I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
This Bill forms a small part of Fianna Fáil's practical and evidence-based suite of measures designed to produce an emergency-level response to the ongoing crisis in housing. A generation faces being left scarred from the Government still not admitting the scale of the crisis or making the necessary decisions. The unprecedented costs and acute shortage of homes available is driving a national rental crisis. This has allowed some unscrupulous landlords to exploit the position and cram renters into rooms. An "RTÉ Investigates" programme in 2018, "Nightmare to Let", revealed the scale of the problem across Ireland. Local authorities are not adequately equipped to inspect rental properties and lack proper legislative backing to address overcrowding. I know in Wicklow only a tiny fraction of rental properties is inspected and this is the case in all local authorities. This Bill will strengthen the legislative framework for tackling overcrowding by putting in place an up-to-date definition. It should be reinforced by additional resources to local authorities to roll out comprehensive inspections.
Our Bill puts in place a new statutory definition of overcrowded housing to replace the outdated 1966 definition and the limited penalties currently used. The aim of the Bill is to provide clarity to ensure landlords cannot exploit the current rental crisis to impose unsafe and substandard living conditions. It sets the basic minimum and not the preferred option or the standards for new builds. Whereas fire safety legislation can be used to tackle issues such as the overcrowding we saw in the RTÉ programme, it does not cover all units and it does not encompass quality of life standards. The Bill draws from UK and Canadian provisions to establish a new standard. It also sets out stronger penalties for breaches of the standard.
Some 3,544 people have cited overcrowding as the primary reason for applying for social housing. This hints at the scale of the problem. We need to increase supply to tackle the housing crisis and not turn a blind eye to falling and potentially dangerous standards. The RTÉ documentary revealed the scale of the problem but as rent levels continue to rise, it has only worsened. This Bill should form part of a new deal for landlords and tenants that keeps units in the rental market while protecting tenants.
As I stated earlier, the statutory definition of overcrowded housing has not been updated since the original Housing Act in 1966. The definition is out of date with respect to modern household composition, as it reflects societal norms of 1960s. For example, it does not include cohabiting couples and single-sex partnerships. The existing penalties for the owner of a house for infringement are far too light to act as a deterrent, as they are a fine of €2,500 or one month of imprisonment. Information on prohibition notices issued by local authorities under section 65 relating to overcrowding is not collated by the Department but the suspicion is that there have been very few, or possibly none, under that section.
Under section 64, local authorities have extensive powers to request information from building owners on the occupancy of their dwellings but they do not regularly do this or collect regular data on it. This is because the current definition is so out of date. There is strong suspicion that there have been no or very few fines or penalties issued to building owners under section 65 of the Housing Act 1966 for housing overcrowding. Overcrowding in private rented accommodation is usually dealt with under fire services, building control and dangerous substances Acts, which give local authorities extensive powers of inspection and enforcement. All this may be relevant to fire safety arrangements in properties other than those specifically excluded under the Acts. However, one objection to this is that, in general, the provisions of such fire services and building control legislation and associated inspection powers do not apply to single unit dwellings that are owner-occupied. This includes, for example, caravans and mobile homes, which have been the subject of serious fire safety and overcrowding concerns in recent years. This legislation is usually taken as applicable in dwellings within multi-unit developments or mixed-use buildings.
In any case, there is still a need for a statutory definition of overcrowding and housing bodies have called for it. Threshold has stated:
At the moment we are reliant on the provisions of the fire and safety regulations and planning law. This lack of clarity means some landlords are taking advantage of the housing shortage. Not only are renters being exploited financially but their lives are being put at risk. Threshold is urgently calling for emergency legislation to be put in place introducing a legal definition of overcrowding to prevent unnecessary deaths as a result of poor living standards.
Aside from immediate safety concerns, the definition is relevant for social housing needs assessment purposes. Fire and building control regulations will only help in cases where overcrowding is so severe that it causes a serious hazard to the occupants. That is not the case with much overcrowding. For example, a family living in a flat that is so overcrowded that the children have nowhere to do their homework or are forced to play out on the streets because there is nowhere to play will not, in itself, create a serious hazard. However, it is going to create major emotional and developmental difficulties for those children and it is going to work against other Government objectives, such as trying to improve basic standards of education. We are looking for another mechanism to pick up that sort of impact of overcrowding, which lies short of a serious, immediate hazard.
Data published by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government indicates that of 25,814 dwellings inspected in 2018, a total of 20,414 were substandard, representing 81% of premises inspected. Additional resources are clearly needed and a new quality certificate model of private rental units must be rolled out. This is a technical Bill but it provides assistance to the State's efforts to tackle substandard rental accommodation and provides a more modern benchmark for the rental sector to aim towards. Our acute rental crisis will need radical Government action if we are to make any impact on the standards and supply of rental homes.
We in Fianna Fáil propose a three-step new deal for renters and landlords based on tenant rights and rent certainty, quality of accommodation and increasing supply. These plans would help to create a stable, viable rental market for more than 457,000 tenants and 175,000 landlords. On tenants' rights and rent certainty we propose to strengthen security of occupancy for families and long-term tenants. We want a new deposit retention scheme and we will deliver affordable and predictable rent with a strengthened rent pressure zone system.
With the quality of accommodation being offered to tenants we propose overhauling the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, with new investigative powers and substantial extra resources to ensure that this essential market operates to the highest possible standards.
Fianna Fáil supports a much stronger regime of inspection and certification of rental properties. We also need to protect the owners of rental properties and, to that end, we will strengthen landlords' rights to remove rogue tenants. The latter must be identified and dealt with because they prevent homes from entering the rental market and force existing landlords out of the rental market.
We all know that the elephant in the Chamber is the question of how to increase supply. Fianna Fáil has innovative, radical and purposeful policies in this regard. We will provide incentives to encourage rental unit supply, such as local property tax deductions and reduced commercial rates for above-the-shop unit lets. We propose a substantial financing packages for new build-to-rent units, an empty property refurbishment grant to repurpose existing properties into homes, and assistance for involuntary landlords in negative equity.
I welcome the debate on this Bill. Its provisions can help to facilitate a substantial increase in the number of quality rental homes available for the thousands of people in need of them. I acknowledge the Minister of State's proposed amendment, which we intend to support.