Tuesday, 19 January 2016
The appalling human impact of the homelessness crisis was revealed on RTE last night in "My Homeless Family". The unacceptable impact on families and children in particular was laid bare in this city and across the country. The programme was made possible by the bravery and dignity of the three families involved. There was Erica and her daughter; Sandra and Brendan; and Melissa. With great courage and dignity, they revealed the depressing and very dangerous nature and reality of homelessness in Ireland, particularly the reality of emergency accommodation in commercial hotels and unacceptable bedsits across the country. They put a brave human face on the statistics and anybody watching would have been truly shocked by what was revealed in that reality. It offends any sense of common decency and represents a defining indictment of the Government's neglect and misguided policies on this issue over the past number of years that have allowed this national emergency to develop.
Over the past three years, the Government has been warned repeatedly by all the non-governmental organisations dealing with homelessness, from the Peter McVerry Trust to the Simon Community to Threshold to Focus Ireland, that its policies were wrong and that the crisis was escalating. In 2012, we were looking at eight new families on average becoming homeless per month. This increased to 40 families per month in 2014 and between 65 to 75 families per month in the first half of 2015 - about three per day - with nothing being done.
In 2012, the Government sowed the seeds of this crisis by putting limits on rent supplement. We saw that last night. One of the families was driven into homelessness because rent supplement lagged so far behind the market rents. There has been a explosion of rents in Dublin and throughout the country in recent years.
The number of vacant houses lying idle is still 3,000. There is no urgency to get them filled by families who should not be in hotels but in those houses. At budget time, the Minister for Finance announced that NAMA was going to build 20,000 houses, only 2,000 of which were to be local authority houses. He should have insisted that 10,000 houses from NAMA would be social houses and instructed NAMA to do so. NAMA sold a massive number of properties to vulture funds but there is nothing for social housing in its construction plan.
Did the Taoiseach see the programme? Is he ashamed of the fact that well over 1,500 children are in emergency accommodation of the type we saw last night in the RTE programme? Will he change policy on rent supplement, which would be a practical move? Threshold told the Government that its policy on rent supplement is driving vulnerable families into homelessness. Will he change that policy? Will he instruct NAMA to at least implement a 50-50 split and build 10,000 social houses out of the 20,000 it says it will build? Will he move to eliminate the scandal of local authority houses lying idle while the nation must watch vulnerable families stay in hotel accommodation for well over a year and two years in some cases?
I thank Deputy Martin for his question. Obviously, the stories of Emily, Ryan, Preston and Parker are not the kind of stories one wants to see on television or indeed hear about. The reason for the real problem with housing is the total collapse of the construction sector just a few years ago, which was the most severely impacted sector and which is taking the longest to get back on its feet, as it were. A total of 123 complaints were received about emergency accommodation. I understand that all these complaints were dealt with appropriately.
Not for the first time, Deputy Martin mentioned the question of increasing rent supplement. The real problem is the supply of houses. Increasing rent supplement would only exacerbate the pressure on the existing housing stock. I have been through this with Deputy Martin before. He is aware that under the tenancy-specific agreement, where a landlord pressurises a tenant to leave, the facility exists between the Department of Social Protection and the tenant and landlord to deal with that kind of issue. A total of 5,800 families were assisted under that scheme in 2015. A total of 6,000 families were helped by the housing assistance payment, HAP, programme in 2015. These are people who are under pressure but who are working. The assistance given to them allowed them to remain in their homes.
A total of 300 sites throughout the country are being worked on and are in various stages of construction. The Deputy is aware that more than €3 billion has been provided by the Government for social housing between now and 2021. Targets and moneys have been given to every council which have been told to get on with it. The Deputy is aware of the changes in the regulations issued by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Minister of State at the same Department. A total of 2,000 people were assisted last year, mostly in Dublin, in respect of voided buildings that have been brought back into proper condition for people to live in. They were more immediate requirements to deal with the existing stock of apartments or houses that needed to be reconstructed. This is a significant number in itself. The next stage is for the local authorities who have been given the money, instructions and targets to get on with dealing with the supply of housing. This is all social housing. The private sector, NAMA and others will provide housing that will come on the market for those in the private housing sector. Obviously, the demand is increasing there as well because of the extent of the employment that has been created and that will be created.
