Dáil debates

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Housing and Homelessness: Statements

 

3:35 pm

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I ask Deputies to cast their minds back to 2012 when many reports were being published on the sorry state of the economy and property market at the time. One report issued a severe warning to the property sector that it could take more than 40 years to deal with the oversupply of housing unless we started bulldozing houses. The report stated: "Barring a sudden and sizeable recovery in Irish net migration, or the politically controversial policy of demolishing large volumes of housing stock, housing oversupply will remain a feature for many years, possibly decades, to come". I note this to demonstrate the way in which housing challenges have completely transformed in the past five years. The challenge of empty houses has been replaced with under-supply and the required supply increase takes time to implement.

Tackling the housing and homelessness crisis will take considerable time. Contrary to what has been said by some commentators, there is no instant answer to the problem or one that fits into a soundbite. I raise this matter now because I want this debate on housing to be informed and different. The election is over and I want to stick to the facts in the housing market, as it stands, rather than being politically defensive. I also want to be as helpful and productive as possible to the incoming Minister with responsibility for housing who may well be in the Chamber.

In short, the position is simply that the construction sector is not building anywhere near the number of residential units required in a country with a growing population and an even faster growing economy. Developers in urban areas are not playing an active part in delivering the units we need. This is putting upward pressure on rents, thus condemning a generation to rent expensively priced properties as they struggle to save deposits and are unable to purchase a home. This sharp increase in rents is pushing vulnerable persons into emergency accommodation. While a solid foundation has been laid to ensure these developments are temporary as opposed to permanent features of the housing market, it will take an equal commitment from all sides of the political debate to deal with the issue.

Based on the housing manifestos produced during the election, all of which I studied, no political entity, individual or party has all the answers. I do not have time to go through all of the documents today, but if any Deputy believes he or she has an instant answer, I hope he or she will lay it before the House today. Perhaps they might remain stuck to the narrative of blame. We can have hope and while it will take time to do so, we can deliver for people. We have all been elected to this Dáil to act in the interests of the country. The time for sitting on the fence and opposing everything must come to an end. With election to this House comes responsibility and those waiting on a home will not thank those Deputies who shout, rant and roar instead of engaging in a constructive attempt to actively solve housing supply problems.

Photo of Ruth CoppingerRuth Coppinger (Dublin West, Anti-Austerity Alliance)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Minister has certainly not changed much since the election.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I challenge those Deputies who believe they have all the answers to take the opportunity to step up to the mark, enter government and continue the work of solving the housing problem. This is an incredibly difficult and complex challenge, one from which, based on their utterances, many parties in the 32nd Dáil have effectively walked away because they refuse to countenance entering government and instead shout from the sidelines all the time.

I have seen at first hand the upset, strain and stress that problems with housing cause for people and their families, particularly the most vulnerable. Our homes should be places where we feel safe and secure, rather than a cause of stress and worry. For this reason, when I took office in the summer of 2014, I made housing my number one priority. I was under no illusions that this was one of the biggest challenges facing the country as we emerged from the deep economic crisis. By 2014, local authorities no longer had either the skill set or finances to kick-start major house building programmes. This issue was rectified through the sanctioning of more than 450 new housing staff for local authorities and providing €4 billion in social housing funding.

With regard to protecting those renting privately, we were determined to significantly strengthen the rights of tenants and that is what we did. The changes to the Residential Tenancies Act passed in December will be of significant help to 320,000 people in private rented accommodation. One of the best policy options in the short term to support families who find themselves in emergency accommodation owing to a lack of housing options is the rapid build housing programme I initiated. The houses in question are not prefabricated buildings but high quality, A-rated homes which, if delivered on a sufficient scale, offer the best hope for people in the short term. I urge all Deputies to reflect on this point and visit the units in Poppintree. I hope everyone with an interest in housing will visit the site and perhaps we might discuss the issue again in a couple of weeks when they have all done so.

I do not claim that we fixed everything in housing in the past year and a half. That was never a possibility as a true fix will take many years. Nevertheless, it is important to note that much has been done and further steps are planned to deal with what remains to do be done. Increased supply across all forms of housing is required. The construction sector appears to be struggling to make large-scale residential developments work. The 11,000 and 12,500 homes completed in 2014 and 2015, respectively, amounted to less than half the estimated requirement of 25,000 units per year. We needed 50,000 homes in the past two years, yet the private market delivered less than half of this figure. To tackle these problems my Department, in addition to implementing the social housing strategy, deployed a large range of measures to increase the supply of private houses being built by bringing the costs of constructing homes more within reach of what ordinary people and families could afford to pay. Reductions in local authority development contributions, a streamlining of the Part V social housing requirements, more consistent application of apartment standards and, recently, a targeted development contribution rebate scheme have together reduced input costs by between €20,000 and €40,000, depending on whether apartments or houses are being constructed. It is clear, however, that we need to do more.

Some parties believe the reversal of the new Central Bank rules is the answer. While these rules need to be tweaked, their whole-scale reversal would simply clear the way to start repeating the mistakes of the past when families ended up paying €500,000 for a family home and faced the worry of having to pay for it for 30 years. If we, as parliamentarians, would like more and more people to get the keys to the homes they need and deserve at prices they can afford and in locations they desire, we will have to go further and address the following questions. What is a fair price for a home? How do we reduce input costs, including the tax take which accounts for more than one third of the cost of delivering a new home? How do we guarantee reductions in input costs by the State will be passed on to households? From where will the money come to invest in the infrastructure needed to prepare land for housing development? How will we provide better legal protections for those renting privately? How will we keep a lid on land prices? Addressing these questions raises politically and socially important issues which will have to be debated in this Dáil term.

When it came to the introduction of legislation that sought to secure a tenancy in the event of the sale of a home, the introduction of a vacant site levy to tackle land hoarding or legislating for the introduction of a "use it or lose it" system of planning, it was the Constitution and the way in which it was being interpreted by the courts that restricted us most in our attempts to deal with these problems. I want to be frank and honest to move the debate on. I originally proposed a vacant site levy which would have been applied at a higher rate than had been subsequently proposed and would have been in place next year to tax unused development land. I also proposed that tenancies would be protected in the event of a property sale such as the current sale in Tyrrelstown. In that regard, I welcome some of the residents of the area to this debate. I also proposed that certain models of rent controls be implemented.

Insurmountable obstacles to the implementation of these measures arose due, in the main, to constitutional constraints. As a parliament we must collectively face up to this fact: if we truly believe people's incomes, rather than the demands of developers or landowners, should determine housing costs, then the following points must be considered: first, targets for reductions in housing construction costs will have to be set and delivered by all stakeholders, including developers, suppliers and, most importantly, the State; and, second - this is also extremely important - there needs to be a public debate on Article 43 of the Constitution to examine whether we have the right balance between the protected and legitimate rights of individuals, as property owners, and the wider needs of society, including housing needs. The latter point is crucial. I have a strong belief in the importance of property rights for our society - including the right of people to enjoy their property - and our economy. However, our Constitution was framed in 1937 when colonial land theft remained in the memory. In the light of the examples I have outlined, I am of the view that an imbalance exists between ownership rights and the public good to such an extent as to warrant an in-depth constitutional review to examine the appropriate balance between the public good and the property rights of individuals. It is incumbent on all of us to at least discuss this issue in some depth. I say as much to be constructive rather than defensive and to generate debate and demonstrate that efforts on the part of officials in my Department have been made in recent years. However, some obstacles are even beyond the control of Ministers.

We have worked hard since 2014 to turn around the disastrous housing situation that was left to us. It will take determined action by the Thirty-second Dáil and its successors to build on what we have started and the great deal of work done to ensure that we have an affordable supply of housing coming forward. It is now incumbent on everyone in the House to offer solutions. In particular, it is incumbent on those who have the capacity, and many do, to offer such solutions. Instead of simply talking, they should come to the House, take this seat, if they so wish, and deliver on those promises. Now, in this Dáil, a number of Deputies have the opportunity to do so. They should put up, or else.

3:45 pm

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The next speaker is the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, who has ten minutes. I wish to apologise to Deputy Ruth Coppinger. There are ten minutes to be shared between her and Deputy Brid Smith. The Deputies must share the time.

Photo of Ruth CoppingerRuth Coppinger (Dublin West, Anti-Austerity Alliance)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

That is fine.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I look forward to hearing and reading the propositions of the various Members. Access to affordable, safe and secure housing has shaped Irish politics since before our State was founded. Few issues are as fundamental to the social and economic well-being of any nation as housing and the security it brings. There is nothing more mentally or financially destructive than the loss of one's home and no fear is so paralysing as the potential loss of the roof over one's head. It is for all these people that I and the previous Government worked to fix our broken economy and the housing sector.

