Residential Tenancies (No. 2) Bill 2021: Second Stage

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am grateful to the Leas-Chathaoirleach and indeed to all Senators for facilitating the debate on this urgent legislation in Seanad Éireann before the recess. I also wish to record my thanks to the Chief Whip and the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage for enabling this Bill to be moved and read a Second Time today.

In light of the prolonged challenges facing the most vulnerable tenants, I am asking the House to pass this Bill to enable its early enactment to provide technical amendments to the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 to extend the application of its enhanced tenancy protections for a further six months to 12 January 2022.

The Bill contains a number of other significant permanent amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 that I will cover quickly. They propose to restrict any upfront payment in respect of any deposit or advance rent required to secure a tenancy to a total value that does not exceed two months' rent and to restrict any ongoing advance rent payments to cover the forthcoming month only. That change has been sought for some time and we are providing for it now in the Bill. Within that, though, we also provide for an opt-out from the upfront rent payment restrictions for students residing in student-specific accommodation should they wish to avail of it, purely for budgeting reasons. A further amendment in the Bill will require a student residing in student-specific accommodation to provide a minimum of 28 days' termination notice to the accommodation provider or to provide a longer notice period should he or she wish to do so. That has come directly from the Union of Students in Ireland, USI. I am happy to bring that change in and make a very significant positive difference for students.

Subject to the conditions and the procedural requirements, the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies Act currently protects tenants in rent arrears due to Covid-19 and at risk of losing their tenancy from eviction or rent increases during the period 11 January 2021 to 12 July 2021. It is considered that the ongoing threats and impacts of Covid-19 and its emerging variants necessitate this Bill to extend protections for a further six months, until 12 January 2022. The six-month extension is a proportionate response which balances the rights of the tenant and the property owner. While the numbers directly invoking the enhanced tenancy protections have been small to date, some 475 tenants have made the necessary self-declaration between August 2020 and May 2021. The emergency rental measures have provided a very strong safety net to vulnerable renters and send a clear signal to the rental system that the State will protect tenants. In this context, and because of the strong direct financial supports, we have prevented turmoil in the rental sector during the course of the pandemic.

Approximately 1% of all tenants have been issued with rent arrears warnings since last August. This means that 99% of tenants are meeting their rent, some with the benefit of State supports. Crucially, State supports are available to renters. These include the pandemic unemployment payment, rent supplement and the supplementary welfare allowances, including exceptional needs payments. I encourage anyone struggling with paying rent to avail of these protections available through the legal mechanisms and the direct State supports. I am considering what other provisions might be introduced by way of amendment to the Bill on Committee Stage in the Seanad. I advise Senators that I intend to come back with a couple of amendments next week.

It is important to note that the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies Act protections are separate and distinct from the permanent protections under the Residential Tenancies Act 2020, which provides for a moratorium on evictions, with very limited exceptions, during a period of 5 km travel restrictions. That moratorium would kick back in if those travel restrictions were reintroduced. Obviously, none of us wants to go back there, but those protections are on the Statute Book. As previously stated, significant and enhanced State income supports continue to be available through the Department of Social Protection. Again, I encourage any tenant who needs assistance to reach out early to the Money Advice & Budgeting Service and seek every State income support available.

As for other permanent protections under the Bill, during the Second Stage debate on a Private Members' Bill which was introduced in the Dáil recently and which the Government did not oppose, I advised that impending private rental reforms to restrict the level of upfront payments by tenants in respect of deposits and advance rent would equally apply to and benefit students in student-specific accommodation. That Bill was brought forward by the Opposition in the Dáil. It sought to restrict the amount paid upfront in deposits for students only. I thought the measure should apply to all tenants, so that is in this Bill. The maximum upfront payment proposed is the equivalent of two months' rent. We have allowed for an opt-out should students wish to pay more. Some, particularly visiting students, pay semesters in advance, so we have left that option. The Bill would restrict the total amount that anyone could be obliged to pay to a landlord by way of a deposit to two months' rent, as I said.

The measures in this Bill will certainly greatly reduce any financial exposure to tenants, including students, on foot of paying much restricted upfront payments.

I will briefly outline the main provisions of the Bill. The Long Title and recitals of the Bill describe our policy aims and the policy context in which the limited restrictions on constitutionally-protected property rights will serve the common good for a further six months, up to 12 January 2022. That will mean we will have had additional tenancy protections in place since March 2020, a period of 22 months.

Sections 1 and 12 contain standard provisions dealing with definitions, the Title and collective citation of the Bill.

Section 2 provides for a number of amendments to the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act by updating various dates to reflect the extension under this Bill of the emergency period to 12 January 2022. The proposed amendments to the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act provide, subject to conditions and procedural requirements under that Act, for its enhanced tenancy protections to continue to apply from 13 July 2021 to 12 January 2022, where tenants have been economically impacted by Covid-19. Rent increases and tenancy terminations will be prohibited for tenants who are protected by these measures until 12 January 2022 should this Bill is enacted.

Section 3 is intended to remove, in the context of student-specific accommodation, the legal possibility of tenancy agreements requiring a termination notice period of greater length than those provided under table 1 to section 66 of the 2004 Act, or than the minimum 28 days' notice required to be given by students.

Section 4 amends section 16 of the 2004 Act to provide for a new reference to a deposit a tenant might be obliged to pay.

Sections 6 and 7 are technical amendments to reflect that student-specific accommodation falls within the remit of the Residential Tenancies Acts. Section 8 provides that a student can provide more than 28 days' termination notice to the student-specific accommodation provider, should her or she wish to do so. Section 9 proposes to require a student residing in student-specific accommodation to provide a minimum of 28 days' termination notice to the accommodation provider. Section 10 is a technical amendment to provide that a dispute can be referred to the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, regarding a landlord's compliance with the new restrictions on the total amount that anyone can be obliged to pay in respect of a deposit.

I have covered the main provisions of the Bill. In short what we are doing here is extending protections against eviction or rent increases for those tenants who need it most right up to January of next year. We are restricting permanently the amount that can be asked by a landlord of any tenant to a maximum of the equivalent of two months' rent, that is, one month's advance and one month's deposit. Then we are reducing the notice period a student would have to give to 28 days. Again, these are measures we have worked very closely on with students' groups, tenant advocacy groups like Threshold and indeed political parties within Government and Opposition. The Bill passed unanimously in the Dáil this week. For the benefit of Senators who may have missed the earlier part of my contribution, I will say again I intend to leave open the possibility of bringing a further amendment to the Bill to this House next week.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, back to the Seanad. I thank him for bringing this legislation forward. I hope there will be unanimous support for the amendments the Minister is bringing forward.

The proposal we are considering today is to extend the emergency protection periods for renters who have been negatively impacted by Covid. I commend the Minister and the Government on the supports they have provided. While I accept that only 1% of renters have fallen into arrears over this period, it is still 1% of the almost 1 million people in our population who live in rented accommodation now. It is very important that the State and the Government provides those protections.

This is the fourth time the Minister has extended the protections. While none of us wants to think that by next January we would still be struggling with Covid restrictions, it is a very important measure to put the extension to that longer date, so those who are negatively impacted will have the comfort and security of knowing they are protected from rent increases and from evictions.

