Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 17 June 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht
Current Housing Demand: Discussion (Resumed)
We are here to discuss the topic of meeting the current housing demand with representatives from the Departments of Environment, Community and Local Government and Social Protection. I welcome the following witnesses from the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government, Mr. Michael Layde, assistant secretary, housing division; Ms Shirley Groarke, principal officer, homelessness and housing finance; Mr. John O'Neill, principal officer, social housing reform and Ms Teresa Cawley, assistant principal officer, social housing investment operational and from the Department of Social Protection Ms Helen Faughnan, assistant secretary, supplementary welfare, southern region and Ms Jackie Harrington, principal officer supplementary welfare.
I propose to take the opening statements of the witnesses in the order I have just called.
I advise the witnesses that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing ruling of the Chair to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or any official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
The opening statements and any other documents submitted to the committee may be published on the committee's website at the conclusion of the meeting.
The issue of housing is of particular interest to the members of the committee. There have been fluctuations in the housing market for many years and the demand for housing seems to be growing again and there is a certain sense of irony, given where we are economically and socially that housing is playing this role in the present climate.
We need to develop a housing policy which, while meeting a demand in a sustainable manner, does not contribute or encourage the return of another property bubble.
This is the third in a series of meetings with stakeholders. We have invited various housing organisations and local authorities to engage with us on the topic. We hope our engagement with officials from the Departments of Environment, Community and Local Government and Social Protection will be constructive and will help us to colour the debate on the issue.
I invite Mr. Layde from the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government to make his opening statement.
Mr. Michael Layde:
I thank the Chairman and members for their invitation to appear before the joint committee. We have circulated a lengthy statement and I will synopsise it for the purpose of this discussion.
Significant progress has been made to date in the introduction of the housing assistance payment, HAP, involving the transfer of long-term rent supplement recipients to housing authorities. The framework for this is provided for in the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014, which will be before the House again this evening.
The key parts of the Bill provide for a new procedure to replace section 62 of the Housing Act 1966 that will enable housing authorities to recover possession of their dwellings from households in serious breach of their tenancy agreements, including engaging in anti-social behaviour. An incremental purchase scheme for existing houses is also provided and that will replace the 1995 tenant purchase scheme. There is a legal framework for the housing assistance payment, which will include provision for a direct deduction of rental contributions from welfare payments.
In essence the new housing support mechanism will facilitate the transfer of responsibility for the provision of rental assistance to households with a long-term housing need from the Department of Social Protection, from which it is currently provided through the rent supplement scheme, to housing authorities. Following the introduction of the housing assistance payment, rent supplement will continue to be operated by the Department of Social Protection for households in the private rented sector which in the main will support people who have become unemployed and therefore require short-term income support to pay their rent. A key feature of the new payment scheme is that those in the scheme will be allowed to remain in the scheme following their return to employment, thus removing a significant barrier to employment. The roll-out of the scheme on a pilot administrative basis has been in place since the end of March in Limerick city and county where it began. The intention is to extend it to six further local authorities following enactment of the Bill.
As the Chairman has said, the main issue we will discuss is meeting social housing demand. The budgetary provision for the Department's housing programme, at more than €587 million in 2014, is effectively maintained at 2013 levels. This is a change from the pattern of recent years in which we faced reductions in allocation. In the region of €273 million of our budget is allocated to housing. Compared to 2008 when close on 8,500 new social housing units were delivered at a cost of more than €1.1 billion, we now have to explore alternative housing supply routes to address housing needs. The Minister has signalled a return to modest levels of new housing construction with an announcement last months of 1,000 new starts during 2014-2015. The intention is to build on this by way of a rolling programme as the State's finances permit. Around 6,000 social housing units from various sources will be provided during 2014.
The 2014 Budget Statement included a special provision of €50 million to fund infrastructural investment primarily in the housing area. Some €15 million of this is being set aside to support the social housing construction programme. During the next two years, an investment of €68 million in a local authority house building programme will deliver some 442 social units for families in need of housing.
As part of the Government's €200 million stimulus package announced in May, a further €50 million will be provided for social housing delivery. Some €20 million of this will go towards new local authority construction and €20 million will be used to fund the refurbishment of an additional 1,000 vacant units and €10 million will be used for the acquisition of properties in the Dublin area to meet urgent homelessness needs.
We are targeting voids. A sum of €15 million was ring-fenced for a new initiative aimed at returning vacant and boarded-up houses to productive use. It will cost approximately €16,000 per unit and in unit cost terms this is very good value for money. It will be possible to retrofit some 952 properties to a high standard which will become immediately available to families on waiting lists. This is one of quickest and most cost-effective ways of increasing the housing stock. It has positive spin offs in terms of local employment and improving the quality of neighbourhoods around the country. The additional stimulus funding of €20 million will enable the refurbishment of a further 1,000 vacant properties. We hope that up to 900 of the properties will be completed before the end of 2014. A priority is that people with a disability and older people will be accommodated and €10 million of the budget day stimulus fund has been allocated to grants for older people and people with a disability. The schemes have been reviewed and are now targeted at certain groups. Funding is up 12% on last year's allocation and we would expect an additional 800 households will benefit in the coming year.
Other lines of spending contribute to meeting demand and includes the capital assistance scheme, which provides funding to approved housing bodies. Approximately €30 million will be available this year to fund projects that are under way and to progress new ones and we expect that 350 new homes will be delivered during 2014-2015, including almost 200 units for homeless people. In addition, and as a result of a special initiative to address homelessness, funding of more than €10 million has been allocated for the acquisition of 66 units in the Dublin city area. The role of the approved housing bodies, AHBs, has expanded greatly in recent years and will continue to be very important in the years ahead.
Regeneration remains a priority. The most significant regeneration programme ever undertaken in the country, Ballymun, is now nearing completion and since 1999 some 2,000 new social homes have been provided and almost 1,400 new private homes and a new main street, public parks and community projects have been funded. The capital provision for regeneration this year is €70 million. The wind-down of Ballymun will facilitate the expansion of regeneration activities in Dublin city, Cork city, Limerick city and elsewhere.
The Government is committed to addressing homelessness in a holistic and comprehensive way to end involuntary long-term homelessness by 2016.
A policy implementation team is in place at senior level to drive the implementation plan, recently approved by Government. The team will report on a quarterly basis to the Cabinet committee on social policy.
Recently the Government produced a strategy for the construction sector which is designed to tackle the various issues to which the chairman alluded, which present in terms of the housing market generally and the delivery of housing supply. Within that the Department has a particular focus on the social housing space and is mandated by the construction strategy to produce a social housing strategy by the end of quarter three this year. Obviously we have commenced work on that already. The strategy will contain clear and measurable actions that are to be taken to increase the supply of social housing where it is most needed and, most important, reduce the number of people on housing waiting lists in the next five years. Our priority, therefore, must be to match housing supply with demographic factors and to provide social housing supports in an affordable and sustainable way. It is essential that the State continues to put in place the basis for a significant and continuing supply of accommodation for social housing purposes and to address housing need in a flexible, co-ordinated and diverse way. It cannot be the one-size-fits-all solutions we were in a position to afford in the past.