Each Government has had its approach to development and housing policies but problems have persisted across the decades. When I became Taoiseach, the country had just suffered from the worst housing crash it had ever faced. In 2006, over 93,000 new houses were built. By 2012, the figure had fallen to a little over 8,000. The property bubble trapped over 315,000 people in negative equity, the level of mortgage arrears was climbing sharply and ghost estates littered the countryside. The collapse of the construction sector was swift and brutal. House prices collapsed and workers emigrated en masseto seek employment on sites in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

Since 2014, the speed of the economic recovery and the growth of employment and of household formation has dramatically overtaken the capacity of a damaged and over-borrowed house-building sector to respond. It is easy for anyone to stand in the Dáil and list these well-known problems. However, what I would like is to discover how we plan a way forward together, build on recent initiatives to improve the supply of housing and ensure that all of those involved, including first-time buyers, renters, social housing tenants and families, can live their lives without the constant threat of housing insecurity hanging over them.

The previous Government's first major intervention came in May 2014 with the Construction 2020 strategy. The main features of the strategy were enacted in the Urban Regeneration and Housing Act, which introduced a vacant site levy - to which the Minister, Deputy Kelly, referred - on developers hoarding land in high-demand areas. It reduced development charges on new construction as well as other changes to improve the economic viability of new housing construction. In the budget announced in October 2014, the Government subsequently set aside almost €4 billion to build 35,000 new social homes and expand the use of the housing assistance payment and rental accommodation scheme to help 75,000 other households to meet their housing needs. These were all significant interventions but it is clear they are taking longer than expected to have an impact in the context of the availability of new housing.

All the heart-rending stories of homelessness, rising financial pressures on families and young people being locked out of home ownership by rising prices and minimum deposits stem primarily from one inescapable fact: not enough homes are being supplied to meet the rising demand from a growing workforce and population. Unless we address the barriers to housing supply, we are simply displacing one family in distress by another.

Our most recent intervention came in November last when the Government decided on a targeted development contribution rebate initiative in Dublin and Cork for housing delivered at certain price points. This will enhance the housing supply at prices that people can afford in these areas where the demand is most acute. In addition, a number of other measures to stimulate the provision of housing supply were adopted, such as changes to planning guidelines on apartment standards which set a consistent national approach. New measures to maximise the potential of strategic development zones were also introduced. Taken together these provisions are designed to speed up the delivery of housing supply. However, it is clear that the scale of the property collapse and the subsequent dysfunction of the residential housing sector is so great that more Government intervention is required to kick-start house building in a real way.

It is imperative that a new Government takes immediate action on housing. It is my ambition that after forming a stable Government, it would introduce a new housing initiative within four weeks. Similar to the jobs initiative that the previous Government introduced within 100 days of taking office to deal with the major jobs crisis, the new housing initiative would be designed to tackle this crisis. It is also my intention to appoint a new cabinet level Minister with responsibility for housing to take the lead on the development of the initiative. The nature of the crisis, however, requires a collective approach and I hope that the design of this new initiative will be informed by input from all Oireachtas Members and other personnel interested in working for solutions to this problem. I see today's debate as the first step in this process. Once approved by Government and the Oireachtas, it will form the start of a new annual action plan on housing. Similar to the current Action Plan for Jobs, responsibility for implementation across Government would be overseen directly by the Department of the Taoiseach.

There is no shortage of development land but many urban sites remain stranded by a lack of local infrastructure. One measure that should be considered for the new housing initiative is a new local authority residential infrastructure fund in order that local authorities can bid for extra capital funding to unlock residential sites in high-demand areas. The time has come for the State to invest in this necessary local infrastructure to facilitate the development of affordable family housing in such high-demand areas. Building on the already-legislated-for vacant site levy, which will apply from 2018, I believe we should look again at tax and regulatory measures to incentivise the speedy development of zoned land and land banks that could service high-demand areas.

There are many frightened people listening to this debate today. They are frightened about the next rent review and mortgage payment as well as their prospects of ever owning their own homes.

It is our duty as national legislators to propose and debate a constructive way forward, and to alleviate their fear and not to trade off it. That is what people watching us on their screens or listening to the debate will want to hear. Thanks to their hard work and determination the Irish economy is now improving. We need to ensure that is sustained and felt inside the home of every Irish family. This has to be the singular mission of the Thirty-second Dáil and the next Government, and the first item on that agenda should be a cross-party effort on housing. I look forward to the contributions from all of the Members.

3:55 pm

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Offaly, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It is a well-known fact that the outgoing Government failed miserably in its efforts to deal with housing. It allowed a crisis to develop into what is now undoubtedly an emergency. On assuming office, there were 90,000 applicants on housing lists throughout the country. On the basis of further information, not from the Government but from information requests and questions to local authorities, we know the list now extends to 140,000 applicants. Some 350,000 people are now on housing lists.

As the Government knows, the building of houses ground to a halt. The low level of priority shown to housing by the previous Government was its choice and not part of a legacy. That is proven by virtue of the fact that it cut funding for the provision of housing by 54% since it came into office. Fine Gael and the Labour Party also allowed banks to have a veto on solutions for distressed mortgage holders, which caused more families to lose their homes, something that continues right up to today. The number of repossession hearings increased by 20% this year compared to last year. Vulture funds, which are subject to no regulation, are now threatening up to 47,000 homeowners throughout the country, something which was not mentioned by the previous two speakers despite the fact that they want to tell us they will do within the next four weeks what they could not do for the past five years.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I referenced it.

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Offaly, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I will check the record. The Government and Taoiseach now claim, as usual, that the social housing strategy is working, something which could not be further from the truth. Fewer than 274 homes have been built since 2015, 90% of which were provided by social housing agencies and 28 by local authorities. The Government claimed during the course of the election that 30,000 keys were handed over to applicants last year, something which is factually incorrect and untrue - the Taoiseach can call it what he likes. Up to 8,000 of those people comprised those who were moved from one scheme to another, such as from an RAS to a HAP scheme. The Government may not like it, but it is the truth and it was found out.

For the record of the new Dáil, it is incumbent on us as Members to again inform the record of the House of the situation we are facing, given that we are in the midst of an emergency. Some 750 families are homeless, 1,700 children are living in emergency accommodation and there are 3,500 homeless households in the country, which equates to about 6,000 individuals.

Rent supplement simply is and has been too low. I accept and expect the Taoiseach and others in the Government to reject proposals from me or anybody on this side of the House, but the Taoiseach also rejected information from the stakeholders at the coalface. The current average rent for a two-bedroom unit in Dublin 2 is €1,649, while the rent supplement threshold for a couple with one child is €835, a difference of 74%. As far back as two years ago we were told that would lead to further problems. A single person looking for a one-bedroom unit receives a supplement of €520, a differential of 170%.

The Taoiseach consistently slammed local authorities for the lack of progress on the provision of housing. The Department is not approving social housing projects for voluntary housing associations at the required pace. During the course of questions from me and others, including party leaders, I often heard the Taoiseach refer to 300 sites around the country on which homes were being built to deal with the need that we all want to see addressed.

One of the sites is supposed to be in my constituency and €3 million has been allocated for the provision of 15 or 17 houses. Ground has not been cut in the two years since that announcement was made. Does that not tell the Taoiseach that he needed to bring in the Department, ascertain what the delay was, effect the necessary change and change the archaic system and procurement process which was not working? The Taoiseach failed to do that and now proposes to solve the problem within four weeks, despite failing to listen to suggestions and proposals for the past five years.

I will repeat what I stated in our election manifesto. Whether we are in or out of government, we will use the diversity in the Chamber to allow meaningful proposals to be brought to the House to instruct the Government. If the Government will not instruct the Dáil, we will do it. We want to create a Minister for housing, planning and local government, which is not something we dreamt up having met a few rural Deputies, and a housing authority. Their first job will be to accept, acknowledge and declare a national housing emergency, something the Taoiseach and Government would not do for the past two years. That will be the obligation of the new Government, whatever its configuration.

We would seek to introduce a series of measures, whether in or out of Government. Capital funding would be provided to renovate social housing units. We will seek the passing by the Dáil of a Bill to regulate vulture funds. We would seek to renegotiate the NAMA house building plan in order to increase the number of social and affordable units to 20%, given that the previous Government reduced it to 10%. We will restore Part V to 20%, despite the fact that the Government reduced it to 10%. We would develop housing association bonds similar to those that exist in the UK. We would open strategic investment funds to facilitate private investment in housing association bonds.

I refer to the Taoiseach's attempt to make finance available to those who want to construct private dwellings and get involved in the development of private houses, a sector which was on its knees. In response to the lack of available funds, the Government joined up with an American fund - we will not call it a vulture fund for fear it is not - added €125 million to its €375 million and asked it to make funds available to the housing sector. It did not inform people that the rates the fund sought to charge were similar to those charged by the Mezzanine fund for the past number of years, that is, 16%. NAMA, which deals with people in housing difficulties, those whom the Government is supposed to represent, charged 4% or 5%. That is how shambolic the system that was allowed to develop is.

We would open discussions with credit unions on how to best utilise the €5 billion they informed the Taoiseach they are willing to invest in the housing sector. The Taoiseach left that proposal on a shelf in a Minister's Department. He brought forward directives against credit unions in regard to other aspects of their business in recent months. He never had their best interests at heart. Whether in or out of government, we will bring forward the means by which the Dáil will decide how best to utilise the funding that is available in many communities across the country.

