Dáil debates

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Topical Issue Debate

Private Rented Accommodation

3:00 pm

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I am thankful for the opportunity to raise this matter, which concerns the quality of rental accommodation within the city of Dublin and beyond, and the abuse of property by landlords who allow large numbers of people to be resident within some of these properties. At the turn of the century much of the literature from this city referred to tenements, the conditions within which some people were living and the poverty and exploitation that took place. As we look at the city today I am convinced that we are seeing the return of tenements to many parts of the city as tenants are living in conditions that are beyond sub-standard. These people are being exploited and are asked to live in conditions not fit for human habitation. Alongside this are neighbouring residents who must deal with the impact of such properties on areas, and in extreme cases the criminal behaviour emanating from some properties.

Although many landlords take their responsibility seriously, a small number do not and behave in a rogue fashion. These people have an extremely negative effect on the environment, tenants and other residents. This issue is particularly obvious in my constituency in Dublin Central and the city's council is currently addressing it, with my colleague, Councillor Ray McAdam, leading the work in the area. I spent an hour yesterday walking with residents along the North Circular Road and saw fabulous houses with walls falling down, windows falling out and a large number of tenants living inside. Many of the tenants living in those properties, and their landlords, are also in receipt of either rent allowance or rental schemes overseen by Dublin City Council.

The reason I raise the matter as a topical issue is that it is absolutely crucial that strong action be taken now to ensure that tenants living in such properties are better protected and that action would be taken against the landlords who are providing the accommodation to ensure the property is brought up to standard. Tenants and residents are suffering from the large amount of rental property that is moving towards a derelict state within the city and beyond. Given that the State is currently spending nearly €500 million in rent allowance it offers a tool to the Government and State agencies to ensure rental standards are implemented and that landlords do not take advantage of anyone.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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The purpose of rent supplement is to provide short-term income support to eligible tenants 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. Since 2005 rent supplement expenditure has increased from €369 million to €516 million in 2010. The number of persons on rent supplement has increased from almost 60,200 persons in 2005 to more than 96,100 as at 18 November 2011, a 60% increase.

Responsibility for setting and enforcing housing standards rests with the local authorities. However, accommodation occupied by rent supplement tenants should at least meet minimum housing standards. In consultation with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, section 25 of the Social Welfare and Pensions Act 2007 introduced the condition that allows the Department to decide that a rent supplement may not be payable where it has been notified by a housing authority of non-compliance with standards.

Where such a notification is received from a housing authority in respect of an existing tenant the Department would normally discuss the situation with the tenant and take whatever action it decides is necessary in the best interests of the tenant. This condition is aimed at improving the standards of accommodation which rent supplement tenants occupy and supports the local authority in meeting its responsibilities on housing standards.

The Department must be satisfied that accommodation funded under the rent supplement scheme is reasonably suited to the residential and other needs of the claimant. Where the Department's representatives become aware of accommodation or blocks of accommodation which appear to them to be sub-standard, they notify the respective local authority and it may advise prospective tenants that rent supplement will not be paid in respect of those tenancies. In addition, my Department shares information with a range of other Departments and bodies with a view to improving the regulation of the private rented market.

My Department provides details of long-term rent supplement tenancies to local authorities via the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government on a quarterly basis and this information assists in enforcing housing standards. In addition, details of new rent supplemented tenancies are given to the Private Residential Tenancies Board, PRTB, to ensure that those tenancies are registered by landlords. The Deputy will be aware that it is the revenue generated from PRTB registration which supports the inspection of accommodation.

The basic problem is that people who are living on rent supplement in the long term ought to be doing so directly via the local authority in the area where they are living. Rent supplement was only ever designed to be short term for people in rented accommodation who had suddenly lost their jobs and were looking forward to getting another job quickly. The rent supplement was to tide them over for a short period of unemployment.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for her response. Within my area the waiting list for public housing at the moment can be anywhere between six and nine years. Because of that many people are seeking refuge in the private rented sector. The website to which the Minister referred, which provides information on the quality of rented accommodation, tells its own story. Last year, less than 20 cases were taken by local authorities against landlords for providing sub-standard accommodation.

It is evident to anyone who looks around the inner city of Dublin at the moment that this model is not working. There is a large amount of rental property that is not meeting the criteria set out by local authorities. On the North Circular Road alone, 84% of properties have multiple occupancy and a large number of them do not meet the criteria set out by law. Many of those properties have tenants who are in receipt of rent supplement. We need to either give more power to local authorities or they need to be incentivised to use existing powers to tackle the problem. We are seeing pervasive urban decay that is affecting tenants and other residents.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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I know the North Circular Road area very well. I am aware from the external appearance that issues potentially arise with much of the accommodation ones sees on the road. The solution is to transfer over a period responsibility for rent supplement so that in future it would be overseen by the local authority. As Deputy Donohoe is probably aware, in some cases people refuse offers of decent accommodation in good local authority houses in favour of private rented accommodation. That does not happen as much in Dublin but more so in some areas outside of Dublin.

We need to integrate housing provision schemes. The rental accommodation scheme, RAS, has great potential. After I became Minister I met local authority managers and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, and Deputy Penrose when he was Minister of State with responsibility for housing to see whether we could work in a co-ordinated way over a period to improve the situation described by Deputy Donohoe.

We must also ensure that all landlords are properly registered, that we have their PRSI numbers and that they pay tax. The Department of Social Protection is currently paying for half the private rented accommodation in the country, for more than 95,000 people, and the cost is well over €500 million. The cost to the taxpayer is very high. We will be able to find a better solution when we transfer more of the tenancies. At the moment the desire is that anyone who is on rent supplement for more than 18 months should go into a local authority, RAS-type situation. However, that is taking a great deal of time to achieve. One of the problems compounding the situation is that local authorities have approximately 88 separate schemes of differential rent, so when people move from one scheme to another the IT systems do not talk to each other. It is extremely difficult to deal with the issue but it is an area I hope to see progressed.

A working group from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Department of Social Protection meets regularly to try to see whether we can transfer more tenancies at a faster rate to local authorities, which will then have a much more direct interest in the quality of the accommodation. By and large, community welfare officers, who are now employees of my Department, and social welfare officers are not skilled in the area of inspecting property. It is not something they have done. This is a function that should be carried out by the housing departments of local authorities. They are the people with the skills.