The Government's 2011 housing policy statement outlines that the priority for Government is to meet the most acute needs of households applying for social housing support and that must continue to be the case. After my colleague has made her statement we will be happy to take questions.
Ms Helen Faughnan:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to appear before it. I will speak about the role of the Department of Social Protection's rent supplement scheme. In any discussion of rent supplement, it is important to be clear that the purpose of the scheme is to provide short-term income support to people living in private rented accommodation whose means are insufficient to meet their accommodation costs and who do not have accommodation available to them from any other source. More than €344 million has been provided for the scheme in 2014. Currently, there are approximately 76,000 rent supplement recipients, of whom more than 50,000 have been in payment for more than 18 months. The Department provides relevant details of these long-term claimants to the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government with a view to transferring them to the rental accommodation scheme, RAS.
Rent supplement is subject to a limit on the amount of rent that an applicant may incur. Limits are set at levels that enable eligible households to secure basic suitable rented accommodation and the maximum limits are generally reviewed every 18 months. The most recent review was completed in June 2013. Despite pressures on the social protection budget, the last review saw rent limits increase in line with market rents in some areas including Dublin and Galway with Dublin limits increasing by a weighted average of some 9%.
A new rent limit review has commenced and will feed into the budgetary process. This review will involve a comprehensive analysis of information from a range of sources including rental tenancies registered with the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, the Central Statistics Office rental indices and websites advertising rental properties to ascertain both the costs and market trends for private rented accommodation. The Department will also be seeking the views from a number of stakeholders including the local staff administering the scheme and NGOs such as Threshold, Focus Ireland, the Simon Community, Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and so on.
In some areas, particularly in Dublin, prospective tenants, including those seeking access to rent supplement, are finding it increasingly difficult to secure accommodation due to reduced availability of private rented accommodation.
I avail of the opportunity to assure the committee that Department of Social Protection officials have considerable experience in dealing with customers of the scheme and continue to make every effort to ensure that their accommodation needs are met. Staff in the Department’s community welfare service have discretionary powers to award a supplement for rental purposes in exceptional cases where it appears that the circumstances of the case so warrant, for example, when dealing with applicants who are homeless or who are at risk of losing their tenancy. That approximately 76,000 people are currently in receipt of rent supplement proves that a significant number of landlords are accommodating applicants of the scheme and that rent supplement recipients are being accommodated.
The Department also provides support to persons towards rent deposits under the exceptional needs payments, ENPs. This form of assistance is very important to those on low incomes who rely on the private rented market to meet their housing needs. Last year, some 4,300 people were assisted with rent deposits at a cost of €2.1 million.
In addition and in view of the current supply difficulties, the Dublin local authorities in conjunction with voluntary organisations have finalised a protocol with the Department in order that families at risk of losing existing private rented accommodation can have more timely and appropriate interventions made on their behalf. This initiative was launched this morning. These cases will be assessed on an individual basis having regard to the individual circumstances and families requiring additional support will receive the necessary assistance. In effect the Government has two initiatives to deal with long-term reliance on rent supplement. One is the rental accommodation scheme which is in operation since 2004 and the more recent housing assistance payment scheme.
At the end of March 2014 local authorities had transferred a total of almost 48,900 households from rent supplement on to the rental accommodation scheme. The Department’s strategic policy direction is to transfer responsibility for recipients of rent supplement with a long-term housing need to local authorities under HAP. Officials in the Department of Social Protection are working closely with those in the lead Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, and the local authorities in piloting HAP on an administrative basis in Limerick City and County Council which will be followed by further roll out of HAP to selected local authorities during the remainder of the year.
The household budget facility, operated by An Post on behalf of the Department of Social Protection, will be used in the early stages of HAP to provide housing authority tenants with the facility to deduct rents directly from their weekly social welfare payments. Legislative amendments specific to housing authority rents were introduced by the Department in January 2014 to increase the effectiveness of the repayment system. One of the key benefits that HAP will bring is the removal of barriers for people, perceived or otherwise, currently in receipt of rent supplement in returning to employment which is consistent with the Government's commitments under the Pathways to Work programme. This represents a significant improvement and will facilitate the approximately 33,100 rent recipients currently on the live register in returning to full-time employment. When HAP is fully in place, rent supplement will over time return to its original intention of being a short-term payment.
I trust the presentation is of assistance to the committee and I look forward to assisting with any questions from members.
I thank Ms Helen Faughnan. I will take questions from Opposition, Government, Opposition and Government members in that order. The first speaker is Deputy Dessie Ellis, who has ten minutes for questions and answers. If after the tenth minute a question is not answered we will get a commitment for a written reply.
I too thank the witnesses for their presentations. This meeting comes in the context of the housing Bill which is going through the House. Many issues are arising about which we are worried, one of which is that there are 76,000 people in receipt of rent supplement. There is a proposal under the HAP project which is being piloted in Limerick to bring it under the control of local authorities. One of the fears is that the Bill counts this as adequate housing. I tabled an amendment to say that it is not adequate housing but it was firmly resisted by the Government. This could mean, similar to what happened with RAS in 2011, that people could be taken off the housing list because they would seem to be housed. I do not know what is the opinion of the witnesses on that issue. That could mean that tens of thousands of people could be taken off the housing list if that was to happen. I would like to hear what the witnesses have to say on that matter.
It was stated that the staff have discretion when it comes to rent supplement. They may have discretion sometimes, some give deposits and some do not. There is terrible inconsistency across the country in respect of rent supplement. We know the limit has been increased but there have been huge problems in dealing with the welfare officers on the issue and with landlords. When this is transferred to HAP we will see the real cost. Irrespective of whether we like it, many people have been topping up with landlords on a large scale. I am not sure what that will show up when it is transferred to the local authority.
The homeless situation is at crisis point. I have never seen it so bad. There are approximately 200 families in hotels each night, incurring a cost of €16,000 per day.
Yet at the same time more people are becoming homeless. I know an instruction has gone out to local authorities to house as many homeless people as they can. The danger in all of this is that those on the current housing lists will end up the next homeless as a result. If we are trying to reach the 2016 target, we may actually be creating more problems.
The Supreme Court has ruled on section 62 of the 1966 Housing Act. I am happy that this is being dealt with.
Since 2008, over €1 billion has been cut from the housing budget. Now, it is being brought close to 2013 levels. Most social housing provision seems to be moving in the direction of the voluntary housing sector. I believe local authorities should be the main agents in dealing with housing. Could local authorities borrow on the open market for housing provision without being tied to the troika or otherwise, based on their housing stock, just as the voluntary housing sector can? The Minister claims it can be done but local authorities claim it cannot. Can someone tell me otherwise?
Should the PRTB include local authority tenants too in dealing with disputes and so forth?