I have not seen the programme but I have heard the comments and read the reports about it. This is not acceptable. I commend the people who spoke out. Obviously, they tell their story very clearly but I must say that the actions being taken by the Government in having 5,800 families assisted through the supplementary allowance scheme, 6,000 families helped last year by the housing assistance payment, 300 sites being worked on in various locations throughout the country and 2,000 taken off the housing list last year speak for themselves in respect of the extent of the challenge and how the Government has had to rebuild a construction sector that had collapsed entirely.
The reason given by the Taoiseach is not the reason. He allowed this crisis to escalate. He allowed it to become the full-blown national emergency it is. I gave him the figures. Eight families on average per month were becoming homeless in 2012, 40 per month in 2014 and 75 per month in 2015. A total of 90 families became homeless during one month last year. This is nearly three families per day becoming homeless. The Taoiseach kept on throwing out figures that mean nothing to anybody. Twelve local authorities did not build a single social house last year and they built 1,400 in five years. This could not put any dent in any social housing list. The Government cannot even get modular houses built. They were announced with a fanfare three or four months ago but, again, nothing has happened.
The Government stands indicted on rent supplement.
In December 2014, Bob Jordan from Threshold said, "...keeping Rent Supplement limits below market rents has done nothing to dampen rent increases. All it has done is drive vulnerable families into homelessness." These are people at the coalface who told the Government years ago that the rent supplement changes in 2012 introduced by the Tánaiste were wrong.
She got it wrong. She saved €55 million by doing it, the worst €55 million ever saved in any Estimate because it drove vulnerable families out of the rental market and into homelessness.
That is why we have the escalating spectacle of families with children in commercial hotels with all the difficulties and challenges this entails. I am not the only person saying this. Every organisation at the coalface has repeatedly asked the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste to change their position on rent supplement and they have not done so. I also asked the Taoiseach, who might come back to me on it, because he did not answer the question when I first asked it-----
Will the Taoiseach now change tack on NAMA and instruct it that a minimum of 10,000 houses out of the 20,000 houses it is to build should be social housing of one form or another because it has a social remit?
Deputy Martin says that figures do not mean anything to him, that they are meaningless. For his information, 5,800 families received a supplementary allowance increase last year under the tenancy scheme introduced by the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection. A total of 6,000 families were helped under the housing assistance payment. A total of 300 sites are being built on at the moment.
I do but I do not like meeting families who have spent Christmas in hotels. I just do not like meeting them and I have met them. Of course I want to recognise it and get them out of hotels.
The Deputy does not want to recognise the fact that the construction sector collapsed completely and has had to be rebuilt from the ground up. It is literally taking the longest of all the sectors to recover. Everybody admits that.
He mentioned modular housing. Yes, the Government did commit to building 500 units of modular housing, warm, comfortable and easily built, the first 150 to be delivered here in Dublin but there were objections to the first ones being built. There are a further 350 to come on stream.
I have raised the issue of homelessness with the Taoiseach many times. Each time I have done so the Taoiseach has repeated the mantra that the Government is addressing this crisis and that it is a priority. That is patently untrue. In the first three quarters of 2015 only a grand total of 28 local authority homes was built, and none in my constituency at a time when children are spending their formative years in hotel rooms.
Last night on RTÉ the stark reality of families living in chaos in emergency accommodation was highlighted and quite rightly has drawn widespread condemnation and outright disgust. The Taoiseach says it is not acceptable that emergency accommodation for homeless families is not fit for purpose but what about the fact that they are in emergency accommodation in the first place? Is that not also unacceptable? The figures do not lie. There are 5,100 citizens in homeless accommodation, including 1,638 children.
No doubt some of these children will read the 1916 Proclamation in their classrooms during this centenary year. What will it mean to them? What does it mean to the Taoiseach and to his Government? He would rather cherish all the bankers equally than all the children of the nation. He would rather have United States style tax cuts for the wealthy than help those in need of a home. Will the Taoiseach acknowledge that homelessness is a consequence, a result, of Government policy? He had choices to make and made the wrong ones. Will he at least acknowledge that?
I acknowledge that the Government inherited an unprecedented situation where among other sectors the housing construction sector had collapsed completely. I acknowledge that the Government has put in place a clear plan and strategy and put money on the table to deal with that. I have given Deputy Adams’s colleague in opposition the figures that apply to the last period.
In terms of direct build local authorities, the chief executives and their staff have been given money, targets and objectives, and told to get on with it. We need to see the blocks and concrete and houses emerging from the 300 sites at various stages of development all around the country. I will send the Deputy the details for his information.
