Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 30 Apr 2014

Vol. 839 No. 1

Housing Provision: Motion [Private Members]

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:


— there exists a current housing and homelessness emergency in the country that must be addressed as a matter of urgency;

— current housing resources and supports are at breaking point;

— the current situation is forcing many people on rent assistance, which is set below the market rent level, to engage in illegal top-up practices in order to sustain their housing situation;

— that there is a shortage of private rented accommodation across the country and where accommodation does exist it is increasingly unaffordable; and

— the lack of alternative housing options available; and

calls on the Government to:

— accept and recognise the current housing issue as a crisis;

— develop a national housing strategy to address the identified need for in excess of 80,000 new housing units within the next five years, as detailed in the recent Housing Agency Report entitled, Housing Supply Requirements in Ireland’s Urban Settlements 2014 - 2018;

— recommence construction, via local authorities and housing associations, to reduce the amount of time that people are forced to spend on social housing waiting lists by providing a minimum of 10,000 units per annum;

— address the large number of voids that have been sitting unoccupied, sometimes for years, and to provide for those voids to be renovated and occupied;

— take urgent action regarding spiralling rents and the unaffordability of private rented accommodation;

— introduce a new, broad, rental option to make renting a more attractive option;

— alter the remit of the Private Residential Tenancies Board to protect tenants from eviction during an appeals process;

— immediately move to disallow the practice of landlords refusing tenancy to rent allowance recipients;

— address the impediments experienced by housing associations in leveraging European funding;

— introduce a change to legislation to make it easier for mortgagees to access mortgage to rent under the personal insolvency arrangement;

— introduce measures that will ensure that those identified as at risk of homelessness are sufficiently provided for in order to prevent homelessness occurring;

— provide the necessary resources to local authorities to ensure that no family or individual, who presents as homeless, will be denied appropriate emergency accommodation within that council area;

— ensure that any emergency accommodation offered in a situation involving children will be within a reasonable distance from the children’s school; and

— accept that permanent, secure and affordable housing is a right for all citizens.

I wish to share time with Deputies Mick Wallace, Clare Daly, John Halligan, Maureen O'Sullivan and Tom Fleming.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

It is ironic tonight that we debated the Children First Bill before this important topic of housing provision. The Children First Bill is trying to undo many legacy issues that are fundamentally about the failure of the State in the past. In years to come, will we be resolving the matter of housing provision where we are seeing men, women and children on a routine basis becoming homeless? How is the State putting those children and their families first?

I have permission to refer to the likes of Grainne Mallon, who was made homeless in Sallins last week and interviewed on KFM this morning, as well as the mother and children who are sleeping in a car in the Newbridge area who will be interviewed tomorrow on the same station. It is appalling that people have to put themselves out so publicly at a time of such stress, leaving themselves open to be the subject of debate and ridicule by those who, I hope, will never find themselves so exposed. This week alone, I am dealing with 12 cases of homelessness, ten of which are families with children. Unfortunately, another ten families with notice to quit will be added to the list in the coming week or weeks. Every day people are turning up at my office with the same problem. In the first three months of this year, Kildare County Council dealt with 80 families. Its homeless budget is exhausted. For most, there will be no hostel, no bed and breakfast or temporary accommodation. Instead, they will be told to find a relative or a friend with a couch.

I am talking about people like Jessica who is due to have her baby in a couple of weeks. She was given notice early in January and she presented as homeless to Kildare County Council. She has a four year old daughter who is in junior infants. Until January, Jessica was in college but has had to drop out. She has chased every available rented property and has widened her field of search into all the neighbouring counties. When I met her first she was optimistic and confident. Now, she is stressed out, fearful emotional and tearful. She is now refused maternity payments because she has no address. She has been admitted to hospital twice in the past couple of weeks. She should be looking forward to her new baby; that should be her major concern. The irony is the hospital will not let her leave when she has the baby if she has no baby seat in the car but will do nothing if she has no home to go to.

Julie is a part-time worker and is expecting twins in six weeks. She presented as homeless in March. She and her daughter are on the housing list since 2005. She and her child are staying temporarily with her mother who has a tiny one-bedroom flat. She is stressed out, not the condition in which a pregnant mother should be. Where is the concern for these unborn children and these young women? Emma and her partner have two children, one of whom is three months' old. They have been on the housing list since 2008. Their landlord is being forced to sell the house by the bank. This couple have been searching day and night for the past three months for alternative accommodation which is simply not available. Again, how is the State putting these children first or even considering their needs? These are functioning families who care deeply for their children but are being failed when they most need the support of a compassionate State.

Why is this occurring? It is because there is a shortage of housing. Low-income families must rent because they will not get a mortgage, yet renting is often the more expensive option. The more wages are driven down, the less discretion people have to purchase a home. Accordingly, renting is the only option and will continue to be. High rents are also impacting on those at work. Rising rents are sucking money out of low to middle income workers which will inevitably impact on the economy. That is why countries like Germany control rent increases because the cost of shelter can be damaging to the competitiveness of the economy. Even in the USA rents are controlled.

There are 90,000 individuals or families on the housing waiting list nationally. Half of them, 45,000, are located in three counties or just six local authority areas, three in Dublin, two in Cork and Kildare. These are the very same locations where the pressure on rents is at its highest. In the absence of local authority or housing association building, the only option for those who earn just above the limits to qualify for the housing list is to rent. However, rents are becoming increasingly unaffordable to all. Those in receipt of rent assistance are finding it increasing impossible to find accommodation with an increasing number of landlords refusing to accept rent assistance. Some of this is due to the complicated process but mostly it is about the rent caps. They are way below the market rents in many locations. People are routinely topping up or paying the difference to the landlord under the table. Focus Ireland told the environment committee recently that the Department of Social Protection was turning a blind eye to fraud. It is the poor who are the subject of this fraud, however.

The same organisation discussed the issues of unaffordable rents and topping up, issues on which it had done some good research, with the Department in 2012. The Department looked for the names of people who were topping up. When Focus Ireland asked what the Department would do if given the names, it stated it would stop their rent assistance. In other words, it would make them homeless. Despite the denials of the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, top-ups are a widespread occurrence. She knows it and to say otherwise in this Chamber is to mislead the House.

What are the solutions? The Government must first accept there is a crisis. The Government's amendment to this motion confirms to me it is in denial. It needs to look at the facts and stop believing the spin. It must review the very flawed system of rent caps. The British model is much more nuanced. The community welfare officers must be allowed to use more discretion to prevent people becoming homeless which often saves money. The Government must resolve the issues for the housing associations that will make it possible to draw down up to €500 million from the European Investment Bank. It needs more than a voluntary regulation code and it may mean the Government has to underwrite some of the loans. We need to grow up and realise we need a strategy for the provision of housing, where both the public and private sector have a role and where an affordable and secure public rental sector is part of the housing mix. We need to address the crazy procurement policies for local authorities which often mean it can take six months to re-let local authority housing units. There are 49 such houses in Kildare which could be re-let but will not be available for months.

In many ways, the crisis that started with the economic crash in 2007 is worse now than ever before. The impacts have been deferred but are being felt in a real way now. The issue of unsustainable mortgages has got to a point that we are going to see large-scale repossessions, adding thousands more to housing waiting lists that stand at 90,000 families. The Government’s amendment "welcomes the Government's commitment to end long-term homelessness by 2016." How will it do this? We deserve to know how.

The problem is getting worse by the night with people and their children sleeping in cars. We are better than this. I believe we are more humane than this. What is occurring is not acceptable to any right-thinking person. Focus Ireland, the Simon Community, Threshold, the Peter McVerry Trust, Crosscare and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul have said there is a crisis.

The Simon Community has said it is beyond a crisis and is heading towards a disaster. It is a real tragedy for the people who are the subject of it.

It is not acceptable that we are now seeing average families becoming homeless. If the Minister of State will not use her power in government to deal with this, I would say this Government is not fit to govern.

