Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Questions (1, 2, 3)

Alan Kelly

Question:

1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with housing will next meet. [41650/20]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with housing will next meet. [43542/20]

View answer

Mick Barry

Question:

3. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with housing will next meet. [43557/20]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on housing last met on 10 November and it is envisaged that the committee will next meet in January 2021. The committee operates in accordance with established guidelines for Cabinet committees and substantive issues are referred to the Government for discussion and approval. The committee works to ensure a co-ordinated approach to the delivery of the programme for Government commitments on housing and related matters. Significant work is under way on the implementation of these commitments across Government Departments and agencies, including through regular discussion of these matters at meetings of the Government.

In addition to meetings of the Cabinet and Cabinet committees, I regularly meet Ministers, including the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, to discuss particular issues. Notwithstanding the challenges posed by the pandemic, the Government has introduced a range of measures to address housing issues. Budget 2021 provides over €3 billion for the delivery of housing programmes next year, including funding for 9,500 social homes to be built as part of the overall delivery of 12,750 social homes next year. A total of €40 million was allocated through the July stimulus package to support local authorities to bring voids back into productive use and over 2,000 households will be accommodated this year as a direct result of this initiative. The budgetary provision will also fund other important housing supports and services relating to homelessness, Traveller accommodation, regeneration and programmes to upgrade existing housing.

In addition, the Government has introduced a number of legislative measures to help mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on tenants. Over the coming months, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage will introduce legislation to put the Land Development Agency and the new affordable housing measures announced in the budget on a legislative footing.

There is just over a week until Christmas. I reciprocate the Taoiseach's good wishes and wish him, his family and all his colleagues the best. The winter weather is very much with us, as we have seen and felt over recent weeks. In recent months, there has been, unfortunately, a sharp rise in the number of homeless people on our streets passing away. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage does not seem to compile figures on the number of such deaths nationally but we know that the number of deaths in Dublin this year is more than 50, in comparison to 34 in 2019 and 35 in 2018. Will the Taoiseach tell the House why we do not have national figures? As the Taoiseach will now, concerns have been expressed in his own city of Cork and in other areas. Why do we not have national figures?

Any death is obviously a tragedy, no matter where it happens, but this sudden and sharp rise is really worrying. Some people believe it is in some way related to Covid-19 and people avoiding hostels and support services because they are afraid of getting sick while others believe it is down to a rise in addiction and overdoses. To be fair, it is probably a lot more complex than that.

Will the Taoiseach confirm that we will get national figures and that the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage will investigate this rise and why it is happening now? What actions are being taken, outside of those we already know of? Has this issue been discussed at the relevant Cabinet committee? Will the Taoiseach confirm what sort of new supports are being put in place?

Over the past three years, I have repeatedly raised the plight of tenants in the St. Helen's Court apartment complex in Dún Laoghaire. They have faced four attempts by two different vulture funds that bought the complex to evict them using loopholes in the Residential Tenancies Acts. They tried to increase the rent by 60% at one point, they then used substantial refurbishments as grounds for eviction and are now using sale of the property for that purpose. They failed to evict ten tenants and are now trying to evict eight instead to circumvent the Tyrrelstown amendment. This is the shocking, cold and ruthless logic of a profit-seeking vulture fund. I was in the offices of the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, with the tenants on Monday. Some of them are in there today. There is a similar case in Rathmines, an area with three Government Deputies, in which a number of tenants were successfully evicted by vulture funds after fighting this eviction for a year.

Why does the Government not close these loopholes and legislate to prevent this kind of vicious and ruthless profit-seeking logic at the expense of tenants, all of whom pay their rent? These are working people who will now face eviction in the teeth of Christmas and in the middle of a pandemic. Does the Taoiseach not think that is obscene behaviour which the Government has a responsibility to prevent to ensure that decent ordinary people who pay their rent are not dumped out on the street by vulture funds?

