It is not surprising that everyone's obsession these days is in dealing with the emergency and getting people off the streets and shelter over their heads. While all that is happening, we are moving away from any consideration of the right to housing for all citizens.
If measures are not underpinned with rights, we are always a supplicant at the table of resources. If people are at the back of the queue, as are those with whom we deal, their chance of realising a home is limited.
Ireland has obligations under five international covenants in which housing is specifically stated. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family. The right to housing is not just about having a roof over one's head. The definition of that right includes that there should be security of tenure, availability of services, materials and infrastructure and that it should be affordable and habitable. These four or five issues are some of the difficulties we, both legislators and providers, must deal with on a day-to-day basis.
The result of the absence of a rights-based report that provides for people to follow up on their right to a home is what is happening currently throughout the country. Tenants are being given notice to quit because banks are forcing landlords to realise their assets to pay loans or because they are unable to keep up with increasing rents. There is no consideration for tenants. This is all being done legally, with tenants getting notice to quit, etc., but the reality is they end up homeless or end up in a hotel for months on end. The schemes that were set up to give protection are falling apart. Significant numbers of landlords are leaving the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, which was designed to give security of tenure to both tenant and landlord. Why are they leaving the scheme? Speaking as the man in Galway did, it is because they can get better and higher rents in the open market and the standards associated with the RAS are not applicable. When the three years are up, these landlords are moving away from the scheme and the councils cannot get them to re-engage. Even with Galway councils paying a little extra, that still does not bridge the gap between what tenants are allowed to pay and rent in the current market.
The freezing of rent supplement in 2013, despite resistance from all sides, was done on the basis that if rent supplement was allowed to keep pace with market rent, it would fuel rent rises. This has happened in any event. Rent increases have happened all over the country, without any contribution to that rise from people dependent on social welfare.
In the current discussion, we are constantly informed that the issue is all about housing. If, however, we are to help people remain in their houses, they also need support services related to health and social needs. Over the past four years, some 20% of the social inclusion budget of the HSE - the smallest care group within the HSE - has disappeared. There is no discussion going on in regard to reversing that, as I was told yesterday at a meeting with our local HSE. While unions are trying to get wage cuts reversed for staff whose wages were cut over these past years, there is no discussion about the people these workers serve. The fact that people cannot access the supports they need to prevent them from losing their homes is leading to even more problems. Because they have no rights, people are ending up in overcrowded emergency hostels. We appreciate the need for an emergency response, but a dormitory response is not a solution, it is merely an emergency response.
It is sad that decisions about allocations are increasingly discussed in terms of who is deserving of accommodation. We hear every day that what has happened, as I am sure the committee has heard in all of the submissions made to it, is that the influx of families into this sector in recent years has meant that these families are now seen, formally and informally, as the priority. The people we are dealing with are individuals - 2,700 individuals without families who are in emergency situations. They are now being trapped in that situation. I urge the committee to please remember that families are not the only issue. Certainly, we do not want children growing up in hotel rooms, but do not just deal with that issue or feel that dealing with the issue of families in hotel rooms is dealing with the problem.
As housing supply dwindles, the prioritisation of smaller and smaller groups is occurring, along with discussion about who deserves the housing available. What we suggest to this committee is that while it is dealing with the emergency and considering other solutions, it should not abandon consideration of the right to housing for all of our citizens. A week or so ago, legislation was pushed through in regard to hard-pressed mortgage holders. That is all very good for those who can afford a mortgage, but what about hard-pressed people who will never be able to afford a mortgage?