There are 90,000 people on the social housing waiting list at present. This represents a 30% increase on the 2007 figure. One in five of these people has been on the list for more than five years. The combination of cuts to rent allowance and other social welfare payments, the increase in rents and the introduction of zero-hour contracts is putting tenants in the private rental market in an impossible position. I discussed the need for rent control with the Minister of State recently. I believe we should take a serious look at what our German and French counterparts are doing in order to better protect tenants and prevent landlords from hiking up rents. Almost one third of all buy-to-let mortgages are now in arrears, which means the tenants in these properties find themselves in a very unclear position. To whom should they pay their rents? What are their rights if the banks decide to increase their rents? I note that Threshold has called for the Residential Tenancies Act to be amended to ensure that when receivers take control of properties, they step into the shoes of landlords and assume their responsibilities.

A basic search on a website like daft.ie quickly shows how difficult the situation has become for people who depend on rent allowance. Most advertisements indicate that the landlord will not accept rent allowance. In my constituency of Wexford, the maximum rent limit under the rent supplement scheme for a single person living in shared accommodation is €250 a month. When a member of my staff searched daft.ie yesterday, she found just three properties that meet this criterion. All three advertisements stated clearly that rent allowance would not be accepted. I suggest that it should be illegal for landlords to refuse tenants who are in receipt of rent allowance. According to the Department of Social Protection, some 80,000 people are receiving rent allowance. Many landlords are excluding these people from the private rental market.

Vulnerable young people are among those most adversely affected by current Government and landlord policies. Even if they can find a landlord willing to accept rent allowance, they are likely to be priced out of the market due to the rent limits imposed by the Minister, Deputy Burton, and the price increases. Social housing and private rental accommodation are two of the main exits out of homelessness. Both are essentially unavailable to homeless people in the present climate. The significant barriers that are preventing homeless people from accessing the private rental market are leaving most such people trapped in emergency homeless accommodation. Rents in Dublin have increased by 18% since 2011. The level of rent allowance payable by the Department of Social Protection has fallen by 28% in the same period.

As Fr. Peter McVerry has said, the 90% drop in social housing output between 2007 and 2011 has resulted in a 100% increase on the social housing waiting list. The number of people on the list increased from over 43,000 in 2005 to almost 90,000 today. Fr. McVerry has pointed out that the Government's allocation of funding for the construction of 449 new homes over the next two years would reduce the waiting list by 2% if the list was not growing all the time. It clear that the Government does not have a coherent plan to deal with the housing and homelessness crisis. When John McManus wrote about the rapid increase in Dublin house prices in The Irish Times recently, he argued that "policy in this area continues to be made on the hoof and is vulnerable to all the special pleading and political lobbying that served the public interest so badly the last time around". He continued:

The rapid increase in Dublin house prices clearly took the Government by surprise. It also seems to have no idea what is the root cause of it and thus what is the solution. As a result, vested interests have filled the vacuum and seem to be driving the policy response.

It has been admitted that 10,000 new social housing units will be needed each year if this crisis is to be dealt with. According to an article in today's The Irish Times, the national total for the number of local authority houses built last year was just 293. By comparison, some 5,000 social housing units were built in 2007, bad and all as things were at the time. The article points out that "The State has handed responsibility for providing homes for social welfare recipients over to a private sector that, now it no longer needs them, doesn’t want them". Fr. Peter McVerry said recently that "after 30 years of working to eliminate homelessness, I believe the problem is now worse than ever, perhaps even out of control". Is the Government actually interested in building the number of social housing units that are required?

Yes, whenever we can get the money.

The Government is able to get the money for some things. It would be great if it could get the money for this.

It was able to get money for bankers and bondholders.

That was the previous Government.

Keep blaming them.

This is probably the most immediate crisis that faces many people in Ireland today. Does the Government know where it would build these units? Does it know what kind of units it would build? Has it learned from the mistakes of the past? Are we looking at the sort of social units we should be providing that would be fit for family use? We did not do that in the past.

We have a great deal of information.

Is there an appetite to stand up to the neoliberal agenda, which would like to place all social services in the hands of the private sector? I am not sure the Government has learned anything from the property crisis that ended in disaster and collapse in 2007. Property prices and rents are increasing dramatically at present. The Government has no control over it. There is no regulation of the market and no control of the market. Neoliberalism is alive and well. Has the Government examined who owns the development land that is zoned for private-sector building in Dublin? Who owns it?

A variety of people.

Does the Government know who owns it? How many people have access to it? How many people own all of that land? Who is going to control the price of it? Why not consider a proposal that was recommended in this House many years ago, to the effect that it should not be possible for development land to be sold beyond a certain percentage above the price being achieved for agricultural land? Why does the Government not do that?

The bad boys in Fine Gael again.

It will have no control over the price of property until it controls the price of development land.

Why did somebody not think of that several years ago?

If the Government wants to, it can regulate the price of development land, the price of residential property, or the price of rent. It has to want to do so. I do not think the Government has an appetite to do this. I do not suggest that this is the first Government to choose not to do this. As far as I can recall in my lifetime, none of its predecessors chose to take this approach. It is essential that control over property and development land does not remain in the hands of a small group of people in the private sector. The small group of people who own the land will continue to control the prices unless the Government decides to regulate and control it.

I have to say that the Minister of State's sniping and interrupting of Deputies during this debate does not augur well for the finding of a solution to this problem.

I only interrupted one Deputy.

To me, it represents the Government's persistent attitude of trying to minimise the scale of the problem and deny that it exists. Every Government backbencher knows that we are talking about an absolute crisis of proportions that have probably not been seen for decades. The Minister of State will not serve the citizens well by denying that truth or by interrupting Deputies. Equally, it is unacceptable to ask where the necessary moneys might be found given that tens of millions of euro have been handed to the banks. It is twice as unacceptable for a Labour Party Minister to act in such a manner.

It is demoralising in some ways that we even need to have this discussion. Given that we have been able for decades to send people to the moon or wherever, that we are able to send unmanned drones over thousands of miles and that our society has accumulated greater wealth than at any time in our previous history, it is almost overwhelming that we are living in an era when one of the most basic human rights - the right to shelter - is seen as too much of a luxury. That is what is happening not in a so-called Third World country, but in a so-called advanced capitalist country, which has been through an unprecedented boom, much of which centred on the construction industry. One really could not make this thing up.

A room over someone's head is more than bricks and mortar - it is a human right. The delivery of housing should be a starting point because it is the foundation of so many other aspects of life, such as human health. We know of citizens whose mental and physical health has been irreversibly destroyed by being forced to live in inadequate accommodation. All of us know that children's education is suffering because their parents have to uproot them from their communities on a regular basis when they have to start all over again in new areas. Those children will never recover from that. This affects all aspects of life.

It is an absolute indictment of neoliberal capitalism. The Minister will have heard the joke that after our construction boom we will be the first generation to stand in a field with our children and say we remember when this was all houses. It is the legacy of an unregulated market in which houses were built on flood plains, were falling down around people because of pyrite, were built without regard to fire hazards, and so on. It was the same lack of regulation highlighted by the judge in yesterday's court case. It is proof positive that the free market does not work. The only way the housing crisis will be solved is through a massive State-led programme to build and regulate the housing market. We are paying the price of an over-reliance and over-facilitating of the private sector to deliver housing. As a result, some people have become very wealthy while other people's basic needs are not being met, and the greatest scandal in some ways is that the State is paying more for an inadequate service.

The Government has made much of the point that we live in constrained times. The Minister of State made the point that we have not got the money. However, the rot started long before her Government came into power. I was a councillor in Fingal County Council for 13 years and even during the boom the State house building programme was incredibly limited. One of the key reasons was the failure to implement the Kenny report and control the price of building land. Yet we spend hundreds of millions of euro every year subsidising the private rental sector rather than delivering a national house-building programme. The excuse for house building the Government is putting together is pathetic. First, we need to recognise that there is a crisis. That has not been the Government's approach, nor has it been the approach of the Minister of State so far tonight.