Mr. Michael Layde:
On the demand for social housing being met when a person enters the HAP scheme, the principle exists already in the RAS. The logic behind it is that people entering HAP will become social housing tenants and will be the responsibility of the housing authority. They will have all housing options open to them, the same as any other social tenant who is the responsibility of a housing authority. In that sense, it is felt that their housing need will be met in an immediate sense, and they will be allowed other options in social housing later on.
Mr. Michael Layde:
One of the ambitions of the HAP is to ensure there is an improvement in the standard of housing being provided. Generally, people going into HAP will have sourced their own accommodation. However, it will be required to meet appropriate housing standards and will be inspected by the local authorities to ensure it does. The intention is that accommodation provided under HAP will be comparable to, if not better than, accommodation available under other social housing delivery mechanisms. We would contend it represents parity of treatment in that sense.
Top-ups are a source of concern. One of the advantages of HAP is that it will strengthen regulation within the sector. One of the things we would wish to counter would be any suggestion of illegality.
We have an implementation plan to deal with homelessness. The situation in Dublin with homeless families is of particular concern and will be a particular target for us. Under the implementation plan, Dublin City Council is preparing a specific action plan to deal with the concentration of the problem in Dublin. This will be available in the coming weeks. Already today, we saw the launch of a prevention policy and initiative to prevent families from falling into that position.
The reduction in house building is a consequence of the overall national macroeconomic situation. Clearly, the resources have not been available to us for broader budgetary reasons.
The voluntary housing sector is a key part in our approach. It has the capacity, as Deputy Ellis said, to borrow off-balance-sheet. In the context of social housing policy, we are looking at the possibility of a similar approach for bodies within local authorities. However, there is the issue of satisfying the Central Statistics Office and EUROSTAT requirements on public debt as to whether such a device would be possible.
Ms Helen Faughnan:
We spent over €2.1 million last year assisting 4,300 people with rent deposits. We have much engagement through our homeless persons unit, as well as direct contact from many of the NGOs, non-governmental organisations, such as Threshold, Simon and Focus Ireland, on the most vulnerable of cases. Through the initiative launched this morning with Threshold and the Dublin local authorities, we are moving to assist families in existing private rented accommodation whose tenancies may be at risk. While the crisis in the rest of the country is not as severe as it is in Dublin, we are issuing a notification to community welfare service staff to remind them - not that they need much reminding - about their discretion in these cases and to engage with customers at risk of losing a tenancy, including if it involves the payment of a rent deposit. The staff have much experience on the ground in determining need and helping in such matters.
I thank the officials from the various Departments who have attended the committee today. It is important that we continue to engage and debate the important issues around housing. There is a genuine concern on the ground that there is a real threat of a full-blown housing crisis affecting not just major urban areas but smaller local authority areas which have long housing waiting lists. Much action is needed on several fronts. It was not today or yesterday when many of these problems arose. Many years ago, when the property boom was in its heyday, government policy and local authorities abdicated their responsibility for building housing units for people with genuine housing needs. We now have to catch up in rectifying these policies that have gone wrong.
While some are critical of RAS, I believe there is a place for it, provided it is managed well and is properly resourced to ensure that private accommodation is quality-assured. Will the officials explain to me the resources that go into inspections of private rented accommodation? How regularly are these inspections reported to the Department?
There is much criticism of local authorities for no longer building social housing. We all know from our constituencies that a number of local authority units are left vacant not just for months but for years. An attempt was made recently to address this by allocating moneys to local authorities to deal with these units.
I believe more needs to be done in turning around vacant units in order to let them again as soon as possible. I acknowledge that the officials may be looking outside the box in some respects but have they considered involving SOLAS, the new training body in place of the dissolved FÁS, to use apprentices and redundant tradespersons to refurbish these vacant units? Thinking outside the box, could the trade unions and local authorities play a role in having these houses refurbished?
Has the option of relocation been considered to deal with the demand for housing? I accept there is significant pressure on housing in Dublin; however, there may be private sector units available down the county that would be suitable for families, if they were willing to consider relocation. I think that happened in the past. I am not suggesting that people should be forced to relocate, but should families have the option of being housed in a unit down the country at half of what it would cost in Dublin? Is this option considered when families are desperate for a house and need a new start?
Deputy Ellis mentioned the families who are living in hotels and B&Bs and I agree that it is a scandal that families would have to reside in a hotel bedroom. We must do all in our power to address that.
I acknowledge the role the voluntary housing associations play. Only for them we would be in deep trouble. Is it only local-authority-approved projects that are considered for financial support or can community-led projects be considered for support? I am aware that the very proactive community in Dunhill, County Waterford, bought land to build social housing and repopulate this rural area. This project is down the picking list of the local authority because Dunhill is not a large urban area. The community could build 12 to 20 units in a beautiful area of County Waterford but because they are not prioritised they are off the radar. These houses could be built at a competitive rate compared to the cost of building in a city. Can we not think in terms of community-led initiatives that can build on the services available in the community? The community in Dunhill have been proactive and they are looking for support to build housing units. Why can we not support more of these types of initiative rather than depending on the local authority to provide housing in larger areas?
These are some of the ideas that I would like to put to the officials. I see that a crisis is pending if we do not act soon.
Mr. Michael Layde:
On the issue of the overall demand for social housing and the waiting lists, this is a key concern of the Ministers and their officials.
As mentioned previously, we will be preparing a social housing strategy. We already have a Government policy statement on housing from 2011. This will be elaborated on and it will become a very detailed social housing strategy with measurable outcomes. The aim is to make significant inroads into waiting list and to address housing need. That is a key priority as identified in the construction strategy.
When replying to Deputy Ellis on the quality of rented accommodation, I said that local authorities will be responsible for ensuring that where the accommodation is State-funded it will reach the appropriate standard. Of course, legal requirements also apply in the private rented sector, whether or not the local authorities are involved in direct funding. As I pointed out, the PRTB is responsible for that.
Specific dedicated funding is provided to the local authorities from the registration moneys collected by the PRTB. I would be happy to provide the Deputy with full details of the inspection programme, the amount of money expended in recent years and the number of inspections carried out. We will provide that to the members of the committee.
As I mentioned in my opening statement and as the Deputy rightly points out, it is completely unacceptable that significant numbers of local authority properties should be vacant for a very long time, given the level of demand we face. I mentioned that the additional funding available to us now will allow us to get upwards of 2,000 units back into service in the coming months and the balance next year. It will be absolutely crucial to maintain that position.
I understand that one homeless family has relocated outside Dublin. We will be looking at the potential of offering people the option of relocating, but clearly it must be a voluntary scheme. It is clearly unacceptable that people should be accommodated in hotels and B&Bs, even on a cost-benefit basis, leaving the human aspect to one side for a moment. It does not make sense and we do not want to see it continue.
