Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Ceisteanna (39)

Maureen O'Sullivan


39. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the way in which it is planned to address the turnaround times for maintenance sections in the context of refurbishing local authority units for allocation to new tenants; his views on the fact that these times can often be excessive and that this can have an effect on tenants and general length of local authority housing waiting lists; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37492/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Housing)

This question relates to local authorities and the turnaround time of their maintenance sections before flats and houses can be allocated to new tenants, and the effect of this on the tenants and waiting lists.

The management and maintenance of local authority housing stock, including pre-letting repairs to vacant properties, is a matter for each individual local authority under the Housing Act 1966. Local authorities return vacant properties to use through their own resources, but my Department also continues to provide Exchequer support, under the voids programme, for properties that require significant investment prior to re-letting. In 2018, more than €26 million was provided to local authorities for this purpose.

I recognise that whether a local authority is availing of the voids programme support or is reletting properties through its own resources, there can be challenges depending on the condition of the vacant property and some such properties require very extensive and costly works before they can be safely retenanted. It is better in the long term if these extensive works are completed while the property is vacant. This means that when the property is relet, a new family moves into a high-quality, energy-efficient home.

Unquestionably, local authorities need to complete these upgrades and relet the properties as swiftly as possible. It is important also that this be done to the necessary standard, but without excessive cost. Local authorities need to have a common approach to this work, based on established best practice, which is why I welcome the work that the City and County Management Association, CCMA, is undertaking to identify and implement best practice in respect of housing stock maintenance and repairs across all local authorities. I also believe that councillors can take a strong role in this area, by overseeing the performance of their local authorities in achieving timely relettings and pressing for improvements in this regard, where needed.

I thank the Minister of State. I acknowledge that there has been movement. The reality is, however, that local authority housing lists are lengthy, exhausting and deeply frustrating. There are people who have been on those lists for a long time.

The waiting times on the list, measured in years, are now moving into double figures. We need accurate statistics on the length of time for which flats and houses undergo maintenance. There is a discrepancy between the figures of the local authority, in my case Dublin City Council, and those of the National Oversight and Audit Commission. The reality is that the turnaround is slow. I accept what the Minister of State says about certain works that have to be done, but properties undergo maintenance for an inordinate length of time before they are reallocated. Are enough resources devoted to maintenance to ensure a speedy turnaround? Dublin City Council has one of the highest numbers of persons on its local authority housing list. I see a lack of urgency. I contrast that with the speed and ease with which student accommodation is going up in Dublin 1 and 7. We have discussed this before and I still cannot understand why this is seen as a solution. Students are only there for eight or nine months. That student accommodation, which consists of lovely buildings, is going up so quickly but it takes months before renovation of houses and flats begins to allow them to be given to people on the housing list.

The issue of student accommodation is separate from this conversation. It is a very different issue. I am happy to discuss it with Deputy O'Sullivan because a lot of progress has been made on student accommodation. Some 6,000 new units have been built, 6,000 are currently being built and 7,000 are planned. Great progress has been made. It is probably unfair to students to generalise by saying this is not positive for a neighbourhood. A lot of work has been done with neighbourhoods and communities to ensure the new accommodation fits in. There are quite good reports on that. I accept that there were fears before the accommodation was built but those fears have been addressed. Again, student accommodation and the voids programme are separate issues. In essence, student accommodation is a form of accommodation which was needed and can be built quite quickly. That is why we have adapted the planing process to allow it to go through planning quickly. They are new builds on new sites, more often greenfield than brownfield sites.

The voids programme, planned maintenance and the timelines involved are different issues. Naturally, as a Department, we would like to have a standard timeline throughout the country and we want to achieve standards regarding the works completed on empty houses. Local authorities take different approaches. We have been working with the local authorities association to implement a standardised approach. There has been considerable engagement with the Department on this over recent months and much progress has been made. Timelines will be outlined, as will guidelines on the level of work to be carried out on houses.

We also want to move towards planned maintenance. At the moment, maintenance takes place in an unplanned and responsive way in most cases. When a house becomes vacant a local authority can go in and do all the work. Very often, this is an expensive job and it takes time. We want to address that. We need a planned maintenance regime and we signalled that in 2018. That is what we are working towards. That will help us with a faster turnaround. More than 1,700 voids were brought back into the system last year. A large amount of money has been spent on this area in the past three or four years.

I will start by acknowledging the movement that has taken place. However, I must note a couple of other facts. There are issues around the general maintenance of local authority housing. That is also extremely slow. I know of one flats complex with three flats that have been lying vacant not just for weeks but for months. There does not seem to be any movement on those. I know they have to be refurbished to a certain standard. However I have been in state-of-the-art flats and houses whose tenants have left for various reasons where everything is ripped out again. Some common sense is needed.

There are increasing difficulties for housing assistance payment, HAP, tenants trying to stay in the properties they are renting. It goes back to what Deputy Boyd Barrett was talking about, namely, that vulture funds come in and take over these buildings and there is absolutely no doubt that they want to get rid of HAP tenants.

I return to the issue of student accommodation. I know it is not part of this question. According to one statistic I saw recently, 79% of the student accommodation is for international students. I would not deny these students a place to stay, but this is not helping the housing situation. I note the ease, quickness and urgency with which student accommodation was built. We do not see the same urgency when it comes to refurbishing local authority housing and making progress on the housing waiting list.

Again, Deputy O'Sullivan has addressed many issues in one question. People often mention cases concerning HAP properties. There are more than 40,000 HAP tenancies. We have not received 40,000 complaints. The majority of these tenancies work well and the tenants are happy. They want something permanent in the long run and that is fine. Some do and some do not. HAP tenancies are often portrayed here as a major problem. There are some cases of HAP tenancies that are not satisfactory. We all accept that. However the majority of cases are positive. If there are a couple individual problematic cases, I will be happy to look at them.

The Deputy mentioned three void properties. I do not know where or what they are but she can always bring details of cases to me and we will be happy to look at them. We regularly engage with local authorities on this issue. We want properties to be turned around much more quickly, in line with turnaround times in the private sector. Many local authorities achieve that and have very good timelines, while others perform poorly. We have worked with the local authorities on that. Again, we want a planned maintenance approach. Local authorities are meant to fund this from their own resources and rents. Some will say they do not get enough from their rental schemes. That matter is also being examined. In the past couple of years, our voids programme has brought nearly 10,000 properties which had been left empty by previous administrations back into the system. They are now back in use. That is money well spent. We want to see it spent more quickly and that is also something we are working on.

Question No. 40 replied to with Written Answers.