Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Questions (48, 64, 95)

Aengus Ó Snodaigh


48. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage if consideration has been given to increasing the income threshold for applicants to qualify for inclusion on local authority housing lists. [38314/20]

View answer

Brendan Smith


64. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage if he will ensure that the review of income eligibility limits for social housing is finalised and published without further delay; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38279/20]

View answer

Denise Mitchell


95. Deputy Denise Mitchell asked the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage the status of the review of the income eligibility limits for social housing. [38476/20]

View answer

Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Housing)

Question No. 48 is to try to encourage the Minister to lift the ridiculous income eligibility threshold for applicants so they may qualify for inclusion on the local authority's housing list.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 48, 64 and 95 together.

Applications for social housing support are assessed by the relevant local authority in accordance with the eligibility and need criteria set down in section 20 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 and the associated Social Housing Assessment Regulations 2011, as amended. The 2011 regulations prescribe maximum net income limits for each local authority, in different bands according to the area concerned, with income being defined and assessed according to a standard household means policy. The 2011 regulations do not provide local authorities with any discretion to exceed the limits that apply to their administrative areas.

Under the household means policy, which applies in all local authorities, net income for social housing assessment is defined as gross household income less income tax, PRSI, universal social charge and pension-related deductions within the meaning of Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act 2009. The policy provides for a range of income disregards, and local authorities have discretion to decide to disregard income that is temporary, short term or once-off in nature.

The income bands are expressed in terms of a maximum net income threshold for a single-person household, with an allowance of 5% for each additional adult household member, subject to a maximum allowance under this category of 10%, and 2.5% for each child, subject to a maximum allowance under this category of 10%.

Given the cost to the State of providing social housing, it is considered prudent and fair to direct resources to those most in need of social housing support. The current income eligibility requirements generally achieve this, providing for a fair and equitable system of identifying those households facing the greatest challenge in meeting their accommodation needs from their own resources. However, as part of the broader social housing reform agenda, a review of income eligibility for social housing supports in each local authority area is under way. The review will have regard to current initiatives being brought forward in terms of affordability and cost rental and will be completed when the impacts of these parallel initiatives have been considered.

There is no logic to the current income level because it is set so low that it excludes tens of thousands, particularly young couples. A working couple with an income of, say, €38,500 would not get any mortgage. They would not even be able to afford rent in this city or any of the surrounding counties. There needs to be a proper examination of the criteria so there will be a realistic income level. I am not suggesting we should increase it in such a way as to have an open-ended system. I understand the housing system is designed to facilitate those most in need but many of the couples, because they cannot afford to rent or afford a mortgage, are now stuck at home with their parents or siblings in overcrowded accommodation. That has led to a loss of jobs, suicides and other problems.

It needs to be addressed and it should have been addressed before now.

It is clear that the guidelines and income limits we have at the moment are totally outdated. I was promised that a review would be completed and carried out and that income limits would be improved. This was back when the Ministers with responsibility for housing were Deputy Coveney and, subsequently, Deputy Eoghan Murphy and the relevant Minister of State was Deputy English.

I have cited cases in the House previously involving a one-parent family with the mother working in a part-time low-paid job and getting the family income supplement. Such a mother with two or three children is unable to get on the council housing list. That is wrong because that person has no chance of getting a loan. Even if she did get a loan, she could not sustain or service it.

There is a cohort of people who are working, oftentimes in low-paid jobs, unfortunately, in difficult circumstances. These are often from one-parent families and they are dependent on the family income supplement. By definition, their income is not sustainable from their employment. They are expected to house themselves without State assistance or without getting on the local authority list. This review needs to be finalised and we need a big improvement in the income limits. This needs to be addressed as early as possible. I appeal to the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, and the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to make progress on this.

It has already been said that we have outdated income levels. We need this review. We need to ensure we have reasonable income levels. We have people who are caught in the middle and they are suffering. We need affordable cost-rental, affordable mortgages and council houses.