The focus of the implementation plan on homelessness is housing-led. We are focused on finding long-term housing solutions for people who are homeless or are in danger of becoming homeless. The option of being accommodated in a hotel is not sustainable. This was something that Dublin City Council had to do in the short term to deal with the considerable increase in the number of homeless families presenting.
The Deputy raised the question of community involvement. Any community group can seek to become an approved housing body. The prioritisation issue works on the basis that housing authorities have a statutory responsibility in each area. There are now 31 local authorities. The Department requests the local authorities to prioritise funding based on local need and local analysis. We hope that useful projects do not miss out as a result of prioritisation, but the funding is finite and there must be prioritisation. The Department relies on the housing authorities to advise it in that regard.
Some 50% of the 90,000 people on the housing waiting list reside in six local authority areas - Dublin city, Fingal, South Dublin, Kildare, Cork city and Cork county. Homelessness is now emerging as a significant issue outside the capital. One solution is being proposed in the short term, but only in the Dublin area. Just this week a dozen people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness called to my office. Eleven of the 12 who called have children. When they turn up at the local authority offices they are told to find a couch somewhere. One individual is sleeping in her car. There is no solution outside the capital. I could not be more critical of the limited approach of what is being proposed. It is of course a short-term measure, and it is welcome that there is some initiative, but the fact that it is so exclusive, given that the homelessness problem is demonstrable, means that it absolutely must be revisited as a matter of urgency.
I understand that Kildare is the lead authority for the mid-Leinster region. The local authority had an allocation of €80,000 for HAP in Counties Kildare, Meath and Wicklow but ran out of money in March. There is no provision for additional staff in the local authorities to administer the HAP scheme. There will be ongoing engagement with landlords, and this will demand time. It cannot be done without staff. The staffing ratios in local authorities are very different depending on the region. I have highlighted this to the Minister on numerous occasions. Meath County Council has 620 staff for a population that is 30,000 higher than the combined population of Limerick city and Limerick county, while Limerick County Council has a staff of 1075. There is no capacity in some local authority areas, especially in areas that are encountering the most contact from people in difficulties. These local authorities do not have the staff to deal with it.
What landlord will come forward and offer his or her house for less than the market rent or the amount he or she would receive under the RAS? That is what is proposed. Landlords are pulling out of the RAS and the committee was informed about this by county managers recently. They will receive a lower amount under the HAP scheme than under the RAS. They will not participate in the RAS, but they will participate in the HAP scheme. The only positive aspect from their perspective is that they will be paid directly rather than by the tenant.
This scheme represents a fundamental shift in social policy whereby somebody will not be housed but will be given funding to rent somebody else's property. It is a short-term initiative in most cases. The rental market comprises accidental landlords who own one or two houses. Following this shift in social policy, it may well be that the standard of accommodation will be reasonable because much of the stock is modern and will be inspected, but three or four months after the inspection, somebody may have to seek a lease for another year because there tends to be a short-term approach to the leasing of private rented accommodation. The scheme will not work because landlords will not come forward. It is a dangerous change in social policy, particularly where children are involved. There will never be security about where they will go to school, live, make friends and generally be socialised. That is the big failure in this proposal. In the context of regeneration, there were failures in the past. I predict that this will be one of the greatest failures.
It is welcome that the Departments are examining alternatives in drawing down the large sums available from the EIB and pension funds. That is necessary and I would like local authorities to have an involvement. I do not mind the ramping up of the voluntary housing sector. However, security of tenure is the most important issue. People must be enabled to make homes rather than being continually on the move.
Of the 6,000 houses to be supplied this year, 3,700 are designated for the RAS. Are they being taken on or are these numbers being rolled over from last year? Are they additional houses?
Mr. Michael Layde:
On the homelessness policy, I stress that it is a national policy and that the national implementation plan is precisely that. I have mentioned that Dublin City Council has a specific action plan which it is finalising, but it comes in the context of the overall implementation plan and is designed to apply the principle specifically to Dublin where the problem is concentrated. However, it is recognised that homelessness presents as an issue in other areas also and the implementation plan reflects this. The composition of the high level group overseeing the plan reflects this, in that while the DCC chief executive officer is a member, one of the local authority chief executive officers from outside Dublin is also a member. The HSE representative is based outside Dublin; therefore, it is very much a national plan. The prevention campaign launched earlier today is a particular initiative of Dublin City Council in collaboration with the Department of Social Protection. Obviously, there is the potential to consider extending it elsewhere.
On the specific issue relating to Kildare, the funding arrangement that applies to the regional homelessness groupings is that each grouping enters into a service protocol with the Department and funds can then be drawn down. This has yet to be finalised with Kildare County Council and once it has been done, the requisite funding can be made available.
With regard to the resources available for the HAP, clearly it is a major undertaking by local authorities. We are working very closely with them and the County and City Management Association to ensure the necessary resources are in place. The work taking place in Limerick on a trial basis which will extend to the other local authorities in the latter part of the year will allow us to test this in the field and ensure the necessary resources are available. As the Deputy pointed out, the availability of resources varies from local authority to local authority, as does the volume of customers; therefore, we need to ensure the necessary resources are available. We will keep the matter under continuous review.
The HAP represents a significant change in how we deliver social housing. We believe it is progressive. It is an evolution from the RAS which has been in place for a number of years and worked successfully. It is not the case that the private sector providing the accommodation will be in any way unregulated. The contractual arrangement will be between the local housing authority and the landlord. The tenant will pay a differential rent to the local authority and there will be a clear relationship which will include a quality control and standards relationship between the local housing authority and landlords, be they large landlords, of whom there will probably be more in the future, or landlords who own one or two properties, to whom the Deputy alluded.
We seek to promote security of tenure. The important point is that once somebody is deemed to be eligible for social housing and has an established social housing need, there is a continuing obligation on the local authority to ensure it is met even in circumstances where, for whatever reason, their existing accommodation becomes unavailable.
On the specific question of the RAS, it will continue this year in terms of the roll-over of customers already in it and with provision for approximately 2,500 further transitions under the scheme from rent supplement in the current year.
I welcome the officials. I also welcome all of the initiatives brought forward by the Government to deal with the housing problem. However, I would like to put a number of questions. Mr. Layde has said the rent limit review will feed into the budgetary process. Will an adjustment to the limits be ready for introduction in the budget in October?
I refer to the HAP and the shift in social policy, as it was described by Deputy Catherine Murphy, vis-á-visthe housing of applicants by local authorities. Has anybody consulted an applicant on a housing waiting list about this? Up to now, people applied for a local authority house to become a local authority tenant to live on a local authority estate and aspire to buying that house and using it to move or to make their family life in it. It seems the Department has proposed the opposite. A scheme is being introduced which will not provide security of tenure for participants and which will take no account of the fact that landlords sign up to timescales that suit them. Many of them have mortgaged houses and if the market picks up, they may sell them, which would mean the tenant no longer having accommodation. What does the scheme provide for tenants in improving their quality of life? That is an important issue.