I commend the Minister and the Government on the permanent changes being made in restricting the amount of deposit and rent that can be required by way of an upfront payment. The Minister is aware that while we are all working hard to tackle and defeat the housing crisis, there have been some isolated incidents where unscrupulous activities were taking place. Thankfully they were isolated and not a general problem. It is very welcome that the restrictions in this regard are being made permanent so that the amount that can be provided upfront will be limited to two months' rent. I also commend the Union of Students in Ireland, and others, on their campaign in this regard. The Bill will provide for a 28-day notice on student accommodation. This is a practical and important measure. For parents and students, access to education is a life-changing and empowering event, but accommodation is hugely expensive. It is an important facility that they would have the flexibility to terminate within 28 days.

I also thank and commend everybody who has worked to support renters during the pandemic, including the staff in our local authorities, Threshold, the Residential Tenancies Board, the Money Advice & Budgeting Service; Intreo offices right around the country; the citizens' information services; and all our local authority members and public representatives. We are all battling this together but it is very important that renters have been supported.

I welcome also the Minister's recent announcement of €75 million funding for the State to lead in the provision of student accommodation. This is very welcome. The Minister has heard me talk about this many times. We need the State to support proper, purpose-built student accommodation at our third level campuses. The €75 million is a very welcome development. It comes on top of the historic €3.3 billion housing budget, which is the biggest in the history of the State, and the ground-breaking legislation the Minister is bringing forward on affordable cost rental.

The Minister understands the precarious nature of our rental market, and that is why he is bringing forward the legislation on affordable cost rental. Rental accommodation has been a market because it has largely been privately delivered. That has been the historical position here, apart from the State's provision of social housing. The introduction of the affordable cost-rental model has the potential to change the residential rental landscape. I commend the Minister and the Government on being ambitious with that affordable cost-rental model.

Reference was made to the balancing of rights between the landlord and the tenants and of the Government support for a proposal, unanimously supported by this House, on a right to housing in an amendment to Bunreacht na hÉireann. This will ensure that going forward, we can have a real balance in our Constitution of the private property rights, but also of the essential right to secure, affordable accommodation and housing.

We talk about the residential market and the 365,000 residential tenancies. It is a privately controlled market. There are some issues I would like the Minister to consider as he finalises his housing for all plan and as the Government reviews the national development plan. I have mentioned the affordable cost-rental model. It is game-changing and can deliver secure, affordable rental accommodation. The LDA is being set up on a statutory basis to deliver 150,000 homes over the next 20 years. The Government has committed to 50,000 social homes but I would like the same ambition to apply to affordable housing in the housing for all plan. It is important that we ensure our rental properties are affordable and sustainable and that people have secure tenures for an indefinite period.

I commend the Minister again on the work he has done to tackle the vacancies in local authority and State-owned properties. The moneys he provided, in respect of which there was oversubscription by the local authorities, are turning vacant boarded-up city council flats in my constituency, Dublin Central, into inhabitable accommodation. I thank the Minister for awarding more money, €5 million, only yesterday. It will mean 100 additional flats will be put back into use in Matt Talbot Court, Botanic Avenue, Constitution Hill and Dorset Street. This represents a really welcome and pragmatic use of existing built infrastructure that has been lying vacant shamelessly and negligently. I commend the Minister on providing the funding to ensure they can be reopened.

I also welcome the Minister's commitment to regeneration projects for the inner-city complexes that will have genuine ambition. It is in that context and the context of the national development plan and the housing for all plan that I want the Minister to push the Government to be really ambitious. The economic circumstances are right for it to be ambitious and radical. The suspension of the European Stability and Growth Pact constraints is conducive to ambition. The economic environment is conducive to borrowing by the Government to invest in sustainable social infrastructure. That is what housing is. I refer to social and affordable housing that can deliver for generations to come.

When the Minister is finalising the plans, he should examine the build-to-rent model and the standards of build-to-rent housing. I acknowledge he is already considering these. We understand why the build-to-rent model existed historically but we need to re-examine it. Most important, the issues concerning leases of indefinite tenure and rent pressure zones have to be tackled. We need policies that will ensure sustainable, affordable and secure rental ten years into the future.

I plead with the Minister again on the strategic housing development, SHD, process. I am aware the Government has committed not to extending the SHD arrangements beyond the expiry date. That is a welcome and pragmatic decision. It actually speaks to the fact that the SHDs have failed. They have failed to deliver an increase in housing and, at the same time, they have alienated communities from what should be a democratic process.

I ask the Minister to consider asking An Bord Pleanála to stop engaging in consultations on SHDs. The vast majority of them are being appealed for judicial review. Ninety percent of those cases have failed in the courts. On top of that, the model is not delivering housing. It is delaying the process. Worse still, it is costing the State an awful lot in that it must fund An Bord Pleanála to engage in the judicial review process.

I welcome the Minister. The Residential Tenancies (No. 2) Bill is another Government effort to patch up the pandemic-sized hole in the tapestry of this country. For patchwork, the Minister is doing a decent job. The pandemic has left our already compromised housing market with a stream of tensions and issues. It is important to recognise that. It is also important to recognise that some of the legislation that has been passed during the pandemic is effectively gloss. We are passing amendments and provisions that will not fix anything but admittedly ease hardship and assist those who need assistance. However, will the Bill fix the problem renters face in this nation? Will it fix the issues tenants face? Will it solve or improve the crisis in our housing market in any meaningful long-term way? No, it will not.

For the most part, I welcome the Bill and many aspects of it. I welcome the fact that the Government is extending protections for tenants who, through no fault of their own, have found themselves in rent arrears thanks to Covid.

I welcome the fact that the Government is extending protections for tenants who, through no fault of their own, have found themselves in rent arrears thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic and never-ending lockdowns.

In a briefing note provided to Senators, it was claimed that low-income tenants are disproportionately employed in sectors severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. They need the assistance the Bill will provide. I welcome the fact that the Government is offering specific protections for students renting student accommodation. Several of the protections are those called for by the Union of Students in Ireland. Students will only be required to give 28 days' notice if they need to terminate their residency. Students will also not be required to provide upfront payments to secure their accommodation. For students in third level education who have suffered through a year and a half of educational uncertainty and who continue to live in limbo as regards their college experience and life, these are positive steps.

However, I do not welcome other aspects of the Bill that bring change. This is not the first short-sighted Bill that we have enacted in recent weeks. Unfortunately, I do not think it will be the last. Renters are not suffering solely because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Renters suffered before the pandemic and they will suffer long after the it if this Government refuses to address the issue of supply. I spoke previously on the issue on Second Stage of the Affordable Housing Bill 2021. I remarked that the Bill was an expensive and ineffective solution to the housing crisis. Now, we are again adopting legislation that only patches up holes in the tapestry. It only glosses over the gaps. It kicks the problem further down the path.

In Covid times there is a certain element of patching required and a certain degree of glossing needed. Of course, problems have had to be kicked down the path to deal with the major problems at hand. It is vital that we realise that this Bill does not fix or solve and it does not serve any long-term change. Under section 2, certain tenants are protected from rent increases and evictions until January 2022. It is much-needed and provides protection of which many will be glad. However the protection is only in place until January 2022. What happens after that? Can the Government ensure that we will have an open-ended and functioning economy, free of stresses and strains and without lockdowns being imposed? Can the Government ensure that those in rent arrears because of the Covid-19 pandemic be positioned to get themselves out from under these arrears by January, or it continue to extend, enhance and endeavour to avoid effective and everlasting solutions?