All of us have been presented with devastating cases. For the first time in many years as a public representative, I and my staff have had to tell people there is nothing we can do because there are no houses available in the range of prices of Government rent supplement levels. Even if there were, the landlords would not take rent supplement. This discrimination against people in receipt of a welfare payment has not been outlawed by the Government, which is disgraceful. Not enough houses are being built. We are telling people they have been on the list for only six years. People have to choose whether to move from their areas, uprooting their children from their schools; to lie and make up the difference themselves - which we all know everybody does - to the tune of hundreds of euro, pauperising their families; or to go into homeless accommodation, which is totally inadequate and costs the State more.

I could have spent my whole seven minutes talking about tragic cases from my area. A young family with a son in a wheelchair was forced into homeless accommodation and moved miles from their area and their son's special school. A woman with three children is living in her car. A young mother who gets nothing is spending €930 per month on a one-bedroom unit for her children. Couples with children are in city centre hostels and are bringing those children to school in Swords. This is absolute lunacy. We need to address this matter.

While I do not have time to develop the points, one way of not addressing the crisis is by failing to deal with people who are in housing but struggling with their mortgages, failing to address what the banks are doing, and adding to the homeless list. We need rent controls. Everybody else can do it; I do not see why we cannot. We need to immediately address the inadequate levels of rent supplement. We need to deal with the mushrooming of voluntary housing agencies, which should be investigated. Why can the local authorities not be empowered with the capital to build houses? Why do we need these multiple housing agencies? One of them took out a loan of €2 million to get new city centre offices when it already had a city centre office. How many chief executives are there and how many millions of euro are we wasting on that system? We are talking about lives, and the Government's response has been hopelessly inadequate.

I came with a prepared script with statistics, but I do not see the point in reading it because I have been looking at the Minister of State since we introduced the motion and all she has done is read something else. She is not paying any attention.

I have been listening.

I spent the last two weeks canvassing in my constituency for certain people who I hope will be elected, and people's feelings about the Government's arrogance are coming across on the doorsteps. The Government does not care and is not listening or paying attention.

On a point of information, I have heard everything that has been said.

As we discuss the important issue of housing, there is one Government Member sitting across from us, and nobody from the Labour Party. I hope the media takes that into account. When everybody here is out canvassing tomorrow, they should tell the 90,000 people and their families and friends that the response they got to a motion on a subject as important as housing was that one Government Member came into the Chamber to hear what is happening in society.

I have spoken here on housing when there was nobody sitting opposite.

It is arrogance beyond belief. It is contemptuous. It is arrogance personified. It is appalling.

When I was mayor of Waterford three years ago, a young couple whom I have known since they were 15 years old came in to me and said they had lost their house. The week before that they had sold their television and a few weeks before that they had sold their car to try to keep their house. The banks did not listen and put them out of their house. The girl collapsed on the floor, which the ushers in Waterford City Council can confirm, and had to be helped and given tea and water. I met that girl a few weeks ago and she is destroyed because she has lost her house and is still in rented accommodation. If the Minister of State saw the appalling accommodation she is in, it would make her sick.

The Minister of State calls herself socialist and left wing. She is not, because she has not met people who are dying while they are living because of the conditions in which they live. The Minister of State has no compassion. She can shake her head all she likes. The Government side of the Chamber is empty while we discuss housing, while people are sleeping in cars, crying and becoming ill, while children are becoming disabled and 200,000 children are living in poverty. The latest statistics report that one in five children is living in poverty. The Government should call an election, fall and be put out of office because of how it has treated the 90,000 people on the housing lists. Everybody here would welcome an election even if we lost our seats because the Government would be put out of office, and deservedly so because of the contemptuous way it has treated people.

Decent people in the Labour Party, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would agree that when we leave this Chamber on Thursday or Friday and return to our constituencies, our advice centres will be inundated with housing cases, including homeless people, people in poor housing and people not able to get rent allowance or who are waiting four or five months for it. Can the Minister of State imagine the despair in which people live? At the beginning of time, when man and woman settled, the two necessities for survival were a house and something to eat. In 2014 more people than ever are homeless and on the housing list, 200,000 children are hungry and nearly a quarter of our population are unemployed and hungry. Those are facts, and the Government's answer is to have two Deputies in the House - one in the Chair and the Minister of State. It is outrageous. I am disgusted. I do not want to say anything else.

Has the Deputy nothing constructive to say?

It is a disgrace. I should not have bothered to come here and speak. The way the Minister of State treated people here was a disgrace. She was not paying any attention.

Thank you. I will chair the proceedings.

Tá seanfhocal againn, "Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin." Tá sé soiléir go bhfuil daoine nach bhfuil a dtinteáin féin acu agus go bhfuil an uimhir sin ag dul in airde.

The first line of our motion says it all: "There exists a current housing and homelessness emergency in the country that must be addressed as a matter of urgency". Part of me feels we could have just left it at that, because then we might have come to a general consensus that there is an emergency and a crisis that will worsen unless it is dealt with as a matter of urgency.

We know the facts which have been highlighted by many of us here, in the media and by those directly involved in housing provision. In particular, I will consider three issues, the first of which is local authority housing in Dublin. There is just not enough available to meet demand and we know that little or no housing is being built. There is an excessive and unacceptable number of voids in potentially good accommodation in flat complexes and estates; some of these properties are left for far too long, even years, without occupants. I know that €15 million has been released to deal with this issue, but it is only a drop in the ocean in terms of what is needed, particularly given what I see in Dublin Central. We know that sufficient funding is not available to provide the required social housing. We can see how we have ended up, despite all the tax incentives and breaks in the so-called good years. The ghost estates are inaccessible, with no transport, services or schools.

In the case of private accommodation, I am very critical of the landlords I have seen in Dublin Central. I accept that there are responsible landlords, but I have seen too many rogue landlords with tenants at their mercy. They have no concern whatever for the condition of the property they rent and many are still not registered with the Private Residential Tenancies Board. As they do not follow up on subletting, there is serious overcrowding, as well as health and safety issues. These landlords are being let off the hook on social and environmental issues and although some tenants demonstrate serious anti-social behaviour or do dreadful damage to communities, they are allowed to terrorise elderly citizens. Such individuals do the absolute minimum in disposing of rubbish, meaning that there is a massive problem in the north inner city with illegal dumping. The Dublin City Council intensified inspection scheme has thrown up appalling results, but it is not moving fast enough to get landlords to tackle the issues involved.

We all know about the rents issue and some rates are out of proportion to what is being paid for. Stopping rent supplement before tackling rents was incomprehensible. There should have been legislation to bring down rents before looking at rent allowance in a proportionate way. As a result of demand, rents are increasing in the private rental sector; landlords have the pick of tenants and those on rent allowance are ending up homeless. There is also the increase in the number of landlords who will not accept tenants on rent allowance. If people cannot be discriminated against on the basis of gender or ethnicity, why are they being discriminated against on the basis that there are in receipt of rent allowance? I do not begrudge people the €500 million being rolled out for broadband provision in a large number of towns and villages in rural Ireland, but some people in this country do not have a roof over their heads and they certainly do not have broadband when they do not have a home.

I am struck by three elements of the Government's amendment. The Government has indicated that it recognises the high priority it has assigned to housing and homelessness issues, particularly in the housing policy statements from 2011 and 2013. If the issue was a priority, we would not be having this debate or what Fr. Peter McVerry has termed a "tsunami" coming down the road. A second element of the amendment indicates that the Government supports the adoption of the housing-led approach to tackling homelessness, etc. but that is aspirational. We have not seen results but rather an increase in homelessness, with no concrete plans to put in place a strategy to reduce the numbers who are homeless. For example, people come out of rehabilitation with addiction issues, albeit clean and moving into accommodation that is drug-free. As a result of the crisis, those who still use drugs and are living chaotic lives are imposed on such individuals, meaning that the mix is a recipe for disaster. The Department of Social Protection has indicated that there is no evidence regarding top-up rent payments, although it accepts that there are reports on the practice. As we all know that it is happening, I do not know what other evidence can be sought.

I will mention the docklands issue. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is reviewing Part V of the Planning and Development Act and there is a fear that the provision stipulating that 20% of housing be allocated for social use will be eliminated.