I welcome the provision of mechanisms in legislation to deal with serious breaches of tenancy agreements.
I would also like to ask about how it will operate in the local authorities. All town councils are gone as of 1 June. With regard to all of the local knowledge that was in those town councils across the country, how has that been transferred to the county level, which now deals with housing, or has any work been done on it? I have made inquiries and done some research on this at national level only to discover that, in many cases, the people who dealt with housing at town council level have not been consulted and there has been no handover process of a massive volume of local knowledge. How are we going to handle that?
I want to refer to the pilot project under way in Limerick. The last line in the paragraph states that the lessons learned from the pilots will be vital. Have we learned any lessons yet? If so, will the witnesses give us some detail on that?
With regard to the tenant purchase scheme which is imminent, we are awaiting further information. Will the witnesses give us what information they can on the detail of the tenant purchase scheme? Despite the state of the economy, many people are interested in that scheme and are anxious to find out what exactly we are going to provide in it.
I welcome the work being done on void houses. It is very important we turn around houses as quickly as possible. We are not and have not been doing that, for what reason I do not know. In my own local authority area, houses are simply boarded up and left there. Nobody can give an answer as to why they are not used. Will the witnesses give us the number of houses involved? Can they tell us how many void houses there are in total in the country?
With regard to the completion of the 952 units, it was confirmed that the second round of 850 will be completed in 2015. When will the 952 be completed?
Ms Helen Faughnan:
I can assure the Senator that the rent limit review will be completed in time to feed into the budgetary process in October. Following Government consideration, it will be implemented.
We are currently spending €344 million on rent supplement. There is a balancing act in terms of value for money for the taxpayer given we are currently funding approximately 33% of the private rental sector. It is important that we are not distorting the market too much with that level of impact. That is one cautionary point.
In terms of the benefits to the tenant of moving to HAP, there is sometimes a perception among people on the live register in particular that they will lose rent supplement when they go into full-time employment. Due to the nature of the differential rent scheme that will be operated as part of HAP, this will support people moving into employment. As their earnings increase, their differential rent will be adjusted but they will not lose their housing support.
Mr. Michael Layde:
With regard to the voids issue, the 952 figure refers to completion in the current year. At the moment, there are in excess of 3,500 voids nationally. I should point out that the additional 1,000 will be completed between this year and next, so, in other words, we are looking at upwards of 2,000 between now and the end of next year. Obviously, as additional funds become available we would seek to deal with the balance. As part of the implementation plan in regard to homelessness we will be taking specific measures to minimise the number of voids. As I said in my opening statement, it is unacceptable that there should be this problem at a time when we are facing supply issues.
HAP is a significant policy change in the sense that it is moving from a system where people in that category receive an income support - rent supplement - from the Department of Social Protection to one in which they will receive a fully-fledged housing support, in the same way that people moving from rent supplement to the rental accommodation scheme over recent years have done. Once they become HAP customers as social housing tenants, it will be open to them, as it is with others who are in social tenancies, to move to a different type of property or, indeed, ultimately to purchase a property.
We are all very much aware of that, with respect to Mr. Layde. However, if they do not want to do that, and if they want to stay, they do not have security of tenure because how long they can stay in the house is based on the contract the landlord signs. If the landlord decides to terminate, as I understand it, that family will have to uproot, find another house or be provided with another house, and move from the community they are in to another estate, in the context of a small town, or to another part of a city. That is the biggest difficulty I see with this. I do not seem to be able to get an answer on that from Mr. Layde or when I have asked questions in other forums.
If I may interject again, I am comparing this with tenants who are in local authority houses across the country. When they go into their local authority house, provided they pay their rent and stay within their tenancy agreement, they do not ever have to worry about moving out of that house until the day they go out in a coffin. That is the comparison I want Mr. Layde to make. How will HAP compare to that?
Mr. Michael Layde:
It cannot be compared to that in the sense that what determines the availability of property ultimately is the ownership of that property. Clearly, if a property is owned by a local authority, it is owned for a specific purpose. In terms of private rental accommodation, the rules and legal provisions governing tenancies apply but it is the case that properties can cease to be available. That already happens in regard to people who are in properties and are receiving rent supplement and those who are in properties under the rental accommodation scheme, and it certainly will happen in instances-----
As a final interjection, would Mr. Layde accept that, from the point of view of the housing applicant, this is not favourable compared to the opportunity they would get to become a local authority tenant, whereby they would have security of tenure, as I have already outlined? Would he accept that is a fact?
Mr. Michael Layde:
What the scheme will do is immediately change the situation of those people in that they will immediately become social tenants and the responsibility of the local authority. But for this scheme, that would not happen. Within that, they will have the potential to progress to another type of social housing, which may very well be a property owned by the local authority.
Mr. Michael Layde:
The answer to the question is that they will be treated the same as all other social tenants. Once their need is established, it will have to continue to be met by the local authority and they will have the same options to move within the local authority sphere and, ultimately, even to purchase their own homes.
It is rather shocking that there is a continued reliance on the private sector to supply housing need. Not only that, it would seem there is an increased shift to the private sector. My question is how it can be considered value for money for the taxpayer that €344 million was paid out, and more the previous year given it was cut last year, rather than using that money to build social and affordable housing.
I have some additional questions with regard to HAP. I note that page 2 states there will be a mandatory direct deduction facility to recover rent contributions so, in other words, people will have to give permission that their social welfare can be taken, even if they do not have rent arrears - that is what I am reading here. I believe that is a shocking invasion of people's privacy. There are many people who go into rent arrears because there is austerity raging out there in society. Rich people do not have such a facility that their rent or mortgages will be deducted by the State and I do not see why council tenants or people on HAP should either. It does not even give a timeframe for the arrears so this will literally be taken. It is also a huge reflection on the social tenant.
How can it be said that HAP is parity, which I believe is the word that was used? The key ingredient missing is security of tenure. If a person has children in a school, that person could lose the property a year later, or if the landlord decides to sell the property, the tenant has to move somewhere else and is on the trail again.
It is pretended that there is something in this for people on the waiting list. People want to live in communities; they do not want to live in transient situations.
The other question is how long the HAP leases will be. I am struggling to see what the difference is between this and the RAS. The RAS is utterly defunct; no landlord wants to go near it. It was mentioned in the second presentation that payments have kept up with increased rents, but they have not. In my own area of Fingal, the maximum payment that one can get is €950. One will not find a house in Fingal for €950; the going rate is €1,300 for such a property. The payments are 50% behind what one could be asked to pay.
I do not agree with the State making those payments to private landlords. My position is that there should rent controls in the Bill. It is a huge opportunity missed that there is not. It is claimed that people move out very quickly, but as the witness said, 65% of people on rent allowance are on it for 18 or more months. It is not just a temporary thing; it can be very long term. I wonder why the Department has chosen to launch a privatisation when no private landlords are available to take part in it. How high will the HAP payments to landlords go? Is there a limit on them? Is that public information? The tenant or the HAP participant has to pay a differential rent amount, so how much is the State paying?