In the next 12 months we will introduce a new refurbishment scheme for derelict vacant sites. I acknowledge what the Minister, who is speaking in an acting capacity, said about the issue and what other stakeholders have said about the myriad derelict buildings in many towns and villages throughout the country. I know property rights are associated with many of them, but there has to be a means by which compulsory purchase order legislation can be strengthened in order to utilise it to revitalise and re-energise towns and villages which have such sites available.

There could be a rental return for those who own the sites, whatever the configuration of that ownership.

We will also invest €334 million over and above the figure committed under the social housing strategy 2020 in order to build 45,000 new homes. We will allow local authorities to decide the mixture of social and affordable homes and, where feasible, undertake the Part 8 planning process for local authority lands for a mix of social and private housing. We will allow local authorities to review public procurement processes with a view to considering joint venture arrangements to support the building of social units for leasing to voluntary bodies and the sale of residential units on the open market. We will overhaul the Private Residential Tenancies Board and streamline the landlord and tenant dispute resolution process. We will strengthen tenants' rights, security of tenure and rent certainty measures. We will establish family tenure to strengthen security for families as long-term tenants.

All of these proposals seek to address the emergency, while being mindful of the fact that we have to tackle it from a public and private perspective and the perspective of the rental sector. I implore the caretaker Taoiseach and his caretaker Cabinet, in the absence of a Government being formed and this Dáil having the powers necessary to effect the change the public wants us to bring about, to wake up to the reality, declare an emergency and bring forward emergency resolutions to address it.

4:05 pm

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I ask Members to stay within the time allocated to them as many speakers are offering. The next slot is to filled by Sinn Féin Members. The speakers are Deputies Dessie Ellis, Mary Lou McDonald and Eoin Ó Broin.

Photo of Dessie EllisDessie Ellis (Dublin North West, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It is 24 days since the votes of the people were counted. For nearly three weeks it has been clear that if a Government is to be formed in the 32nd Dáil it will be made up of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. In those three weeks many more families have become homeless, while these two parties play footsie under the table and shadow-box for the public. For its part, Fine Gael, as part of the previous Government, showed that it cares little about this issue. Its policies directly increased the level of homelessness and the party has always been ideologically opposed to social housing provision. The previous Government failed to build even 1,300 council houses in its five years in power. It also failed to tackle the issue of soaring rents. It twice cut rent supplement and the dole for young people. It failed utterly to protect tenants and homeowners from profiteering which threatened their homes. Clear examples are Cruise Park Estate in Tyrrelstown and Eden in Blackrock in Cork where vulture funds out to pick the carcase of the Irish housing market have laid their greedy hands. I commend the Tyrrelstown Tenants Action Group, the members of which are in the Visitors Gallery. They are fighting for their families, children and community. They are real people and there will be real consequences if they are put out on the street. Regardless of any commitment made by Twinlite or others, we know that up to 200 families in Tyrrelstown could face eviction, with no real protection. We know that tenants like those in Tyrrelstown are in danger across the State because of the lack of protection for tenants from vulture funds and the failure of the previous Government to implement a binding code of conduct for such groups in their dealings with tenants.

Despite the crisis which has been brewing for years, Fianna Fáil opposed the allowing of statements on housing today. It would have been more in the interests of the people if the two largest parties in the Dáil had come to an arrangement or cross-party agreement on the protections needed for tenants and those who will, undoubtedly, come after them should nothing be done. What is happening in Tyrrelstown and Blackrock must jolt the State to act to protect tenants. If their protection cannot be guaranteed, the State should intervene to take the homes into public ownership. NAMA should be compelled to stop further sell-offs of portfolios. We warned of the consequences at the time. We were right then and we are right now. We need to enshrine the right to a home not only in the Constitution but also in our policy and laws to state housing is the priority, not the profits of developers and vulture funds. Even if we provide protections for families, we will still have a homelessness and housing crisis which has raged for the past five years and already claimed many victims. We need a Government that will prioritise housing and end the scandal of 1,800 children living in emergency accommodation. A Government with more interest in housing would build more than 28 council houses in a single year. It would not have cut the council construction budget by 80% and placed spin above real policy. That is what we have had, but what is the future for tenants? We should declare a housing emergency and any incoming Government should make it clear that we need to act immediately to deal with it.

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I listened carefully to what the caretaker Minister had to say. He urged us all to deal with the facts and then conveniently ignored them. These are the facts.

According to the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive, the number of new families who have become homeless increased from 41 in December to 125 this year. The fact is that in such a short time the number of families experiencing homelessness has trebled. These shocking figures stand beside other equally harrowing facts.

Approximately 5,715 people across the country are homeless, of whom more than 1,800 are children. Between 2014 and 2015 there was a 43% increase in the number of people recorded as homeless. That figure does not capture the entirety of the phenomenon of the number of people sleeping on couches, in box rooms or staying with friends or the real number of rough sleepers.

Figures for 2015 show that there were 117,000 mortgages in arrears. The number of buy-to-let properties in mortgage arrears remains at over 30,000. These are the facts as we meet in the 32nd Dáil.

The Minister posed the question: what should we do? The first step is to recognise the reality and the fact that we have not just a housing emergency but a humanitarian crisis in our cities and towns and on the streets. The second point concerns the need to take responsibility for this because it happened on the watch of the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, and that of previous Administrations.

The third step involves understanding fully the role of the State in resolving the crisis because just as Fianna Fáil in previous Governments was happy to hand over authority and responsibility solely and exclusively to its friends who were developers, the previous Government played footsie and similarly handed over responsibility to private landlords. That must stop. There must be a real recognition that the State must lead in making an investment in the provision of social and affordable housing. Unless and until we have an Administration that recognises that simple fact, none of the other initiatives the Minister cited will solve the problem.

The cowardly manner in which the previous Government allowed the banks to ride roughshod over mortgage holders and those in mortgage distress was an outrage. We should say here loudly and clearly from the floor of the 32nd Dáil that repossessions and evictions are not sustainable solutions. We should agree that much, if we can, if nothing else.

Photo of Eoin Ó BroinEoin Ó Broin (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Homelessness is not an accident; it is a symptom of a housing system that does not work. Crucially, it is important for us to recognise that it is the result of decisions by Governments. All of the previous speakers mentioned that the number of families without a home was growing, but these families, if they are watching this debate, do not need words from us. What they need is action. They need to know what we intend to do is to put a roof over their heads.

I agree with the Minister. I have no desire to rerun the election campaign, but unless we name the causes of the crisis, we will not tackle them.

Listening to Deputy Cowen, it is as if his party had not been in government for a long period. The dysfunctional housing system which exists in the State was created by Fianna Fáil. This is not my view, it is a fact. When Fianna Fáil took office in 1997, 28,000 households were on local authority housing lists. After a decade, the figure had quadrupled to 100,000. This happened because Fianna Fáil refused to invest sufficiently in social housing and refused to regulate the market. It did what it always does. It looked after the developers and the rest of us had to look after ourselves.

I agree with the Minister that Fine Gael and the Labour Party inherited a housing system in crisis. There is no dispute about this. What Deputies Enda Kenny and Joan Burton then did was to turn the crisis into a catastrophe. The Government cut social housing spending by €200 million, bringing local authority construction to a grinding halt. It cut rent supplement, ensuring a further wave of family homelessness. It passed the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act, which saw a tenfold increase in the number of court cases for repossessions before the courts. It then announced a housing plan which was badly designed, poorly funded and destined to fail. Every time I hear the Minister, Deputy Kelly, tell us this was the most ambitious social housing plan in the history of the State, I scratch my head, because anybody who knows anything about social housing policy in the State knows this is simply not true.

What are we going to do? We know the solutions to the crisis because they have been introduced previously. We know, for example, that we must have rent certainty and increases in rent supplement. We know we must stop evictions and have tighter regulation of the banks. We know we must increase emergency accommodation. Crucially, unless we have a significant increase above what is being proposed by the Government across the House in direct local authority provision of social housing, the crisis will get worse. What the families listening to us need is to hear how we will provide homes for those children who tonight will sleep in emergency accommodation. Nothing I heard from the Minister or the Taoiseach answered this question.

4:15 pm

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The next slot is being shared by Deputies Ruth Coppinger and Brid Smith.

Photo of Ruth CoppingerRuth Coppinger (Dublin West, Anti-Austerity Alliance)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome tenants from the Tyrrelstown area who are here today to listen to the debate on housing and make their case for the Government to take action and intervene to prevent them effectively being made homeless. I object to the parameters of the debate. We are having discussions and pointless statements when we could be voting on motions to get the Minister, who is still being paid by the taxpayer, to take action. Why is this not being done? This is the most important issue in society and the country bar none. The caretaker Minister, Deputy Kelly, opened the debate. Despite the losses to the Labour Party in the general election, his demeanour has changed only slightly given the way he presented his opening remarks. However, I detect a change in Government policy, because it is talking about more State intervention being necessary to kick-start housing. This in itself is a movement from the neoliberal perspective we have had in the House for the past five years. However, it has not outlined how this will happen, when it will happen and how much will be given to councils. This crisis has been brewing for years, as others have said, and for half of the Government's tenure, and it has not taken the decisive action needed. It is interesting that the Constitution is now being cited as a barrier to progress. The Constitution gives centrality to private property and is an impediment to sorting out the housing situation and keeping people in their homes. I guarantee that if the Minister triggered a referendum, people would turn out in their droves to change the relevant clauses in our Constitution.

