solutions that will protect the most vulnerable tenants in our State. That is the balance this Bill strikes.
I thank Senator Carrigy for his comments and goodwill. It relates to what he said regarding the pressures in our cities. The national planning framework clearly captures how we will be trying to expand in the regions over the coming decades. We must follow that as the guide in terms of how to improve our society and ensure that we build in the most appropriate places because planning will always be intrinsically linked to housing. One cannot have a house without proper planning and the proper processes to govern that.
Senator Gavan went through a number of issues relating to his home area. It is very important to note that, as a constituency representative, I am not immune to the most vulnerable, significant cases on the ground, which I meet every week in my clinics. Some are very distressing. We work to try to resolve them. That is what I am here to do. Sometimes it is advanced that certain people have a patent on compassion and understanding and they think everyone else has a different view on life. That is not the case because I know the real issues on the ground. I was a councillor for a number of years before I was elected to the Dáil. I am committed to doing that and to ensuring that most vulnerable are protected and treated with respect and compassion. That is what this Bill aims to do.
I appreciate Senator O'Loughlin's comments. She articulated very clearly the way the rent crisis relates to social housing. It is a case of supply and demand. There has been criticism in the past but we have come a long way. We are not too far removed from the era of ghost estates, deficits in our infrastructure and trying to rebalance that to deliver houses in the face of all the challenges brought about by a growing economy. This is a significant issue that must be responded to with a blend of measures. That is what we are trying to do in this programme for Government.
I thank Senator Wall for his comments. He is concerned about HAP. It is possible to travel through county boundaries. There is an application process there. Once someone reaches the income thresholds for the relevant county for which he or she is going forward, he or she is able to do that. The Senator also mentioned the number of homeless people, which is a matter of acute concern for us all. There are many services working with the most vulnerable. Along with the Minister, the Government and its partners, I want to do my best to ensure that we can meet that demand and do our best to resolve it.
I appreciate the many views that were put forward. We are under pressure to get this Bill through the Houses because there is a time constraint involved. The Bill is needed now. We need to give key protection to tenants - those at the coalface of Covid-19, those who have had their incomes reduced and those on various different payments the State has put in place. We urgently need this response. We cannot delay this legislation. I sat in the Dáil yesterday and went through all the amendments here again this morning. I am confident that this Bill meets the requirement of getting the balance right between the two actors in this process and ensuring that protections are in place for tenants who face the most acute eviction notices. The ESRI, which produced a report, and Threshold are operating at the coalface. I am very happy with the balance struck.
Before I put the question to the House, I have a note of information for the House relating to a substitute numbered list that was circulated. There was an incorrect line reference in amendments Nos. 2 and 11. Much of this was due to the circulation of the Bill late last night. We got it from the Dáil. The Clerk of the Seanad, the Clerk Assistant and the staff were working late last night to ensure that the legislation was ready today. However, because of the number of amendments and the late hour at which we received the legislation, an error occurred. Consequently, a substitute numbered list has been circulated.
When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?
Is that agreed? Agreed.