On that note, what about those who do not benefit from the enhanced protection provided in this Bill such as those who are in rent arrears because rents are too high, as opposed to pandemic-related reasons? The Bill overlooks them. No Bill that we have passed of late serves them in any meaningful way. We provide subsidies and myopic solutions; we do not provide houses or affordable houses. We do not facilitate our landlords, planning developers and builders to provide them. According to the Central Bank of Ireland, 34,000 new dwellings will be required every year for the next ten years to meet demand. The ESRI has predicted that we will build only 15,000 houses this year. It is safe to say that our supply requirement will not be met. Supply is the elephant in the room.

Under section 5, provisions will permanently enact a ban on upfront payments to the value of more than two months' rent when securing tenancies. However, this does nothing to bring down monthly rental costs, so it does nothing to benefit renters in the long term. In addition, this change makes the life of landlords more laborious. I heard an interview with Margaret McCormick of the Irish Property Owners' Association a few weeks ago. Ms McCormick outlined the impact of the deposit-related restrictions on landlords. As she pointed out, landlords are the ones taking the risk. If it becomes unaffordable for them to rent property then they will stop letting property. If that happens, supply will tighten. While demand remains high, prices will continue to rise. What does it matter, then, how much the landlord can ask for in an upfront payment?

I welcome the Bill. Students need protections, which they are getting.

Those struggling in the face of the pandemic need protection, which they are getting, but there are very few solutions in this Bill. It is a temporary measure of indefinite solution. I welcome the Bill and I invite discussion about the longer-term plan. Infinite extensions of emergency restrictions are getting less effective by the second.

I wish to highlight something outside the scope of the Bill. The Minister increased the grant to renovate vacant homes from €40,000 to €60,000. Between 2017 and 2020, only 247 people availed of that scheme. In light of the ever-increasing costs of renovating homes, the Minister might need to review that and increase the amount from €60,000 to €80,000. I would appreciate his comments on that.

I welcome the Minister to the House. He is a regular visitor at this point, which shows the urgency the Government has placed and will continue to place on this area. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Government acted quickly to protect renters by introducing emergency legislation to freeze rents and temporarily ban evictions. We extended that prior to Christmas and, in March, we extended the temporary legislation to ensure that those who had lost their incomes due to the Covid-19 pandemic and needed the protection and support of the legislation would continue to receive it.

When I spoke in the debate on the previous version of the Bill, I said that the Minister had stated that if we were still in the same situation by July, the measures would be reviewed by Government and he would consider introducing further protections if necessary at that point. Unfortunately, we are now at that point and we need to extend the protections. I welcome that he is now extending them by six months until January to give that comfort and provide certainty over that period.

During the debate I also appealed to the Opposition not to present or distort this legislation as something that would take rights or protections away from tenants. I echo that call today. The Bill before us seeks to further enhance and protect the most vulnerable tenants, those who have been negatively affected through no fault of their own by the Covid-19 pandemic until 12 January next year. Despite the progress that has been made with the vaccination programme, it is vital that we protect the renters who have been negatively affected as a result of the pandemic.

As Senator Keogan said, supply is key and everybody acknowledges that. That is why the Government is introducing two groundbreaking Bills - the Affordable Housing Bill, which has passed all Stages in this House, and the Land Development Agency Bill, which will come before us in the coming weeks. That legislation will mean that affordable purchase schemes will be provided by local authorities on publicly owned land. We have an innovative shared equity scheme, which will assist first-time buyers in owning and bridging the gap between what the market is providing and what they can afford under the macroprudential rules. It was the first ever cost-rental scheme in the State. It increases Part V provision by 10% for affordable housing.

That is a key plank of Government policy and will deliver affordability across the country. I commend the Minister on his work in that regard.

The Bill will also introduce measures to ensure the deposit or advance payment a tenant pays to a landlord is limited to two months' rent. I welcome that, in extending the legislation, the Bill will provide for students who live in student-specific accommodation. They will be covered by the new deposit measure and will not have to give more than 28 days' notice when terminating their tenancy.

In dialogue with the Minister's officials, I stated in response to concerns raised by the Opposition that we could look at inserting that this provision only applies to third level institutions providing packages of tuition and accommodation. It would ease some fears that this could be a way of slipping in by the back door a way around the legislation for other landlords. If the Minister could look at an amendment on that on Committee Stage, it would be useful.

I commend the Minister and his officials on the speed with which they have brought this legislation before us. It is welcome that we are extending the protections until 12 January. I look forward to the debate on this legislation in the coming days.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House and bringing forward this legislation. We will support the Bill. We have significant concerns about some of the drafting in the Bill and the way it stops short, as we see it, of providing real, urgent and substantial protections for tenants. Nonetheless, the protections included in the Bill represent progress and we are happy to support it.

Any of us in this House, whether as councillors, Senators, or, in some cases, former Deputies or Ministers, know that housing issues such as access to housing, substandard housing, mistreatment by landlords, rent increases and evictions are the hardest issues to deal with. Any improvement for tenants has to be welcome. Section 5 of the Bill with regards to amounts legally payable is important, as are the provisions for students regarding the notice period and the limit on the deposit payable. However, as I believe Senator Keogan noted, it is about the actual amount tenants are having to pay. Rents in this city are 35% higher than at the height of the Celtic tiger. That is the real issue.

I pay tribute to the campaign by Union of Students in Ireland, USI, to ensure these provisions are in the Bill. They are a step forward for students, notwithstanding the fact that in certain parts of the city we have a number of expensive student accommodation developments that were primarily targeted at international students, although a small number of Irish students live in them. There are real issues as to whether those student accommodation facilities will remain as such, given the number of planning applications to convert them to short-term use over the past 12 months. I am referring in particular to Dublin Central, where I am based.

We have a real concern with section 2, which contains the extension on the eviction ban to January 2022. The extension is welcome. However, only 475 persons have made a declaration since the provision was introduced, when every Member of this House and the Dáil could attest to the fact that the true magnitude of the problem with regard to evictions is many multiples of that.

Having to go through that bureaucratic process of having to self-declare is a cumbersome process for many struggling and disadvantaged tenants, especially those who have difficulties with regard to language skills.

As my colleague, Deputy Duncan Smith, said in the Dáil, this Bill does nothing with regard to the 8% rent increases being forced on tenants by some landlords. The exploitation of that loophole which exists, arising from the lack of a rent increase from last year, has put some tenants under enormous pressure. The queries to me have been distressing, from people who do not know how they will afford that 8% and are in a situation in which they are trapped in their tenancies. They cannot move to get another tenancy because they cannot afford it. Perhaps they have been in that tenancy for a number of years and their rent is slightly below market average at this point.

The fact we are still within the pandemic and are forcing these provisions on a cohort of people who have lost income arising from the pandemic, but not to all of those who are facing evictions, is to be regretted. Colleagues of mine and others put forward amendments, but the Minister did not accept them in the Dáil. We hope he will accept them here.