With regard to section 25 of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority Act, the 20% of Spencer Dock housing promised for social purposes has not been delivered. The question is whether it will ever happen and it will not if the Part V provisions are dropped. There must be an onus on NAMA, when it releases properties, to have a guaranteed percentage which could even be higher than 20% to be allocated for social housing and money should not be substituted. Strategic development zones in the docklands could be used for housing or community purposes, but they are being lost. This Friday a piece of land right beside the social housing complex will be auctioned by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, but they are not getting a chance to bid. Who will take over this piece of land?

Simon Communities recently made an interesting submission to the committee of which I am a member, making 14 specific recommendations, one of which concerned the slow transfer of housing from NAMA. In the budget the projection was for the release of 4,500 units, but, to date, 518 have been transferred. Much more could be done in this regard. Simon Communities also mentioned a stimulus measure to promote private housing, with mechanisms to improve access to finance for approved housing bodies. Another initiative working in other countries involves allocating resources towards prevention, with an early warning system for those who are in danger of being made homeless.

The housing issue is tied to employment, health and community well-being. There was a perception that this would never happen again, but it has.

I will finish with a quote from a politician who stated, "The most serious social tragedy not just in the capital city but throughout the country must be the scandalous housing situation." The late Tony Gregory said this on 18 May 1982, as he referred to housing waiting lists, substandard and grossly overcrowded conditions and speculation or profiteering in building land. If we go back to the 1930s housing crisis, the banks stopped it being addressed and the issue was not resolved until the 1940s. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

To say there is a crisis in the provision of social housing is certainly an understatement. The chronic problem is exemplified in County Kerry by the alarmingly high numbers on local authority housing lists. The Kerry County Council waiting list includes 1,292 qualified applicants, while the list for the council in Tralee stands at 1,779. The list for the council in Killarney stands at 894 and the list for the council in Listowel at 147. Many have been on the waiting list for between seven and ten years and there is certainly a sense of despair and frustration. Numerous people have given up hope and if they go to clinics or council housing offices, they come up against a closed door. There is an opportunity for the Government to make the necessary funding available to local authorities. That will naturally create an economic position that will lead to the provision of much-needed work, with spin-off advantages. We should look at the positives.

In my own county in 2013 two houses were completed and work on two more was commenced, while four houses were acquired through the provision in planning legislation. The number of vacant houses coming on stream is also quite low. If there is a vacant house, the time in the council getting the keys from the previous occupant, carrying out repairs and engaging in refurbishment can be lengthy. The Department should liaise with all councils and accelerate the timeframe for getting new tenants into houses. It is shameful to see properties locked or sometimes boarded up. We must address the issue immediately.

The rental accommodation scheme in County Kerry catered for 112 families on the waiting list in 2013. There is much merit in the scheme, but the 18-month qualification period should be reduced to six, as this would have a positive influence and expedite the provision of short to medium-term solutions for many on the waiting list.

The Government should take cognisance of the social housing assessment carried out by the local authorities countrywide last year. That study assessed 89,872 households as qualifying for housing support. The corresponding figure in 2008 was 56,249. This is a dramatic increase of 33,000 or more in five years. This must be rectified. The increase cannot be allowed to continue at that rate. Over half, 52%, of the households which qualified for social housing support were categorised as dependent on rent supplement. The next cohort, of over 20,000, or 23% was categorised as unsuitable accommodation due to particular circumstances. These statistics demonstrate the need for the Government to act with speed. This motion proposes that the Government start to build over 80,000 new houses over the next five years, as detailed in the report of the Housing Agency.

I move amendment a1:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:

“acknowledges that the economic downturn and contraction in construction activity since 2008 has created significant difficulties for many communities and individuals across Ireland;

recognises the high priority which the Government has assigned to housing and homelessness issues, particularly in the housing policy statement published in 2011 and the homelessness policy statement published in 2013;

recalls that the Government, in its housing policy statement, recognised that a radically different approach to the provision of social housing was necessary as the prevailing financial parameters would not facilitate a return to large-scale capital funded local authority housing construction programmes in the short to medium term;

recognises that, with the more limited resources available, the main focus in terms of housing supports provided by Government must be on meeting the most acute needs of those unable to provide for their accommodation from their own resources;

in terms of overall funding and delivery of housing supports, welcomes:

— the fact that some €575 million is being provided by the Government in respect of the housing programme in 2014, effectively maintaining funding for housing at 2013 levels;

— the announcement by the Minister of State with special responsibility for housing and planning of the intention to return to mainstream local authority housing construction in 2014 and, in particular, the announcement of a €100 million construction programme over 2014-2015 that will enable local authorities to construct approximately 600 new social homes;

— the provision of a €15 million funding stream to bring vacant and boarded up local authority units back into use, which will provide some 950 homes for families on housing lists;

— the Government’s intention to publish shortly the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014, which, when enacted, will provide a legislative basis for the new housing assistance payment, which will be of significant benefit to long-term recipients of rent supplement; and

— the fact that through the social housing leasing initiative, the rental accommodation scheme, acquisitions and construction programmes, mortgage to rent arrangements and the continued transfer of National Asset Management Agency units, Government supports will result in the delivery of some 5,000 social housing units in 2014;

in terms of addressing homelessness:

— welcomes the Government’s commitment to end long-term homelessness by 2016;

— supports the adoption of a housing-led approach to tackling homelessness, which involves access to permanent housing combined with appropriate ongoing support, as a core aspect of the Government’s homelessness policy statement;

— welcomes the ring-fencing of Government funding for homeless services in budgets 2013 and 2014, in support of the discharge by local authorities of their statutory role in the provision of accommodation for homeless persons; and

— notes the intention to bring forward to Government, in the coming weeks, a structured, practical implementation plan for the homelessness oversight group’s first report;

in terms of the private rented sector:

— recognises that the sector is an increasingly important element of the housing market, with approximately one in five households now renting their home in the private sector;

— recognises that resolution of the housing supply situation is a key element in restoring stability to the rental market;

— acknowledges that the growing evidence of increasing rents, particularly in Dublin, is a cause for concern but notes that, on average, rents in Dublin are still 15.5 % lower than they were at their peak in the fourth quarter of 2007;

— welcomes the Minister of State with special responsibility for housing and planning’s request to the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, to carry out research that will explore options to address the difficulties being experienced in segments of the private rented sector and report back with policy recommendations in that regard before the end of June;

— notes that the Government will be introducing legislative provisions for a deposit protection scheme on Seanad Committee Stage of the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012 which will eliminate the practice of landlords illegally withholding deposits and contribute to the ongoing regulation and development of the rental market; and

— notes that deposit protection and rent arrears cases taken together represent almost 70 % of all disputes referred to the PRTB and that the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012 will provide an effective and efficient solution to these two significant issues;

in relation to the approved housing body, AHB, sector:

— welcomes the publication in July 2013 of Building for the Future, a voluntary regulation code for the AHB sector, which sets out key governance, management and financial principles that AHBs commit to meeting on signing a charter of commitments;

— notes that the Government is currently in consultation with the AHB sector regarding the development of a regulatory framework to support the expanded role for the sector as envisaged in the Government’s housing policy statement; and

— welcomes the proposal in the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012 to extend the remit of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 to AHB dwellings, thereby extending the same rights and obligations that are afforded to landlords and tenants in the private rented sector to those in the AHB sector;

acknowledges that, while the Department of Social Protection is aware of reports of the problem of illegal top-ups to rent supplement, no evidence showing widespread incidence has been presented;

agrees that the most appropriate way of addressing the rights issue in relation to housing is to:

— continue the various programmes and fiscal incentives currently in place;

— secure the necessary level of funding to support them;

— review their operation on an ongoing basis to ensure that they are meeting their objectives; and

— put in place new programmes or measures as required;

supports the Government’s commitment to continue to develop innovative and sustainable approaches to the provision of social housing in the future including through the development of a social housing strategy during 2014; and

welcomes Government steps to address the challenges in the property and construction sectors, including:

— developing an overall strategic approach to housing supply;

— identifying and implementing relevant improvements in the planning process, including Part V;

— seeking to improve financing options for development and mortgage provision; and

— the development of a national construction sector strategy to be finalised shortly.”

