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Private Rented Accommodation Costs

Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 10 December 2014

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Questions (7)

Richard Boyd Barrett


7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection as an emergency measure, in the interests of preventing more persons moving into homeless services and to allow those currently in these services to secure private rented accommodation, whether she will issue instructions to community welfare officers to allow for rents in excess of the caps when an applicant secures a home within the average rents of a given area; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [47098/14]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Social)

As we are all aware, rents are absolutely skyrocketing throughout the country, particularly in Dublin and the big urban centres. The rent caps are woefully inadequate to meet rising rent costs. We all know the consequences. This is leading people into homelessness and dire circumstances. There are many associated issues, including the provision of social housing, the possibility of rent controls, etc. but I have no wish to go into that now. By the way, I thank the Minister of State for intervening in a case I raised last week. The person in question got the letter.

We need an instruction to go to community welfare officers throughout the country pending any wider review of rent caps to the effect that if someone comes in and explains that he is going to become homeless unless the CWO raises the rent cap to the level of rents in the area, then the community welfare officer should not decide that the cap applies and explain that there is nothing he can do. Instead, the officer should consult the website and agree that a given rent is reasonable and agree to a rent cap at that given level. Otherwise the homelessness crisis will continue.

We discussed this at length earlier on. By the way, I take this opportunity to point out that Deputy Ó Snodaigh did in fact vote for that and I am happy to correct the record. I know he had many arguments on the matter. I am happy to correct the point immediately.

We are taking proactive action and measures. The Tánaiste met all the regional managers yesterday to explain section 38, which gives a certain flexibility. We have been in correspondence as recently as this week with all the community welfare officers and regional managers. We are keen to see consistency. I have no wish to set rent limits by the website. I want to be proactive with the community welfare officers, who know in detail the market in their local area. That is important. We also need consistency throughout the country.

I was pleased when Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue in question in the House last week. I was listening upstairs and that was why I contacted the Deputy on the matter. I want our front-line staff to be proactive, to know exactly the nature of local market circumstances, to ensure that we get value for taxpayers' money and, above all, to ensure no tenant loses his tenancy.

Deputy Boyd Barrett can advise people who come to him for assistance in two ways. If a case relates to the Dublin area, he can refer them to the tenancy protection service operated by Threshold. The person should contact this service which will act as an advocate for the individual and work with the Department of Social Protection to ensure that the person will be able to stay in his tenancy and negotiate a solution. In cases outside Dublin, people should contact the health services.

The Tánaiste and I are being proactive. We want consistency throughout the country. We have no wish to see people losing their tenancy because of increases in rents. However, I have no wish to give a landlord's charter. After all, the Department of Social Protection has under its control over 30% of the market. We must be careful that we do not inflate rates throughout the country. I accept the Deputy's point. There is a problem. However, I assure the Deputy that I will be most proactive on this issue throughout the country. I represent an inner city constituency that has been affected by rent inflation due to the number of people who are going back to employment in the area.

I welcome the positive indications that the Minister and Minister of State are giving and the fact that the Minister met the regional managers and CWOs. That is a positive development and I hope it pans out. I genuinely welcome the intervention of the Minister of State around the particular case I raised. I am seeking as strong an assurance as I can get on this issue. The rent cap for someone with a couple of children in Dún Laoghaire is €975, but there is absolutely nothing for €975, €1,075 or €1,175 there. A person might get something for €1,200, but that person would have to be rather lucky. More likely, he would get something, not altogether brilliant, for €1,300.

A further three people came to my office this week who are in this situation. They asked whether they will go homeless, what services are available and how the system works. I have put it to them that the Minister is saying there is flexibility and if a person can find somewhere that is the best place he can find and which is reasonable, at least we can argue the case for him. However, we are encountering difficulty even when we refer people to Threshold. In the case I brought to the attention of the Minister of State last week, we had referred the people in question to Threshold but it could not get the community welfare officer to move either. It only happened as a result of the intervention of the Minister of State. While I appreciate the intervention of the Minister of State, we cannot do that for every case. There must be genuine flexibility and a reasonableness on the part of community welfare officers. They should be able to decide that a given rent level is fair and they should be able to prevent a person falling into homelessness.

I explained to Deputy Boyd Barrett previously that in the particular case, Threshold did not work, but in the past week we have been working to ensure consistency of service and that flexibility is operated throughout the stream. Again, it is best for people to engage with the services and, indeed, for Deputy Boyd Barrett to engage with the services.

The Deputy is correct that I cannot intervene, but I did not intervene. What I was seeking was a consistency of service and quality of services. By and large the best people to understand the local market are those front-line staff who are dealing with it day in, day out. We must be very cautious about this. The lifting of the rent caps might have an effect on people on low income, students and families who are working and are currently in the rental market, because we could cause rent inflation.

It is a difficult issue. One solution does not fit every area, which is why there are a number of rent caps across the country. However, I assure the Deputy that we are monitoring this on a weekly basis. I am anxious to ensure that the front-line staff operate the discretionary powers they have under section 38 and we have outlined those powers to the staff in correspondence this week.

There were figures in The Irish Times a few days ago on how bad the situation is in Dublin. Dublin is a disaster but the situation in Dún Laoghaire is much worse. Dún Laoghaire had over 4,000 people on the list but 1,000 have joined it in a year so the list will now number 5,200. There has been a 20% increase in the number of people on the list in one year. This is due to rising rents. It is just a disaster; I cannot overstate it. I have no choice but to monitor it and to engage with the services every week. I telephone the people at Threshold but they are at their wits' end and I get the same rubbish from the local community welfare officer.

If there is a problem with landlords jacking up rents, which there is, we need rent controls. In the meantime, the Minister must not allow the person who needs a roof over their head to be piggy in the middle in the Minister's battle with the landlords. We must sort out rent control and the issue of the supply of affordable housing. The Minister must issue a stern instruction to community welfare officers to approve rent allowance to the level that is necessary to get somebody into a home, rather than to go into homeless services.

The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has launched a medium and long-term investment of €2.3 billion in social housing. There is also a short-term problem. It is a complicated problem and we must move carefully through it. The roll-out of the pilot scheme of HAP will be very useful and worthwhile as the local authorities will engage directly with the landlords. It will also assist people getting back into work. In my constituency the rent inflation I have witnessed is very much driven by the number of people who have gone into employment. What is happening throughout the country is different in each location. That is the reason we are engaging with the local front-line staff, to ensure that they have the flexibility which is provided for in legislation. We have emphasised that. I will do my best to endeavour to ensure that there is consistency of service across the country and to ensure the flexibility is operated.

However, we must be careful that we do not create rent inflation for young families who are working and renting in the private sector, so they can no longer afford it, as well as students seeking accommodation across the country. There is another layer involved and if we create that rent inflation, we will be responsible for causing another problem. We must be careful. It is a complex problem and we will work with might and main to try to deal with it.