On house building, 6,000 housing units are spoken of to come on stream, but it is disappointing that only 700 of them will be constructed or acquired. RAS is still being looked down on. I cannot see 2,500 properties coming on stream, or 1,200 for leasing. I am not sure whether developers have a stock. The 1,800 refurbished properties are not new stock, so they should not be counted as increased provision. This is a Housing Bill with no houses. That is the disappointing thing for the 100,000 families who are stuck in this situation. It is disappointing to see taxpayers' money being shovelled over to private landlords rather than used for the construction of houses.
Ms Helen Faughnan:
On the mandatory rent deductions, part of the issue with local authorities is the large number of arrears that tenants have built up over time. A new housing solution cannot be introduced without having some safeguard around that. Having a roof over one's head is part of the make-up-----
Ms Helen Faughnan:
The household budgeting facility is operated by An Post for the Department. It was put in place more than 20 years ago to make it easier for people on social welfare to manage their budgets. Some 33,400 people pay their rent to local authorities and see the facility as providing valuable support to them in managing their budgets. The local property tax can also be deducted as a voluntary option for people who are in receipt of social benefit payments.
Deductions for arrears are mandatory, but, as part of one's social protection payment, rent and providing for one's housing are seen as a basic need to be met. There is a limit on the amount of arrears that can be deducted. Local authorities can work out with the tenant a viable repayment option. My colleagues from the department of Environment, Community and Local Government might want to comment further on that. Our experience is that the 34,500 people currently using the household budgeting facility see it as a good payment mechanism to support them in managing their payments.
Mr. Michael Layde:
On value for money, I presume that the reference was to the leasing arrangements that we have. They were the subject of a review by the Comptroller and Auditor General and were found to represent value for money.
It is important to consider leasing in the context of the public funding that is available to us, which is obviously significantly less than was available in the years when the economy was thriving. By using that money to lease properties rather than to build or acquire them, we can produce more properties more quickly, with the same amount of money, to address social housing need. It still needs to represent value for money and, as I have said, it has been the subject of a formal assessment by the Comptroller and Auditor General, who found that, on balance - and these things are always on balance - it represented value for money.
The intention behind the direct deduction facility, as my colleague said, is to assist people in ensuring that they do not develop arrears. Local authorities are facing the challenge of combined arrears approaching €60 million, which is clearly an issue. Social housing is provided by the State, as are welfare payments. Those welfare payments include resources for people to meet their accommodation needs. Social tenants pay a subsidised rent which is linked to their income. The Government has decided that it is appropriate that direct deduction should apply in those cases.
On the security of tenure issue, people who are accommodated in the private rented sector, whether or not they are receiving State support, are obviously in a position where their tenancy can legally be terminated and properties can become unavailable, but, the point on that that I made earlier is a valid one. If one compares that person's position today with the position that they will be in when they enter HAP, one sees that they will have moved from a situation of being entirely within the private rented sector and relying on income support to maintain themselves to one in which they will be within the social housing support structure under a housing authority, with that housing authority having continuing obligations to that person. They will have the facility then to move ultimately, if they have a continuing need for social housing, within the social housing space to other forms of social housing and even to purchasing a property through the incremental purchase schemes.
The Bill does not address the issue of rent control as such, but the Minister with responsibility for housing and planning has asked the PRTB to carry out some research, particularly in the Dublin context but also more broadly, on the issues that are now presenting in the rental market and the upward pressure on rents. It has been asked to report by the end of this month so as to inform the development of proposals in the social housing strategy around how issues in the private rented sector impact on social housing directly or indirectly.
On the additional 6,000 units being provided, some 1,200 by leasing, we believe that that target is realisable. NAMA is one source, but local authorities lease properties from a variety of landlords around the country. On counting refurbished units into that total, those are units that have been out of service for a very long time and, but for this investment, would remain out of service, so we think that it is legitimate to regard them as, in effect, new, additional opportunities for people on waiting lists to be housed.
The Housing Bill is about housing, not houses. The Government has mandated us to prepare a social housing strategy for publication by the end of the third quarter. It will be a detailed examination of the position on social housing and contain definite and specific actions.
Is Mr. Layde aware of the shock people who have been on a housing waiting list for 12 or 15 years will feel when they discover that because they have been included in the HAP scheme they have been removed from the list? People have a right to feel very angry and cheated when they are removed from a housing list on which they have been for 12 years and have no chance of getting a council house, although they believed for ten to 15 years that they would in the end. Mr. Layde has countered, as has the Minister, by saying they can transfer. Is it not correct that they can transfer but only on medical or overcrowding grounds and that if they do not qualify on these grounds, they will not be able to transfer? They will be in private accommodation in a private landlord's private property, the Department will deem them to be housed and they will be off the list, unless they can qualify on medical or overcrowding grounds. Is that not true?
Mr. Michael Layde:
I do not know if the word "shock" is relevant. People will be communicated with and told. The initial phase will predominantly affect people in receipt of rent supplement who will transfer to the HAP in the same way as people in receipt of rent supplement have been transferring to the rental accommodation scheme for the past decade or so.
The difference is that they will be off the housing waiting list. A person on the list in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown has a number and knows where he or she is on the list. Although a person with a number between 300 and 500 is consigned to ten years of waiting, he or she knows that at the end of it he or she will rise up the list and receive a council house. If a person is included in the HAP scheme, without being given any choice, he or she will be removed from the list and the ten years wait will be for nothing. Is that not true?
Mr. Michael Layde:
People who move to the RAS are considered to have had their housing needs met. The same principle will apply under the HAP. Regarding movement thereafter within social housing, the principle is that they should be treated no less favourably than those on the main housing waiting lists. They will have the same option of moving within social housing as others. People's situations will be improved immediately in that those in receipt of rent supplement will move from an income support to a social housing support, with the responsibility of the local authority for meeting their needs being clear. This represents a significant improvement in their position, reinforced by the fact that they, like any other social tenant, can move to a different form of social housing. If their needs prove to be continuous, bearing in mind that one of the objectives of the HAP is to facilitate people's return to work as the economy improves and, perhaps, being able to meet their own housing needs-----
I do not mean to be confrontational, but I have very little time. I understand all of the points Mr. Layde has made. I accept that the council having some obligation to tenants is better. Let us call a spade a spade. People who have been on the housing waiting list for years and who previously had an entitlement to a council house will be removed from the list and no longer have that entitlement. Is that not a fact? When will people be told this? Will they be told when they are forced onto the HAP scheme? Although Mr. Layde has said people will not be treated any less favourably than if they were on the list, the only grounds on which one can secure a transfer are medical and overcrowding. Tens of thousands of families who previously had an expectation of being given a council house but who do not fit these criteria will not get a council house.
