Thursday, 3 June 2021
An Bille um an Naoú Leasú is Tríocha ar an mBunreacht (Ceart chun Tithíochta) 2020: An Dara Céim [Comhaltaí Príobháideacha] - Thirty-ninth Amendment of the Constitution (Right to Housing) Bill 2020: Second Stage [Private Members]
Richard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
It is not that we want to personalise things in any way or comment on the Minister of State's background or anyone else's but there is absolutely no doubt that the policies that have been pursued are the problem. I first entered the Dáil in 2011, the year Fine Gael and the Labour Party went into government. I have been in the Dáil for ten years now. That Government, under Enda Kenny, in its programme for Government promised to end homelessness in its lifetime, but what followed was not the ending of homelessness but a spiralling out of all control of both homelessness and the housing crisis. Ten years on, the situation is as bad if not worse than ever. In fact, it is very considerably worse.
I feel immense frustration on a personal level because from day one when I came into Dáil Éireann, I could see the writing on the wall in terms of the housing crisis that was going to come because of policy decisions that were made in those first couple of years. Problematic policy number one was the decision made in June 2011. I remember the circular so well and I highlighted it in the Dáil but nobody took a blind bit of notice at the time. When I pointed it out, most of the journalists did not even know what RAS meant. The Government had not yet come up with the term HAP. Essentially, the document said that the State was not going to build council houses any more but would provide social housing through RAS. I tried to point out to journalists, who did not know at that point what RAS was, that this would be a disaster. It was a conscious policy because it was linked to the policy of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, of inviting in the vulture funds to refloat the property market. Undoubtedly, the deal with them was that they would be getting money through RAS, which later became HAP, from local authorities because the State would not be building council houses anymore.
It was a plan but in whose interests did that plan operate? It self-evidently did not operate in the interests of the 100,000 families who are still on the housing list or of the HAP recipients who are in completely insecure tenancies. It did not operate in the interests of the working people trying to buy an affordable home or the renters who are now paying €2,000 or €2,500 per month. In whose interests did it operate? Who benefited? It is a famous adage - who benefits? It is obvious the people who owned property benefited. The developers, vulture funds and cuckoo funds benefited enormously and it was all set up for them. What was driving them? Was it ideology, belief in the market or was it the fact there are a disproportionate number of landlords in the Dáil? It was a combination of all of these things and it was a disaster, an absolute disaster.
The Minister of State used the term "fantasy economics" earlier. When we said at that time, and it was in every budget document we produced from 2012, that we needed to build about 20,000 public and affordable homes every year, we were accused of engaging in fantasy economics. Year in, year out, we were told, "What a load of nonsense." I remember during one of the first Leader's Questions debate I ever did in 2012 I warned we were heading back towards the tenement conditions that Seán O'Casey described in his plays at the turn of the last century. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Deputies were rolling in the aisles with laughter. There were hoots of derision that I would even suggest such a thing. I was met with absolute contempt.
What was driving me was the housing misery of the people who were coming into my office. It is still driving me and they were out there with me today. The tenants of St. Helen's Court are four years and two vulture funds on. Decent working people are being told by the council that there is nothing for them and they are going into a homeless hostel. I have been citing this example for four years. This is an apartment complex where there are 13 perfectly refurbished apartments sitting empty. The representatives of that vulture fund went into the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, to secure the eviction and the barrister representing it said that it was not very pleasant but that his or her client had to maximise the value of the property. The Government allows that.
That is the point of this Bill. It is to say that such ruthless greed for profit is not more important than the right of those people not to be put out on the street next week. This Bill will not sort it all out but it will dramatically shift the legal balance in favour of the right to secure affordable housing and it will clear away the excuses the Government has consistently used to say that we cannot have rent controls, stop unjust evictions or take action against all the empty properties that are being sat on by these property owners that one of the other Deputies spoke about when it could be used to house people. We could take aggressive action.
Every time we say we need rent controls, we need to stop unfair evictions and we need to take action against the speculators, we are told the Constitution is a blockage. We are proposing therefore to remove that blockage. In addition, the Government needs to accept that the policy approach it has taken has been a disaster, that maybe the left was right and that maybe we need to start to invest in public and affordable housing on our own land and push the vultures, cuckoos and people who see housing as an opportunity to make profit out of the picture.