I wish to share time with Deputies Mulherin and Ann Phelan.

Opposition Members have referred to the fact that there are approximately 90,000 people on waiting lists but that list was growing steadily during the Celtic tiger era when there were huge sums of money in the country and the houses were not constructed.

I said that I accept that.

The Deputies opposite have accused me of interrupting. There was an unprecedented boom, and I quote a member of the Opposition, but there was very little housing construction during those years when large sums of money flowed around the country and when the housing estates referred to were being built in places where there was no demand for housing. That was because of totally inadequate planning. We are turning that around and are beginning to address the housing issue. We have seriously changed the planning system such that what happened in the past will never happen again. I have issued several directives to local authorities which have proposed to build, for example, on flood plains or where there is no housing demand or proposed developments that are not in accordance with proper planning. I intend to continue to do that and to ensure that we do have proper planning, that we build where there is evidence of a demand and a need and that we do not do what was done in the last years of the Celtic tiger when terrible decisions were made and money was not spent where it should have been and unemployment grew. Deputy Halligan referred to unemployment but we are getting unemployment levels down and it is down to an unprecedented level.

There are community employment and Tús schemes. That is not getting unemployment down.

It is still unacceptable but it is down significantly. Since this Government came into office it has done its best to address the problems that developed at a time when the money was flowing through the country and terrible decisions were made. We have to clean up that mess with very little money. It is all very well to say we should be spending money and constructing houses and so on but I have not been able to do that and neither have my colleagues for the past three years because the previous Government entered into agreements that tied us down to serious cuts in capital spending and there was no way out. That was a formal sovereign agreement, signed by a previous Government on behalf of the Irish people. We were committed to it and we could not spend money we did not have.

I welcome the fact that the Technical Group has raised this important issue. I accept it is a serious problem. I do not deny it is a serious problem but I do not accept that the current Government has created it. That attitude has been building up for several years. Many of the Deputies opposite have spoken in previous debates about people on housing waiting lists for nine or ten years.

You do not care. Look at the state of the country. Look at the unemployment.

The Minister of State is in possession. Deputy Halligan has had an opportunity to speak. I am sure he will be able to contribute again at the conclusion of the debate. He should please do the Minister of State the courtesy of allowing her to speak.

Anybody who has been on a waiting list for nine or ten years was on it during the time when there was a great deal of money in the country and it was not being spent on building social housing.

I completely reject what Deputy Halligan has said. His remarks have been extremely personal. He accused people of not caring and has suggested somehow or other that we do not know what is going on. I represent a constituency very like Deputy Halligan's. I visit housing estates every week where people have the same problems as the people of Waterford and I will not be accused of not caring about it.

I did not mean the Minister of State personally; I meant "you" as a government. It was not personal.

It sounded very personal.

For the past three years we have done our best with very constrained finances available to us to address the serious problems that exist. That is why the housing policy statement published shortly after the Government came into office in 2011 highlighted that meeting social housing need within the available resources for the future will necessitate smarter and more innovative approaches in order to maximise output, and that the main focus in terms of housing supports provided by Government at that time had to be on meeting the most acute needs of those unable to provide for their accommodation from their own resources. This philosophy has informed our policies and programmes since.

We are beginning to turn the economy around and therefore we are able for the first time to announce a mainstream housing programme, albeit limited, with the limited capital available. Almost 70% of the entire budget for my Department this year will go directly to support housing in 2014. The total housing allocation for 2014 will result in an investment of over €0.5 billion on a range of programmes, which maintains funding for housing at 2013 levels. I was also pleased to announce recently a return to mainstream local authority housing construction in 2014 and, in particular, a €68 million construction programme over 2014 to 2015 that will enable local authorities to construct approximately 450 new social homes. I see this as a rolling programme of local authority house construction. I hope to add to the programme in 2015, and if possible in 2014 as well, by announcing a further tranche of new housing starts. I also signalled my intention to approve a €35 million voluntary housing programme which will deliver up to 250 new homes over the 2014-15 period. I intend to announce details of these projects very shortly.

An additional €30 million is being invested in local authority housing in 2014. Some €15 million of this will be used to kick-start the local authority construction programme I referred to earlier. This will be of interest to Deputy Tom Fleming, who raised this issue: €15 million will fund a special measure to bring over 950 vacant and boarded-up units back into social use. A further €10 million will transform the most difficult unfinished housing estates and result in enhanced quality of life for families. That is a legacy issue we must clean up, as Deputy Clare Daly said.

Housing adaptation grants will also benefit by €10 million and this will help older people and people with disabilities to remain at home for longer. In all, over 5,000 social housing units will be provided for in 2014 through leasing and existing capital programmes. This will include 175 new units for people with special housing needs; a further 150 new units, to be provided specifically for people with disabilities leaving institutional care through leasing arrangements; an additional 200 new homes under the social housing investment programme; an additional 950 new units from the construction stimulus package for void properties; up to 350 new transfers under the mortgage to rent scheme; approximately 850 new units through leasing arrangements; and a further 2,500 new transfers under the rental accommodation scheme.

In the context of rising need, the priority must be to maximise delivery of social housing to cater for the greatest level of need at good value. It is just not possible to simply purchase or build anything like the same number of units as can be provided for through a mixture of approaches such as those outlined above. This does not mean turning our backs on traditional modes of delivery but we must tailor those supports according to the market conditions and the financial parameters in which we are working. Flexibility will be key to maximising delivery into the future. I have signalled that I want us to get back into significant construction as soon as we possibly can.

The Government's housing policy statement of June 2011 acknowledged the capacity and track record of the voluntary and co-operative housing sector and placed approved housing bodies, AHBs, at the heart of its vision for social housing provision. AHBs will play a key role in the future in the delivery of social housing and, in particular, in its capacity to attract external financial investment. In response to Deputy Clare Daly's point, that is one of the reasons we are using AHBs. Many in this Chamber have said very good things about organisations such as Focus Ireland and Simon etc.

I have just mentioned two but there are many more.

This recognises the record of steady achievement by the voluntary housing sector ever the last 20 years and the fact that Exchequer-funded large-scale capital building programmes are no longer financially possible, at least at this stage. As new social housing provision will instead rely on revenue funded housing options such as leasing and on private investment into the sector, greater use must be made of the skills and expertise of the AHB sector and its capacity to attract external financial investment which will not count towards the general Government debt.

My Department is working to create a regulatory framework that will provide assurance to stakeholders that the sector is operating well, in accordance with its stated aims and that it is a sound long-term investment option. My Department is currently in consultation with the AHB sector regarding the development of a regulatory framework to support the expanded role for the sector as envisaged in the 2011 statement. This framework will provide support and assurance to the tenants, the boards of AHBs and their external partners that it is well regulated. It will safeguard the investment that has been made in the sector and encourage future investment. The first step in this regard was the publication on 15 July 2013 of Building for the Future, a voluntary regulation code for the sector that is available on my Department's website. The code sets out key governance, management and financial principles that AHBs commit to meeting on signing a charter of commitments. To date, just over 130 AHBs have signed up to the code. It is anticipated that the majority of AHBs will engage with the code as it will present an opportunity to influence the final shape of statutory regulation.

In February this year I announced the establishment of an interim regulatory committee for the sector to oversee the implementation of the code and to advise on the development of statutory regulation. The committee includes experts in regulation, housing, law and finance, and it has been constituted as an independent committee operating, for the time being, within the Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency. Implementation of the voluntary code will be a valuable source of information on the scope and final content of the proposed statutory regulation to be developed by 2016. In addition, there will be widespread consultation in the normal way during the development of the new legal framework

My Department, together with the Housing and Sustainable Communities Agency and the Housing Finance Agency, is currently working with the sector to define more detailed financial benchmarks to which AHBs seeking private financial investment could also sign up to. In the meantime, it remains open to AHBs to apply for external funding, whether from the Housing Finance Agency or from private lenders such as credit unions and other sources. At least seven bodies have been certified by the HFA as eligible for loan finance with approximately €40 million in loans approved.