Why did the Government not come to the House today to do things that do not require constitutional change, such as rent controls and emergency legislation? In the previous debate, the Anti-Austerity Alliance tabled motions and amendments to the Residential Tenancies Acts to prevent people being evicted on the basis of sale of a property. Now we have hundreds of tenants throughout the country facing eviction by vulture funds and many by private landlords as well. This must stop. We must stop the tide of homelessness. Nobody should be evicted because of the sale of a property.

In my remaining remarks I will focus on the Tyrrelstown situation which is huge in my constituency. My colleague, Deputy Mick Barry, will refer to Blackrock. The AAA-PBP has tabled a motion which states that 100 families are threatened by vulture funds with immediate eviction. These funds have been buying property on a large scale unhindered and encouraged by the Government, and it is now time for the Government to act. To be very clear, 100 families in Tyrrelstown would mean up to 200 adults and potentially 400 or 500 children leaving the area. It is completely untenable that people would be forced to move out of their community where they attend school, play GAA and take part in daily life. To give comfort to residents, the Government should state they should not leave their homes because of the whim of two developers who profited handsomely in the building of thousands of houses there. They absolutely must stay in their homes and fight this.

We need emergency legislation to give security of tenure to all tenants or home owners whose houses have been bought up by non-bank investment funds. We also need to get a commitment today that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Minister of Finance will meet tenants from Tyrrelstown, Blackrock and other areas who are immediately facing this situation to discuss how to keep people in their homes, which surely is a top priority. I ask the Minister to give this commitment today. Residents and tenants have ideas on how this could be done. The Government could commit to keeping people in their homes by acquiring these properties which are distressed or about to be sold and implementing an affordable mortgage scheme. Most of the tenants pay €1,400 or €1,500 in rent and would be well capable of paying mortgages which would be cheaper for them than the rent being charged by the developers. People who are renting must be able to continue to stay in their homes and rent them. A housing association could be established by the Government to see this is done.

The developers of this estate owe €42 million to NAMA and the State-owned AIB, which is twice what it would cost to acquire the houses. Why is this not being used as leverage by the Government to acquire these units, implement an affordable mortgage scheme and keep people renting in their homes? Will the Minister please agree to meet people and tell them not to leave their homes under pressure from two millionaires who live in a 60-acre estate and fly in and out of the area in helicopters? It is completely and utterly outrageous.

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

If Deputies insist on going over time it will mean time is taken from other speakers in their party.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

That is okay with me.

Photo of Ruth CoppingerRuth Coppinger (Dublin West, Anti-Austerity Alliance)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Show a bit of leeway.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I echo what has been said by Deputy Coppinger. What has happened in Tyrrelstown and Cork is a predictable outcome of the activities of NAMA and, I would argue, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan. The Government set out deliberately to attract corporate investment funds with tax incentives. The Sunday before the general election, The Sunday Business Postreported this was coming down the tracks and stated we would see an escalation and increase in pressure from these investment companies to retrieve money from the loans they bought. A huge number of loan portfolios were taken over by vulture corporate investment funds and a huge number of apartments have been gifted through real estate investment trusts, REITS. What we are witnessing is the corporatisation of landlordism in this country, and NAMA has done this in acting to offload as quickly as possible all it has on its loan book. We have evidence through freedom of information that Government officials met vulture funds no fewer than 65 times in 2013 and 2014.

These meetings included direct meetings with the Taoiseach. Freedom of information requests reveal that these included companies like Apollo, Lone Star and Kennedy Wilson. What we are seeing in Tyrrelstown and in Cork will be repeated around the country as these vulture funds, which do not give a damn about ordinary people, like those sitting in the Visitors Gallery today, will try to retrieve the moneys they invested in a very quick and parasitic way.

NAMA itself is extremely corrupt. Many of its officials have joined these private funds or set up their own REITs to cash in on the frenzy to get rid of the property at the lowest price as quickly as possible and to use this to build up contracts to their own advantage. NAMA should and could have a social role but it has been completely minimised by its reliance on the private market to deliver houses, which is at the heart of the problem of homelessness and the housing crisis that we see in the State today. Effectively, the State has ended up funding private landlords, who buy up properties and then rent them back to the State, which then gives them over to people on the housing list at a very slow pace through HAPS and RAS. We are massaging the palms of the very wealthy corporate landlords in this country and paying for it through the taxpayer. NAMA is actually worsening the crisis.

What we need to argue for, as well as an emergency being declared in public housing, is that NAMA must be democratised and transformed into an agency that will drive social and affordable home-building and use its vast loans and billions in resources to conduct an audit of vacant properties as part of the 2016 census, to seek to acquire the tens of thousands of vacant properties and apartments for use as social and affordable houses to relieve the crisis in the short and medium term and in the long term to implement a plan of massive public investment, involving the councils, to build thousands of social and affordable homes, including Traveller-specific accommodation and accommodation for refugees and asylum-seekers. This also has to be linked to the notion of rent controls where the consumer price index should be backdated to 2011 levels and rents should be brought down to realistic, affordable levels for people in this country. That should be done immediately and rent controls should be realistically enforced, particularly in the cities of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway. All this means that we have to redirect our funding, taking into account the €4.5 billion that NAMA has, to building public housing, to have a €2 billion investment from the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, to be repaid over time in income from social and affordable rents. As we will always say on this side of the House, we also need progressive taxation on wealth, including ending corporate taxation avoidance and using some of the €7 billion owed by Apple to the State to relieve the housing and homelessness crisis.

It is outrageous that we are talking about this a month after the election and that nothing has been, and nothing is being, done. I sense the frustration of the people in the Visitors Gallery and those in my community who are faced with the same sort of evictions, overcrowding and homelessness.

4:25 pm

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The next grouping is Independents 4 Change. Deputy Wallace has ten minutes but Deputies Clare Daly and Joan Collins might like to speak. I call on Deputy Wallace.

Photo of Mick WallaceMick Wallace (Wexford, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I also want to avoid repeating what we have been saying here for the past five years and I want to look at what we should do now. We should learn from our mistakes over the past five years. I remember on 15 January 2014 having a serious argument with the Minister for Finance about inviting and encouraging the investment funds to avail of huge tracts of property in Ireland, having to pay no tax on it, no tax on their profits on the rental and no capital gains if they stayed for seven years. It was a crazy arrangement.

The idea that we now have a professional landlord and that everything will be cleaned up and it will be great for everybody does not make much sense if a person cannot afford to pay this new fancy landlord who is charging 40% more than was being charged before. The price has gone off the Richter scale. There are huge problems in every sector of housing and there are huge challenges for the next Government. We have to get over the idea that the State should not build local authority social housing. Doing this is a challenge. I noticed only two weeks ago that the British Shadow Chancellor recommended that Britain should now take a five-year exit from putting infrastructure money on the books and making it subject to the usual fiscal rules. Germany and France broke that rule in the past and got away with it. We need to borrow money on the markets at 1% and invest in local authority social housing. It is imperative that we do it and we should not have to use PPPs and pay 15% to do it. That is 15 times the money and it does not make sense. If Europe turned us down, given that we have a housing emergency, it would mean Europe just does not care about us anymore. It would not make any sense.

The private sector had been driven out of the market by NAMA and the banks conducting fire sales of assets and sites for less than half their value. One can say that no one knew the value of the assets. We have had that debate here several times but things do have value. A house has the value of what it cost to put there on the day it is sold. NAMA has been selling property for less than half what it costs to build on that particular day. That, for my money, is bad business and I do not see how the State could have allowed it to happen. How in God's name did the Government allow Project Arrow to be sold last December by NAMA? Residential units in the Republic of Ireland were sold for peanuts. The only ones winning are the investment funds. The Irish people are paying the balance of the money that is missing and then the investment funds chase the individuals concerned for a second whammy. One could not make it up.

Let us say the EU gives us permission to break the fiscal rules for a five-year period. Will the next Government then be prepared to borrow in the region of €8 billion or €10 billion to invest in local authority social housing and how should we best go about it?

We have not got enough time to discuss the ins and outs of it but regarding Part V and the question of 10% versus 20%, I do not agree with Fianna Fáil's point. We will get nobody to build if we take 20% of units off them. I do not think they understand how the system works because when the builder provides Part V units, he gets only the agricultural land value for his site. If he pays in the region of €100,000 per unit for it, he loses that. If he loses it on 10%, fair enough, but if it is on 20%, we will not get him to build at all. I suggest that we need the State to buy out 20% of it from the builder. The Central Bank rules are solid. The idea that people would have to come up with 20% of the money to buy their house is not the craziest notion in the world and there would be fewer people running into trouble. However, it places a new obligation on the State to provide housing. We need to provide quality State housing and not ghettos, and there has to be a whole new way of thinking about how we build them, in terms of whether the will be fit for families. We have never built apartments in this country that were fit for families. The legislation before Christmas reducing the quality of the unit in order to entice the private sector in is not what is required. That was an own goal and is a crazy way to go. It will not help matters. That was not the big factor keeping the private sector out of the market.