With regard to where we are now, we can do more. When the Labour Party was in government, it froze rents. There is a recurring theme from the Government that because of constitutional property rights, there is an inability to freeze rents in this country. The Supreme Court decides on the Constitution, not the Government or the Attorney General, so the Government can be bolder.

Last week, we brought a Private Members' Bill forward in the Dáil, to implement the 1973 Kenny report. The recommendations are around that long, in terms of making it easier for the compulsory purchase of development land. We seriously need to look at that now, because unless the cost of land is cheaper and unless we make it harder for landlords to evict tenants and put in place a system in which there is more affordable supply, we will end up having these conversations about a housing crisis for many years to come.

I share the concerns of Senator Fitzpatrick with regard to the strategic housing developments, SHD, process, notwithstanding it is due to expire at the end of this year. The newspaper reports from yesterday seem to relay a thinking within Government that an initiative will have to be taken to find another mechanism to fast-track planning. What is the point in letting the SHD process expire, when the purpose of its establishment was to fast track planning, to replace that with something else?

We need something different. We need to look at An Bord Pleanála as a whole. I share the concerns about it. We need to look at its design and how it is structured, but we need to allow communities a say in their planning and we need local authorities to have a say. However, we also need to look at a number of the planning regulation decisions made by Government, especially the regulation on the establishment of the build-to-rent model of housing in this country.

The reality of the area Senator Fitzpatrick and I are in is that due to the tax and planning arrangements in place for developers in this city, we will not see conventional apartment blocks being built. We will see build-to-rent. We are seeing some co-living, which got in just before the ban was introduced last December. However, by and large, the incentive to build conventional apartments will not be there because with build-to-rent, one can have a more dense form of development. It is on expensive land, so developers need to make a return. In many cases, it is a much poorer form of housing for residents and often at artificially inflated prices.

We know the financial clout of investors to offer rent-free months or to keep rents artificially higher. I urge the Minister to look at the build-to-rent planning regulations and ban these developments because a ban is what we need in this city. Otherwise, we will be left with a rake of white elephants - unaffordable developments that people will not be able to access.

As has been stated, the purpose of this Bill is to extend the emergency period specified in the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act. That makes perfect logical sense. It would be impossible, I hope, for anyone to oppose an extension of the emergency period. The aim of the extension is to further assist tenants who have been financially impacted by Covid-19, while recognising and balancing the constitutionally protected property rights of landlords. That is a challenge because there are judgments from superior courts that state that this cannot be a one-way street. While we may not like it that we have property rights in the Constitution, the Government and Minister must act according to the best legal advice. There are countervailing rights and the balance that one must strike is very important.

I note this opportunity was not wasted by the Minister, and he has made some permanent amendments to landlord and tenant legislation. That is of interest. The first of the main amendments is to restrict upfront payment of rent or a deposit to secure a tenancy to a total value that does not exceed two months' rent. That will make it more accessible for tenants. Second, the Minister is also providing an opt-out from the upfront rent payment restrictions for students residing in student-specific accommodation. Third, there is a requirement for a student residing in specific student-like accommodation to provide a minimum termination notice of 28 days to the accommodation provider or a longer period, should the student wish to do so. We have many former student leaders in both Houses of the Oireachtas and I proudly count myself among that number. This is a very good day for the Union of Students in Ireland and what it stands for. I caution against people trying to circumvent the Act by dressing things up and calling the agreements licences rather than lease and tenancy agreements, simply to remain outside the remit of the RTB. This raises the bigger question of having a consolidation of the legislation. It is a matrix of different amendments and far more complicated than it should be. It ought to be simplified for both landlords and tenants.

One issue, if I may mention it on Second Stage, which I hope the Department will consider, is a deposit retention bank. There is often a great difficulty in getting money returned when the RTB makes a determination that a landlord has unjustifiably retained a deposit. This money was never the property of the landlord and is held in trust as it is the tenant's property. This would be a significant bank of money that would gather interest and returning a deposit would be done efficiently and promptly. If there is no further appeal to the RTB, as there should not be given that its decision is final and binding, barring a procedural challenge to the High Court, once the appeal period of time is spent, the tenant could use the determination order to have the deposit returned immediately. Tenants would not be at the mercy of landlords who drag things out by holding back the deposit until they are forced to return it. I know this applies to only a small minority of landlords.

There is much at stake in RTB cases. Recent legislation allows for one-member tribunals. This is a significant responsibility for members of the tribunals. I prefer three-member tribunals because there is so much at stake. The home enjoys a pre-eminent position, and rightly so, in our Constitution and the collective wisdom of three people is better than one when the stakes are so high.

The private rental market is a vital cog but it cannot on its own resolve the housing crisis. People have to accept that and appreciate that while it is vital, it is only one part of the jigsaw. It is important when we balance those constitutional rights as much as we can in favour of tenants that we do so in a way that does not scare more landlords to run to the hills because many landlords are trying to get out of this business. I mean accidental landlords, the big hedge funds.

Housing is the greatest challenge facing our country but once the Minister continues to adopt his inclusive approach, on which I commend him, and continues to listen so attentively as he has done, and once we almost take the politics out of it and put people, their safety and a roof over their head first, Ireland has a chance of beating this and winning and our people will come first. One aspect of that is the cost-rental model, which is a matter for another day. Landlord-tenant disputes will arise. I hope the legislative remit of the RTB will cover those. It is a wonderful dispute resolution mechanism that is accessible to all. People get two chances, the adjudication in private followed by the appeal to the tribunal, a de novo hearing. The cost-rental model is the future. It is an exciting week for the Green Party. The Minister took on board core Green Party policy, which has been repeatedly and consistently championed by Deputy Duffy and many of us for years. Just like our view on climate change, we welcome people adopting and coming on board with such established Green Party policy. No one owns policy. It has been tried and tested in Vienna and is a roaring success. It will not solve everything but all parties should take it on board.

The Minister addressed the Fine Gael parliamentary party and that of the Green Party, and we hope to have him back soon. He brings all the Members supporting the Government with him on this testing journey.

The strategic housing development process has been mentioned today. It has been an unmitigated disaster. The number of times decisions by An Bord Pleanála have been overturned by the High Court has been an unintended consequence. We must be so careful in our next move. We took two steps backwards with that. I acknowledge that there is a commitment in the programme for Government to phase it out but I am concerned that for some years to come it will clog up the system because they are in on time and still getting in on time. We will have to put up with this where it will have to be litigated in the High Court, which is not the way to do housing.

Maybe every so often there should be a publicity campaign on behalf of the Department. The RTB is open to all. There is no prohibition on it. It is private in adjudication level disputes the first instance. No tenants should feel they have to put up with a dreadful situation. They will get a fair hearing from the board but they must know it is there for all to create fairness, equality of treatment and, most of all, to be a voice for those who would not otherwise have one.

The rental market in this State is dysfunctional. Many monthly rental payments in urban centres are higher than mortgage repayments. The rent pressure zone legislation has failed and the Government has failed to articulate a plan for the disorderly exit of landlords from the market. We have said time and again that we need a three-year ban on rent increases. We need a refundable tax credit to put one month's rent back in the pocket of every renter in the State and we need tenancies of indefinite duration.

We need to remove terminations on the grounds of the sale of property, renovation of property, use by a family member and use by a landlord for all new and renewed tenancies.