We are also working to extend to tenants in the AHB sector the same rights and protections afforded to tenants in the private rented sector via the Residential Tenancies Act 2004. While recognising that the vast majority of AHB tenancies work very well, the rights and obligations afforded to landlords and tenants in the private rented sector will soon be extended to the AHB sector via the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012, which has passed through the Dáil and is currently in the Seanad.

The private rented sector is an increasingly important element of the housing market, with the proportion of households in the sector almost doubling in the period from 2006 to 2011. Approximately one in five households is now renting a home in the private sector. Against this background, the growing evidence of increasing rents, particularly in Dublin, is cause for concern. The Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, rent index for the fourth quarter of 2013 showed a year-on-year increase in rents of 3.3% nationally. However, this national average figure masks differences by property type and location. Nationally, rents for houses in the fourth quarter of 2013 were 1.6% higher than the same period in 2012, while rents for apartments were 5.2% higher over the same period. In Dublin, rents for houses increased by 6.4% and for apartments the figure was 8%. It is worth noting however that, on average, rents in Dublin are still 15.5% lower than they were at their peak in the fourth quarter of 2007.

Resolution of the housing supply situation is a key element in restoring stability to the market. In the meantime, there is scope to explore measures that would protect tenants in the short term from the consequences of market failure. I have asked the PRTB to carry out focused research on options for addressing the difficulties being experienced in segments of the private rented sector and to report back to me with policy recommendations in that regard before the end of June. In doing this, I am conscious of the need to avoid introducing measures that would have adverse consequences on the private rented sector. My goal is to achieve stability and sustainability in the market for the benefit of tenants, landlords and society as a whole.

The Residential Tenancies Act 2004 sets out the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants in the private rented residential sector. The PRTB was established as an independent statutory body under the Act to operate a national tenancy registration system and to resolve disputes between landlords and tenants in the sector. It should be noted that the PRTB replaces the courts for the vast majority of landlord and tenant disputes. For a fee of €25, which is low compared to the cost of initiating full court proceedings, parties to a dispute can apply to the PRTB for adjudication or mediation services rather than go through the courts system. Demand for the PRTB's services has grown significantly in recent years, reflecting sizable growth in the private rented sector. The board has responded to these challenges by pursuing a programme of outsourcing, shared services and improved ICT systems. An online registration system was launched in November 2010, online dispute management services were introduced in 2012 and a programme of shared services has involved electronic tracking of legal documentation and, most recently, the launch in 2013 of a quarterly rent index in association with the Central Statistics Office.

In addition to these efficiency measures, legislative changes are in train to support of the work of the PRTB. In November 2012, I introduced the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, which will, inter alia, streamline and simplify aspects of the Act to assist the board in meeting its service obligations. The Government recently approved the drafting of amendments to the Bill which include measures to address long-standing issues such as deposit retention and the non-payment of rent in dispute cases, which are the most common dispute types brought before the board, accounting for close to 37% of all dispute types in 2012. The Bill will also provide for the separation of the governance and quasi-judicial functions of the board and will simplify the mediation process

In regard to security of tenure, an issue I know to be of interest to the Technical Group, the grounds on which a tenancy in the private rented sector may be legally terminated are set out in the Residential Tenancies Act 2004. In addition, the Act contains provisions relating to the setting of rent and rent reviews and sets out the procedures and notice periods that must be complied with when terminating a tenancy. The Act prohibits the setting of a rent that is greater than the market rent for a particular tenancy. A difficulty arises when there is market failure and there is evidence of this in the form of a lack of supply of suitable properties, mainly in the bigger cities and especially so in Dublin. In 2006, housing completions in Dublin had risen to 19,470, or approximately 21% of the national total of 93,419. In 2013, of the 8,301 housing units built nationally, only 1,360, or just over 16%, were in Dublin.

Rent supplement is administered as part of the supplementary welfare allowance by the Department of Social Protection. The purpose of rent supplement is to provide short-term support to eligible people living in private rented accommodation, whose means are insufficient to meet their accommodation costs and who do not have access to accommodation from any other source. The overall aim is to provide short-term assistance rather than to act as an alternative to the other social housing schemes operated by the Exchequer. There are currently approximately 78,000 rent supplement recipients, for which the Government has provided over €344 million for 2014. To facilitate a top-up arrangement, the tenant, landlord or landlord's agent must complete the rent supplement application and jointly declare that the information provided is correct and accurate. The application form clearly states that making a false statement or withholding information may lead to prosecution. In June 2012, the Department of Social Protection introduced powers of inquiry for staff to formally request and oblige landlords to provide information in respect of rent supplement tenants to further improve the governance arrangements. In such cases the Department's representative will discuss the circumstances of the case with the tenant before making any decision on ongoing entitlement. The primary concern in dealing with such cases is to protect the tenant.

When I spoke earlier of the need to focus on the needs of the most vulnerable in our communities, one of the groups I was referring to was those who are homeless. In February 2013, the Government's homelessness policy statement was published. The statement elaborates on commitments made in the programme for Government to review and update the national homeless strategy to end long-term homelessness and the need to sleep rough by 2016. I intend to reach that target. The statement emphasises a housing-led approach, which involves accessing permanent housing as the primary response to all forms of homelessness. As this is a priority matter for Government, the decision was taken to ring-fence funding for homeless services in budgets 2013 and 2014 in support of the discharge by local authorities of their statutory role in the provision of accommodation for homeless persons.

The availability and supply of secure, affordable and adequate housing is essential in ensuring sustainable tenancies and ending long-term homelessness. In the past two years in Dublin, some 1,500 people have moved from homeless services to independent living, with the necessary supports. When the policy statement was published I also established a homelessness oversight group to review progress, identify obstacles and propose solutions. The group submitted its first report last December following which, on 25 February 2014, the Government approved the establishment of a homelessness policy implementation team and an implementation unit.

The team has been asked to implement the recommendations of the oversight group's report. This includes the preparation and publication of a structured, practical plan to make the transition from a shelter-led to a sustainable housing-led response. This plan will be a practically focused delivery plan and will contain actions that are direct, immediate and solution-based. I will be going back to Cabinet in coming weeks in order to ensure we have full approval for the various actions that need to take place with regard to that programme.

The Government, including my Department, is taking steps to address the challenges in the property and construction sectors. These will include the development of an overall strategic approach to housing supply, identifying and implementing relevant improvements in the planning process and the completion of the review of Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000 in the near future, while also seeking to improve financing options for development and mortgage provision. My Department is also committed to delivering a social housing strategy later this year.

The forthcoming construction sector strategy, which is being led by the Department of the Taoiseach and which other Departments, including my own, are feeding into, builds on recent work on the construction sector, including the publication of a Forfás report, a Government statement last July and more recent targeted measures in budget 2014. The strategy aims to support increased activity and job creation, primarily through the identification and removal of any obstacles that might be acting as a brake on or disincentive to activity. It is expected to be considered by the Government shortly.

I thank the Members of the House for listening to my contribution. I have endeavoured, through my amendment to the motion, to reassure Deputies of the priority the Government accords to the issues of housing and homelessness through the range of actions it is taking to improve the situation for the most vulnerable members of our society. As I said at the outset, concern in this area is not the preserve of any one side of this House. As Minister of State, I am working every day to find new ways, better ways and more ways to provide additional housing and to achieve the Government's target of ending long-term homelessness and the need to sleep rough by 2016, and to improve access to secure and suitable housing for all.

The role of housing and the housing market in our economic downfall is well documented, and the problems we now face - though of a different nature - reflect the effects of the downturn on our economy. As we continue to recover, it is critical that housing is accorded its proper place as a critical social and economic asset, providing homes where people can grow and flourish. Housing is fundamental to our development as a society. Nobody, least of all I as Minister of State, would say we do not have a long way to go, but let there be no doubt of our commitment to deliver housing and to a programme of meaningful and sustainable reform. There is no point in pretending that we can magic houses from thin air, but there are ways, with resources, innovation and political will, to deliver those homes.

