Wednesday, 25 September 2013
Topical Issue Debate
Local Authority Housing Issues
I thank the Chair for allowing me to raise this matter and the Minister of State for coming before the House to take it. There are approximately 166 housing vacancies in the area in which I live. There are 70 in the south-west inner city, 70 plus between Ballyfermot and Inchicore and 27 in the Crumlin-Kimmage area. In Dublin city alone, approximately 16,000 people are on the housing list. Some 7,000 of these individuals live in Dublin South-Central. The majority of people who attend my clinics have problems with housing. They are not able to get houses and many of them have been on the list for more than ten years. Yesterday, the Simon Community announced that the number of people sleeping rough in the period July to September increased by 88% over the figure for the corresponding period last year. On one night its volunteers found 85 people sleeping rough on the streets.
At this point I must thank the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Simon Community and, above all, the Salvation Army. Were it not for those services, this city would be flooded with people sleeping rough at night. I visited Merchant's Quay in the company of the Taoiseach during the summer. Roughly 300 people attend the services available there each day. They are able to obtain meals, wash themselves and do other important things such as seeing a doctor or a dentist. Those we met were mainly men between the ages of 30 and 50. Aside from their alcohol and drug addiction problems, their main reason for being there is because they are homeless. If they have places in hostels, they are obliged to leave by a certain time and then spend the day on the street. The Taoiseach indicated that he understood their plight and made a commitment to taking action in respect of the problems of homelessness in Dublin, particularly in the Merchant's Quay area where many men sleep rough at night.
I have been informed that Dublin City Council's budget does not allow for any further work on vacant units. Only one contractor is employed in respect of works in Dublin South-Central. All the other contractors have been let go. The average turnaround time for contractors is six weeks for a flat and longer for a house. If the matter goes through the maintenance department of Dublin City Council, it can take anything between six months to a year for work to be completed. This is extremely troubling. Maintenance crews, particularly craftsmen, have been redeployed and some have even lost their jobs. The latter makes it even more difficult for those who are left to do their ordinary work - carrying out everyday necessary maintenance on houses and flats - properly and they find it impossible to spend a fortnight making vacant houses and flats capable of habitation again. Furthermore, a large number of private landlords are abandoning the rent allowance scheme and this is leading increasing numbers of people into local authority housing. This is also troubling because many of those involved have been in private rented accommodation for up to 15 years. I understand that landlords may wish to move on and, given the times that are in it, sell their properties. However, this is placing a huge burden on the city council.
I grew up near Richmond Barracks, which later became Keogh Square and then St. Michael's Estate. It was not the best place in which to live but at least people had a roof over their heads. Anybody from the area will acknowledge that at least they had homes.
The actions of those in the voluntary housing sector are adding to the problem. Voluntary housing organisations have become very selective with regard to the tenants they choose. This means that the council is being obliged to house many of the most vulnerable and at-risk individuals in society. The needs of these people really need to be addressed. I request that the Minister of State seek a meeting with the new city manager to see what might be done in the context of making available some of the long-term voids that are in existence, particularly those in Dublin South-Central, in order that very young men there might avail of a bed-sit, even for the evening.
I thank Deputy Catherine Byrne for raising this issue and I know she is extremely concerned about it. On her final point, I intend to meet the new Dublin city manager as soon as possible. I will be addressing with him all the issues to which the Deputy refers.
The management and maintenance of local authority housing stock, including the carrying out of pre-letting repairs, is a matter for each individual local authority under section 58 of the Housing Act 1966. My Department is committed to supporting local authorities in maintaining and improving the quality of the national social housing stock through a range of measures, including large-scale urban regeneration programmes, improving the standard and energy efficiency of dwellings, pre-letting repairs and improvement and refurbishment works to vacant properties, in order to return them to productive use as quickly as possible. This year, my Department is providing funding of more than €62 million to Dublin City Council in respect of its 2013 social housing programme. This includes €31 million for regeneration projects in Ballymun and at a number of other locations in Dublin city. A further €9.8 million is being provided under the remedial works scheme for the refurbishment of tenanted and vacant units in Liberty House and Bunratty.
Constraints on the public capital programme and the reduction in new social housing supply have added to the urgency of focusing on vacant stock. This is relevant both in terms of vacancies management and rent receipts. In this regard, the most recent value for money study on management and maintenance of vacant dwellings in local authorities, which was carried out by the Local Government Audit Service in 2011, contained a number of sound recommendations in respect of issues such as maintenance and repairs, allocation and refusals, tenant sustainability, etc. All of these should assist local authorities in implementing improvement works programmes. One of the recommendations was to the effect that Dublin city would pilot a term maintenance and refurbishment works contract in order to reduce significantly the re-letting time for vacant dwellings. This has been very successful in reducing the average turnaround time from 27.82 weeks to 6.4 weeks. In excess of 500 units have been completed under this programme to date. In addition, 107 units are being refurbished with direct labour.
