Wednesday, 23 June 2021
Residential Tenancies (No. 2) Bill 2021: Second Stage
Fáiltím roimh an deis páirt a ghlacadh sa díospóireacht seo. Tá mo thacaíocht go huile is go hiomlán taobh thiar den reachtaíocht seo mar go dtugann sí síneadh ama do na cosaintí atá ar fáil do thionóntaí.
I welcome the Bill and am fully behind it in the context of the extension of protections to a small group of tenants. It will extend the emergency period for a further six months to 12 January for relevant persons. That qualifier is important. The definition of "relevant persons" means the Bill is very limited. It is limited to those who are unable to pay rent for two reasons, namely, being unable to work due to having contracted Covid or being in receipt of a State-funded payment introduced to alleviate financial hardship brought about as a result of the pandemic. That is welcome, but very restrictive.
I welcome the fact that for the first time, we are setting out what a deposit actually is, and that the Bill will restrict security deposits to a total of two months' rent, that is, one month's rent plus one month's deposit. While it is welcome that that includes student-specific accommodation, I worry about the opt-out that will be available to students. I ask myself why it is there and how it will be misused. One of the Sinn Féin Deputies stated that the explanation given to Opposition spokespersons in the briefing from the Department was that the opt-out provision was intended to facilitate foreign students who pay more than a few months in advance. That may well be, but I could see it being greatly misused in regard to richer students with richer families who can come up with more than one month's rent and one month's deposit and ensure their place in accommodation already priced out of the affordability of most students. Perhaps the Minister of State will clarify that in his closing remarks. I welcome also the inclusion of what the Union of Students in Ireland canvassed for, namely, the 28-day termination notice. That provision and the rent freeze extension are very positive and I expect the Bill to have the unanimous support of Deputies.
Nevertheless, we must put the Bill in perspective and outline the background to it. From August 2020 to June 2021, almost a year, just 475 tenants had availed of the protection. I had expected that we would hear some analysis during the debate of why that figure is so low. It is marvellous that 475 tenants availed of it but we must bear in mind the number of households renting in Ireland. It is difficult to find precise figures but the CSO stated in 2016 that 326,493 households were renting from either a private landlord or a voluntary body, although my experience tells me that the true figures are higher than that. The figure of 475, therefore, is very low. In addition, the private rented sector increased from accounting for 8% of households in 2004 to almost 20% in 2009, and it continues to grow.
This legislation will put an end to the growing practice of requiring multiple months' rent upfront, a permanent change to the legislation in contrast to the extension to just January, and I welcome that. It does little, however, to address the issues of affordability and indebtedness in the private rented sector. The Minister spoke about how this is the fifth Bill related to tenancies that the Government has introduced, and he is correct. We all agreed with him in regard to the previous Bills that sought to protect tenants. He went on to state that only the Government recognises that 70% of landlords own just one rental property - including, as my colleague pointed out, a substantial number of Deputies - and that 86% of landlords own just one or two rental properties. I fully appreciate that and understand that many landlords enter the market by accident, inheritance or a variety of events that might happen in their lives. We must, however, take into account what has happened in the rental market.
The Oireachtas Library and Research Service, in the research it prepared on our behalf before this debate, stated that while the private rented sector still comprises predominantly smaller landlords, as the Minister set out, REITs and other institutional investors have invested heavily in the Irish property market since 2014, although I might add that that is a result of Government policy that encouraged them to come in. It stated that in a letter to the Government dated March 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing noted that 93% of all assets sold by the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, went to foreign investors, and that by 2016, one third of all the properties sold were purchased by investors. There is a strong trend here, all based on Government policy. The research goes on to state that by the end of 2020, to bring us up to date, there were 15,500 residential units under the ownership of institutional landlords. I could go on but I will not, given the limited time.
Pre-legislative scrutiny was waived in respect of the Bill - I understand why, in light of the urgency - but if we keep waiving pre-legislative scrutiny on the important legislation that comes before the House, we will be tackling a jigsaw with each piece individually and not the overall picture. There is a major housing crisis but it did not arise from the pandemic. The pandemic shone a spotlight on, and brought into focus, what has happened with our housing system. Another Sinn Féin Deputy stated that one gets bored talking about this. I know exactly what he meant by that and what he feels, but we have a duty to articulate a different vision than that which the Government is putting forth. Even though it has gone a long way to protecting some tenants, the number is extremely small.
The Government accuses us on this side of the House of ideology, when all the time its own ideology is that which has led to the housing crisis, not overnight but deliberately as a result of Government policy. The worst step taken was that by Fine Gael and the Labour Party in 2014 and 2015 when they introduced HAP. They did so as a permanent solution to the housing crisis and that filtered down to all the local authorities, which were told there was no other game in town. That was the sort of language I listened to as a city councillor in Galway when we attempted to bring the housing crisis to the attention of a number of governments and were utterly ignored. When we got our quarterly reports, as I have said numerous times but cannot say often enough, from 2009 the column in respect of housing construction stated that it should be suspended. From 2009, therefore, up to a year ago, we built no social or affordable houses in Galway, and that is a city where there is a substantial land bank if all the land is taken into account.
Instead of that, we are proceeding piecemeal in the manner in which the Government is dealing with the housing crisis, as is reflected in the local authorities' approach on the ground. We do not have a master plan in Galway. More than 14 acres at Ceannt Station in the centre of town is being developed by one developer, the docklands are being developed by the Galway Harbour Company, while the Dyke Road site is being developed in conjunction with the Land Development Agency and the city council.
There is also the Sandy Road site and 115 acres of land owned by the city council and county council just sitting there. While we have a major housing crisis, we have a task force that has been sitting for more than two and a half years and has never produced a substantial report to tell us its opinion on the housing crisis in Galway or, more importantly, what the solutions are. Letters are going to the Department. We have an echo chamber in relation to a housing crisis and it is utterly frustrating. I can say that from a privileged position where I have a job and a house. How despairing is it for people on a housing waiting list, who are 15 solids years waiting for a house with Galway City Council, only to be told they will get HAP or RAS, or something else, but with no security of tenure? That is the background to this Bill, which is positive and necessary, but it is simply a tiny piece of the overall picture. I look forward to the day when we look at the overall picture and come up with proper solutions. The Minister of State might do us the courtesy, I do not mean now but generally, of listening to us. We generally come up with good ideas.