We have to take a whole new approach. For starters, if the Central Bank rule is to stick, and I think it should, social housing will have to come to about 30%, up from between 10% and 15% over the years. I would argue that every development that goes up in Ireland today should have 30% social housing. The builder would provide 10% of it and the State would buy out 20% of it because we want to stop ghettoisation. This idea of building huge blocks of units that are all social is nonsense; it has not worked. We need to get away from that and we have to look at the type of unit we are building because we cannot cover the country in concrete.

We will have to go down the apartment route for living space, for the long term rather than, as it is at present, for transitory purposes. People cannot raise a family in an apartment block in Ireland today; it just does not work.

If the State is prepared to borrow money at an affordable price and challenge Europe so that we can borrow money at a rate of 1%, the State would be able to go out there and build units, and buy 20% of all private developments where there was already a 10% social provision. As a kick-start, the 20,000 units that NAMA is supposed to provide, which are currently 90% private and 10% social, should be 50:50.

The biggest problem facing housing today is unaffordability. People will not be able to buy the apartments or houses that NAMA intends to build for the private sector. They say there will be an average selling price of €300,000. How many of those who are in trouble today with regard to keeping a roof over their heads will get the money to buy a unit for €300,000? Bugger all. Therefore, these units are not for those who most need them. It is outrageous that private housing will outnumber social housing by nine to one on land that the Irish people already own, which is NAMA's land.

At present, nobody in the private sector wants to build in Ireland. The banks would not even finance it. If I had a site tomorrow and I got planning permission for it, I would not get funding from a bank in Ireland for it because it is not attractive enough for banks. I recall that when the Government came to office five years ago it stated that it would set up a State investment bank that could do these things. Let the next Government do it. We need a functioning State investment bank that will lend to people to build.

The other matter I wanted to raise with the Minister, on which I argued tooth and nail in here with him and the Minister of State, Paudie Coffey, is land-banking. My God. How big a problem is this? It is crazy that the Minister has refused to anything about it. His vacant site levy was a joke. A person who owned land and who had borrowed money for it did not have to pay the levy at all, and if he put a few horses on it, it was not even vacant. It was an absolute joke of an effort to deal with the issue of land-banking. Will the next Government have the appetite to do it? It is a no-brainer. It drives the cost of land up to an unbelievable degree. They are building three-bedroom houses 20 km from here today that will sell for €345,000. I can tell the Minister that if he travels 20 km outside any city in Italy, he can buy a house for less than half of that.

Is the Minister aware that if a house is sold in Ireland today for €300,000, more than 50% of this ends up in the State coffers? The high price of housing in Ireland has suited the State. It has not suited the Irish people. We need the next Government to take an honest approach to every aspect of housing.

4:35 pm

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Market failure has been part of the housing story in Ireland not only in recent years but for many decades. The response to it has usually been large-scale building of local authority houses. It happened in the 1930s, it happened in the 1950s and it happened in the 1970s, although the quality of the housing stock in the 1970s in some cases was very questionable and the approach of delivering social housing in large enclaves was not one that we should repeat. We need to design sustainable communities from a financial, environmental and social point of view.

The Social Democrats produced a housing document, Unlocking Affordable Housing, during the election campaign. Our suggestions include having one Minister with responsibility for housing rather than a number of different Ministers. However, it needs to go beyond that. There is a great deal of fragmentation and a lack of co-ordination. We have a Housing Agency which gathers some of the statistics and a Housing Finance Agency which can find finance, but we really need to have a third tier - that is, where there is intervention by the State in co-ordinating delivery across the entire sector, whether it is through approved housing bodies, local authorities or private builders. Something we require - it is astonishing that we do not have this already - is a register of what land the State owns, because there is no such register of land across the various sectors. That is absolutely needed because it provides the opportunity to co-ordinate delivery.

I would agree with what Deputy Wallace said about not repeating the mistakes of the past by merely adopting a local authority response in one location. It has to be a socially sustainable response. There has to be mixed tenure. There must be a range of different housing types that deal with the entire life cycle so that people can rent or buy, or scale up or scale down as the size of their household changes. It is not a case of one size fits all, but we need to have a co-ordinated approach so that we can deliver in large conurbations. We need to build to scale in order to drive down the costs. We also need to introduce certainty into the system so that we have a sustainable response right through into the future, not just to get us out of this particular problem.

We need to build at cost, and that is about building on a much larger scale. We need not only to reduce the cost of rent but to reduce the cost of building social houses, and we need to reduce the cost of building houses both for sale and for rent in the private rented sector, but there needs to be State intervention. We also need to consider short-term responses that will get us to a stage at which supply starts to improve, and we should stop the nonsense of thinking that the housing assistance payment, HAP, and the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, are some sort of sustainable response. Some of what has happened with regard to the HAP, which I have always called "hapless," makes matters far worse. In fact, there are tenants who have to move out of their houses because they will not be given uplift in rent allowance due to the two-year rule but, essentially, they will get an increase if they rent a different property. That is pure bonkers in a situation in which it is not possible to find alternative accommodation.

Some of the housing associations, such as Respond, have recently put together a range of responses. The Irish Council for Social Housing catalogued the different measures that the various political parties and Independents suggested during the election campaign. There is an avenue that we could meaningfully explore over the next number of weeks whereby all parties and those who are non-aligned could come together to consider what kind of solutions could at least be examined, even in the context of putting a broad strategic framework in place.

According to the Housing Agency, we have twice the vacancy rate that would be normal in Europe. We have an 8% vacancy rate, and we need to understand why that is the case.

Some of it could be due to impediments in the fair deal scheme. Over-the-shop accommodation that is under used could be brought back into play by way of fiscal initiatives, even if they are short-term. For example, term-limited tax credits for landlords who retain tenants with rent increases limited to the cost of living increases might be considered as a tool for driving rents down.

The Tyrellstown situation could be replicated elsewhere, unfortunately. I agree with some of the points made, such as that NAMA accelerated this. Government policy has dictated that NAMA off-load properties more quickly than originally intended and more or less invited the situation down on the residents of the homes. They have received legal advice at senior counsel level that the State could exercise a compulsory purchase order, CPO. The Government should explore this possibility in such scenarios so the State can intervene appropriately. Respond has examined this and has received advice that it is a workable option.

Some years ago, some of the tier 3 housing associations identified that a lot of money was available from the European Investment Bank that could have been invested. Some of us brought the idea to the floor of the House three or four years ago, when there was no shortage of funds. Approximately €500 million was available. All it required was that the State be co-guarantor in the context of delivering these houses. Had it been taken up at the time, houses would be ready for delivery by now. It was a viable solution that was not taken up.

Due to the borrowing restrictions that were imposed on us following the European fiscal compact, much of what must happen must be off balance sheet. Given that it was supposed to be the lender of last resort, it has become an impediment to delivering something that is critical in anybody's life, namely, a secure place to live. We must take the housing first approach to homelessness. The Simon Community has advocated it and there is no other viable solution for delivering a response to homelessness in a particular category.

Children in primary schools have written proclamations outlining solutions for the future and the kind of country they want in the future. In almost every one of the proclamations I have seen, housing and homelessness has been highlighted as one of the issues which children see as a major issue. If children, who would not have the kind of expertise available to them that the Minister has had over recent years, can see this, it is amazing how the Government has not recognised the crisis. Somebody said here earlier that the crisis did not happen by accident, and I agree. Deliberate political policy got us into this mess and we must put our heads together. I have put some solutions on the table that could be considered as a response to it.

4:45 pm

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate. The most serious issue facing the country is the lack of investment in our basic infrastructure, particularly during the past five years. Before that, we under invested in water, transport and the connected issue of housing. They go together, and whatever our approach and solution, it must join the dots regarding how we develop places for people to live which are connected, affordable and which build up communities. I will outline how we in the Green Party think we can build the right type of housing at the right cost using the right model and in the right place. We need to get all those right if we are to provide homes in which people can live and have satisfying lives.

Regarding place, we must be careful not to get into a numbers game regarding how many thousand houses we need to build. The numbers game went wrong in the early 2000s, when we were building 90,000 houses per year, but in the wrong places and without any consideration of a proper national spatial strategy which would have connected the houses to places where people were working, schools and shops, which would have developed what we need, namely, vibrant local communities. In this response to the housing crisis, let us take what is already in train, namely, the development of a national spatial strategy by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, and put it centre stage in any programme for Government as the key first step in any new investment strategy we need to do to rebuild our country and provide a more secure economy and society for our people.

According to the planners, we need to reverse the trend over the past 50 years which has been towards a dispersed population with housing spread all over the country. This is very difficult to service with public and private services, such as electricity and broadband. We need to reverse the trend which saw the depopulation of our city centres and start building up our cities again as part of a proper national spatial strategy, not like the strategy in early 2002 in which we set out our infrastructure investment plan, followed it with a spatial plan which was not connected to it, and ignored the spatial plan with the decentralisation scheme and a free-for-all in planning. We must learn from this mistake.