Since 2011, a more target-driven, cost-effective and administratively efficient improvement programme is being implemented. Making vacant stock available for re-letting was a priority in 2011 and 2012 and, because of the decline in internal capital receipts, my Department increased the level of capital support to local authorities for improvement works and refurbishment of long-term voids. Over the course of these two years, my Department focused almost exclusively on refurbishing vacant properties with the objective of bringing as many as possible of these back into productive use. During that period, 4,700 units were improved at a cost of more than €52 million. A total of 2,659 units were refurbished in 2011 and a further 2,115 in 2012. Given the constraints on capital budgets for new stock and the concentration on vacant properties in recent years and in view of the substantial numbers of vacant properties which were improved, my Department is focusing attention on those occupied and older dwellings which lack adequate insulation and draught-proofing. Many tenants were concerned by the fact that vacant units were being refurbished while no works were being carried out on their properties. We were very conscious of that fact.
Local authorities are undertaking energy retrofitting works in conjunction with pre-letting repairs with the objective of getting best value for money and ensuring the existing stock will be available to meet housing need. A sum of €10 million is being provided for this purpose in 2013 as part of the social housing investment programme. On 5 June, I announced a new €50 million, three year jobs stimulus energy efficiency investment programme for local authority homes. This will target the 25,000 least energy-efficient properties and will result in warmer homes and lower energy bills for thousands of families. It will also create approximately 1,000 jobs in the sector. Over the next three years, a suite of works to include wall and roof-attic insulation as well as draught proofing of windows and doors will be carried out on each of these properties.
I welcome the Minister of State's reply. It is great that 25,000 people will have their properties improved and made energy efficient. However, I am concerned about those who have no homes. I understand the huge commitment that has been made in respect of regeneration projects, particularly those in my area at St. Theresa's Gardens, Fatima Mansions and Dolphin House. All that the Minister of State outlined will be of no use to people who are on the housing waiting list and who cannot get into houses or flats. As already stated, 166 units are vacant at present. I cannot understand the logic used by the city council and others in respect of this matter. Surely it would be better to return those units to the system because people would then be paying rent in respect of them. I accept that the amount involved would only be a drop in the ocean but at least 166 additional families would be housed. Like the Minister of State, I am lucky to have a roof over my head. I cannot imagine what it must be like not to be able to go home each evening and lie in one's own bed. That must be a terrible state of affairs. One can understand the dilemma faced by those who are homeless.
There is a major problem within Dublin City Council in the context of the recruitment of staff, particularly craftspeople.
When people leave a maintenance section in Dublin City Council, they are not replaced. That is very bad not only for the vacant properties but also for other properties. The new letting arrangement will come into place in the next month or two in Dublin City Council. Will it make any difference when there are no units out there to give in? People will be judged on their length of tenure. What will happen is - I have spoken to many staff about this - that people in rented accommodation will go onto the priority list because most of them will have been living in rented accommodation for 15 years. They will go directly back into the system at the top. The ones who have no property within the Dublin City Council area, those who are homeless and others who are on the list, will not have an opportunity. I thank the Minister of State for her answer but radical changes must be made in Dublin City Council. I know she and the Minister, Deputy Hogan, will do their best. I hope the new city manager, Mr. Owen Keegan, will be given the opportunity to meet the Minister of State as soon as possible.
I hope to meet the new city manager and the director of service for housing in the near future to address these issues. To add to what I said, we have also submitted a €100 million proposal under the Structural and Investment Funds to the European Union for deep retrofitting of 2,000 apartments and flats, and 1,500 of those are in Dublin city. We are fairly confident that we fulfil the requirements for the Structural Fund money, and we hope we will get information on that in the very near future. That is another measure we are taking.
There are a variety of ways in which we want to bring the units which are there back into use, which was the subject in the Deputy's Topical Issue. I am also very conscious of the need to increase supply in whatever way we can. In Dublin, in particular, there is a real issue around housing supply, both private and public, and there are real pressures in the private and public rented sectors, which we recognise. I have made a strong commitment to working as hard as we possibly can to maintain our budgets for homelessness, despite the pressures in the current times. These are all priorities and, as the Deputy requested, we will address them with the Dublin City Council manager and other colleagues on Dublin City Council.