This Bill is welcome, however small the number of tenants that it protects. The problem is that too many people are excluded. We need the kind of protections that we see in the Bill to be extended to every renter in the State until at least the end of the year. Why? It is because the Residential Tenancies Board has said that since August, over 1,000 eviction notices have been issued and 3,800 rent arrears notices have been issued in the same period. I take this opportunity to remind the House that 475 renters have availed of the Covid-19 declaration that we are discussing today, so just 12.5% of people are being protected. That says to me that the protections are too weak and that the policy is weak so we and the Government need to do better for renters. We need to re-introduce the original ban on rent increases, notices to quit and evictions until the end of the year at least.

I welcome the permanent changes in the legislation that limit deposits to one month's rent. This is a good legislative amendment. The changes to notice periods for students in student-specific accommodation is also extremely welcome. I commend the Union of Students of Ireland, USI, and the Opposition in the Dáil who campaigned for this reform. The idea that students paid either three months' rent, six months' rent or more in advance was brought into very sharp focus when students could not get their money back when they did not avail of their accommodation during Covid-19. I commend the Minister for listening and acting on those calls. In the upcoming budget and legislation there needs to be a sea-change in terms of helping tenants, protecting them and ensuring that they have security and certainty.

I commend the USI and the Opposition in the Dáil for the improvements that they have made to this Bill. We in Sinn Féin support the Bill but it is disappointing that the Minister has not taken this opportunity to help renters even more. The problem with the protections that he is extending, through this legislation, is that many vulnerable tenants, including those affected by Covid, do not fit the criteria for the protections and will be excluded.

Now that level 5 restrictions on evictions, relating to the 5 km travel limit, have been lifted since 1 April, notices to quit will start working their way through the system. This could see a slow, steady and deeply unfortunate increase in the number of evictions but also of presentations to and entry into emergency accommodation. I urge the Minister to reconsider expanding these protections to ensure that anybody affected by Covid, irrespective of whether he or she gets a Covid-19 payment or has submitted a written declaration, will get Covid-19 protections from both rent increases and notices to quit, until at least the end of the year.

It is disappointing that the Bill does not deal with the 8% rent increase that was always possible under the original rent pressure zone legislation but are particularly relevant now because many landlords did not increase rent last year. Since the ban on evictions was lifted in April, tenants are now being hit with two years' worth of rent increases rolled into one. An increase of 4% is bad enough but 8% is unconscionable. I thought that this legislation would have been the time that the Minister could have addressed the issue. Again, I urge him to reconsider and support the Sinn Féin amendments that seek to address this issue.

The constituency of Dublin Bay South has some of the highest density of tenants and, unfortunately, thanks to the policies of this Government rental costs have gone through the roof. We need to find a way to reduce rents. Sinn Féin believes that the simplest and quickest way to do that is through a refundable tax credit worth up to one month's rent. The rents are so high that it is impossible for anyone to save for a house. House prices are up 5% in Dublin city and there has been a 99% increase in prices in Dublin since 2012. The latest figures published by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, for median house prices in Dublin Bay South show it costs around €1 million in Dublin 4, €415,000 in Dublin 6, €720,000 in Dublin 2, and almost €600,000 in Dublin 6W.

We see more and more reports of houses going for way over the asking price. The chronic lack of supply means competition from prospective buyers - driving the price up by more than €530,000 in one case in Rathmines. The asking price for the home was €685,000 when it was put up for sale just one week ago but by Friday, bidding had pushed the price up to €950,000 and on Tuesday, two new offers saw it move past the €1 million mark. How are ordinary people supposed to compete in this housing market? Young people are literally putting their lives on hold and feel they will never have the opportunity to own their own home.

The Minister also needs to do much more in terms of the level of investment in genuinely affordable cost-rental accommodation. A few hundred units per year will not cut it. We need to see thousands of genuinely affordable cost-rental units delivered annually by local authorities, approved housing bodies and others starting from next year. While the cost-rental equity loan is welcome, it is far too small. The 390 units it will provide this year and next year are welcome but the scheme is too limited so we need much more ambition.

I welcome the Minister to the House. It is appropriate that this legislation is coming before us to extend the protections for people who find themselves in financial difficulty on the PUP, have difficulty paying their rent and are in financial difficulty in general. At least this protection is now here until January. Please God, this pandemic will be somewhat behind us in January. Hopefully, by then, the population will be vaccinated and we can return to some level of normality.

Post-pandemic, we probably need to look at what long-term protections we can put in place for renters because evicting people from their home should be the last possible action. It should be the final leg of the journey. I know there are times when this just happens and it has to happen for various reasons but it should be the final step. From our experience with the pandemic, we should reflect on how we can put further reasonable protections in place. I know the protections in place in this country are probably among the best in the EU but we should always strive to do a bit better.

There must be protection for landlords in the case of antisocial behaviour, violence, drug dealing or vandalism. Most landlords in this country are accidental landlords. They are people who bought a property after being advised by financial institutions that it was the right thing to do in terms of having an income when they retire and are now in negative equity. Those people want to do the right thing. In 99.9% of cases, they do the right thing but we need protections there. We must remember them because often accidental landlords in particular feel they are forgotten about and have no rights. This is not and should not be the case.

The proposal in this legislation relating to the deposit and one month's rent for students is long overdue and should have been done years ago. What went on in the on-campus accommodation at some of our State-funded universities was nothing short of disgraceful. I can remember how when I was in college in the mid-1990s, it cost €3,000 to live on campus in UCD and one paid it twice a year. I struggle to think what it costs today. I do not know but I am sure it is much higher than that. It should be one month's deposit and one month's rent and that is that. They are the conditions most other people benefit from and it is only right that this should be done. What happened in UL last year in terms of students not getting their money back and the lobbying that had to take place to rectify that situation was disgraceful.

When we review the tenancy legislation, when there is a little more time and a little more calmness to do so and when we are not in the midst of a pandemic, we may look at strengthening further the rights of students. I believe in the concept of on-campus accommodation. I myself benefited enormously from it as somebody with a disability. I was able to get involved in college life and political life in college and all the benefits of living on a campus. It helped my overall development and I have no doubt it also benefits the thousands and thousands of students who live in on-campus accommodation.

We are looking also at short-term lets, an area I wish to raise with the Minister. We need to look at the density of short-term lets in some of the seaside resorts and some of the cities around the country. We do not want to return to that. Short-term lets have a very important place but they cannot just dominate.

We have a lot of work to do on housing, but 50,000 houses have been built since 2016. That is often forgotten. I have no doubt we will reach the target of 35,000 to 40,000 houses per year. When we reach an equilibrium in housing, it will be when supply and demand are reasonably well matched. That is the equilibrium we will have to achieve and reach. That is how we will deal with rents. Once there is supply, the market will control the rents, but until then we have responsibilities in that area.

I welcome the Minister. Students have faced a litany of challenges over the past year as they have had to adapt to learning away from their friends and peers. Many of them have continued to work throughout the pandemic on the front line in retail, as student nurses and doctors or as apprentices on building sites. On top of all these stresses students have been faced with a number of accommodation challenges. It is simply not good enough that students and their parents have been put into positions where they have been expected to pay up to nine months' rent in some cases in advance of taking up accommodation. On top of this, the notice periods they have been expected to provide in the midst of what is the biggest national health emergency in the history of the State beggar belief. I am therefore happy to see these two significant issues addressed by this Bill. With that, I thank the USI for the work it has done in ensuring that these provisions have been brought forward today. They protect not only students but also the larger renting public. I also commend the Minister on fast-tracking these amendments to ensure they can be put into place ahead of the next academic year.

