Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Questions (34)

Jan O'Sullivan


34. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government his plans to raise the income limits for qualification for social housing to address the problems of a growing number of low-income working families who cannot afford market rents or to save the necessary deposit to access a loan to purchase a home, and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10142/18]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Housing)

My question concerns the growing number of families who are very anxiously concerned that they may be in the homeless figures in the near future because they are above the income limits for social housing but cannot afford the increases in rent they are being charged and cannot save for a deposit because of the rents they are paying. There is a growing number of these families throughout the country, especially in our cities. What is the Minister doing to address the needs of these families?

The Social Housing Assessment Regulations 2011 prescribe maximum net income limits for eligibility for social housing support for each local authority in different bands according to the area, with income being defined and assessed according to a standard household means policy published by my Department. The income bands and the authority area assigned to each band are based on an assessment of the income needed to provide for a household's basic needs plus a comparative analysis of the local rental cost of housing accommodation throughout the country. The limits also reflect a blanket increase of €5,000 introduced prior to the new system coming into operation to broaden the base from which social housing tenants are drawn and thereby promote sustainable communities and future proofing. We must bear in mind that this was a number of years ago.

As part of the broader social housing reform agenda, a review of income eligibility for social housing supports has commenced with the detailed statistical work underpinning the review to be carried out by the Housing Agency. I expect the results of this review to be available for publication later this year. It is something that has been raised quite a lot here over recent months and certainly over the past year and at many local authority meetings. Most Members are conscious that the limits were set in 2011, so the Department is anxious to have this review completed as quickly as possible and to act on it as well. We should have it by the middle of the year or possibly a bit later, but we have certainly asked for it to be done as quickly as possible so that we can make some decisions based on it.

I urge the Minister of State to have the review carried out as quickly as possible. I was dealing with a woman last week who is the mother of three children. She is a lone parent who works full time and earns just over €32,000 per annum, which puts her above the income limit for social housing - an income of €32,000 with three children. Her rent has increased substantially. Limerick is not in a rent pressure zone. Even if it were, average rents have been increasing by approximately 10% in the past year. Statistics show that house prices are going up by around 12%. We are talking about a growing number of working families that are stuck in a situation where they are terrified they will be unable to afford increased rents. There is no way they can save for a deposit. If they qualified for social housing, at least they would have that possibility plus the possibility of the housing assistance payment, HAP. That sector of the community most certainly needs attention from Government because it is in fear of becoming homeless. Will the Minister of State speed that up? What about other measures, for example, affordable housing, which is the other option but which is very limited in terms of what the Government is proposing?

The case referred to by the Deputy is in Limerick. I am surprised. I know Limerick is in band 2 where the limit is about €30,000 plus percentage allowances for each child, so that person should qualify for social housing in Limerick with an income of €32,000. The figures we have are for net income, so that generally results in a rate of about €48,000 gross pay, so I would question the figures given by the Deputy. Perhaps she could get somebody to review that because the woman in question should qualify because it is €30,000 net along with the percentage increase for each child she has. I think the Deputy said she had three children. Perhaps the Deputy might get somebody to review that figure.

Like the Deputy, we agree that this needs to be completed urgently because the figures were set back in 2011. There has been a lot of engagement with the Housing Agency through our Department so there is no reason we should not have a result quite soon. We have asked it to do it as quickly as possible. My officials met the agency today. If there is an issue around staffing, we will help with that because we want these figures and the recommendations. It will assess whether any changes are required and produce a list of recommendations for how we should deal with this.

The Minister has made it very clear since last summer when he came into the Department that there are quite a number of people who are above that income limit and who need assistance with housing as well, and that is why there has been a lot of effort to develop and bring back an affordable housing proposal, which will be on the table in a couple of weeks, using State-owned lands to give people the option of affordable rental or purchase.

There does not seem to be any sense of urgency regarding families who are in these situations. It is taking a huge amount of time to roll out this affordable housing scheme. There is basically nothing available in terms of an affordable scheme at the moment for the kind of families about whom I talking. I do not see any reason the review of the social housing income limits could not happen more quickly as well.

I presume the Department is aware that incomes have not been rising at anything near the rates at which rents and house costs have been rising in the past year. There needs to be a sense of urgency about addressing the needs of this sector of the population who are going out to work, trying to raise their families and are absolutely terrified that they will end up not being able to afford rent and raise a deposit. The bank of mum and dad is not there for them as it may be for certain sectors of the population, although not for most people. They are stuck in a spiral and cannot see a way out.

There is a range of schemes designed to help people on different income brackets. Naturally in the first year of Rebuilding Ireland the main focus was to get the housing construction back up and to get local authorities back in a position of building houses, which they had not been doing for many years - probably even before the recession - because policy decisions were made to restrict their ability to do that. They are back doing that now and this year across 120 sites they are delivering nearly 4,000 new social houses directly built by local authorities, as well as being involved in acquiring houses, turnkey and so on. They will all become available as well.

In addition, the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme is up and running and many people are applying for it. It will suit many people in the income bracket the Deputy just mentioned. Regarding LIHAF, all 30-plus proposals have been signed and there is an element of affordable housing across all those sites. On the income limits the Deputy mentioned, they will be able to avail of them as well. We will also bring forward more affordable housing through our own initiatives, including on State-owned lands. There will be a major increase in supply there.

It is fair to say that the initial concentration was on getting social housing up and running again and then to concentrate on affordable housing in phase two, which is now happening in a big way. There will be considerable choice for people in the year ahead and rightly so. At the same time, there is great value to be had in many parts of the country. It is very attractive to use the Rebuilding Ireland home loan to buy up some of the properties that are vacant and are available to people at good prices in different parts of the country, although, I accept, not necessarily in the cities.