I welcome the Minister of State's statement. It is hard to believe that only a few years ago the national conversation was about the oversupply of houses and there was even talk about knocking down housing estates in order to correct the situation. It is very clear both anecdotally and in media reports that there are people in the big urban centres who have serious problems in accessing housing to have a home for themselves.

However, as we embark on planning to meet people's housing needs in all shapes and forms - through the private sector, social housing and so on - we should remember that nearly 2,500 housing units offered by NAMA for social housing were rejected as not being required because obviously those houses were in areas without such a need. I have some experience of this in County Mayo, where a quarter of houses in new housing estates - more in some estates - are vacant. It is very clear that the solution there would not be to build new social housing units, even though we have considerable local authority housing waiting lists. We need some combination of working with the private sector and private rented accommodation to ensure that people's housing needs are met.

In regard to the recent changes in rent supplement and rent allowance, the manner in which the changes have been introduced and the capping of rent payable to landlords who are accepting rent supplement are arbitrary and unrealistic in some cases. It is leading to unnecessary hardship for people who have no alternative.

Some people who are in mortgage distress would like to pursue the solution of a voluntary housing association taking over their house so that they can rent it back. In this way they would not lose their homes. I understand there are major difficulties in proceeding along this line. We need to ensure the scheme set up by Government is operating as we would like to see it operate, and any issues there should be addressed.

I wish to raise one issue on the housing policy side with the Minister of State, which is the assessment of housing need. I refer in particular to separated persons. Of late people seem to be put under extraordinary pressure to come up with a formal legal separation or divorce. In some cases people never go down that route, but it is never in dispute that the parties are living apart, and the wife with children may be left in the family home. They may never have engaged a solicitor for many reasons. Under the law, at every step people may reconcile. I am not saying that is realistic in many situations. It seems strange that both the housing authority and the Department of Social Protection are pressing these people to make legal something that they may choose not to. The important point is that these people have a housing need and if they have sufficient evidence we should not be sending them to solicitors to formalise their legal separations in order to tick a box confirming that they have a housing need if it can be established otherwise.

I welcome the €50 million the Minister of State has allocated to addressing the problem of long-term voids in the local authority housing stock. However, there is a problem in the way planned maintenance is proceeding, particularly regarding the heating systems that are being installed. In recent years, when an older heating system such as a solid-fuel heating system with a back boiler is being replaced, oil-fired central heating is being installed instead. In these times, when everything seems to be geared to reducing our carbon emissions and we are levying a carbon tax on people, it is extraordinary that we cannot be more imaginative when we are upgrading heating systems for these tenants and give them a system that will last for years, given that in many cases they cannot afford to pay for the oil. That needs to be seriously addressed, as Government funds are being put into this.

I appreciate the opportunity to speak on the motion. I assure Deputy Halligan that I take the problem of homelessness and housing very seriously. I have spoken a number of times, including in the past month, on similar issues. Nobody is denying that there is a crisis with housing and homelessness. All Members in the House and our colleagues in the local authorities are dealing with large numbers of housing-related queries. I sit on the Labour Party sub-committee on housing, and we have drafted a report for the Minister of State listing the areas in housing in which we want to see change. I understand that the Minister of State finds herself in a very difficult situation, although she has been very active in responding to the contents of that report. Even if we had the money, it would possibly take two or three years before people would find themselves in a home.

I will not go on about the legacy issues we were left with.

A major flaw in the housing policy of the Fianna Fáil-led Government was that the local authority had to raise funds by the number of planning permissions it granted. That was a fundamental flaw because the regulatory authority had to give planning permissions to get a funding stream to deliver houses. It was a kind of stick approach to local authorities in that the more planning permissions they granted, the more money they got in, which was very wrong. When I was on Kilkenny County Council, any time we tried to draw attention to housing issues such as this and said permission had been granted for 300 houses in the back of beyond where there was no chemist, no shop and no school, we were always told we were anti-development by our Fianna Fáil colleagues. The Labour Party members on the county councils were always told they were anti-development. If we had been able to fight harder on those councils for what we believed in, we would not be in this situation but nobody wanted to listen to us. Now everybody is talking about the housing crisis. We inherited this housing crisis.

I commend the Minister of State on what she is doing and for being on top of her brief. I very much welcome today's approval by Cabinet of the publication of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014. The three main elements of the Government's housing policy will bring clarity and purpose to how we deal with the serious problems in this area, as outlined by the Minister of State, introduce a new tenant purchase scheme for local authority tenants, provide a legislative basis for the new housing assistance payment, HAP, and reform the process for the termination of local authority tenancies.

I would like to draw attention to a point Deputy Wallace raised, which I have raised with the Minister of State a number of times, namely, the need for the Government to get seriously involved in the rental sector and to try to bring about stability in that sector. One sees a house on daft.ie priced at €850 per month but stating that no rent allowance tenants need apply. That is dreadful and we need to do something about it. Governments in France, Italy, Austria and on the Continent take a very heavy-handed approach to the rental sector and it is possibly the way we have to go.

I support the motion proposed by the Technical Group and I thank Deputy Catherine Murphy for the proposal she put to the House. We all know there is a need for radical action to tackle the housing crisis, in particular in Dublin, but as other speakers said there is also a need for more housing in the large urban centres throughout the country. The big issue is how we deal with this.

There were some harrowing stories over the past week on the plight of homeless families. The two stories about which I read and about which there has been much publicity were that of a mother and her five children who have spent the past three months in a hotel room in west Dublin and of a mother and her three children who have lived and slept in a car. In an editorial last Saturday, The Irish Times asked how this could happen in 2014. It stated that in one of the situations, home was a hotel room used to accommodate a young family of six while in the other situation, home was a car, the last resort of a family of four. Both stories suggest a new dimension to homelessness in that we are not talking about individuals but about families and, increasingly, children feature in homelessness.

I am informed that in Dublin, more than 170 families, including 500 children, have been allocated temporary hotel accommodation by the local authorities and have to join the queue for social housing. That is why I particularly like the reference in the motion to situations involving children and offering emergency accommodation within a reasonable distance from the children's schools. It is appalling that children would have to be taken out of a school because their accommodation is a distance from where they are staying.

The right to a home for every citizen is vital, as is permanent, secure and affordable housing. I hope we can support a strong social and private housing sector. However, I believe Ireland is falling behind in the way we provide units of housing - I prefer to call them "homes" - for families. We must address how we can make more homes available. The transfer of NAMA units is always mentioned as being very important. Developing housing associations is important, as is generally encouraging housing development.

We are aware that the construction industry has suffered a shocking level of decline, collapsing to just about 6.5% of GNP, which is well below the international average. The dramatic deficit in private sector housing is mirrored by the spiralling waiting list in social housing. We are told that more than 90,000 householders are on the social housing waiting list. We talk about transferring NAMA units into housing but only 10% of homes earmarked by NAMA for social housing have been transferred to local authorities. I hope we can take steps to tackle the private and the social housing situations.

Reference was made to the voluntary housing associations. I would like to see them accessing credit and starting to build and tenants being able to purchases houses, where appropriate, which they cannot do currently. I mentioned the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Ballinasloe to the Minister of State previously, and I do so again. It might be unusual for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to be involved in housing but, as the Minister of State knows, there is a trust in Galway city and in rural Galway which means there is funding available for the society to provide housing. In the case of Ballinasloe, it is through Clúid, the housing agency. Clúid is the Irish word for "cover" or "shelter". Indeed, it is particularly expert in providing sheltered housing. The proposals under the capital assistance programme should be looked at and there is certainly one from Ballinasloe.

There are specialist units in every local authority to deal with disabled persons' housing, disabled persons' grants and tenant purchases. I would like to see the same type of units for NAMA. My information is that NAMA identified 4,500 residential properties as potentially suitable for social housing and so far 518 have been delivered. The figures are very stark. In the first three quarters of last year, a mere 253 social housing units were built compared to 5,000 in 2007. Obviously, there is a need to find a way to provide more housing.

The Minister of State talked about the mortgage-to-rent scheme, which we have raised in the House. There certainly have been stumbling blocks along the way and Clúid has talked about the banking sector as being a very serious stumbling block.