We have also worked with the representative bodies for the approved housing body sector, that is the Irish Council for Social Housing and the National Association of Building Co-Operatives, and both are members of the oversight group. The 18 local authority areas supported 6,000 families in the housing assistance programme, HAP. A site selection process is under way for the first bundle of public private partnership, PPP, houses comprising six sites to provide 500 houses in the greater Dublin area. That will add to the situation.
The Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, confirmed that 175 additional beds will be available on an emergency basis throughout the winter. I am glad that all of the agencies get extensive support from central funds. Together with Dublin City Council and its personnel, we were able to deal to the best extent possible with rough sleepers and homelessness on the streets this Christmas. That needs to continue for the spell of cold weather that may lie ahead. I do not know whether the Deputy visited the 100 bed facility, Bru Aimsir, that opened in Dublin 8 but it was a very welcome addition to the stock of beds available for rough sleepers, properly assessed, minded, cared for and there is further scope there if that is required. That, together with the Merchants Quay night café and other facilities for rough sleepers in Dublin, has meant that nobody should be on the streets who does not want to be on the streets.
The Government took as a priority dealing with the immediate issues that it could deal with, returning buildings that were neglected or voided to a habitable status. The facilities brought in by HAP and the supplementary increase under the tenancy emergency scheme have made a significant difference to thousands of families but the real problem is dealing with supply. That is now in hand, not just in the greater Dublin area but throughout the country and there is money on the table and an objective set of directions given.
The Taoiseach knows as well as I do that politics is a matter of political choices. He made his choice for the first four years of his Government. Of course it did inherit a bad situation from Fianna Fáil and the Green Party but it did not build social and affordable housing. In 2015 family homelessness rose by 93%. It has doubled in one year on the Taoiseach’s watch. Those figures do not include the hidden homeless. The Taoiseach tried to rationalise a moment ago how these issues arise. Cathy, who is a constituent of mine, is forced to sleep on a couch in an overcrowded house. She has a job but she cannot afford to pay rent. She is one of many people not officially classed as homeless.
The Democratic Programme of the First Dáil states: "It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter". The Taoiseach does not believe that. That is his political choice. He says he will now deal with the issue. Is that not strange weeks out from an election? He is now going to deal with it, yet another election promise. Too little, too late.
He says he did not have the money for homes but he had €64 billion for bankers. He should consider how much even a fraction of that €64 billion would have contributed to avoiding this crisis or to rectifying it. The Taoiseach’s time is up. He has run his race but before he goes why does he not explain to the citizens why he did not spend even a fraction of that €64 billion on dealing with the issue of homes for citizens instead of giving it to the banks?
I thank Deputy Adams for that. Obviously, given the mess that the Government inherited the question of taxpayers’ money going into banks was of critical importance. Over €30 billion was lost and wasted by the previous Administration. The remaining €30 billion will be recovered by the taxpayer in full over the next period of time. That crowd there did all of that, wasted and lost it.
He asked the question for months. That was not part of the programme this Government implemented because we did a different deal with the European Central Bank.
However, we were told only recently that this was a follow on, implementing the previous administration's catastrophic position.
I am telling the Deputy that of the €64 billion, half that is gone forever. The other half put in by this Government in restructured banks will be recovered by the taxpayer in full over the period of time ahead. The target for 2016 is to deliver 17,000 units of social housing, which is double what was going on before. That is in addition to a return to use of voided units, places that were not finished and which were neglected.
Other issues, including the housing assistance programme and the supplementary increase under the tenancy scheme, are all of assistance to thousands of families. I admit that we do not have social housing for everybody.
However, because of the increase in employment and the fact that our economy is growing, we have been able to put €3 billion on the table between now and 2020 specifically for social housing. In addition, the Minister has given instructions and directions to the local authorities in respect of the money, the target and the housing programme to be delivered and has asked them to get on with it. We were not able to do that when we did not have an economy to invest in those kind of facilities.
We cannot do it unless we deal with the supply of housing. That supply requires a facility and environment that will make it possible. One cannot do it unless one has an economy that drives that.
Last night's horrific programme has once again highlighted the Taoiseach's incredible failure to deal with the housing problem. For him to blame the last Government, after he has been in office for five years, beggars belief. I am shocked that the Taoiseach is so out of touch with what is happening. I can honestly say that of all the things that have happened in the past five years, his failure to deal with the housing crisis has been incredible. It has been an unmitigated disaster all the way through. It has actually got worse instead of better. I have asked the Taoiseach several times why he will not put 10,000 of the 20,000 units that NAMA wants to build into local authority social housing to be run by the local authorities.
