Dáil debates

Tuesday, 9 July 2024

Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2024: Second Stage


5:05 pm

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am grateful to the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach and all Deputies for facilitating the debate on this urgent legislation before the summer recess. I wish to record my thanks to the Chief Whip and members of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage for enabling the Bill to be read a Second Time here today.

I am asking the House to pass the Bill to enable its early enactment to amend the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 to provide, in the case of student-specific accommodation, SSA, tenancies, licences and arrangements, to permit advance payment of rent exceeding an amount equivalent to one month’s rent, only where a person is paying both rent and tuition fees to the same relevant provider. That would be in the instance of a public or private educational provider. Very importantly, it will limit the duration of such a tenancy or licence, other than at the request of the prospective tenant or licensee, to not more than 41 weeks. It will apply Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, sanctions to improper conduct by a landlord or licensor for exceeding that duration of 41 weeks. Furthermore, the Bill will provide for the referral of disputes to the Residential Tenancies Board where a landlord or licensor requests or requires a student to enter an SSA tenancy or licence that exceeds a duration of 41 weeks. It will enable a fixed-term tenant or licensee of student-specific accommodation to serve a notice of termination during the period from 1 May to 1 October, inclusive, in any year, whether or not the landlord or licensor has failed to comply with any obligation of the tenancy or licence.

My Government colleagues and I have noted with some alarm that a number of private student-specific accommodation providers have moved exclusively towards a 51-week occupancy model. While there may be a market for 51-week leases among some members of the student population, it is neither desirable nor affordable for the vast majority of third-level students and their families, who rightly wish to pay for accommodation only during the academic term, when it is used. A move of this nature will only increase barriers to accessing higher education.

In addition, some private SSA providers are currently not operating within the spirit of the Residential Tenancies Act, RTA, insofar as it restricts the amount of any advance rent payments and of any deposit that can be required to be paid upfront. Some private providers are currently operating booking portals that seek payments of amounts that exceed those that can be legally required under the Residential Tenancies Act to secure a tenancy or licence agreement, as an alternative to, but not exclusive to, the option of paying the amount that can legally be required. I urge that small but not insignificant number of providers to immediately amend their booking portal to seek and require only lawful upfront payments.

Section 19B of the Residential Tenancies Act restricts the total amount a tenant is required to pay upfront to a landlord or student-specific accommodation licensor by way of a deposit or an advance rent payment to secure a tenancy or student-specific accommodation licence to no more than the equivalent of two months' rent. That would ensure any deposit or advance rent payment cannot exceed one month's rent. We have done this in previous legislation to include student licensed arrangements under this and it is very important that it is adhered to. A restriction of the equivalent of one month's rent is also placed on the amount that a tenant or licensee is obliged to pay as a regular advance rent payment to a landlord or licensor during a tenancy or student-specific accommodation licence.

In some instances, the pressure on students and their families to secure student-specific accommodation is resulting in upfront payments being made to private providers that far exceed those that can be legally required. This practice impedes access to education, circumvents the requirements of the Residential Tenancies Act and counters the spirit of the legislation I previously brought forward.

The Government decided last week to publish the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2024, which we have before us today, with a view to its early enactment to urgently deal with the matter of 51-week leases or licences. We can work together today and tomorrow in this House, and on Thursday in Seanad Éireann, to deliver for students. I appreciate the work done by everybody, including officials in my Department and officials in the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science along with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, in addition to staff here in the Houses of the Oireachtas, to give us the chance to debate this urgent Bill. We must act swiftly to safeguard students from creating tenancies or licences that exceed the academic term or make excessive upfront payments to secure a tenancy or licence. The protections in this Bill will provide assurances to students and their families on costs when planning for higher education.

As Members will appreciate, the Government is very active in increasing the supply of student-specific accommodation to help alleviate the rental pressures in that sector and throughout the wider rental market and to reduce rents. Under Housing for All, the Government has committed to improve the supply and affordability of rental accommodation and the security of tenure for renters, including students. Work is ongoing with the higher education institutions, HEIs, to ensure that more accommodation is built on and off campus, using cost rental and other models. Housing for All provides Government support to technological universities to develop purpose-built student accommodation where such a requirement exists, through access to appropriate funding. The Government recently confirmed the investment of €100 million to deliver more than 1,000 student accommodation beds. This State funding will allow 493 new beds to be developed in University College Dublin, and the progression of 405 new beds in Dublin City University through tender stage, and 116 new beds in Maynooth University to construction. Any State funding will be in return for 30% of the newly built beds being made available for use by students in the national access plan priority groupings, or categories of students eligible for support via SUSI, at a discounted rate of rent.