It has talked about 566 cases being referred to it and the banks withdrawing 240 cases. It is disappointing that is happening. The economist, Alan Ahearne, talked about central banks around the world driving interest rates and bond yields to low levels, but he said that in this country those policies have not resulted in lower interest rates on new mortgages. In fact, he said that banks have increased borrowed costs on new loans in part to cross-subsidise loss-making tracker mortgages. There is a boost for the housing market when people shift some of their savings into housing or when they get worried about DIRT tax or pension levies. According to Alan Ahearne, that partially explains the influx of the cash-rich buyers who have come into the market. In essence, he is saying that we should look at having more homes in the right places.

Dublin has been highlighted but in the suburbs of Cork and Galway there are increasing worries about homelessness. In Galway, for example, the HSE has 123 extra people on the homeless list. The Disability Federation of Ireland has also expressed concern that almost 4,000 people with disabilities were in need of social housing last year. I hope we can make progress and work on the basis of the motion before the House.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the issue. I wish to offer some insight into what is happening in Cork City Council, for example, and to share some ideas that might assist to address the issues. I do not expect the Government to be able to resolve every issue that presents. I understand the constraints under which the Government operates. However, we might be able to address some of the problems with some clever initiatives.

Approximately 500 units in Cork are vacant at any one time. Many of them are boarded up or shuttered. In effect, when a house is given back to the city council due to a transfer or is taken in charge for whatever reason, an inspection is carried out and more than likely the house is left vacant for a while before being boarded up at a later stage. Units can be vacant for as long as two or three years. I was in Mary Aikenhead Place on the north side of Cork city recently where 11 of the finest apartments are vacant, some of them for nearly three years. That is the situation in one small community while at the same time more than 8,000 people are on the housing list. I do not point the finger at Cork City Council or the Government but this is the practical reality on the ground. The Minister of State, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, is aware of the situation in her constituency. It is difficult to reconcile having 8,000 people waiting for housing and at the same time there being 500 houses vacant and decaying.

When the city council gets around to allocating a house, it must first rip out the contents and put in new furnishings. When a house becomes vacant, it could be presented to a family who would be willing to work on the house themselves or get a recognised contractor to do the work. One could reward such effort and initiative by transferring part ownership to the tenant. That would take the problem off the city council's hands. This is not a political point; it is an observation. Families are under huge pressure and stress on waiting lists, some of them for eight years or nine years, and it is difficult to reconcile the idea of vacant houses throughout Cork city. The population of Cork city and county is about one tenth of the overall population – it has a better percentage in hurling All-Irelands - but in general if it is happening in Cork, it is happening elsewhere throughout the country. We have potentially in excess of 5,000 boarded-up units across the State. Thousands of families could be granted such houses by local authorities and enter into a formal arrangement to allow for a transfer of ownership over a period to reward the tenants who get the house for their investment in it. They could start paying a partial rent or undertake a capital purchase over a period.

The Government will not resolve the problem of the number of vacant houses in the coming years with its current resources and on the basis of the allocation to Cork City Council. The number of vacant houses will not be significantly reduced. Currently, Cork City Council is responsible for approximately 50 completions a year. There are approximately 500 vacant units and approximately 180 allocations, on average 15 a month. With the best will in the world, given the capital grants made available to Cork City Council for completions, progress will not be made and we will go backwards. That is an observation as opposed to a political point. It is a fact. We must be imaginative in our response.

People ask why the public is disconnected from politics and why they say politicians are all the one. They ask why we cannot do the practical things right and make a difference in people’s lives. The proposal I outlined would be one simple way to do that. It is difficult to reconcile the idea that a house is taken in charge by the city council, that it inspects it, waits until a few stones are thrown through a window or a couple of gurriers climb in the back window and strip it and then the council puts up shutters, leaves the property for two years while waiting for a grant to come through to refurbish the house that was in perfect condition the day it was vacated, in order to give it to a family that needed the house two years previously and would have been willing to go into it and refurbish it on a partial basis or as they went along.

I visited some of the houses to which I refer. They are in perfect condition when they are handed over. The furnishings are of good quality and the bathrooms and kitchens are in good order. All that is required is new carpets and paint and for the electrics to be checked. That should not take two and a half years. The Minister of State should consider the notion of a partial transfer of ownership. The tenants could make a partial purchase and pay the remainder in rent. A scheme could be worked out. The Minister of State should consider such an approach to address vacant properties.

When one gives a person a sense of ownership, he or she responds in kind because it is in one’s interest to respond in such a way. It is in the interests of a person to invest in a property if it is his or her home for a long period. That is a way to address a problem local authorities cannot address currently. If Cork City Council is doing 50 completions in a year and there are 500 vacant properties, it will never fully address the problem. We are faced with people continually coming to constituency offices saying their son, daughter or family are waiting for a house for up to seven years while at the same time there is a house next door to their mother, family home or community that has been idle for two years and is now trashed and boarded up. I urge the Minister of State to examine the issue for many reasons because it would allow people to move into homes immediately which would benefit communities and assist local authorities, given that with the current capital allocation and resources and a cap on recruitment of staff, they will never be able to resolve the situation in the short to medium term. In the meantime, such units as I described at Mary Aikenhead Place and elsewhere throughout Cork city will lie vacant, vandalised, in decay and diminish communities. I urge the Minister of State to examine the issue as a matter of urgency as it might assist individuals and communities.

Last Friday there was a photograph of a young family on the front page of many newspapers. The story was that the young woman concerned and her family had slept in a car. There was much media interest in the case. On the same day a different family from Tallaght visited me. The young woman was five months pregnant and she had a three year old child, and she and her partner had slept in a car the previous night.

The story that ran in the newspapers is not unusual.

Last night, I had a telephone call from a niece of mine in Clondalkin about a young woman and her family who were being put out of their home by the landlord and who was presenting today to South Dublin County Council, SDCC. Last Friday, when I tried to get accommodation for the woman who is pregnant, the council said it had no emergency accommodation. I was given the telephone number for the Dublin City Council area and when I tried to call, there were 25 people in the queue before me. Eventually, I got through and I was told there was a difficulty. The council did not have anything and the staff were annoyed that I had been referred by SDCC to their office. I could feel the tension down the line as they tried to deal with the problem. Their solution was to split the family up but they had no accommodation for the young child. Currently, a number of families live in hotel accommodation in the SDCC area. Each family shares one room but they do not have facilities, particularly for children. They have no facility to clean or wash clothes, etc. These mean added expense for them. Those that are on social welfare payments also face a difficulty that must be sorted out with the local authority.

The woman to whom I spoke earlier who has presented as homeless had been taken in by a neighbour because no accommodation was available. However, at 5 p.m., she received a telephone call to say bed and breakfast accommodation was available in town. I am relating these stories because a huge number of families are experiencing these conditions. Two families a week present at my office in circumstances such as this. Landlords are saying they want to increase the rents because the rent supplement is no longer sufficient and eventually families are put out of their homes. The difficulty is, as I pointed out to the Minister of State during a debate a few weeks ago, that no accommodation is available to rent in Dublin South West. Other Members can probably outline a similar story in their constituencies. There is what I would describe as a crisis, although the Minister might describe it as something else. However, all of us will agree there is a problem that needs to be fixed.

Six months ago, many of the local authorities were coping with the housing problem, the provision of emergency accommodation and so on but they are not coping now and they cannot manage the number of people presenting. This will get worse, not better, and no emergency measures or new approaches are being taken to deal with the problem, which is my biggest worry. There is a general consensus that this is a crisis and we would like alternatives to emerge from this debate. I refer to the proposal related to the turnover of housing stock. While houses are boarded up in my constituency, I do not know if the proposal put forward by Deputy Kelleher is fair, particularly for families who do not have the resources to go down this road or who do not have the skills to do up those houses. That would discriminate against many people. Let us hear ideas in this debate and I ask the Minister to come back to the House with radical new proposals. Sinn Féin has put suggestions forward. They are ways to fix this problem and get us out of this mess.

Debate adjourned.
The Dáil adjourned at 9.05 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 1 May 2014.