While I welcome these two amendments, which it is to be hoped will begin a process of levelling the playing field, student accommodation remains a constant and significant financial strain on many. As students begin to return to on-campus classes, this strain is set only to grow. Much like Senator Martin, I have concerns about, for instance, the so-called opt-out amendment, although I am sure I am not adopting core Green policy by quoting Senator Martin in my contributions. I recognise that certain student-specific accommodation bodies offer packages to international students which would mean paying more than the new regulations' cap of a deposit and a month's rent in advance. As alluded to by housing charity Threshold, however, we have been shown time and time again over recent years how unscrupulous these landlords can be. In this sense I fear that if the opt-out provision were to remain within the Act, it would be far too broad and could be subject to abuse by landlords looking to exploit a loophole in what is fundamentally strong legislation for student renters. I am also fearful the opt-out amendment could potentially open up the door to students being charged management fees or top-up payments in lieu of deposits. In this regard it is important to stress the importance of the language used within the Act, and I am disappointed not to see a legal definition of what constitutes a deposit. I hope to see this amended to ensure the envisioned protections have the weight of legal surety behind them.

I suggest that the Government explore further protections for student renters, such as placing restrictions on rent increases for student-specific accommodation or putting in place provisions whereby rent can be increased only by a set amount for the duration of a student's course enrolment. For example, rent might be increased only by 2% or 3% over the course of a student's three- or four-year studies. These protections would go a long way in offering students peace of mind and the security they deserve, allowing them to focus on their education and plan ahead for their futures.

Speaking more broadly, the practice of landlords demanding multiple months' rent, which this legislation looks to restrict, is inherently discriminatory against those on lower incomes and the working class who rely on social housing support to pay those deposits. Even with the new provisions restricting landlords to requesting a deposit worth a month's rent, plus a month's rent, there are many families across Ireland who struggle to overcome this financial barrier. These are vulnerable families that face a massive power imbalance between themselves and landlords. This power imbalance leaves these families vulnerable to landlords looking to circumvent the legislation by demanding charges such as management fees and top-up fees. The Government needs to ensure that these families are protected and that a communication campaign is in place informing them of their rights under this new legislation.

The financial barrier renters face is one which we have seen grow over the past number of years, with rents almost doubling in the past decade alone. I call on the Minister and the Government to commit to ensuring that financial protections and rent allowances are put into place to allow working class families to clear this financial barrier and access the housing market. Renters need, and deserve, surety in order to allow them to plan ahead.

Turning to the deposit itself, I refer to the lack of protection afforded to renters. The latest homelessness data available from the Department found that there were 925 homeless families living in emergency accommodation in the State in April. More than half of these were single-parent families. Many families rely on recouping the deposit paid for a property in order to put down the deposit on their next home. However, time and again renters have been faced with situations where they have been unable to recoup the deposit which they have paid and are relying on to move. Essentially, this leaves many families in limbo and, effectively, homeless as they struggle to pay down the deposit on their next home due to them not being able to recover the deposit from their previous landlords.

A provision for a deposit protection scheme managed by the Rental Tenancies Board was included in section 61 of the Residential Tenancies Act 2015. However, this section has yet to be commenced, and awaits a commencement order under section 1(4) of the same Act. A similar deposit protection scheme has been effectively used in Scotland and has led to the protection of renters within the Scottish market. The scheme would see the deposit held by a third party, and should the return of the deposit come into dispute an independent assessor can be sent to the property to check whether the deposit should or should not be returned to the renter. Such a scheme, if implemented, would remove much of the anxiety faced by renters as they seek the return of their deposit, a deposit which represents more than just money, but peace of mind and a chance to move forward with their lives.

I welcome the Government's Bill, which will put in place the first much-needed protections for student renters. I encourage the Government to use this as a starting point to go on and work with the USI and student representatives to explore further protections with regard to accommodation. I also take this opportunity to urge the Government to move forward with the rental deposit scheme offered in the Residential Tenancies Act 2015, which has the potential to not only offer renters peace of mind but to stop the limbo between properties which opens the trapdoor of homelessness for so many vulnerable families.

I thank the Senator, and thank her for her understanding and co-operation earlier. I thank also Senator Malcolm Byrne, our next speaker, who similarly co-operated to allow Senator Conway to get his train.

Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Chathaoirligh. I thank the Minister for yet again coming into the House to debate housing legislation. Senator Keogan was right in one respect, namely, that the crucial issue is supply. The major issue in the context of the whole debate on housing relates to supply and accelerating supply. Senator Keogan was certainly wrong to state that the Government is not addressing the issue because on a weekly basis the Minister has been coming in here with legislation to try to drive this forward and address the problems within the housing sector. The measures in the Bill relate to supporting tenants but it is important that we enhance supply. That supply will not be achieved by opposition to the private sector and to builders actually being involved in providing that housing, or by opposition to home-building in Dublin Bay South or any constituency. That is a crucial message this Government must communicate.

I will focus on the issue of student accommodation. I agree with Senator Martin's concerns about universities using the "licence to reside" provisions rather than a lease. We must try to ensure they will not use that legal mechanism to avoid any of the very welcome provisions within this legislation.

We need to address the broader question of student accommodation. I take the view that perhaps there would be a specific section of the Housing Agency with, I hope, a focus on that, and that the new commission on housing would look at the whole area of student accommodation. The dramatic growth in the number of higher education students in Ireland is welcome, but we must ensure we have places to accommodate those students. Equally, for international students and for Erasmus students who want to come into the State, we must ensure, ideally, there is a greater amount of on-campus accommodation or student accommodation available.

The Higher Education Authority had estimated that we would need in the order of 75,500 additional new student beds by 2024, and that pre-pandemic we were on target to reach some 55,000 additional new student beds. Pre-pandemic we were going to struggle to meet the additional number of student beds required. I am concerned about student accommodation units as opposed to beds. There has been a fall-off in their supply. Some 3,500 were completed last year, with about 1,600 units forecast for this year. That presents a lot of problems if we do not start to address the supply issue.

It is very welcome the Government is strongly committed to the development of technological universities. We are looking forward to seeing one in the south east quite soon, including a campus in Wexford. We must ensure the new technological universities have the borrowing capacity and the capacity to be able to develop on-campus accommodation. The institutes of technology were not able to do this. In addressing the student accommodation issues, broader questions are required also.

I welcome this legislation. I am aware the Minister has listened to the Union of Students in Ireland and to other student representatives on the protection of students. We are expanding rapidly the higher and further education sector. This means we must address the supply. If we can take students out of competing for other accommodation and if we can provide the on-campus accommodation, this would free up supply in other areas.

I agree with Senator Fitzpatrick that an ambitious, affordable cost rental model is a twin-track approach that can address some of the problems. The specific measures in this Bill around protecting students are very welcome. We do need, however, to look at the broader question of enhancing the supply of student accommodation and giving students certainty. The cost of student accommodation in many cases is outrageous, and I am especially shocked with some of the student accommodation fees to be charged this year at my alma mater, UCD, although that is not just a supply issue. It needs to be a priority.

