I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am grateful to the Ceann Comhairle and all Deputies for facilitating the debate on this urgent legislation in the Dáil before the summer recess. I thank the Chief Whip, the Minister of State, Deputy Jack Chambers, the members of the Business Committee and, in particular, the members of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage for enabling the Residential Tenancies (No.2) Bill to be read a Second Time here today.
The Bill is a further timely and proportionate response to the continuing threat and impact of the pandemic, particularly for the most vulnerable tenants. The need for additional legislation and the time-sensitive nature of the Bill are an inevitable consequence of balancing the constant reassessment of the pandemic and legal requirements. I thank Deputies for facilitating the Bill's passage in the same co-operative spirit that has enabled the swift passage of similar emergency Bills since Covid-19 erupted. This is the fifth Bill that the Government has introduced to protect tenants during the pandemic since coming to office last June. The virus has mutated and challenged us in different ways but we have responded to ensure the vulnerable are shielded from the unprecedented economic fallout.
Today's Bill is a further important action to safeguard tenants in the face of an enduring pandemic. In light of the prolonged challenges facing the most vulnerable tenants, I am asking Deputies to pass this Bill, enable its early enactment and provide technical amendments to the Planning and Development, and Residential Tendencies Act 2020, PDRTA, to extend the application of its enhanced, targeted and much-needed tenancy protections for a further six months, from 13 July 2021 to 12 January 2022.
The Bill will also provide for some permanent amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, some of which I flagged several weeks ago. The first is to restrict any upfront payment in respect of any deposit or advance rent required to secure a tenancy to a total value that does not exceed two months' rent and to restrict any ongoing advance rent payment to cover the forthcoming month only. Other objectives are to provide an opt-out regarding the upfront rent payment restrictions for students residing in student-specific accommodation, should they wish to avail of it, and to require a student residing in student-specific accommodation to provide a minimum termination notice of 28 days to the accommodation provider or provide notice of a longer period should he or she wish to do so. The last two requirements emerged specifically from our work and that of Opposition Members with the Union of Students in Ireland and other student representative groups. I wanted to introduce these measures sooner than we had originally planned so they could take effect in the new academic year.
Subject to the conditions of the procedural requirements, the PDRTA currently protects tenants in rent arrears due to Covid-19 and at risk of losing their tenancy from eviction and rent increases during the period 11 January 2021 to 12 July 2021. It is considered that the ongoing threats and impacts of Covid-19 and its emerging variants require this Bill to extend protections for a further six months, until 12 January 2022. This six-month extension is a proportionate response, balancing constitutional property rights and the common good and extending protections for those tenants who need it most. While the number directly invoking enhanced tenancy protections has been relatively small, with 475 tenants having made the necessary self-declaration between August 2020 and May 2021, the emergency rental measures have provided a strong safety net to vulnerable tenants and, importantly, send a clear signal to the rental system that the State is and will continue to protect tenants. In this context, and because of strong direct financial supports, we have prevented turmoil in the rental sector.
Approximately 1% of all tenants have been issued with rent arrears warnings since last August. This means that 99% of tenants are meeting their rent or, indeed, are benefiting from State supports.
Crucially, I reiterate that State supports are available for renters, including the pandemic unemployment payment and the rent supplement and supplementary welfare allowances, including the exceptional needs payments. I encourage anyone struggling with rent to avail of these protections which are available through this legal mechanism and, indeed, through the direct State supports.
It is important to note that these protections are separate and distinct from those under the Residential Tenancies Act 2020 which provides for a moratorium on all evictions taking place, with limited exceptions, during a period of a 5 km travel restriction in an area specified by the regulations made by the Minister for Health, and during the ten days following the lifting of such restrictions. Those important restrictions would again kick in for tenants in any area should the 5 km travel restriction be needed again which, I know, all of us hope will never be required again. I do not expect that this scenario will arise again but the safety net is indeed in place if it is needed.
In broad terms the protections under this Bill apply on foot of the economic fallout of the pandemic while the 2020 Act addresses the public health issues.
As was previously stated, significant and enhanced State income supports continue to be available from the Department of Social Protection. I encourage any tenant who needs assistance to reach out early to the Money Advice & Budgeting Service and to seek every available State income support.
Overall, the State through this Government has spent €12 billion in Covid-19 welfare supports, and rightly so. The Government has not been and will not be found wanting in supporting any tenant in difficulty. It is important that landlords continue to show forbearance and afford tenants the time to stabilise their income through State support if necessary. It is in the interests of both parties to sustain a viable tenancy. According to the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, 80% of tenants enjoy a good relationship with their landlord and the strong interaction has helped us to endure the challenges presented by Covid-19 over the past year.
The Government and I recognise that 70% of landlords own just one rental property and 86% of landlords own just one or two such properties. Covid-19 has also brought some financial difficulty, in particular, for individual landlords. This Bill again aims to strike a balance between the rights and obligations of tenants and landlords in a very carefully calibrated manner which recognises the legitimate interests of both. This achieves an equilibrium between the property rights and the common good in the midst of the pandemic.
We have to and will address the economic and social consequences of Covid-19, protect as many jobs as possible, and ensure that families and businesses can manage financially. The economic consequences of the pandemic are far-reaching but the hit for certain sectors and for some tenants has been immensely challenging. The emergency measures introduced by this Government have prevented systemic problems in the rental sector. The rental measures proposed under this Bill can once again help further.
