Tuesday, 14 December 2021
Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (Extension of Notice Periods) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]
I thank the Deputies who put their names to the Bill. I particularly thank the Simon Communities of Ireland, who have put a huge amount of work into putting the legislation together. Earlier today, I spoke with Wayne Stanley and I commended him on the work he has done on the legislation and the tireless work the Simon Communities of Ireland do day in day out. In response to Deputy Gould, we will always need volunteers. Any government will need volunteers and people who care and who advocate and work for people in their area.
I visited some of the Simon Communities' sites. I was a guest speaker of Simon in the mid-west very recently. I regularly meet Dublin Simon, which is part of my homeless task force. I sincerely value its input. So we are very clear, I am very happy to allow the Bill to proceed. As I said to Wayne Stanley earlier today, the Bill as currently drafted will require significant amendment as it progresses through the Houses to allow it to be enacted. I will look at other vehicles to bring in part of it. I have done so with other legislation and it should not come as a surprise to some Deputies. Notwithstanding this point, the Bill should proceed tonight.
Homelessness is one of the greatest challenges all of us, the Government and the country face. It is a challenge that the Government and I as Minister continue to address in Housing for All, which was launched in September. It contains 18 separate and significant action points with regard to homelessness. Under Housing for All we are the first country in the European Union to incorporate in national policy the commitment I made in the Lisbon declaration to work towards ending and eradicating homelessness by 2030. It is an ambitious target but it is one we must set ourselves. We must set ourselves challenging goals. They are achievable but they are challenging. We cannot accept, and I do not accept, that homelessness should be a permanent feature of Irish life. I have never accepted this. The homeless crisis affects all families at different levels throughout the country. Many feel it. The increase in homelessness seen in recent months is a serious concern. While significant improvements have been made in the situation we faced two years ago when homelessness was at its highest, there is still a huge amount of work to be done. One measure alone will not resolve this.
In October, 8,830 individuals accessed emergency accommodation. Over the longer term this is a 16% decrease on the number in October two years ago. It is still too high. Thankfully and importantly, progress has been made on the challenging issue of family homelessness. We have seen the number of families decrease by just short of 700 or 39%. This has decreased from 1,778 to 1,082. The number of dependents has increased, unfortunately. In Dublin, our street outreach teams, who I know well, recently recorded a fall in numbers of rough sleepers over the past year. The number has decreased from 139 to 94, which is a 32% decrease. This is welcome but not enough. It is progress.
The level of homelessness is unacceptably high and there are challenges that we have to address. However, progress has been made in a number of areas. The increase in homeless figures seen in recent months is of concern and is being addressed as an absolute priority. There is recognition that additional action is needed and was needed. In October, I convened a series of meetings with senior officials from local authorities where homelessness was most prevalent. This was in addition to the regular meetings I hold with the homeless task force I established a few short weeks after becoming Minister. These meetings discuss solutions and prioritising measures on homelessness prevention and exits. Additional local authority void units are being sought and being brought on stream with a focus on providing these homes to those experiencing homelessness. Each local authority was notified of a target of void units to return to productive use this year. It is also imperative to see social housing delivery being prioritised over the months ahead to address the time lost during the construction sector shutdowns. We have to be honest, and it has been acknowledged, that we have seen constrained supply over these two years because it has been affected by Covid. The projections into next year are a lot better and we will ramp up supply.
I have asked local authorities to further prioritise tenancy support services, homeless prevention and the use of other placefinder services for HAP tenancies and they are doing this. It is widely recognised, and all of us should know, that prevention is our first line of defence against homelessness and it is critical. The most recent figures indicate that in the third quarter of this year 1,308 preventions and exits from homelessness were achieved. This brings the total to more than 4,000 preventions and exits to date this year. A number of exits into permanent accommodation have been affected because of the constrained supply. This is, unfortunately, a fact but one on which we will make progress next year.
A range of strategies are already in place to mitigate the need for households to enter homeless services and to exit them as quickly as possible where this is unavoidable. The HAP placefinder service is playing a vital role in keeping families out of homelessness and in housing families who find themselves in emergency accommodation. Local authorities also oversee and fund a range of homelessness prevention and tenancy sustainment initiatives.
The suggestion in the Bill of lengthening notice periods is something that is being reviewed anyway. I will take from the Bill to expedite the review. There are some measures we can take in the shorter term, particularly as supply is building up, to alleviate some of the pressure. It will not resolve it and these measures alone will not resolve it. In fairness, the Simon Communities recognise this. We need to get a supply of permanent homes for people to live in which are affordable and social and get our vacant stock back into use. I am quite happy not to oppose the Bill on Second Stage but to work with other Members and with the Simon Communities on the measures in the Bill that we could implement. We could potentially use a Government Bill or another vehicle to be able to implement these sooner.
A review of notice periods is due now. A previous review was done and current legislation means we would be going to the end of 2022 before potential changes on notice periods would be published. I intend to do it a lot sooner than this. For me there are matters in the Bill on which we can work, adding to the work that has already been done. I am acutely aware in particular of the difficulties faced by people in Ireland's private rental sector.
Deputy Ellis spoke about landlords.
Let us remember that approximately 86% of all landlords have one or two properties and may be described as mom-and-pop landlords. These are the ones who are leaving the market and have been for a number of years.
Whether people like it or not, we need a private rental sector which needs to be functioning properly and to be secure. We are seeing a situation where more landlords are leaving the market. This needs to be addressed and we are working towards doing that. We need to see the requisite increase in public housing delivery and, in particular, in social housing. That is where the Housing for All plan comes in, with over €20 billion being spent between now and 2026 to deliver the biggest single housing programme that the State has ever seen on social and affordable housing and a new form of housing tenure: cost rental. That will be very significant. We are embarking on this very significant programme of social and affordable housing delivery. We have had two years of Covid-19. When it comes to housing supply, 2022 will be a year of delivery. The combined measures will contribute to reducing homelessness and, I hope sincerely and I have committed to, the eradication of homelessness by 2030. There is a way to go. If we are honest with each other, we all know that. The situation cannot be allowed to persist but progress has been made in the last 18 months. It will not be easy but we have set an achievable goal and a realistic timeframe.
I want to assure Deputies, both in government and in opposition, that there is no shortage of will and determination to deal with the issue of homelessness. It is among many priorities and pressing issues within housing. The number one priority for me is ensuring that people have a safe and secure roof over their head and it remains a top priority for me and this Government. Resources and funding are not an obstacle. We need to see increased supply. Where we can improve protections and where shorter-term measures can be brought in, such as some of those suggested by the Simon Community, I am happy to work with them and others on that. I hope to do that in an expeditious manner early in the new year.