Mr. Michael Layde:
Yes, as happens under the RAS. A person's housing needs are met and he or she moves to being the responsibility of the relevant housing authority. There is a requirement on the local authority to continue to meet his or her needs into the future in whatever form of housing is appropriate and available, as applies to other social housing tenants. A person's place on a housing waiting list does nothing to alter his or her position, for example, regarding rent supplement. By moving to the new HAP scheme a person's position is altered because he or she becomes the responsibility of the local housing authority. Such a person can then be on whatever list is appropriate in terms of a transfer within the local authority to other forms of social housing.
In a situation where rents are going through the roof and landlords are pulling out of RAS arrangements when the terms are up or even before, what on earth makes Mr. Layde think thousands of them will sign up to permanent or semi-permanent arrangements with local authorities at the lower rents the HAP will require? Is that not a cloud cuckoo land fantasy?
Mr. Michael Layde:
Significant numbers of landlords continue to provide properties under the RAS, although there have been some instances of landlords withdrawing from the scheme. We are piloting the HAP in Limerick city and county and landlords are co-operating with their tenants entering the scheme. Later this year we will roll out the HAP across six other local authorities and be able to test the degree to which there may be a concern about landlords' willingness to participate in the scheme. There is a housing supply issue, which is recognised by the Government in Construction 2020. The social housing strategy, on which we are working, will, in that context, attempt to bring forward creative solutions to ensure the supply of social housing, whether directly by housing authorities, approved housing bodies or the private sector, is maximised and that problem issues are addressed quickly and comprehensively.
Mr. Layde is aware that landlords have been saying online that they will not accept rent supplement and that there is no provision in place to deal with it. They could do the same regarding the HAP. What is Mr. Layde's opinion? It should be outlawed. Some time ago the Minister mentioned that there were more than 4,500 NAMA properties, 500 of which were being used and approximately 2,000 of which had been identified as unsuitable. The definition of "unsuitable" upset me. Originally, I thought it was because they were in remote, country areas. However, we are told it is because some of the local authorities are taking the position that the social mix is not right in certain areas. It is appalling that we should say this when there is a housing crisis. It is reported that there are 500 units available in Tallaght.
Are we looking at these units in terms of how they can be utilised or will we encounter the same story in terms of the social mix?
Mr. Michael Layde:
In relation to NAMA units specifically, a long-standing policy of successive Governments has been to promote sustainable communities. It is generally accepted that a sustainable community has a mixture of tenure types, whether owner-occupied, privately rented, social tenancies and so on. The motivation on the other side of the coin in the context of Part 5 was in part to provide social housing units but also to ensure commercial developments included social housing. In the same way, in applying that rationale to large concentrations of units becoming available through NAMA, there was a concern not to replicate the mistakes of the past when very large social housing estates were built on greenfield sites in isolation from other communities and services. Local authorities and NAMA are looking at this issue and certainly in the context of the social housing strategy we will look at it again. We will try to maintain the principle; it is of no benefit to people in social housing or the wider community if there is a process of concentration, of which the 500 units in Tallaght are an example. With the local authority, NAMA and the housing agency we are looking at ways in which we might be able to use these units creatively. There have been a number of initiatives. For example, one of the approved housing bodies has a scheme whereby it lets both on a social and commercial basis. In other words, it took a block of units from NAMA, some of which were let commercially and some as social housing such that there is a mix of tenures. This is the type of initiative at which we are looking. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach. We are reviewing the initial rejection of some of the NAMA units, but ultimately it is about having a balance.
It is a very important question because Tallaght forms part of my area. My first question was on the 500 units available there. Having listened to the delegates, I want a statement from the housing department. Obviously, there is a social mix of 20%, which is stated policy. If we are to be creative, we always have to bear in mind that we do not want to go back to what happened in the past. People in Tallaght are worried out of their minds. It is a great place in which to live. It has great facilities, including the Luas, the hospital, educational facilities and so on. I seek an assurance that social integration will be provided for in any policy on NAMA units, wherever they are located, particularly where 500 units are to be brought on stream. The social cohesion of society must be prioritised. I want to have the up-in-the-air vision out of the way in terms of the 500 units in Tallaght being automatically transferred en bloc for social housing.
My second question is on homelessness. I welcome the provision of the extra €10 million. Taking account of the special purpose vehicle in the various housing bodies coming together with provision for ERDF funding of 25% and the 50% loan from the finance agency, that leaves the Government with a figure of only 25%. Is the special purpose vehicle being used to put a housing block in place for homeless persons? How many units have been started and how many will be provided as the ERDF is the only vehicle available to draw down funding which is badly needed? There are more than two ways to skin a cat and get money from the European Union.
My third question is on succession. Obviously, people have a right to buy local authority houses, but this only applies to those who can afford to do so. If older people living in rented accommodation die and if grandchildren are attending school in the area, can their families inherit the property? Perhaps the delegates might make a statement on how this issue could be addressed better?
It is welcome that persons returning to employment will not lose the HAP. I understand the scheme is being rolled out to a further six local authorities. When is it envisaged that it will be rolled out to all local authorities? It has been stated by various Senators and Deputies that people who are included in the HAP and removed from the housing waiting list are worried that they may lose their place on the list. If one is homeless, one badly needs a home. If one is living in poor accommodation, one also badly needs a home. If a person is in included in the HAP scheme or the RAS, he or she has a roof over his or her head, but he or she wants to look forward to a time when he or she will have permanency. Is there a methodology in place to ensure a place on the list is not lost for those who transfer to the HAP?
I welcome the new tenant purchase scheme, but I have not seen any reference in any of the documentation to those included in the shared-ownership scheme. The delegates can correct me if I am wrong; perhaps I missed it. They are a group who were the new poor when property prices went sky high. They had some money for a deposit and entered the shared ownership scheme with local authorities, but now they are carrying the can, as local authorities take over properties. Can anything be done for such persons who are in negative equity? Something is being done for people who are in negative equity under every other scheme.
I would like to see a minimum lease term to ensure security of tenure, as happens in Germany. Perhaps we might receive a statement on that issue. Ireland is the only country in Europe in which people are afraid to rent. In every other country it is common practice. People are not scared out of their wits because they have rights that secure tenure.
Is provision made for persons who wish to self-build in a case where a family gives them a site? This was provided for in the past, but I do not know if it still applies.
I welcome the regeneration schemes. Being an ex-councillor in south Dublin, it was one area that prided itself on not having many vacant units, although there were some. The allocation of €20 million is welcome to ensure voids are upgraded and work is speeded up.
Mr. Michael Layde:
I will try to answer the various questions raised by the Senator. I have no difficulty in asserting social cohesion is at the heart of what we are seeking to do in social housing and has been for many years. We will certainly underpin and underscore policies in the social housing strategy. The objective is to promote sustainable communities with a mix of tenures in areas in which there are appropriate services, including education and transport services, in order that they can develop and evolve in a cohesive way. That is the policy. Certainly we test our options routinely against it. The 500 units in Tallaght will certainly be tested against these criteria.
