Thursday, 14 November 2013
Topical Issue Debate
Rent Supplement Scheme Administration
I discussed this issue earlier with the Minister for Social Protection as I was aware she would not be here this evening. This issue falls between two Departments, namely, the Departments of Social Protection and the Environment, Community and Local Government in terms of the provision of social housing. It is appropriate that this matter is being responded to by a Minister from the Department of Health because the problems arising are putting a great deal of stress on individuals in particular locations where this issue is presenting as a crisis. I use the word "crisis" advisedly.
We are now seeing families being made homeless due to the shortage of houses. There are just under 100,000 individuals or families on the housing waiting list across the country and about €403 million last year was spent allocating rent assistance to 82,000 separate cases. That is intended to be a short-term solution to a longer-term problem. We both know why houses are not being built at the moment. In some locations, the rent caps introduced by the Department of Social Protection are far below the market rents. In my own area, there has been a noticeable increase, even in the last six months, in rents that can be obtained on the open market. Increasingly we are seeing people saying "no rent assistance". If they do take rent assistance, it is far below what is on offer. People are trying to top it up themselves under the counter. Everybody is doing it, and not just in my area. This is hitting people who are not getting rent assistance, such as people who are trying to pay on a low wage. People who cannot work or who have not got a job can enter a poverty trap in trying to get back to work. I know this is supposed to be resolved with the HAP legislation if that does not produce the problems that I think it might.
I do not want to see large amounts of money going into landlords' pockets; I want to see a solution to people's housing problem. The environment committee met with some of the housing associations recently, and if we want to look at a longer term issue, the lack of capacity within the housing associations and the lack of a regulatory process means that we cannot leverage European funds that are not Exchequer funds to build social housing. Even if we could do so, that will be some time in the future.
The Department of Social Protection officials must meet officials from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government as a matter of urgency on the issue of the absolute crisis that we are seeing in locations. I know that local authority officials in Kildare contact the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government on a weekly basis to tell them about the experiences they are having in not being able to source accommodation through the RAS scheme or through people being able to get housing themselves, with the rent caps that are in place. There is a real crisis out there.
About 100,000 individuals or families are on the waiting list. It is not the same experience around the country. Six local authority areas account for 43% of the entire waiting list. Three of them are in Dublin - South Dublin, Fingal and Dublin City - two are in Cork and one is in Kildare. Six other local authorities account for 3% of that waiting list, where there is not the same pressure because in the first six areas, house prices have started to bottom out, housing stock is in short supply and rents are starting to rise. The success stories, such as the few thousand people employed on the Intel site in Leixlip, mop up much of the availability of rental accommodation for people who are subject to the rent caps. While that is a good news story on one side, it produces a real crisis on the other side and managing that crisis is the key issue here.
I am looking for a dialogue between officials from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Minister for Social Protection on how this can be managed, so that the people we are seeing in crisis at the moment may find some alleviation.
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue, which I am dealing with on behalf of the Minister for Social Protection. The purpose of the rent supplement scheme is to provide short-term support to eligible people 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. The overall aim is to provide short-term assistance and not to act as an alternative to the other social housing schemes operated by the Exchequer.
There are currently approximately 81,000 persons in receipt of rent supplement, for which the Government has provided €403 million in 2013. Revised rent limits under the rent supplement scheme have come into force with effect from Monday, 17 June 2013, and will be in place until 31 December 2014. The new rent limits have been determined following an extensive review of the private rental market, based on the most up-to-date data available. The Department currently funds approximately 30% of the private rented sector so it is essential that the rent limits are kept under review. The new rent limits have been set using the 35th percentile, ensuring that sufficient housing is available for recipients of the scheme. There have been increases in the maximum rent limits in Dublin and Galway, while there have been some reductions across a number of rural counties, reflecting the conditions in the rental markets in those counties. Separate to the county limits, higher rent limits have been provided for in the north Kildare and Bray areas. Special provisions are made in exceptional circumstances, including, for example, people with disabilities in specially adapted accommodation or homeless persons. The overall cost of the rent limit review for 2013 is around €7 million, which can be met from within the existing provision for the scheme.
Analysis shows that there are properties available within the maximum rent limits for rent supplement recipients, including in County Kildare. However, the number of rental properties available in north Kildare including Leixlip, Maynooth, Kilcock and Celbridge, is significantly lower than the numbers available in the rest of the county and, therefore, has an impact on the number of accommodation units available for rent supplement. Latest figures show that there are over 1,000 rent supplement recipients in the north Kildare area, indicating that it is possible to secure accommodation in these locations within the rent limits.
Department officials dealing with rent supplement tenants will continue to ensure that their accommodation needs are met and that the residence is reasonably suited to their residential and other needs. The Department, through its work in the homeless persons unit, provides assistance to people in sourcing the most appropriate accommodation available. In addition, prison and hospital in-reach services are provided to explore accommodation options and, where necessary, liaise with local authorities to identify and source the most appropriate accommodation available for those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. This ensures that where possible, people are diverted away from homeless services and towards community-based supports. Department officials will continue to monitor the impact of the revised rent limits.
This is by a long way the number one issue about which people come to me at the moment. It has really become a crisis. I probably could have written that response myself. It has been talked about as a short-term support. I know people who are seven and eight years on that support. There are 7,000 people on the waiting list, so one would want to be a 2003 to 2004 applicant to have a chance of the odd house that might come up.
The rent limits were revised on 17 June and they made a little bit of difference, but it is chaos now and we cannot wait until 31 December 2014 for the next review, as outlined in the reply. I am onto the officer for homeless persons on a daily basis. The crisis is really of that order. I know families who have had to take children out of school. I know a family with a number of people with disabilities who are currently in bed and breakfast accommodation, and the homeless officer is dealing with that.
It is all very well to talk about data on averages - we got that earlier this week - but there is somebody living in Leixlip who is indigenous to the area and somebody living in Athy and being indigenous to that area. We simply cannot shift a family from one area to the other. There are all sorts of things that go on with a family other than housing.
I do not know anybody of the 1,000 people who are able to secure accommodation in north Kildare who is not topping up. They are using their social welfare payments or their child benefit payments to pay the difference between what is being declared and what they are paying for accommodation.
This is happening to everyone. A person can only live on beans and toast for so long. That is what is happening. These people are turning up at the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, because something does not get paid.
I acknowledge the work of the homeless officers in the council. They are doing as much as they can in a tough environment. However, when we see the magnitude of the problem, which is turning up as the number one issue consistently, then there really is a problem that needs to be managed in a different way.
I do not imagine I have much I can add to the response I have given on behalf of the Minster for Social Protection. Clearly, there is an acute problem, as described by the Deputy. As a Deputy, I am aware of the problem myself. I do not have any particular knowledge or insight other than what I have relayed to the House on behalf of the Minister. I gather the Deputy had an opportunity to raise the matter with the Minister, Deputy Burton, earlier but certainly I will relay to the Minister what has been said by the Deputy this evening. She has put the case clearly and I will ensure the message is relayed to the Minister for Social Protection.