Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Questions (57)

Eoin Ó Broin


57. Deputy Eoin Ó Broin asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the actions he has taken since the broadcast of a programme (details supplied) in November 2017; his plans to amend the legal definition of "overcrowding"; his further plans to make it an offence to advertise substandard rental properties including on social media; if increased targets for local authority inspection will be brought forward; and the status of plans for a standard certification system for landlords. [4855/18]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Housing)

We were all shocked by what we saw in "Nightmare to Let", the RTÉ "Prime Time" documentary which was televised last November. What actions has the Minister taken in the period since then? While the primary responsibility rests with local authorities, they are dependent on legislation. There have been calls for stronger legislation to define "overcrowding" and for greater resources to assist with inspections. I ask the Minister to update the House on actions his Department has taken since November.

I thank the Deputy for the question. "Overcrowding" is dealt with in Part IV of the Housing Act 1966, as amended. Minimum standards in rental accommodation apply to all properties let or available to let. Where someone believes that a property is being made available to let in breach of the standards, for example through overcrowding, the matter should be referred to the relevant housing authority. Any person who neglects or refuses to comply with requirements under the Act is guilty of an offence. Fines for non-compliance with the Housing (Standards for Rented Houses) Regulations 2017, which came into force on 1 July 2017, have been increased, with the maximum fine having gone up from €3,000 to €5,000 and the daily fine for a continuing offence increased from €250 to €400.

My Department will be examining amendments to the legislative provisions in relation to overcrowding as part of the Residential Tenancies Board's change management plan and the preparation of further legislation during the current Oireachtas session. This legislation will also strengthen the RTB's enforcement functions, for example, by making it an offence for a landlord to contravene the provisions relating to rent pressure zones and providing more protections for tenants.

Inspections are currently carried out by local authorities on a risk-based approach, targeting properties, such as older properties and those with a history of quality problems, that are identified as being at risk of not complying. Provision has been made for an allocation of €2.5 million in 2018 to facilitate increased inspections of properties, with the intention of providing further increases each year in the period to 2021 to enable targeted inspection coverage of 25% of rental properties annually, which is to say every property will be inspected once every four years. My Department will be writing to each local authority chief executive shortly with a view to agreeing increased inspection targets and developing implementation plans to achieve these. These will build, in particular, on the inspection arrangements that apply in relation to properties in which there are tenancies supported under the housing assistance payment scheme. In addition, a landlord accreditation scheme to educate landlords on best practice and their rights and responsibilities is being developed by the RTB. It is also intended to change the requirements for registration with the Residential Tenancies Board to require landlords to certify that their property is compliant with these standards.

I assure the Minister that this is an issue on which we all want to work on a cross-party basis. In the debate we had last year, there was very strong agreement across the Chamber on the actions required. While I understand fully the provisions of the 1966 Act, we are being told by city and county managers that they are simply not strong enough. I sent the Minister and the chief executive of Dublin City Council an email in December 2017 listing properties being advertised but which were clearly not of an acceptable standard. I received a reply earlier this year from Dublin City Council to say it had inspected all of those properties and while the authority believed they were not acceptable, they were not in breach of the 1966 Act's provisions on overcrowding notwithstanding the presence of multiple bunk beds in kitchen facilities or other rooms. I urge the Minister to bring forward an amendment to the overcrowding provisions in the Act as soon as possible. If he does so, he will have our support to put it through the House.

I turn to local authority inspections. There are some local authorities which currently inspect at a 20% plus rate. I accept and welcome the fact that the Minister is seeking to increase that rate across all local authorities, but 2021 is too far out, in particular for those areas where there is a heavier concentration of substandard properties. I ask the Minister to consider bringing forward that increase so that we move towards the 25% inspection rate at an earlier date than 2021.

I accept the Deputy's bona fides absolutely on this and when it comes to us all wanting to work together to ensure we get better standards for tenants. What we saw in the RTÉ exposé were human rights abuses perpetrated in our country against people who were not able to defend themselves. One of the things we have looked at with the Residential Tenancies Board is to see how we can make it a strong and independent regulator whereby the onus is no longer on tenants to have to report these crimes. That is priority legislation in this session, as the Deputy will have seen. We are going to progress it with two Bills. When we refer to a two-year change management plan it is not that we are waiting until two years have passed for everything to be done. We are actually doing it over the course of two years based on the priorities as we see them.

I am glad to hear that the properties the Deputy listed for the local authority were inspected and I take his point on the current regulations and legislation not being tough enough. Things have changed since 1966, of course. That is why we are looking to strengthen provisions on overcrowding, both in terms of its legal definition but also in terms of the enforcement actions and sanctions applicable in such circumstances. We have to ensure the legislation is strong enough to constitute a proper deterrent to criminals using their properties in this way. Currently, it is not. That is why it is our priority. It is also a priority to get annual registrations of tenancies to get that certification process in at the same time.

I thank the Minister. In The Irish Times today, Jack Power has a very good article listing a range of properties which are being advertised this week on a variety of social media websites primarily targeting foreign language students and migrant workers, although the substandard accommodation issues do not only occur in those sections of the rental market. I recommend strongly that the Minister also consider in the context of forthcoming legislation making it a criminal offence for online platforms to advertise properties which clearly breach regulations. That would not only put the onus on the Residential Tenancies Board but also on and to be compliant and prevent their platforms being used to advertise properties which the photographs submitted clearly show are substandard. That would also strengthen the regulations. I urge the Minister to bring forward this legislation to a committee as quickly as possible. It is important this is got right because there are, unfortunately, far too many individuals and families out there living in overpriced substandard accommodation. If everyone in the House wants to tackle that, the sooner the legislation is here, the sooner we can give tenants and the law-abiding landlords being undercut by such practices the support they deserve.

We must increase inspections. That is what the funding commitment between now and 2021 is about. We want to get to a point where a property is inspected once every four years approximately. When it comes to a housing assistance payment tenancy, we have a much narrower timeline than that. In that case, the property must have been inspected in the previous 12 months or is to be inspected in the following eight months. That is a good protection in the context of the money the State is providing. It is also important to recognise the great utility of a risk-based inspection programme. It allows us to identify properties which are prone to overcrowding because they have been used that way in the past, or to identify properties using social media and other channels. It means that when we go to inspect those properties, it actually helps people who are suffering in those situations. That is why when we look at the figures for compliance based on the inspections that have been taken according to this at-risk inspection model, we find a high rate of non-compliance.

I have raised the issue of social media and language students with officials. It will require having people with the right language skills in Portuguese and so on to read these advertisements and to help with inspections. On the Deputy's proposal to make it an offence for platforms to advertise or to place an obligation on them to regulate what is advertised, I would not see a problem if it is about professional property or letting platforms. It would be difficult to achieve that through normal social media channels like Twitter or Facebook, however. I am not against pursuing that course of action and I will look at it.