Go raibh maith agat a Chathaoirligh, agus guím Lá Idirnáisiúnta na mBan sona do cách. Cosúil leis an Seanadóir Craughwell, níl agam ach beagán Gaeilge ach táim ag déanamh iarrachta gach lá.
I want to start by thanking Senators Warfield, Boylan, Gavan and Ó Donnghaile for tabling this motion. The exchange in the last contribution shows the level of emotion that exists in relation to this issue. I must say that that is welcomed. It is most important that we work together. There have been comments on the need to work together across parties to try to achieve an equitable outcome for everybody, because it is an issue which affects us all and our communities. In my contribution, I want to highlight that this is about collaboration and working together. Certainly, there are merits in the motion. The countermotion is trying to address positively the issues that were raised in the motion. We have an opportunity to bring about equitable solutions for families, couples, children and everybody in this State. I welcome the motion in that regard.
As set out in the programme for Government, Our Shared Future, improving standards, security and affordability for renters is a key priority for this Government. I welcome the opportunity to discuss and debate important issues in the private rental market, which is at the core of this motion. The motion is wide-ranging and all-encompassing when it comes to the various elements that can contribute to a successful rental sector. I am sure the Senators will appreciate that to do justice to the topics raised, it would take much more time than I have available, unfortunately. Instead, I plan on focussing on what I believe is at the heart of the motion and what constitutes the key elements of the Government’s amendment, that is, ensuring we put in place the framework, measures and funding that can deliver affordable, high quality private rental accommodation to those who need it.
I turn first to the key issue of affordability. We are all acutely aware that in recent years, rents have begun to reach levels that have put real pressures on individuals, families and households throughout the country, but most especially in our major cities and urban centres. The imposition of a three-year rent freeze, as proposed by the Senators, has been debated numerous times in both Houses of the Oireachtas. On the face of it, there is an instant, easy appeal about it, as a simple but effective measure. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Sometimes, as we all know, simple problems do not have easy answers. As has been said before, a blanket ban on any rent increases, in all likelihood, would face significant legal challenge and would severely impact the supply of rental accommodation in the medium to longer terms. We heard about the Berlin experience in that respect. I am sure Senators would agree that this would be a very unwelcome and unintended consequence of such a measure.
At this point I should point out that the measure taken by the last Government in introducing rent pressure zones, RPZs, has played a key part in moderating rent increases. It was a considered and thoughtful measure that balanced the needs of tenants with the legal rights of landlords and the imperative to ensure that rental housing supply was not adversely affected. It was stated in the debate earlier that 73% of rental properties are now covered by RPZs.
I would like to talk a little about cost rental, which is a key element of the Government’s aim to introduce affordability into the sector. My Department is working with local authorities, the Land Development Agency, LDA, and approved housing bodies to develop a new cost rental housing sector in Ireland. As the Senators will no doubt be aware, the aim will be that rents charged will only cover the cost of delivering, managing and maintaining homes, making them more affordable for households facing pressures in the private rental market.
The first purpose-built cost rental homes, 50 new apartments at Enniskerry Road, using serviced sites funding, will be completed later this year. Tenant eligibility and other operational conditions will be finalised in the forthcoming affordable housing Bill, which will place cost rental on a legislative basis for the first time. The LDA is meanwhile progressing with plans for cost rental on a range of projects, both on its own portfolio of public lands and in partnership with local authorities. The first LDA cost rental development is a partnership with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council at Shanganagh Castle, Shankill, where cost rental will sit alongside social housing and affordable purchase in a mixed-tenure community. Again, that mixed residential approach is something we all aspire to achieving. The Department is currently delivering cost rental homes in the immediate term through the new cost rental equity loan, CREL, scheme, which was allocated €35 million in budget 2021. On 8 February 2021 the Minister announced approval in principle for 390 CREL-funded homes to be acquired and managed by the Clúid, Respond and Tuath approved housing bodies. These developments are spread across Dublin, the greater Dublin area and Cork, with precise locations to be published on completion of commercial and contractual arrangements.
I will focus now on another important element of the motion, namely, the protection of tenants, be it through security of tenure or the quality of accommodation made available to them in the private sector. I am pleased to inform Senators that, following through on commitments in the programme for Government, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, will shortly bring to Government a general scheme of a housing and residential tenancies Bill to address, among other things, tenancies of indefinite duration, subject to consultation with the Attorney General. Of course, strong tenancy protections are also in place and enforced through the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, and this Government is committed to further improving them.
I note a call is made for the immediate enactment of the Property Services (Advertisement of Unfit Lettings) (Amendment) Bill 2019. This Bill was introduced by Senator Warfield and others in 2019 but fell at the dissolution of the Thirty-second Dáil. The then Government pointed out that many problematic issues arose with the Bill. These remain and as a result we think it is unworkable in its current form. However, we do acknowledge the importance of the issues raised and they will be considered as part of housing for all.
On housing standards, the motion quite wrongly implies that the Government is not providing appropriate funding to local authorities to monitor and inspect accommodation standards in the sector. The motion also contends the quality of rental stock is very poor and quotes poor compliance rates in Dublin city as evidence of this. However, the statistics are taken out of context. The reality is that local authorities, on a risk assessment basis, target the most problematic properties as part of their inspection programmes, therefore to extrapolate this non-compliance rate to the whole sector is simplistic and wrong. The Department has made an increased budget of €10 million available to local authorities this year to aid increased inspections of properties and ensure greater compliance with the minimum standards. This amounts to a 300% increase in funding in just three years and would in normal times allow councils to inspect up to 25% of all properties in the State each year. That question has been asked by one Senator this evening. I refer to normal times because Covid has of course had an impact. However, I am happy to say that the sector has been innovative in piloting virtual inspections, which the Department has been quick and happy to back with funding. Again, I take on board the point raised about a change in that type of inspection, based on moving away from the pass or fail approach which has been in place to date. It is certainly worth giving consideration to.
There appears to be a suggestion from the Senators that the Government favours institutional investors and bigger landlords in its policies. Let me be clear that our approach to this sector is not ideologically driven. It is driven simply by the desire to increase the supply of housing available to rent in the right places at the right price and as quickly as possible. The Government believes a more diverse rental sector, which includes institutional investors, provides more stability and less exposure to property market risk and volatility. Institutional investors can also help provide the range of tenancy options that households need across their life cycles. Large-scale investment in property has an important role to play in helping to deliver the professional high standard rental sector tenants deserve.
Let us be clear, though. Institutional investors occupy a small share of the residential housing market, with over 96% of landlords having five or fewer tenancies. Historically, the private rented sector has been largely made up of small-scale landlords. They will continue to provide the bulk of private rented accommodation and the Government remains committed to working with them.
The Government is acutely aware of the difficulties faced by people in the private rental sector. We are taking measures that will deliver and make a real difference in terms of affordability and quality of life in the everyday lives of those thousands of households that live there. The clearest demonstration of this commitment is that, this year, record funding of €3.3 billion is available to deliver housing solutions. The focus of this funding is on delivering on the construction of new social homes. However, it is important that local authorities have money available to them to fund a range of accommodation types, and this will be the case. Supports to improve the quality and affordability of the rental sector continuously will remain a cornerstone of Government policy under the new housing strategy, "Housing for All", which will be published in July.
A number of Senators have raised the issue of energy standards. It will be addressed. Senator Garvey mentioned deep retrofits. We will also address that issue in the private rental sector through supports. I thank the House for allowing me this time and Senators for what has been an engaging and worthwhile debate.