That Dáil Éireann:
notes, with alarm, the revelations regarding breaches of minimum standards in the private rental sector contained in last weeks RTÉ Investigates documentary ‘Nightmare to Let’;
further notes that:
— in 2016 only four per cent of private rental properties were inspected by local authorities;
— in 2016 two thirds of inspected properties were not compliant with minimum standards regulations;
— local authorities have failed to adequately enforce standards in the private rental sector;
— central government has failed to adequately resource local authorities to carry out their enforcement functions with respect to the private rental sector; and
— significant numbers of tenants continue to live in unacceptable and substandard private rented accommodation; and
— the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to set out, as a matter of urgency, a plan for ensuring compliance with minimum standards regulations in the private rental sector;
— the Government to adequately resource local authorities, to ensure that a comprehensive inspection and enforcement regime is put in place;
— the Government to support the proposal by Threshold for an NCT-type certification system for private rented housing to further strengthen compliance with legal standards;
— the Government to review the penalties faced by landlords, to ensure adequate sanctions for those that fail to register tenancies or who fail to meet minimum standards; and
— the Government to publish an annual report detailing levels of private rental sector inspections and enforcement in each local authority.
Many people watching "Nightmare to Let" last week will have been shocked by what they saw. Barry O'Kelly and the "Prime Time Investigates" team deserve great credit for their programme. They exposed breaches of fire safety regulations which put tenants' lives at risk, they highlighted levels of overcrowding which many people assumed had vanished with the clearing of the tenements in the 1940s and 1950s, they detailed the failure of landlords to respond to requests for essential maintenance and repairs and, worst of all, they highlighted the failure of the State to enforce minimum standards and to protect tenants. According to the programme, last year only 4% of the 325,000 registered private rental tenancies were inspected. Two thirds of these were not compliant with minimum standards. In some instances, when breaches were brought to a local authority's attention, emails were not even opened or read.
Unfortunately, those of us who work on housing issues every day will not have been surprised by what we saw. Flagrant breaches of fire safety minimum standards in the private rental sector are unfortunately all too common. Levels of overcrowding in clear breach of the provisions of section 63 of the Housing Act 1966 are widespread and refusal to carry out basic maintenance is a regular complaint of tenants across the State. While a small number of local authorities have an acceptable level of inspections, the overwhelming majority do not. Last year, the National Oversight and Audit Commission report on the private rental sector made for some very stark reading. Some seven local authorities had inspection levels of less than 2%. Some five councils had inspection rates of between 2% and 4%, ten more had inspection rates of between 4% and 10%, while five councils had inspection rates of between 10% and 12%. Only four local authorities, which deserve mentioning, had rates of between 20% and 34%. They are Roscommon County Council, Monaghan County Council, Cavan County Council and South Dublin County Council. Of the 64 staff working in local authorities on private rental sector issues, a mere 29 were dealing directly with inspections of private rental properties in the year which the report surveyed.
If rogue landlords know that their chances of being inspected are less than 4%, and even less in some cases, of course abuses are bound to occur, especially in a housing market where supply is low, demand is rising and prices are high. However, it is important to acknowledge that local authorities should not shoulder all of the blame for the failure of the inspection and enforcement regime. They have seen levels of staff slashed by up to 30% since 2008. We all know that local authority housing departments are struggling to cope with an ever-deepening housing and homelessness crisis and ever-increasing demands on front-line staff time. Increasing the number of inspections to an adequate level will require additional resourcing from central government. If some councils can achieve inspection levels of 25% annually, that should be set as the target for all as a matter of urgency. Resourcing should not be an obstacle.
There is also a need to place greater responsibility on landlords for compliance with minimum standards. Vulnerable or lower income tenants are often too scared, as many of us know, to complain or raise concerns with the Private Residential Tenancies Board, or indeed with local authorities and HSE environmental health officers, for fear of losing their tenancy. Threshold, among others, has been arguing for an NCT-type certification system for landlords, which is absolutely vital if more vulnerable tenants are to be protected. It would mean that a property could not be rented out without an adequate compliance certificate. Like an NCT, this can be done in a very simple way and at low cost to landlords. Crucially, it could be done in a way which is cost-neutral to the State. Nobody should underestimate the impact that such a certification requirement on landlords would have on changing standards and culture at that end of the private rental sector. Crucially, it would also ensure that law-abiding and compliant landlords would not be undercut by rogue traders, so it should be something which landlords who abide by the rules should welcome just as much as tenants.
Questions also have to be asked about the levels and strength of enforcement of fire safety requirements and other minimum standards. My understanding of the current legislation is that fines of up to €5,000 or imprisonment for six months could be applied where a landlord fails to comply with an improvement notice or re-lets a house which has been served with a prohibition notice. However, there appears to be no sanction under legislation for the initial breaches themselves. As we saw in the "Prime Time Investigates" programme, a landlord who crams more than 60 people like sardines into a fire trap of rental accommodation, clearly putting their lives at risk and taking in tens of thousands of euro a week in rent, can avoid any sanction if he or she just complies with the improvement order or prohibition notice. That is almost an invitation for some people at the fringes of the rental market to break the law. It clearly needs to be reformed.
There needs to be a change and a comprehensive review of the sanctions and punishments for landlords who break the rules. We need to see a broader range of offences and punishments commensurate with the breaches. It should include the clear possibility of imprisonment for those landlords who wilfully put people's at risk, even as a first offence.
The "Nightmare to Let" programme was not just a reminder of the problems in the private rental sector, it was also a call to action. Tonight thousands of people, including children, will sleep in accommodation which is substandard, unsuitable and unsafe. What they want, and what they deserve, is action from every single Deputy in this House. They do not want us to turn the issue of private rental standards into a political football and they do not want us to use their plight to score political points. They want to know what we collectively are going to do to clear up the private rental sector; to ensure that all landlords are compliant in the areas of fire safety, overcrowding and minimum standards; and to make sure that those landlords who break the law will be caught, problems will be rectified and, if necessary, rogue landlords will be punished for their actions.
Sinn Féin's motion is an opportunity for all Members of this House to stand united, to put aside our political differences and to stand up for tenants. It calls on the Minister to set out, as a matter of urgency, a plan for ensuring full compliance with standards in the private rental sector. It calls for increased inspections, increased resources for local authorities, an NCT-type certification system for landlords, and a review of penalties for those who break the law. What stronger signal could we send out to both rogue landlords and to those living in substandard accommodation tonight than to speak with one single voice and call on the Government to act to ensure that all those living in the private rental sector have a safe and secure place to call home? If the Minister is willing to support this motion he will not only have our support but our active praise as he starts to make the changes which are required to ensure that nobody lives in the kind of rental accommodation we saw on our television screens in that "RTÉ Investigates" documentary last week.