I welcome the Minister back to the House and I wish him well with this legislation. It is very welcome and it will give some certainty to people who find themselves renting. It also has safeguards for students. I agree with Senator Byrne on student accommodation and the need for campus accommodation. I would hope new campuses would be built in all of the new technological universities. It is important, as Senator Byrne has said, that those technological universities would have the power and the money to build on-campus student accommodation.

I do not envy the job the Minister must do in housing. I was listening to "The Pat Kenny Show" today discussing horrendous housing problems also in Sweden. Not long ago they built 1.6 million housing units and they still have a crisis. There is a crisis too in housing in Germany. You have to wonder how some of the greatest economies in the world have problems with housing. It may be a shortage of housing or a shortage of accommodation for renters.

We are not unique in having a problem with housing. The late Brian Lenihan said in 2010, when he was Minister for Finance, that 25,000 houses per annum would be required, even after the crash. That target has not been reached in any year since and that is why we still have a major shortage.

We have to consider why so many small landlords are getting out of renting houses. Why is the accidental landlord or the person in the business in a small way, who may have one or two houses bought with the intention of providing a pension for himself or herself, getting out of renting? Why are some moving into the Airbnb market and why are some selling? An auctioneer on the outskirts of Dublin told me that all bar one of the 60 houses he sold in the past year and a half were second homes. Only one was a house owned by a person moving elsewhere. All bar one had been rented out. We have to ask why all the landlords are getting out of the business.

There will always be a need for rental properties. People who get their first job may need to rent. After getting married, couples who may not know where they are going to settle down rent. Where are they going to get the accommodation? Who is going to provide it? This is a matter that the Minister has to consider. I believe the problem is taxation because more than half of the moneys taken in from renting, be the rent €1,000 per month or €2,000 per month, is lost on taxation alone, never mind management fees and fees for repairs. I would love to see the breakdown for accommodation rented out by people with second homes to see what they are really getting from renting them. People who may have their property paid for are getting out of renting. They may not have any capital repayments to make. This is not just the case in some areas but throughout the country. In every city and town, people are getting out of renting property.

I welcome the Bill and wish the Minister well with it. I wish him well in the task of solving the housing crisis. He is doing a magnificent job in that regard because it is not easy.

Before I call Senator Eugene Murphy, I congratulate him and his family on the elevation of his brother today to the chairpersonship of Roscommon County Council.

I thank the Chair for his very nice comments. They are very much appreciated. I will pass on the remarks to my brother.

Like others, I welcome the Minister to the House. I do not know whether this is the fourth or fifth occasion on which he has come in here to protect tenants. It is clear from his effort and work that he is concerned and will look after people in a particularly bad situation because of Covid. I also pay tribute to my colleague, Senator Mary Fitzpatrick, who has done Trojan work in the House and who is doing Trojan work on the Affordable Housing Bill, as the Chair knows.

We all accept we are in the middle of a crisis. Not only do we have the housing crisis but we also have the pandemic. The Bill represents a clear statement by the Government that the Minister will support those tenants who need support. That is acknowledged. It will remain the case until Covid is out of the way.

Acknowledging there are problems in the system, I believe there are tenants who are unaware of the protections available. Only recently, I met people in the part of the country in which I live who had rental difficulties and I found to my amazement that they were not fully aware of the protections they have from the State. These are quite considerable. That has not been mentioned in the debate. The rent supplement, supplementary welfare allowance and exceptional needs payments are available. Significant support is available.

Of course, some people can get caught in situations and perhaps they fall through the cracks in that regard. However, the reality is that we are dealing with emergency legislation today. It crosses my mind that at times there is criticism of emergency legislation in this House, and it is asserted that the Government interferes too much. Some of those people will be very slow to acknowledge what is being done to support tenants.

In the overall debate on housing, I welcome the enthusiasm of the Minister and his energy and work rate in trying to solve what is a massive problem. No party in the State has a silver bullet with which to resolve it. The Affordable Housing Bill, with its four clear elements, is going to revolutionise housing in this country. I acknowledge that some of its provisions will take a while. The local authority direct build scheme for affordable homes will be the first built on State lands in more than a decade. There is also the cost-rental scheme, the expansion of Part V and the shared equity scheme. Apart from that, I know that the Minister is examining other options. He is constantly talking to local authorities and CEOs. The Minister and the Government are determined to solve what must be solved to ensure that people have a roof over their heads.

As I have stated previously in this Chamber, all of us as politicians, no matter what side of the political divide we are on, have a big responsibility. The responsibility does not lie with just one group. It is down to us all to try and solve the issue.

I acknowledge that more people who are renting are looking over their shoulders. In that respect, I return to a point that I made recently. In the Ballinasloe area, people are now paying €1,200, €1,300 and €1,400 per month in rent. If they had affordable housing, they would be paying a mortgage of €500, €600 or €700 per month. I believe that is where the Minister is going. The actions that he is taking, supported by this Government, will get us there. Of course, it is not going to happen over two or three months. However, I believe that come next year, we will see improvements in the housing situation. It will gradually improve over the coming years.

I very much welcome the fact that the Minister is here today. I wish to quote from a previous speech he made. I hope it is correct. He stated: "We are in the middle of a national housing crisis and faced with such an emergency we need to use all the tools at our disposal to address this challenge". I believe genuinely and honestly that hat is where he is coming from. He will achieve his goal.

Irrespective of where one stands in Irish political life, and I know from talking to the public out there, he is to be commended for the effort and energy he is putting in to try to resolve the issue. I want him to know that. It is important. We need to support the Minister in his efforts, given the fact that it is a difficult portfolio. I hope that everybody, irrespective of their political views, acknowledges what he is trying to do, and his genuine concern to try to ensure that people end up with a roof over their heads without having to look over their shoulders.

It is testament to the Minister's work rate that I have probably seen him more in this House than I have some Members. I thank him yet again for another innovation and provision of support and protections for tenants. I welcome the extension of the protections for tenants in respect of Covid-19 hardships. It is to be supported. To be fair, low-income families have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19, working in the hospitality and retail industry. Therefore, it is particularly reasonable that we extend the supports in that regard.

I also very much support the provisions in this Bill relating to students. It is correct that only one month's deposit and one month's rent, up to a ceiling of two months' rent, should be required upfront, unless the tenant, perhaps by virtue of their circumstances, chooses to waive that.

We must remove any barriers that may become an impediment to someone accepting their position in a university that is not close to their home. Those of us living in Dublin have the luxury of not having to worry about accommodation for our young people, but certainly it has been an impediment in the past.

As Senator Ruane said, the time has come to review the provision under section 61 regarding a deposit protection scheme, not just for students but for all tenants. I have appeared before the RTB with tenants who are trying to get back their security deposit which is being withheld for unreasonable reasons. At the same time, I am cognisant of the concerns of landlords who believe that one month's security deposit is not enough if they have a rogue tenant who leaves chaos behind them. Some years ago, I assisted a friend who became an accidental landlord and walked into an horrific scene at the end of a tenancy that cost thousands of euro to fix.

