Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Questions (64)

Seamus Healy


64. Deputy Seamus Healy asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government if legislation will be brought forward to declare statutorily a homeless and housing emergency in view of the homeless figures of more than 10,000 persons; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16664/19]

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Oral answers (10 contributions) (Question to Housing)

Will the Minister bring forward legislation to declare statutorily a housing and homelessness emergency in view of the fact that homeless figures now exceed 10,000, including 3,780 children? Will he respond to the criticisms of Government housing policy by the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Leilani Farha, who said housing is stability, security, dignity and, crucially, housing is not a commodity.

The Government's Rebuilding Ireland Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness is underpinned by more than €6 billion in funding to support the delivery of 50,000 new social housing homes and 87,000 other housing supports by 2021 while also making the best use of the existing housing stock and laying the foundations for a more vibrant housing sector. A significant number of initiatives continue to be implemented under the plan to address the range of complex and deep-seated issues in the housing sector arising from the economic downturn. These include the accelerated delivery of social and affordable housing as well as increased protections for those in the rental sector.

Within Rebuilding Ireland, tackling homelessness is identified as a key priority for the Government and it continues to be addressed with the urgency the seriousness of the situation demands. Increasing the level of overall housing supply, particularly in terms of social housing, and ensuring stability in the rental sector are essential to addressing fully the challenging situation in relation to homelessness, and very substantial progress continues to be made in those areas. In parallel with that, additional and improved emergency accommodation is being provided, including through additional supported emergency beds and family hubs, in order to ensure that the needs of those who find themselves in a situation of homelessness can be responded to in as comprehensive and compassionate a manner as possible.

The focus remains on preventing homelessness to the greatest extent possible and ensuring that pathways out of homelessness are secured as quickly as possible for those individuals and families in emergency accommodation. Budget 2019 reflects the commitment of the Government in this regard, with an allocation of €146 million for homeless services by local authorities this year, an increase of over 25% on the 2018 allocation. Rebuilding Ireland is delivering very significant results in supporting exits from homelessness. In 2018, 5,135 adults exited homelessness into independent tenancies, an 8.6% increase on 2017. It is disappointing that this level of achievement, although substantial, was not sufficient to keep pace with the extent of new presentations. The Deputy can be assured that I and my Department, working with the local authorities and other homeless service providers, remain fully seized of the seriousness of the homelessness situation and fully committed to delivering fully on the actions required to address all of the issues involved.

The right to housing is a human right but the Minister and the Government are treating housing as a commodity on the market, resulting in the biggest housing and homelessness crisis since the Great Famine. Bunreacht na hÉireann provides for the declaration of emergencies and I specifically refer to Articles 43.2.1° and 43.2.2° where the public good trumps private property rights. This Dáil has also voted for the declaration of such an emergency on 3 October 2018 by 83 votes to 43 on a Solidarity-People Before Profit motion. There is also the fact that the Government is currently using this process with the financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, legislation, where it is confiscating pension payments, which of course are private property. The declaration of a homelessness and housing emergency is constitutional, it is legal and it is a practical solution to the housing and homelessness crisis created by the Government.

What we are seeing in 2019 is the most amount of money that a government in Ireland has ever spent on housing in a single year, some €2.4 billion. We are seeing a dramatic shift in construction as new homes are built. Last year, one in four of those new homes built were built for social housing purposes, so it is not true to say that we are relying solely on the market or on the commodification of housing. We are trying to move away from that old system of housing to a new system that has public housing at the core of our policy. If I believed that declaring an emergency would help us to tackle the situation around homelessness more quickly and in a more sustainable manner, of course I would do so. Why would I not? However, I have met with the Attorney General on this issue, we have discussed it and there is nothing in declaring an emergency that would bring more powers to me to enable me to build more houses more quickly so I will not get involved in tokenistic gestures. What is important is that we drive solutions that will help to bring more homes into this country, both social housing homes and affordable homes, but at the same time, bring in greater protections for renters. While we do those things, we must do everything that we can to exit people out of emergency accommodation as quickly as we can.

Fine Gael has been in government for over eight years, and it is standing watch over more and more people becoming homeless, sleeping and dying on our streets and couch-surfing with friends and families. More and more families are fleeced by big landlords, vulture funds and cuckoo funds charging astronomical rents. The Minister has said from time to time and again today that preventing landlords evicting people on the sale of property was unconstitutional. Of course this is misleading. It is completely untrue and it is absolutely factual that the declaration of such an emergency would lead to a real tackling of the homelessness crisis but of course the real reason the Minister and the Government will not declare an emergency is that the Minister is part of an extreme, free-market, pro-the-super-rich and pro-landlord Government. It is time to declare a housing and homelessness emergency and really address the great problems that we have in housing.

The Deputy has not told me one measure that he would take if an emergency was declared or what one new power that would give to abrogate constitutional rights.

A whole list of matters that I have a Bill on, as the Minister knows very well.

The challenges that we face today are very different to the challenges that we faced in housing eight years ago with 3,000 ghost housing estates and hundreds of thousands plunged into negative equity and mortgage distress. It is not true to say that property rights trump other rights in the Constitution. There is a balance of rights and that is why we were able to bring in the vacant site levy and increase it to 10% over a two-year period. That is why we have been able to bring in rent controls. That is why we have compulsory purchase order powers. We recognise that the public good trumps individual rights in certain instances but we can only take them so far.

On the unconstitutionality of not being able to prevent a sale of a property for rent with tenants in situ, that is unconstitutional. I have to work on the advice of the Attorney General-----

-----but even if it was constitutional, it would not be retrospective so it would not actually help people in tenancies today. We have to work to solutions that will help people without hurting them.