Mr. Michael Layde:
In the sense that the methodology is applied. There is no suggestion, even if funding was available, that we would return to building very large concentrations of social housing. Both here and in many other countries this has been seen to be unfair and unworkable in giving people the homes and communities they deserve.
On ERDF funding, for which we have made an application, a decision is awaited from the European Union. It has the potential to deliver about 2,000 units or voids to be brought back into service in Dublin and other urban centres. Because of the necessary financial engineering, it involves a number of approved housing bodies coming together in a special purpose vehicle. However, that vehicle has not yet been put in place. The Department will be centrally involved.
Mr. Michael Layde:
It is multi-annual. If funding is made available to us, we will be able to draw it down within that period.
The Senator also asked about the homeless. We envisage that a significant number of units will go towards homeless people, but we are still at the stage of progressing the application rather than implementing the initiative.
As to people remaining in social housing, differentiation was the point of lists. The basis of this work is the establishment of whether there is a housing need and whether that is continuing. If so, it must be met by the housing authority. For many years it has been the case that if someone in a household passes away, other family members can remain in the house subject to an assessment of continuing need.
I am unsure of the Senator's issue with self-builds. They are permissible. New building control regulations are in place in that regard, as they are in respect of all forms of construction, to try to avoid some of the excesses and mistakes of the past. Subject to compliance with those regulations, there is no prohibition on self-builds.
I note the Senator's welcome of our work on voids and regeneration. We are committed to continuing in that respect.
I apologise for being late, as I was chairing the Dáil.
Several questions on the number of new builds expected to be delivered up to 2016 under the Part V social housing construction programme arose during Question Time. There was also a suggestion that the figure of 20% would be reconsidered. Will this become a minimum figure, or will it be revised downwards?
Mr. Michael Layde:
I do not wish to avoid answering the Deputy's question, but we do not know. The number is contingent on how much commercial building happens. The building market is at a low ebb. The objective of Construction 2020 is to ensure that construction will be revitalised. As Part V will apply in that regard, one is a function of the other.
The review of Part V is being brought to a conclusion. Construction 2020 refers to that process as well as to consequential proposals that will be made in the context of a planning Bill that is under preparation. We are considering the future shape of Part V. The Government must make a decision in that regard. Without pre-empting that immediate Government decision, though, the Minister of State with responsibility for housing and planning has made it clear that a situation should be maintained in which commercial development results in a social housing dividend. The evolution of Part V over the years has been complex and perhaps even unwieldy, but our considerations are subject to a Government decision.
Mr. Michael Layde:
We are examining all aspects. As matters stand, social housing provision can be up to 10% and affordable housing provision can be up to 10%, combining to form the 20% figure that the Deputy cited. We are considering various mechanisms to meet this figure. Under Part V, there are a number of ways for a developer to meet this obligation. It is not just a matter of providing 20% of the units built. Rather, developers have options such as the provision of sites, funding, etc. The system's evolution has been complex and we are considering all of its aspects. The objective is to streamline it. The Minister of State, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, has made clear her view that Part V will have a future in meeting social housing needs and objectives.
Mr. Michael Layde:
I apologise. Like all affordable home schemes, shared ownership no longer exists, having been stood down, but legacy issues remain. A considerable number of people are in shared ownership arrangements with standard local authority mortgages or commercial mortgages. Mortgage distress is an issue that the Government has been attempting to deal with in recent years. The private sector has the mortgage arrears resolution process, MARP. The key report-----
Mr. Michael Layde:
It applies equally to people with local authority mortgages. There are specific complexities in the question of shared ownership because of the model used, which involved rental and mortgage elements. We are examining this issue with a view to finding solutions. As an interim step, we have made it clear to local authorities that the MARP is available to people in shared ownership arrangements, including a mortgage-to-rent option if appropriate to a person's circumstances. The same solutions that are available to other distressed mortgage holders are, where possible, available to those in shared ownership arrangements, but the unique aspects are difficult to unravel. We are trying to find out how to do so and hope to be in a position to address that subset of people fully in the coming months.
What procedures has the Department in respect of the RAS to ensure that landlords do not evict people to make properties available to local authorities? I have heard of such occurrences.
My second question is on the shared ownership scheme. Would now be an opportune time to return it to the local authorities where the property market is still suppressed? It would be a great opportunity for those families that are in a position to acquire their homes.
Does the Department issue procedures to local authorities on the sale or disposal of service sites or other lands to ensure they get the best possible prices, or are they allowed flexibility in how they go about it?
Mr. Michael Layde:
Regarding RAS, deliberate evictions cannot be countenanced. There are protections in law for people in the private rental sector. Any violation of same can be dealt with in the appropriate way. We would be concerned if there were evidence to suggest that people were being evicted in some covert way or compelled to leave properties other than strictly in accordance with the law. The legal obligations are clear. We would want to know of any instances of such evictions, as they should not happen. This is not to say that there are not circumstances in which landlords are lawfully exiting RAS or even the private rental sector. For example, they may be selling their properties for other purposes or occupying them themselves.
Senator Keane raised the historical issues with the shared ownership scheme. They must be unravelled before we can consider embarking on the scheme again. The approach to affordability at the time of the nascent housing bubble was one thing, but we are in a different situation now.
There are options for people to purchase their homes, including, for example, the home choice loan scheme which is available to those on low incomes who could support a mortgage. The housing Bill progressing through the Houses of the Oireachtas provides for an income rental purchase scheme for those currently in local authority houses. There is in place a scheme for persons in local authority apartments, flats or new local authority houses.
On ineffective disposal of land and necessary approvals and so on, it is ultimately a matter for elected members. Obviously, we would expect to achieve value for money. On the local authority land bank and lands held by the housing agencies, our objective is to ensure value for money is achieved and that these lands are used in a socially beneficial manner. Many of them were originally acquired for social housing purposes and we would like to see them used in the future in a socially beneficial way. There is a considerable amount of such land available. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the local authorities as owners or, where the lands have been transferred, the housing agencies.
On my last question, while I know it would be Mr. Layde's hope people would not act unethically and so on, are there in place specific mechanisms for checking whether a particular property had been occupied and suddenly became unoccupied and was presented to a local authority for consideration under the RAS?
Mr. Michael Layde:
Regulation of the scheme is a matter for each local authority, rather than the Department which does not have an inspecting role. In this regard, there is a clear responsibility not only on local authorities but also on landlords. First, there are legal obligations when property owners become landlords. It is only in certain circumstances that a tenancy can be terminated. Second, there are legal and administrative obligations on local authorities in their oversight of housing generally, including how the rental accommodation scheme operates. The Department would be concerned if there was evidence to suggest any individual local authority was not discharging its responsibilities correctly.
That concludes our discussion on this issue. I thank the delegates for attending. Our next meeting is at 1.15 p.m. on 19 June when the committee will consider the provisions of the Radiological Protection (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014. There will also be a meeting of the select committee next Tuesday at 11 a.m.