The vast majority of tenants carry out their tenancy respectfully and normally. It is very much their home and prized as their home. At the end of the tenancy, it is not reasonable that they need to get into a row to get their deposits returned. Ideally, we should have a system whereby it is banked with an independent entity so that an independent arbitrator could go out and adjudicate over whether it is due to be paid back. Auctioneers run such a system with security deposits. Many agencies hold deposits in trust for third parties. Therefore, there is no reason this could not be put in as a safeguard. In some cases, it may not need to be paid back but carried forward to the next tenancy.

I welcome section 11, which provides for a sanction for landlords who breach the section 19(b) provision. I believe we should have a whistleblowers provision relating to money sought from tenants under the counter. We hear anecdotally of people who are afraid to report it because they are afraid of losing their security of tenure. We should have some provision, similar to that in employment law, whereby somebody breaching these sorts of provisions will incur a double penalty. It is important we have some sort of whistleblowers provision that brings down a full audit or something equally frightening on a landlord who breaches that.

Senator Byrne spoke about the need for student accommodation. I slightly raised my eyes at that because in Dublin South-Central we have had a disproportionate amount of student accommodation built, disregarding the needs of local tenants.

Senator Boylan expressed her concern regarding the high rents and house prices in Dublin Bay South. I urge her to speak to her colleagues in Dublin City Council, South Dublin County Council and Fingal County Council who since 2011 have voted against 6,000 homes, based on research carried out by Councillor James Geoghegan. Perhaps she might acknowledge the social and affordable housing planned for the Poolbeg site which would provide 900 affordable and social housing units and which is being championed by Councillor Geoghegan. Perhaps she might be unequivocal in her support of that if she is really concerned about prices in Dublin Bay South.

Gabhaim mo bhuíochas do gach Seanadóir a ghlac páirt sa díospóireacht inniu. Is plé an-úsáideach agus an-dearfach a bhí ann. As my colleague, Senator Murphy, said, there are many aspects of the housing issue we can agree on. The one thing we should all be able to agree on is that we understand there is a crisis and a major problem.

We need to address it and I am working hard with Senators and colleagues to do that.

In relation to the Bill, a number of matters have been raised which I will address briefly and maybe come back to on Committee Stage next week. I acknowledge the cross-party support from Opposition parties, Independents and my Government colleagues from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party for this fifth piece of tenancy legislation that I have brought forward in just less than a year as Minister.

Issues were raised around the area of the opt-out. It is optional for the tenant. I will keep it under review. If any landlord or institution thought this was a mechanism to get around the two-month provision, they would be acting illegally. It would be punishable. Complaints can be made to the Residential Tenancies Board. I gave a commitment in the Dáil that we would keep a close eye on it. We provided an opt-out for the student partly because many international students, with the way the courses are structured, are paying more than two months and sometimes the first semester up front. I responded to requests in that space but we will watch it. No one should abuse it. Anyone who does will be acting illegally and will be in breach of this Bill when enacted. All of the penalties that should apply will apply.

I turn to the measures in the Bill around deposits. I thank the USI for its engagement. I wanted to go further than the students wanted to. They have been an important part of it. I wanted this to apply to all tenants, not just students, and we would not make a distinction. The Bill brought forward in the Dáil by the Opposition, while useful, would have just had the two-month provision for students. That was good, but I thought we should go further. I have done it in this legislation. It applies to all tenancies. The 28-day notice period is absolute. A lesson that should be learned from Covid is that, unfortunately, a significant number of students ended up having financial difficulty and rents being withheld. We did not want to see that and many good providers of accommodation in that space did not want to see that either. These measures have been broadly welcomed.

On the extension of additional protections, I will say two quick things. We have about 300,000 registered tenancies in the country. That has dropped about 14,000 in the space of just over two years and continues to drop. I am acutely aware that measures we take have to be proportionate. Other measures put forward like three-year freezes and blanket bans, while I understand and respect that people can have that view, can have an unintended consequence and will have an understood consequence of reducing supply further in a constrained market and, basically, the mom and pop landlords continuing to leave.

The Government and I want, through the Housing for All plan and budget provision, to increase output and housing supply and to bring forward cost rental, which we are doing, for the first time. Senators opposite talked about the levels being quite low, but we are starting it. I wanted to start it within a year of the Government being formed, to build that capacity and offer proof of concept. That is what we will do. We will have 440 tenancies in place in the coming months and will build substantially on that. Cost rental, as Senator Martin said, has been a core belief and policy of the Greens. There is no question about that. I negotiated the programme for Government with colleagues in that regard. There is massive opportunity to expand this further. That is for another debate. We have had that in detail on the Affordable Housing Bill but we will move on with that. We will not just talk about it. The first cost-rental pilot project was announced in 2015. That was fine but those units have not been tenanted yet. We cannot wait six years so we wanted to move it on from there. The opt-out will be looked at.

I am working on potential amendments for next week, as I have said. I cannot go into any more detail at this stage, but they could be significant. I will coming back into the Seanad to do that.

What I was saying about tenancies was that less than 2% of the 300,000-plus tenancies end up in dispute. We need to put that in context in that 98% or more of tenancies operate well. Less than 1% of tenancies are in arrears or arrears notices, which means 99% of tenancies are not. That also points to the Government's supports through the pandemic to the tune of billions, with €11.9 billion having been spent on social welfare supports, and rightly so, especially in the area of ensuring we have proper pandemic payments, emergency rent supplement and all of the other items.

We have not had the rent arrears crisis predicted quite vociferously by some last year. We did not have the tsunami of evictions predicted by some last August when we exited the unsustainable blanket eviction ban. It was not legally sustainable. We did not do it for fun; it just was not sustainable. We could not continue. That is why we put in permanent protections, which were not based on public health support, and additional changes, such as the rent arrears changes we brought in last August, on which we did not get unanimity, although I am glad others have now got in behind the extension of this legislation. That means the first time arrears are flagged and a landlord issues a rent-arrears letter, it must be copied to the RTB and the tenant must be told what assistance he or she will get. MABS is involved, and for the first time we have those data. The data quoted by a Senator opposite about the number of rent arrears letters issued are only available because of the legislation we brought forward last July, which legislation, on a point of information, the Senators opposite opposed at the time. However, that is in place now and is working. We have the information and we know the scale of arrears, which we did not before. That is good and is everyone working together.

I thank all Members for their contributions. There are elements we can improve on further. I have flagged I will be bringing forward a tenancy reform Bill in the autumn. I brought forward the student tenancy pieces and fit them into this legislation because I wanted them to be in place before the new academic year. That was the reason for that, but there are further changes coming down the track, which we have been working on with stakeholders and colleagues in the Government and the Opposition.

I thank all Members for their input today and look forward to seeing them next week on Committee Stage, and then we can get this legislation passed and signed into law by our Uachtarán.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response to the issues raised.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Is that agreed by the House? Agreed.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 29 June 2021.

I thank all colleagues for their co-operation. We had a successful debate. The House stands adjourned until 10.30 a.m. on Monday, 28 June 2021 in the Dáil Chamber in accordance with the order of the Seanad of 22 June 2021. Bíodh deireadh seachtaine deas ag na Comhaltaí uile.

The Seanad adjourned at 2.44 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Monday, 28 June 2021.