I am grateful to the Leas-Chathaoirleach and indeed to all Senators for facilitating the debate on this urgent legislation in Seanad Éireann before the recess. I also wish to record my thanks to the Chief Whip and the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage for enabling this Bill to be moved and read a Second Time today.
In light of the prolonged challenges facing the most vulnerable tenants, I am asking the House to pass this Bill to enable its early enactment to provide technical amendments to the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 to extend the application of its enhanced tenancy protections for a further six months to 12 January 2022.
The Bill contains a number of other significant permanent amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 that I will cover quickly. They propose 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 payments to cover the forthcoming month only. That change has been sought for some time and we are providing for it now in the Bill. Within that, though, we also provide for an opt-out from the upfront rent payment restrictions for students residing in student-specific accommodation should they wish to avail of it, purely for budgeting reasons. A further amendment in the Bill will require a student residing in student-specific accommodation to provide a minimum of 28 days' termination notice to the accommodation provider or to provide a longer notice period should he or she wish to do so. That has come directly from the Union of Students in Ireland, USI. I am happy to bring that change in and make a very significant positive difference for students.
Subject to the conditions and the procedural requirements, the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies Act currently protects tenants in rent arrears due to Covid-19 and at risk of losing their tenancy from eviction or 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 necessitate this Bill to extend protections for a further six months, until 12 January 2022. The six-month extension is a proportionate response which balances the rights of the tenant and the property owner. While the numbers directly invoking the enhanced tenancy protections have been small to date, some 475 tenants have made the necessary self-declaration between August 2020 and May 2021. The emergency rental measures have provided a very strong safety net to vulnerable renters and send a clear signal to the rental system that the State will protect tenants. In this context, and because of the strong direct financial supports, we have prevented turmoil in the rental sector during the course of the pandemic.
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, some with the benefit of State supports. Crucially, State supports are available to renters. These include the pandemic unemployment payment, rent supplement and the supplementary welfare allowances, including exceptional needs payments. I encourage anyone struggling with paying rent to avail of these protections available through the legal mechanisms and the direct State supports. I am considering what other provisions might be introduced by way of amendment to the Bill on Committee Stage in the Seanad. I advise Senators that I intend to come back with a couple of amendments next week.
It is important to note that the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies Act protections are separate and distinct from the permanent protections under the Residential Tenancies Act 2020, which provides for a moratorium on evictions, with very limited exceptions, during a period of 5 km travel restrictions. That moratorium would kick back in if those travel restrictions were reintroduced. Obviously, none of us wants to go back there, but those protections are on the Statute Book. As previously stated, significant and enhanced State income supports continue to be available through the Department of Social Protection. Again, I encourage any tenant who needs assistance to reach out early to the Money Advice & Budgeting Service and seek every State income support available.
As for other permanent protections under the Bill, during the Second Stage debate on a Private Members' Bill which was introduced in the Dáil recently and which the Government did not oppose, I advised that impending private 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 in student-specific accommodation. That Bill was brought forward by the Opposition in the Dáil. It sought to restrict the amount paid upfront in deposits for students only. I thought the measure should apply to all tenants, so that is in this Bill. The maximum upfront payment proposed is the equivalent of two months' rent. We have allowed for an opt-out should students wish to pay more. Some, particularly visiting students, pay semesters in advance, so we have left that option. The Bill would restrict the total amount that anyone could be obliged to pay to a landlord by way of a deposit to two months' rent, as I said.
The measures in this Bill will certainly greatly reduce any financial exposure to tenants, including students, on foot of paying much restricted upfront payments.
I will briefly outline the main provisions of the Bill. The Long Title and recitals of the Bill describe our policy aims and the policy context in which the limited restrictions on constitutionally-protected property rights will serve the common good for a further six months, up to 12 January 2022. That will mean we will have had additional tenancy protections in place since March 2020, a period of 22 months.
Sections 1 and 12 contain standard provisions dealing with definitions, the Title and collective citation of the Bill.
Section 2 provides for a number of amendments to the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act by updating various dates to reflect the extension under this Bill of the emergency period to 12 January 2022. The proposed amendments to the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act provide, subject to conditions and procedural requirements under that Act, for its enhanced tenancy protections to continue to apply from 13 July 2021 to 12 January 2022, where tenants have been economically impacted by Covid-19. Rent increases and tenancy terminations will be prohibited for tenants who are protected by these measures until 12 January 2022 should 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 greater length than those provided under table 1 to section 66 of the 2004 Act, or than the minimum 28 days' notice required to be given by students.
Section 4 amends section 16 of the 2004 Act to provide for a new reference to a deposit a tenant might be obliged to pay.
Sections 6 and 7 are technical amendments to reflect that student-specific accommodation falls within the remit of the Residential Tenancies Acts. Section 8 provides that a student can provide more than 28 days' termination notice to the student-specific accommodation provider, should her or she 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. Section 10 is a technical amendment to provide that a dispute can be referred to the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, 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.
I have covered the main provisions of the Bill. In short what we are doing here is extending protections against eviction or rent increases for those tenants who need it most right up to January of next year. We are restricting permanently the amount that can be asked by a landlord of any tenant to a maximum of the equivalent of two months' rent, that is, one month's advance and one month's deposit. Then we are reducing the notice period a student would have to give to 28 days. Again, these are measures we have worked very closely on with students' groups, tenant advocacy groups like Threshold and indeed political parties within Government and Opposition. The Bill passed unanimously in the Dáil this week. For the benefit of Senators who may have missed the earlier part of my contribution, I will say again I intend to leave open the possibility of bringing a further amendment to the Bill to this House next week.