The Higher Education Authority, HEA, is currently assessing tenders for the provision of an expert multidisciplinary team to develop new design standards for State-supported purpose-built student accommodation. This project will be key to establishing best practice and value for money for the State, ensuring affordability of additional supply for students, and to delivering modern purpose-built student accommodation facilities that are functional, sustainable, maintainable, flexible and safe, with high quality architectural design. I have been involved personally in those discussions and the genesis of establishing the multidisciplinary team. We have also done research into other designs across Europe and in Britain to see what we can bring forward there as an optimum design. A cross-departmental oversight group has been established to oversee, manage and advise on the project. The group will engage, as required, with higher education sectoral experts, local authorities, expert student representatives, and industry and professional bodies. The project will commence after the awarding of the contract to the successful tenderer in mid-July of this year, with the report to be completed by the end of 2024.

Short-term activation measures have been successful in reactivating projects with planning permission already in place that otherwise could not progress without State funding. However, there is a lot more to do. While the short-term activation measures are progressing, the longer term plans have been in development. The agreed longer term approach will include a focus on balanced regional responses for additional student accommodation, including with the technological universities, utilising a standardised design approach for new student accommodation. This policy will also focus on refurbishment and vacancy to deliver additional supply. Flexible and affordable supply through digs accommodation will also continue to play a key role in supporting new and additional supply for students.

Importantly, Government action to deliver under Housing for All over the period to 2030 in line with a clear multi-annual, multibillion euro plan is improving Ireland's housing system and helping people with different housing needs across the country, including students. The increasing number of new homes being built since the publication of Housing for All in September 2021 shows that the plan is delivering results. We know we need to do more. The number of new homes delivered last year was the highest in 15 years, with just short of 33,000 new homes completed in 2023, 10% higher than in 2022. A total of 110,000 new homes have been built since this Government came into office. There have been 52,000 housing starts in the past 12 months alone. On student-specific accommodation and student accommodation, it is crucially important that we ensure that where accommodation is provided, providers adhere to the law, hence the Bill before the House.

I will now briefly outline the provisions of the Bill, which contains seven sections. Sections 1 and 7 contain standard provisions. Section 1 defines "Principal Act" to mean the Residential Tenancies Act 2004. Section 7 provides for the Short Title, commencement, collective citation and construction of the Bill.

Section 2 amends section 19B of the principal Act to clarify that a person cannot seek or require an advance rent payment that exceeds one month's rent. A new section 19B(3A) provides that a student or tenant may agree to pay an advance rent payment of greater than one month's rent only where such a payment is part of a combined payment, in respect of rent for accommodation and tuition fees, to the same relevant provider, within the meaning of the Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training) Act 2012, which includes both public and private education providers.

Section 3 inserts a key new section 19C into the principal Act to ensure that students cannot be requested or required to pay for student-specific accommodation during the summer months when it is not required by students. The aim is to ensure that these tenancies and licences are limited to the academic year - a maximum of 41 weeks. However, this section does not prohibit a student from requesting and agreeing with a provider to rent for a longer term.

Section 4 amends section 58, which deals with the termination of tenancies restricted to means provided by this Part, that is, Part 5 of the principal Act, to allow students who are bound to a fixed-term tenancy or licence to serve a 28-day notice of termination, NoT, at any time during the period from 1 May to 1 October each year, whether or not the landlord or licensor has failed to comply with any tenancy or licence obligation. This provision allows a student who does not need student-specific accommodation during the summer months to serve a NoT in respect of their fixed-term tenancy or licence on 1 May each year.

It also allows a student who switches course shortly after the commencement of the academic term, possibly on foot of a further college place offer, to break their fixed-term licence or tenancy agreement up until 1 October each year.