If we are serious about getting planning right, we must bring life back into our city centres. We must reverse the depopulation of Cork city, which has decreased by 0.5% each year for the past 30 years. We must examine the situation in Limerick, where less than 3% of the population live in the city centre. If we get those cities right, they will be vibrant centres of economic development. People will live close to their work and will not have to travel. Deputy Wallace cited the cost of a house 20 km outside a city in Italy. If we keep building 20 km outside Dublin, we know for certain that those people will have to travel across a gridlocked M50 and it will not work. That is why we need to get housing in the right place to ensure people do not spend their entire lives driving and commuting but start having a better and more efficient quality of life, and a better environmental outcome will come with it.

We also need to get the type of housing we build right. The Minister's change of the standards, reversing a move to try to build proper housing in which families could live, was a retrograde step. In my local area, Clonskeagh, planning had been granted for a development on the Smurfit Paper Mills site. It was ready to go, but suddenly last month a new site notice was put up. Thanks to the Minister's weakening of the regulations, the developers are seeking new planning permission that would include an extra ten apartments and 27 car parking spaces. This type of place does not need the lower quality, box apartments. It needs high quality apartments in which people can live and raise families. By weakening the regulations, the Minister has reversed us to the poor legacy of previous Administrations which saw housing as all about making profits for developers rather than creating homes for people. We need to change this.

I also regret that the Minister is weakening the energy standards. We need to build carbon neutral houses with zero energy costs.

That is possible, but not if we step back and start weakening regulations. That would be a fundamental mistake. While it might lead to a short-term gain in terms of decreasing the developer's immediate costs, the people who live in the apartment or the house for the next 20 or 30 years will curse the Minister forever and a day because they will have to pay more than they would have needed to pay if we had stuck to proper building standards.

I do not believe it is impossible for us to make sure buildings are provided at the right cost. I cite as an example a passive house that was built recently in Enniscorthy, County Wexford. This standard three-bedroom house of 1,100 sq. ft. is retailing at €170,000 at a zero energy cost for the house. Each year, the person who buys it will save money that would otherwise have been wasted on energy spending. An edition of a surveyor's magazine that was published recently showed how it is possible for us to build buildings inexpensively. I am sure every Deputy received a copy of it in his or her mailbox yesterday, just as I did. It shows how a typical semi-detached house of 1,200 sq. ft can be built for something like €250,000. To my mind, it is not impossible for us to build in a way that will be affordable for our people. If that is to happen, we need to provide the volume and the low-cost financing and get the planning, the model and the financing structure right.

I believe the fundamental mistake that was made in this regard by the outgoing Government was informed by an ideological position within the heart of the system. I am not the only person who thinks the Department of Finance did not believe in capital expenditure and cut it excessively. One of the IMF's main criticisms of the outgoing Government related to its excessive desire to cut capital expenditure.

4:55 pm

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It wanted us to cut social welfare instead.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Line after line of the European Commission's country report last week emphasised the point that under-investment in capital expenditure is a weakness in, and a real threat to, the Irish economy. I can quote from the report if the Minister, Deputy Howlin, wishes.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I have read it well. I met them many times.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

According to the report, "the current levels of capital expenditure in Ireland are barely sufficient".

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Sorry, Deputy, you are making a statement.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am making a statement.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

You are not engaging in a conversation, please.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

No, it is a statement to the House, a Cheann Comhairle.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Minister, Deputy Howlin, might restrain himself as well.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am telling the House what the European Commission is saying. According to the report I have mentioned, "the current levels of capital expenditure in Ireland are barely sufficient to replace the existing stock of public capital". It also points out that "net public investment ... was negative or close to zero in 2012 to 2014". I agree with other Deputies who have said during this debate that the State needs to start spending on public housing. I believe we should heed the advice of the National Economic and Social Council by using the cost-rental model it is suggesting. Other countries, including Austria, are able to use future income streams from market rents accrued by the state or the housing association to raise funding outside the rules of the fiscal compact. That is what other countries do. I do not believe there is any reason we should not do it. It is going to require the State to start spending and to heed what has been said by the European Commission, the Nevin Economic Research Institute, IBEC and the IMF. They have said that the State has not invested enough money in its infrastructure over the last five years. That needs to change in the next Government and we should start by putting housing in the right place. We should build clean housing so that we save people money over the lifetime of the building. That is not impossible to do. We need to take NAMA and put it into a national housing authority. A site value taxation system that makes sense had been set up for this Government when it took office five years ago. It was ready to go. It provides an incentive for us to build, an environmental gain and some of the funding that the Minister says he needs to build infrastructure. I wish the Government had done what it said it would do in the programme for Government. If it had availed of the site value tax system that had been set up for it, rather than initiating a dumb property tax that is there just to raise revenue for the Department of Finance, we would not be in the same crisis we are in today. We should start by learning from that mistake and providing for a proper site value tax. The proceeds of that tax should be used to pay for the infrastructure that we badly need to build in this State.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak during this important debate on housing and homelessness. I will begin by dealing with the reality of the situation on the ground, particularly in relation to families. People are looking for solutions. It is up to all of us to propose solutions in this debate. I have heard some good and sensible ideas so far in this debate. It would be sensible and practical to sit down and propose five concrete proposals to deal with the issues of housing and homelessness. Before we do this, we need to identify the situation on the ground on this issue. At the moment, there are 5,715 adults and children in emergency accommodation nationally, including 4,248 in Dublin. Some 38% of these people have never used homeless accommodation before. The number of families and children in these circumstances has doubled over the last year. There has been a 55% increase in homelessness in Dublin in the last year. Between 50 and 60 people are sleeping rough in Dublin on a nightly basis. Every three people who leave homelessness in Dublin on a daily basis are replaced by six people entering homelessness. There has been a fivefold increase in families becoming homeless in other counties like Kildare, Wicklow and Meath. The supply of private rental housing options in the region is at its lowest point in ten years. That is the situation on the ground.

I would like to set out what needs to be done immediately to respond to these issues. First, the Minister and the acting Government should consider bringing the rent supplement housing assistance payment into line with market rents. Second, we should restrict the flow into homelessness by investing more funding in prevention measures. We also need fast access to housing supports for people trapped in emergency accommodation. This is something we have seen. There are children in very bad conditions and families in hotels. Many children who are trying to go into their primary schools in the morning are coming out of hotel situations. We need to ensure there is a ministerial direction regarding social housing allocations of up to 50%. We need to increase to 20% the social housing allocation under Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000. We need to prioritise programmes that will deliver housing stock quickly through the approved housing bodies of local authorities and thereby reduce housing waiting lists. These are some of the many proposals that have been made by the organisations working in this area. I think they should be broadly adopted by the Members of the Oireachtas on an all-party basis. When we are talking about complex issues like homelessness, we also need to consider the issues of drugs, alcohol, mental health and the general health services. I suggest we should focus on harm reduction and medically supervised injecting centres. Finally, I would like to see the full implementation of the mental health strategy, A Vision for Change.

As I have said, homelessness is a very complex issue. As a former soup runner and volunteer with the Simon Community, I saw this many years ago at first hand. I remember the complex nature of the people who were homeless and the horrific situations in which many of them found themselves. When I was doing the soup run, I would often meet a gentle and kind homeless person who would refuse to go into a night shelter because of the threat of violence or intimidation. We need to focus on people who would rather stay in their own skip at night than go into a situation where there might be a threat of violence. We need to focus on this in the context of the points I have made about drugs, alcohol and mental health services. The plan to deal with the issues of housing and homelessness must be accompanied by a drugs plan, an alcohol plan and a mental health services plan. I think that is very important in this broader debate.

I would like to speak about the reality of what is happening in this country now. If we are to deal with the issues of housing and homelessness, every single Deputy in this House needs to be vigilant. Despite all the talk of the last six months, we still have high levels of unemployment in our society. People talk about unemployment going down to 9%, but 18%, 19% or 20% of people are unemployed in some streets in certain parts of my constituency. The high level of household, business and national debt is also an issue. We need to be vigilant and careful because we have a high level of sensitivity to external and internal shocks to our economy. It astounded me the other day to see some senior bankers getting further massive increases in their wages. We have to be vigilant in this regard in light of the weak profitability of the banking sector. Of course the other issue is that housing demand is outstripping supply at the moment. This is one of many challenges faced by our society. Too many challenges are faced by businesses that are trying to access credit.

These are the types of small businesses that could take on one or two additional people. This is something on which we should focus in terms of the development of a national strategy to address high unemployment levels. There are approximately 200,000 small businesses in this State. If each one of them took on one additional person it would put a huge dent in the long-term unemployment problem.

As we have seen in recent days, vulture funds have purchased huge tranches of Irish debt at knock-down prices and are now swooping in to mop up these resources. This is linked to the housing and homelessness issue. Like many of my colleagues and others from among the different political parties, I believe the current housing situation should be declared a national emergency. I would also like to see the appointment of a Minister with responsibility for housing and homelessness. An Oireachtas committee on Dáil reform is to meet tomorrow. I would welcome a meeting of an Oireachtas sub-committee on housing and homelessness before any meeting on the Dáil reform issue. There should be cross-party support for a referendum on the right to a home before the end of 2017. I am not suggesting that all of my proposals be taken on board but I am sure four or five of the sensible solutions proposed from across the Chamber would have the support of many Members. It is important this is done.