We need to take into account not only income levels but also that people have increased costs. I am talking about people who may have children with serious mobility issues or a disability. I have in mind one particular issue that has come to my attention lately in Dundalk. We are not exactly sure how we are going to deal with it. I also know of many cases involving people who spend eight, nine or ten years on the housing list. At the last moment they may get a small increase in wages and then miss out on having a council house on that basis. They cannot afford a mortgage by any stretch of the imagination.

I fully accept the well-made points of each of the three Deputies who have highlighted their concerns in this area. We all face these issues at our clinics every week. They involve people who are on the margins. We see people missing out on the housing list because of income that potentially should be disregarded. That can be most frustrating.

I wish to set out the position of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has secured a 24% increase in the capital budget. This will give more options in terms of different channels. We can direct people to the affordable purchase scheme and the cost rental equity scheme. We have asked the Housing Agency to assess these two schemes on the back of the review that has been done to increase the income limits. The processes need to go together. We expect to publish the review early next year. We expect a significant number of options for people. A total of €110 million is ring-fenced for affordable measures. That is concrete and definite for next year. Obviously, we will then assess what more can be done to ensure people get secure accommodation, because that is the will of everyone in the House.

I acknowledge what the Minister of State has said but that will not provide the additional supports for those who are waiting to get on the list. The average rent in Dublin at present is over €2,000. For families who are on approximately €40,000 or €45,000 per year, that means two weeks' wages or more. The minimum income required for the average priced house in Dublin is over €100,000 and the average house price is over €400,000. There is no hope for them. That is the way they see it. They are cut off from all those options and they are also cut off from social housing in any shape or form. I call on the Minister of State to accelerate the delivery of affordable houses and affordable rental with faster provision than is the case at the moment.

I welcome the remarks of the Minister of State. In his initial response he spoke about sustainable communities. Thankfully, over many decades we had local authority policies that worked well with local authority housing and a mix of households. We will not have sustainable communities if we do not improve the income limits. We will only have people who are on low incomes, especially those dependent solely on the State for income if we do not improve the income limits. The counties I represent, Cavan and Monaghan, are in the lowest tier in respect of the bands referred to by the Minister of State.

If there is no change soon, we will condemn a generation to renting for life. No one in this House wants to see that. People are entitled to be able to aspire to own their own home whether through the local authority or through a mortgage or loan of their own. We need action on this.

Again, I appeal to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and to the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke. I know both are highly committed to making progress in this area. We need progress as rapidly as possible or we are condemning more and more people to rent for life.

Deputy Ó Murchú has got in under Deputy Mitchell. That is why he is in again.

I am somewhat surprised and glad. It is much appreciated.

It has already been said that there are eligibility issues. The income levels simply do not cut it. In fairness, it has been said in the House that people may find themselves in situations where the family income supplement or something else puts them a little above the criteria. We need to have some element of flexibility. I have spoken about the situation that some people find themselves in. Combined with low incomes that may be a little over the threshold, some families may also have considerable outgoings. This may be down to the fact of children with additional needs. That needs to be taken into account.

To add to what Deputy Brendan Smith has said on creating a situation whereby mixed developments are not necessarily going to happen, I suggest this will force an issue that has happened in many cases in which people choose not to take up a job or employment to ensure they can afford to pay the rent by being able to access the housing assistance payment.

I thank the Deputies for their well-made points. The sole focus of this Department is to ensure that we provide secure accommodation that all our citizens can access equally.

We should always instil hope in people because there is hope. People who are on the margins can take consolation from the significant budget we have secured for the Department for 2021. As I have said, the Housing Agency is assessing all of this based on the new cost rental and affordable schemes due to be published shortly and the income eligibility review. On that basis, the agency will be able to ascertain what income can be disregarded in terms of various social welfare payments.

I fully accept the frustration expressed by Deputies that this review has been going on a while. However, we have moved considerably in the Department in recent months in terms of the new measures that have been brought in to ensure affordability. This has been put to the forefront of the Department. We also have to assess the review on that basis. It will be early next year. I can assure the House of that.