Residential Tenancies (Prevention of Family Homelessness) Bill 2018: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 to give greater protection to households renting from buy-to-let landlords. Under the Act it would no longer be legal to evict tenants in buy-to-let properties on the grounds that the property is to be sold. A sale could take place however with the current tenant and any remaining portion of the tenancy agreement still in place.

As Members of the House know, the single largest cause of family homelessness is landlords issuing vacant possession notices to quit. Many of these landlords are accidental landlords struggling with mortgage distress under pressure from banks and selling the homes vacant.

Two years ago Focus Ireland, one of the leading front-line agencies dealing with this problem, recommended that Government introduce an amendment to the Residential Tenancies Act to limit the ability of buy-to-let landlords, who benefited from tax breaks when they purchased their properties during the boom, to issue such vacant possession notices to quit. The argument was very simple. If people benefited from tax breaks to become landlords pre-2014, they should not be able to evict people into homelessness when selling their properties under pressure from the banks now.

I and other Opposition Deputies tabled the Focus Ireland amendment, as it was called, to the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Bill, but Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael joined forces to block it. Focus Ireland, one of the lead agencies in this area, has pointed out that if that amendment had been passed, hundreds of families who subsequently became homeless would have been kept in their homes. That is not my view, but the view of the organisation working with these families.

Since Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael opposed that amendment in 2016, family homelessness has increased by a startling 40%. Child homelessness has increased by 47% without taking into account the 1,600 adults and children controversially removed from the homeless figures at the request of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government. The Bill going through First Stage today contains the Focus Ireland amendment. It is our intention to bring this forward either through the lottery or Private Members' business at the earliest opportunity.

It is important to recognise that in the budget last week the Government introduced a new tax break for landlords, a 100% mortgage interest relief. The vast majority of landlords do not need that tax break. While some are struggling, many are not and, in fact, this will just add fuel to the fire of rising rental prices. I also understand Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are still in discussions on the possibility of introducing another tax break for landlords, possibly on Committee Stage. However, while Deputy Micheál Martin told "Morning Ireland" last week it was in the bag, the Taoiseach Deputy Leo Varadkar subsequently confirmed to Deputy Mary Lou McDonald that no such thing was the case, so we will have to wait and see what happens. What that tax break proposes is an increase in the threshold for capital gains tax where a landlord keeps a tenant in a property or, indeed, where a landlord purchases a property with a tenant in it and keeps the tenant there for five years. The problem with that tax break arises if the vacant possession notice to quit is forcing families into homelessness because there is no point offering a tax incentive to keep the new landlord with the tenant if the tenant has already been evicted into homelessness.

What the Government should have done in the budget last week, and what we will be urging it and Fianna Fáil to do when we table this Bill on Second Stage, which we will do as soon as we can, is take more action to prevent families from becoming homeless. If the Dublin Region Homeless Executive and Focus Ireland are telling us that vacant possession notices to quit are the single largest cause of family homelessness, then the obvious thing to do would be to change the Residential Tenancies Act to prevent such evictions. This is not a silver bullet. It is not going to solve all of the problems. However, if it prevented five, ten, 15 or 20 families from becoming homeless in the coming months, it would be worthwhile passing it. Again, Focus Ireland is telling us it would prevent many hundreds of families from entering into emergency accommodation, with all of the stress and trauma that causes for the adults and children, as well as the additional costs for the taxpayer.

In moving First Stage, I am urging both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to reconsider their opposition to this eminently sensible, simple amendment to the existing legislation and to include it as one of a range of measures that are required to prevent families becoming homeless into the future. I commend the Bill to the House.

Is the Bill opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.