We also learned in recent days that 200 people in the Cruise Park area of Tyrelstown are facing eviction following acquisition by Beltany Property Finance of a €89 million loan from the Ulster Bank to certain developers. We are likely to see more of this into the future. What can we do about it? A practical response would be for the Dáil to amend the table in section 34 of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 to prevent this. No constitutional bar would prevent the passage of a widely supported emergency amendment to that legislation while we await the formation of a new Government. This is another sensible solution.

During the last Dáil I raised the issue of the €5 billion available from the credit unions for social housing. The credit union movement has surplus funds of up to €8 billion. There are 437 credit unions across this country. Many of us have met with them. They are ready to step up to the plate to assist families with housing problems. Another issue omitted from this debate is housing for disabled people. There are many people in our society who are disabled. We need to focus on their housing needs. There are many other ideas that need to be considered in the context of addressing the housing problem. Owing to a lack of supply, house prices in Dublin in particular are rapidly increasing, leading to an increase in homelessness.

We need an urgent change in the attitude of Government to social housing and a proper funding model. Capital for housing can be raised through off-balance sheet borrowing from non-government sources such as social investment bonds, banks, standard bonds, NAMA and Government sources such as the Housing Finance Agency and the European Investment Bank, with equity finance, real estate investment trusts also being part of the funding option model. Utilisation of these sources would not add to the national debt and they are sustainable through recession. We can increase our building capacity by getting all of the local authorities involved again; the establishment of new housing associations; and by increasing the building capacity of existing housing associations by way of amalgamations, co-operatives and partnerships.

Earlier, I referred to housing for the disabled. It is important disabled people are included in all of our plans, be that in regard to social housing or affordable housing. We also need to ensure that new housing projects for people with disabilities is located in mixed residential communities and dispersed appropriately so as to avoid clustering. It must be clearly demonstrated that there has been meaningful involvement of the resident, his or her family or advocate in the development of a housing proposal and evidence of a community living transition plan and personal centre care plan. It must be also demonstrated that care proposals are configured to support the individuals living in one home in the housing neighbourhood. These are options that could be considered.

As I said earlier, we have heard some good proposals today from colleagues from all sectors of society. A new Dáil has been elected and in the context of the many new Members here there is a great deal of fresh energy in the House. Let us take on board some of their ideas and get on with the job.

5:05 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

We now move to the second round of contributions in respect of which Members have five minutes each.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this critical debate. In regard to Deputy Finian McGrath's contribution, the homeless figures are not static. For example, last year 2,000 people and families left homelessness but unfortunately other people have since become homeless. As the Minister, Deputy Kelly, said, 17,000 people will be housed through a variety of mechanisms. Also, on taking up the position of Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, took on board a very difficult situation. At that time, it was the policy of many local authorities to board up houses. These became a blight on estates and resulted in huge anti-social problems, particularly in our cities and larger towns, and resulted in people not wanting to be housed in such estates. I am glad to say that since taking up the position of Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly has tackled that problem, which is borne out in the table of figures which Deputies have in regard to the last two years.

I would like to make a couple of points in regard to the significance and importance of rent supplement and how important it is in terms of the State's involvement in the private rented sector. Many years ago, in the context of the casino capitalism model operated by Fianna Fáil at the height of the boom, social housing went out of fashion with local authorities and, in particular, the then Government. While some social housing continued to be built people did not want to live in the huge estates of yesteryear. I accept there was merit in that but the consequence was that social housing construction dried up. The crash then stopped it altogether.

Between rent supplement, the housing assistance payment and the rental accommodation scheme, the State effectively funds one third of the private rented sector. This year, the Government has provided €450 million for those schemes to support 98,000 households, which is almost 100,000 households. A key focus of the Government has been how it can make things better for families. The housing assistance payment, introduced in 2014-----

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It is a disgrace.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

-----will be increasingly important in this context. The housing assistance payment will gradually replace rent supplement in the context of long term housing need.

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Government is paying on the double in that it is paying the local authority and the landlord.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

One speaker, Deputy Healy, please.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Unlike in the case of rent supplement, a person can work full-time and still qualify for the housing assistance payment.

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Shame on the Labour Party.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Will the Ceann Comhairle ask Deputy Healy to stop interrupting?

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

A person is then in a differential rent situation such that if he or she is taking up employment he or she can calculate if there is any additional rent to be paid. This is a vital distinction. I share Deputy Finan McGrath's view that notwithstanding the fact that we have made huge strides in reducing unemployment, we still have far too many people unemployed. One of the inhibitions with rent supplement is the restriction in terms of the amount of employment a person can take up. Those people living in housing provided by local authorities that are operating HAP are effectively in a differential rent situation and are free to take up employment and thus calculate any additional rent payable.

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Government is paying on the double in that it is paying the local authority and the landlord.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Deputy Healy will have an opportunity to speak soon.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Helping people to return to work is the surest way of helping individuals and families to build financial independence and a better and more prosperous future for their families over time.

My Department has been working closely with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the local authorities to support the ongoing transfer of people with long-term housing need to the housing assistance payment, HAP. More than 7,700 people are in receipt of the payment and this number will increase significantly in the months and years ahead. I hope the Dublin local authorities, including Dublin City Council, will move strongly to give families options around HAP and, therefore, a significant opportunity and incentive to take on work. In the meantime, rent supplement will continue to play an essential role in supporting families and individuals. This year, the scheme will support 59,000 people at a cost of €267 million. Homes are being secured by families in receipt of the supplement.

5:15 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Tánaiste should conclude.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

This is demonstrated by the fact that more than 20,000 rent supplement tenancies were awarded last year at an average of €1,600 a month. Where a family struggles to find or retain accommodation, the Department is actively helping them and awarding increased rent supplement to do so on a case-by-case basis.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Tánaiste. I am afraid her time is up.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The targeted approach has assisted more than 7,100 people. We have also spent €1.4 million on 2,500 rent deposits over the past year. These facts are ignored frequently by people.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I congratulate the Ceann Comhairle on his election.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Deputy.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I was disappointed by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government's contribution at the outset of the debate. It was unnecessarily combative and defensive, it hit all the wrong notes and it was not particularly constructive either. As an outsider looking in at the proceedings of the House over the past five years, I have watched the Minister blame everybody for the housing crisis except the Government. He blamed Fianna Fáil, but that wore a little thin and the electorate saw through that after a while. He blamed the local authorities and, most regrettably of all, he blamed the housing agencies and those at the coalface. We need a constructive debate. This is a new Dáil. Many constructive ideas have been outlined even in this limited debate. It is time to start again with the new ideas that are coming forward and all of us need to work together to solve this problem.

By Christmas 2015, in the Dublin regional homeless executive area, 466 families with 966 dependants were in hotels while 217 families with 443 dependants were in homeless accommodation, giving a total of 683 families with 1,409 dependants. Fr. Peter McVerry said that if this continues, 3,000 children will be in emergency accommodation by 2017. That is unacceptable. As a city councillor until recently, as was the case for many other public representatives, housing and homelessness was the major issue to be dealt with every day. We have had the ongoing problem of rough sleepers but, more recently, families have become homeless because of increasing rents. People who never thought they would become homeless have suddenly found themselves in that position. Everyday life for such families is a struggle. First, in the Dublin area, they must register with the Dublin regional homeless executive in Parkgate Hall, which sometimes necessitates two bus journeys with entire families being dragged across the city. They have to live in one-room accommodation in hotels and they are often treated as second-class citizens in those hotels. Parents have to try to get to work and get their children to school while the children have to try to do their homework in these conditions. These children will have little opportunity unless we do something for them.

This is not acceptable. We need to declare a national emergency. A total of 130,000 households comprising 350,000 individuals are on our social housing lists. As an immediate step, the State needs to build more private social and affordable housing, a subject to which we need to return.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

That is a good point to end on.

Photo of John CurranJohn Curran (Dublin Mid West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

A consensus emerged among Members across all parties who contributed earlier that it would be useful to have a Minister for housing, and I concur with that. Flowing from that, one would hope there would be an all-party Oireachtas committee on housing. It would be great to put that infrastructure in place, but the project for that Minister and committee would be to adopt an all-party national housing strategy which would go beyond the lifetime of this Dáil. We need a clear road and a clear direction in order that we do not end up in a tit-for-tat with people saying, "You did this on your watch" or "We did that", and so forth. There should be a much better defined approach for the future. That would serve the House well and, in particular, the people who elected us.

I would like our housing crisis to be acknowledged as a housing emergency, not because it is a play on words but because it would lend an urgency to the response that is required. Sometimes, looking on at these debates, the lack of urgency is notable. That urgency requires both short-term and long-term measures. There has been a great deal of comment on landbanks and construction and so forth, but before we even go there, we need to consider the position of those who are at risk of becoming homeless or who are losing their homes today. The Minister for Social Protection referred to rent supplement. Both I, as a person who deals with constituents, and the charities that deal with homelessness do not believe rent supplement is working as it should and that it is one of the causes of the emergency. Other issues revolve around receivers being appointed by banks, who are largely unregulated. A number of short-term measures need to be dealt with promptly.