There are plans to build 25,000 new homes in the Cork docklands over the next 20 years. The question is whether they will be genuinely affordable. Will young people and people on low and even average incomes be locked out of the market? I saw an interesting snippet on the RTÉ news recently. A company in Castleisland, County Kerry, built 70 houses. As the company had difficulty retaining a workforce in the area, it sold 20 of these houses to its workers at cost price. This cost of €150,000 was reckoned to be more than €30,000 below the market valuation for such a house. That is a little indication of what can be done when the profiteering is cut out of the situation.

There is a lot of public land down in the docklands, including lands at the old Ford plant, at Kent Station which is counted as part of the project, at Tivoli Docks and at Camp Field. I could name many more. Imagine what could be done if we built public housing on public land, including social housing, council housing and cost-price housing that is genuinely affordable for young people and people on low and middle incomes. Instead, the Land Development Agency is talking about a 60:30:10 mix. Some 60% is to be sold at private market rates, which will inevitably mean that significant numbers of people will be locked out of the market. I ask for the Taoiseach's comments on that and for his position on the idea that public housing should be developed on this public land instead.

We have previously discussed the increased number of people experiencing homeless who have died on our streets this year. The Taoiseach has stated by way of response that unprecedented levels of resources are being targeted at the issue of homelessness. I suggest that it is the level of homelessness itself that is unprecedented. The State still does not fully recognise or record the scale of this issue. We know that the number of people experiencing homelessness is at least 20% higher than the number recorded by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. We also know that there are more than 1,700 adults and children in direct provision, non-State funded emergency and transitional accommodation, and Tusla-funded domestic violence refuges. The State does not include these people in its homelessness figures, which is inexplicable. Will the Taoiseach consider moving responsibility for the management and publication of homelessness figures to an independent body such as the Central Statistics Office or the Housing Agency?

I also ask Government parties to support Deputy Ó Broin's Homeless Prevention Bill 2020, which places a legal obligation on local authorities and State agencies to put in place a homelessness prevention plan before a family becomes homeless. This will require enhanced and targeted resources from central government but it is absolutely essential. Government must enable local authorities to end the use of congregated dormitory-style accommodation, to expedite the expansion of the Housing First model, and to introduce adult safeguarding reviews across our services.

Deputies raised quite a number of questions there. Deputy Kelly, who put the original question, raised the issue of the deaths of people availing of homelessness services. That is a deep concern which is being taken very seriously by Government. It is important to note and respect the work of those in the homelessness services who have cared for these individuals and who were their friends. The impression that the majority died alone on the streets is inaccurate and unfair. It does a disservice to the work, care and companionship of those working in the sector. I know that was not the intention of Deputies. To give an example, Mr. Pat Doyle of the Peter McVerry Trust recently spoke of a homeless man who used the trust's services and who died of cancer in his own-door accommodation, having been cared for by the trust. That type of care is the hallmark of the trust's work.

The Dublin Region Homeless Executive and the HSE have jointly commissioned a detailed review of all recent deaths in homelessness services. In reference to the point the Deputy made on data collection, the Department of Health recently requested the Health Research Board, HRB, to undertake a study to collect data on deaths among people who were homeless at the time of death. The HRB is undertaking a one-year feasibility study to collect these data from coroners' records. Each case is different and there is a complex story behind every one. We should respect that. It is important to avoid speculation or simplification and get a clearer picture, based on evidence. I believe that is what Deputy Kelly sought in his questions.

It is also crucial that the Government lives up to its duty to protect our vulnerable and to tackle homelessness in our cities and our towns. The homelessness figures are still too high but they have decreased by 17% year on year. Some 6,000 people exited homelessness this year. I do not accept what Deputy McDonald has claimed is the real figure with regard to homelessness.

With regard to the docklands in Cork, there is a lot of private land in this area in addition to the public lands. A master plan is required. I am more interested in getting things happening there, getting capacity and getting houses built.

We may have done the Taoiseach out of some time there but, in any event, we will move on.