Sections 3 and 4 together provide significant power to students. There will be a prohibition on tenancies and licences of longer than 41 weeks unless the student requests a longer duration. As a student can serve a 28-day notice of termination at any time from 1 May to 1 October to end that agreement, students will be legally protected from having to pay against their will for student-specific accommodation during the summer months.

Section 5 technically amends section 78 of the principal Act to include a contravention by an SSA landlord of the new section 19C, which limits the duration of tenancy to a maximum of 41 weeks, in the list of matters that can be referred to the RTB for dispute resolution.

Section 6 technically amends Schedule 2 to the principal Act to clearly provide that persons, including student-specific accommodation landlords, who seek or require payments in contravention of section 19B of the principal Act, or who request or require tenancy or licence durations in contravention of the new section 19C, are engaging in improper conduct for the purposes of Schedule 2 to the principal Act. Consequently, such improper conduct is liable to an RTB administrative sanction under Part 7A of the principal Act.

The intention is for persons, including SSA landlords or licensors, to be liable to sanction by the RTB if they request or require a student to sign up to a student tenancy or licence arrangement of longer than 41 weeks in respect of their accommodation. A sanction may be imposed by the RTB following an investigation on foot of a complaint about improper conduct, or of its own volition, and may comprise one or more of the following: a financial penalty of up to €15,000, payment of RTB investigation costs up to €15,000 and-or a written caution. A student can seek redress by referring a dispute for resolution by the RTB or making a complaint of improper conduct for investigation, and possible sanction, by the RTB. The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science will engage in an awareness campaign following the enactment of this legislation to ensure that students, their parents, SSA providers and those working in the sector are well aware of the new laws. The RTB will provide relevant information to the sector.

The Department has already notified SSA providers, both public and private, of the publication of the Bill and requested that its measures are adopted without delay in respect of new and existing tenancies and licences. Today, I again call on SSA providers to contact individual students with existing tenancies to ask them if they are happy to update the terms of their existing licence or tenancy agreement in line with the provisions of the Bill. Students cannot be expected to pay for accommodation that they are not using during the summer months. To be fair to students, any SSA tenancy or licence created from today should align completely with the terms of the Bill. Providers should not need to be compelled by law to treat their customers fairly and with respect. That said, here is the Bill to do just that. Together, we can help students to rent and pay for a home for the duration of their studies only, and not during their summer holidays unless it suits them.

As the Minister responsible, and one who wants to see the supply of student-specific accommodation and general rental accommodation increase, I seek only to place legally sound Bills onto the Statute Book. The Bill before us today is balanced and takes in account the legal advice of the Attorney General. Every action the Government takes in the rental sector causes a reaction and we all need to recognise that making the wrong policy choices can cause more harm than good for the renters we are trying to help. The Bill strikes the right balance, and I call on SSA providers to recognise that it is simply wrong to charge students for accommodation during the extended period of the summer months when they do not need it. It is also wrong to ask students to pay far greater upfront payments than is lawful. Other renters pay no more than one month's rent in advance and this is the law.

The Government is fully committed to ensuring that the tenancy protections under the Residential Tenancies Act are implemented and applied in the sector, in accordance with the intentions and spirit of the Houses of the Oireachtas. Student specific accommodation was brought under the remit of the Residential Tenancies Act in 2019 for good reasons. These were to protect students; control their rents and provide recourse to the RTB's dispute resolution service for both parties. The Government has also helped students and their parents by providing a rent tax credit that stands at €750 per student, or up to €1,500 for parents who pay rent for a student this year. The Government also extended from 28 days to 90 days the period during which a dispute case can be referred to the RTB in relation to the validity of a notice of termination. We will continue to give every chance to students and other renters to secure their tenancy protections through the RTB.

I thank colleagues across the House who attended the briefings on the Bill. All of us aware that this is an issue we do not want to see grow. There are many good SSA providers who have not engaged in this type of behaviour. We want to make sure students in particular are supported and that we provide more student accommodation, which we are doing. We need to do more in this regard. These protections, with the co-operation of all parties and Independent Deputies in the House, can pass through the Dáil today and tomorrow and then go to the Seanad, so we can have the early enactment of these protections for students before the next academic year. I thank colleagues for their support in this regard, the interest they have shown in this and their engagement with the officials in the Department.


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