The Taoiseach says that everything is about supply. We could have an extra 100,000 houses in Ireland today but if they were not social and affordable houses, we would still have homelessness and we would still have people looking for houses. Of the 20,000 houses that NAMA is going to built, 18,000 are for the private sector, while 2,000 are for the social housing sector. That is a nine to one ratio. The Taoiseach's priority is nine private houses and one social house. I would argue that the biggest problem of all with housing in Ireland today is the lack of safe local authority social housing. However, the Taoiseach is going to let NAMA build nine private houses to one social house. They will be sold for €300,000. Of the people in Ireland today who need to buy or rent a house, how many does the Taoiseach think will be able to afford to pay €300,000 which NAMA thinks will be the selling price?
NAMA admitted that it is obliged to sell on the basis that they are commercial ventures designed to maximise the return to the Irish taxpayer on NAMA's secured assets. This will not deal with the housing crisis, however.
Will the Taoiseach change tack and put 10,000 of those units into social housing? It would make an incredible difference. If he were to do so, it would be the most dramatic thing that has been done for the housing problem in Ireland in the past five years.
I am only making the point. The strategy that is laid out here, with money on the table provided by the Government, is to build 110,000 new social housing units through current and capital funding streams.
The programme contains €3 billion. As Deputy Wallace is well aware, local authorities have been instructed to get on with achieving their targets and objectives in order to meet this demand. In 2015, 13,000 social housing units were provided. That was an 86% increase on the 7,000 built back in 2014.
The target for this year is 17,000. As I told the Deputy, 2,000 were taken off the housing list last year. Some 6,000 were helped through the housing assistance programme and another 5,800 were helped through the increase in rent supplement under the tenancy agreement. Therefore, local authorities, which used to build lots of houses, have been given clear instructions and money to build social housing for people in every local authority area.
It is not possible, as the Deputy knows as a builder himself, to provide these things overnight and there is a process to be gone through. We have short-circuited that in many respects. The Minister has recently changed the process again to make it easier for local authorities to get on with building housing units where there are fewer than 15 involved. The money is on the table to provide social housing for thousands of people and not have a situation like we saw last night on the television.
The Taoiseach says that he cannot provide houses overnight and he is right but he could have provided them in five years. He had five years to do it but he has not done so. The Taoiseach is talking about local authorities that did not take up units offered to them by NAMA. Has it dawned on him that those units were the most unsuitable on the island of Ireland?
The attractive units that should have been going to social housing were sold to US investment funds at half the price it cost to build them. Why did this Government allow NAMA to sell units for half the price it cost to build them? That does not make any sense to me. One may ask how does one know the price of this or that but there is a value on everything.
Can the Taoiseach explain why NAMA chose to sell stock of residential units for half what it cost to build them? The Taoiseach said he could not have produced units overnight. He could not have done so but he could have produced them over five years. These were units that were built ready to use. He was able to take Westport House out of NAMA. People were able to buy their way out of Project Eagle. Why did the Taoiseach not take the residential units out of Project Arrow?
I do not understand why he did not. They were already built and he would not have had to wait for them to be built. Instead they were given away for half what it cost to build them. Will the Taoiseach please explain that to me?
I am not sure if Deputy Wallace has ever engaged with people who are looking for social housing but they want it close to where they are now. I did not comment on the suitability or otherwise of the NAMA offerings that were made to local authorities.
I know from engagement that when people look for a social house, they want it to be close to where they are now, given their family connections or whatever else. The Government set out to address a deplorable situation and the first measure was to reconstruct buildings in which people could not live to make them habitable. Some 2,000 such buildings have now been dealt with.
The second measure was to deal with an emergency where rents were being increased by landlords and people were being forced out. A tenancy arrangement was introduced and is helping 5,800 families. The housing assistance programme, in circumstances where people going back to work were losing all of their benefits, was changed such that it now tapers off. A total of 6,000 families have been involved in it. Some 2,000 families were taken off housing lists last year.
In 2013 there were 89,872 households on the social housing assessment list. The majority, 46,500, were found to be dependent on rent supplement. The results speak for themselves. The list contained more than 2,000 duplicates from one year to the other, and perhaps multiple applications. It is not as easy as the Deputy might think to say to someone living Dublin, Ballinasloe or Athlone, "I have a social house for you, but it is in Drogheda."