On other permanent protections under this Bill, and as part of my continuing reform of tenancy and rental legislation, during the Second Stage debate on the Private Members’ Bill, the Residential Tenancies (Student Rents and Other Protections) (Covid-19) Bill 2021, which I did not oppose, I advised that impending rental reforms to restrict the level of upfront payments by tenants in respect of deposits and advance rent would equally apply to and benefit students residing in student-specific accommodation. The measures that I have brought forward in this Bill apply across the board and to all tenants, including students. These measures were originally intended to be included in the general scheme of the Residential Tenancies Bill but are now included in this Bill to benefit students and other tenants as soon as possible, and, in any event and in particular, before the commencement of the new academic year this autumn.
It is proposed to provide that students residing in student-specific accommodation may choose to pay larger upfront rent payments than are legally required under the Bill if it suits them better but there will be no obligation to do so. It also restricts the total amount that any tenant can be obliged to pay to a landlord by way of a deposit or advance rent payment to secure a tenancy to no more than the equivalent of two months’ rent. This has been put on a statutory legislative footing in this legislation. The measures in this Bill will greatly reduce any financial exposure of tenants, including students, on foot of paying much restricted upfront payments and this is a very significant change. I welcome the input of other Members in this House and, as I said earlier, the input of student groups in particular on this issue and commend them for their engagement.
I will outline briefly now the main provisions of this Bill. The Long Title and recitals of this Bill describe our policy aims and the context in which the targeted restrictions on landlords and constitutionally protected property rights will serve the social common good for six more months up to 12 January 2022.
I will briefly outline now the purposes of the provisions of the Bill. Sections 1 and 12 contain standard provisions dealing with definitions, Title and collective citation of the Bill. Section 2 provides for a number of amendments to the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act, PDRTA, by updating various dates to reflect the extension under the Bill of the emergency period out to 12 January 2022. The proposed amendments to the PDRTA provide, subject to conditions and procedural requirements under the Act, for its enhanced tenancy protections to continue to apply from 13 July 2021 to 12 July 2022, where tenants have been economic impacted by Covid-19 and are consequently unable to meet their obligations to pay rent and risk tenancy termination. Rent increases and tenancy terminations will be prohibited for tenants who are protected by the PDRTA until 12 January 2022, when this Bill is enacted.
Section 3 is intended to remove, in the context of student-specific accommodation, the legal possibility of tenancy agreements requiring a termination notice period of a greater length than those provided under Table 1 of section 66 of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, the 2004 Act, for landlords other than the minimum 28 days' notice required to be given by students. This is another significant change.
Section 4 amends section 16 of the 2004 Act to provide a new reference to a deposit that a tenant may be obliged to pay. Section 5 inserts a new section 19B into the into the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 to restrict the total amount that anyone can be obliged to pay to a landlord or by way of deposit or advance rent payment to secure a tenancy of no more than the equivalent of two months' rent. A restriction of the equivalent of one month's rent is also placed on the amount that a tenant is obliged to pay as a regular advance rent payment to a landlord during the course of that tenancy. Provision is made for a student residing in student accommodation to choose to pay a greater amount of advance rent if he or she wishes to do so. Section 5 will apply to tenancies created no earlier than one month after the passing of the Bill.
Sections 6 and 7 are technical amendments to reflect that student-specific accommodation falls within the remit of the Residential Tenancies Act. Section 8 provides that a student can provide more than a 28 days' termination period to a student-specific accommodation provider if they wish to do so.
Section 9 proposes to require a student residing in student-specific accommodation to provide a minimum of 28 days' termination notice to the accommodation provider or provide a longer period of notice only should he or she wish to do so. Section 10 is a technical amendment to provide that a dispute can be referred to the Residential Tenancies Board regarding a landlord’s compliance with the new restrictions on the total amount that anyone can be obliged to pay in respect of a deposit or an advance rent payment to secure tenancy.
Section 11 is, again, a technical amendment to extend the list of improper conduct by a landlord which can be sanctioned by the RTB to include the seeking by a landlord of a payment to her or him of an amount or amounts that contravene the provisions of section 19B in respect of the total amount that anyone can be obliged to pay a landlord in respect of a deposit or an advance rent payment.
In conclusion, this Bill, like the previous Acts, is being introduced against the backdrop of the worst public health crisis in the history of our State and an economic collapse without compare. The virus continues to cost us so much and to demand strong responses. We need to continue to adhere to the public health advice and to avail of the vaccines on offer to ensure that the variants of concern do not undo all of the sacrifices that our people have made to date. The Government and I will continue to do whatever it takes to protect our State and our citizens from the worst impact of the pandemic.
As legislators, we have shown how we can work together to react quickly to suppress the spread of Covid-19.
In that spirit, I again ask for Deputies' co-operation in regard to the Bill. I know they appreciate the negative impacts that Covid-19 has had and is having on many citizens. The Bill aims to help the most vulnerable tenants through to next year and to help all tenants in restricting the payments required of them into the future for deposits and advance rent to secure a tenancy. The Government and I are following through on commitments made to introduce further protections for tenants, including students, by restricting the scale of advance payments required of them. This is the fifth item of tenancy legislation I have introduced on behalf of the Government and there will be more to come in the autumn, as I mentioned when we debated the Sinn Féin Private Members' Bill a number of months ago.
The Bill before us is timely and urgent. I have included the provisions on student rents, in particular, to ensure these measures will be passed before the summer recess and can take effect in the new academic year.