I support the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government regarding one comment he made. He referred to the constitutional challenges in respect of housing. It is time there was a rebalancing of the Constitution in the context of property rights and so forth. We should, as an Oireachtas, consider a proper wording to bring to the people on a right to housing.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Hear, hear.

Photo of John CurranJohn Curran (Dublin Mid West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

A right to housing does not mean a key to a free house but it should underpin reasonableness and proportionate responses in what we do. If we went no further than putting that on the agenda and advancing that as a meaningful, all-party approach, that would have a significant impact on housing and homelessness and the approach and steps taken by the next Government and future Governments.

Photo of Denise MitchellDenise Mitchell (Dublin Bay North, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Many comments can be made about this housing crisis. The fact now that it is the norm to see people bedding down in doorways can only be described as blatant evidence that this crisis is a national emergency. This emergency affects children living in hotels, families, mothers and vulnerable people, and it has huge social and economic costs. These costs are a direct result failure of the State and the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government to acknowledge that this emergency exists and to do something about it. The housing spend per citizen by Dublin City Council illustrates the almost impossible struggle facing the council in its efforts to house people. For example, in 2016, the council has an overall budget of €803 million. The expectation is that the council will spend 35% of this on housing, which is its greatest expenditure. However, while this figure has been increased annually, only 100 family homes were built in 2015.

In the aftermath of the general election, we are in a political vacuum. Fine Gael is now saying it misjudged the mood of the people while, at the same time, Fianna Fáil acts as if it had no hand or part to play in creating this crisis. There is only one solution to this emergency, which is a State-led national social and affordable housing programme.

5:25 pm

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

If we are to agree on anything today, we must accept that we are in the middle of a housing emergency. It is a housing crisis. We need to declare an emergency as that would necessitate an emergency response and appropriate emergency measures. It would be a good start if we were even to agree that much today. I agree with other speakers, as I think everyone would, that everyone has the right to a home and a roof over his or her head without discrimination. Everyone would accept this as a starting point of the debate.

Sinn Féin has proposed costed and detailed proposals which would impact immediately on the housing and homelessness crisis. However, I want to focus on one small area which does not require legislation. We need to tackle the current system under which homeless families and individuals have to self-accommodate. When an individual or family presents as homeless, they must contact their local authority. However, many are told that there is no accommodation available and that they should contact hotels or bed and breakfast accommodation. They cannot just make telephone calls but need to present in person. Many take buses and bring their children and life-long belongings with them to the accommodation which may be very far away. They are then told there is no accommodation and they must take the bus back and start again. If they are successful, they may obtain accommodation for two, three or four nights, but there is usually a difficulty coming up to the weekend. Once again, they have to restart the process. Children are somehow supposed to stay in accommodation during this whole process. Huge numbers of people could not find rooms last week because of St. Patrick's Day and Easter and some had to travel outside Dublin to find accommodation with their children. Homeless individuals and their families should not have to self-accommodate. We must urgently change that practice. The Minister is a caretaker Minister at this stage. He was talking about instructing local authorities at the stroke of a pen to adopt the position that they would take on the responsibility. It is not a huge task. It is something positive we can recommend today. The Minister might consider it.

Photo of Damien EnglishDamien English (Meath West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words in the debate. I did not get a chance to listen to all speakers, but in terms of process, the idea today was to have statements and put forth everyone's ideas as a contribution to the debate. The Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, has been working hard in this area for the past couple of years and has managed, with the help of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, and others, to ring-fence a pot of money of approximately €4 billion to tackle this issue, yet no one seems to acknowledge this. I wish we had had that €4 billion three or five years ago, but we did not. However, we now know that there is a pot of money of €4 billion, depending on whether whoever is in government wants to increase it, to work with and spend on solutions. Nevertheless - I accept that I did not hear all of the speeches - Deputy Barry Cowen seems to forget that the election is over. He came into the House ranting and raving rather than trying to calmly tease through ideas and solutions on which we could all work. That is what we are trying to do. On this side we accept that we did not get everything perfectly right. There would be no problem if we did. That is acknowledged by having this debate and in setting aside a sum of €4 billion. We know that there is a problem and we want to fix it. We have put forward various strategies that we think will help a great deal, including the social housing strategy and Construction 2020. They are strategies we believe have been worked out and will help. They might need to be fast-tracked or people might want to add to them, but they are strategies that are in place and already making some difference, albeit not enough and not quickly enough.

As the Minister says, the problem cannot be fixed overnight. There is no silver bullet. I have not heard here all of the solutions or of a silver bullet either. Everyone seems to agree that in terms of process, if today is taken as stage 1, the next stage after the Ceann Comhairle's committee meets tomorrow should be establishing a committee of the House on housing to match a potential housing Minister, depending on who is in government. Most people seem to agree with the concept of having a housing Minister with a particular brief to focus on this issue for a couple of years. A cross-party committee on housing could tease through all of ideas expressed today, good, bad or indifferent, and those expressed outside the House. Let us go through them to see which ones are realistic and those which cannot be implemented. In fairness, the Minister has said some of the ideas sound lovely, but they may not be capable of implementation. If it was possible to implement them, we might have tried them in the past. It may be that a cross-party committee could adopt the right tone and spirit. I have seen committees working very well, as Deputy Seán Crowe can attest. Let us tease through everyone's ideas and submit them to the next process which I hope will be a new Government with a dedicated Minister in a couple of weeks time or one month or however long it takes.

The Taoiseach outlined the Action Plan for Jobs process, at which most people laughed when it was first suggested in 2011 and which they said could not work. However, it did work because every Minister and Department bought into and contributed to it. The same logical approach can work in any Department. Certainly, it can work in tackling the housing crisis. I have been in other countries in Europe in the past year and a half where people have asked about the Action Plan for Jobs process and sought to copy it. We should use the same process in other Departments. Housing is an ideal issue to be addressed in this way. It involves a whole-of-government and an all-party approach to which everyone can contribute. For those who do not know, the Action Plan for Jobs process involved the carrying out of 300 or 400 actions every year to create jobs. The actions were set out, names were put beside them, a budget was provided and they had to happen. That is the only way we will tackle the housing crisis and all of us here can contribute. Everyone had a chance to contribute to the Action Plan for Jobs and add to it. Committees submitted ideas which were included. Deputy David Cullinane contributed reports that were included. Everyone contributed and it could be the same in this case. Today is stage 1. I hope we can soon establish a committee to take on the problems and subsequently have a Minister to drive progress. People must accept that there has been action and that there has been change here. Money has been set aside. There is no point denying this and we must now work with it.

A blanket rent supplement increase is not going to work. I have seen it. I come from an area of County Meath in which it is needed, but it will not achieve the result people believe it will. The case-by-case approach being taken is working, but many people do not know that it is available. As always, Deputies have a job to do to get the word out that if a person is receipt of rent supplement and under pressure to pay an increased rent, he or she should come and talk to the authorities to see if a change can be negotiated before it is too late. Some people have left their houses before coming to us, which is too late. We need to get the word out.

We also need to take a serious look at the system of social housing delivery. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has started a new pilot scheme which is similar to the one we have in education which involves a devolved grant. It allows local authorities to take a pot of money to deliver houses under a certain level. The pilot scheme should be enhanced and rolled out to a greater extent as it will help to drive and fast-track the delivery of housing. It should not take 18 to 24 months from the Department signing off on an amount of money for it to be spent. We need to find ways to fast-track the process.

These are some ideas. Everybody has ideas and the next process involves a committee to implement them. Deputies should note that the election is over and that it is now time work on what we can. It will only happen if there is a cross-party approach.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

There is a building crisis. All of us who have been elected to the 32nd Dáil must work together to see what we can do for those who need housing. To put matters in perspective, I note that birds have nests for their chicks, foxes have dens for their cubs and rabbits have burrows for their young and so forth. Families - parents - need warm, safe homes for their children. Whether it is to provide social housing or help people who are trying to build houses for themselves, we must do our best to ensure that happens.

A number of factors are militating against house building. Builders cannot access funding from banks. They will not provide it, even though they are owned, by and large, by the State.

If builders get funding from other financial houses, interest of 12% is demanded of them. They cannot work like that. They tell me that their margins would be as low as 2%. To build a house in Kerry, the average cost is approximately €220,000. This means that a builder would only get €4,000 or €5,000 after taking all of the risk. He or she would have to pay tax out of that. It would not work.

I know of a young man who wants to borrow €100,000 to build a house on his farm but the bank will only give him €180,000. He can do much of the work himself and fix the house up enough to have a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom as a start for himself and his wife. That is all he wants to do but if the bank keeps insisting that he must borrow €180,000, he does not have the income to ensure that he gets the mortgage. Issues such as this need to be addressed.

Many middle-income earners cannot get mortgages. If they do, they must pay €80,000 of the €220,000 in taxes, including VAT. This amount must be paid for throughout their mortgages, be they for 20, 25 or 30 years. There is also approximately €15,000 in development levies. Working together, the Government and local authorities must do something to address these issues.

The Minister needs to be more accurate in his language than when he announced €62.5 million for housing in the likes of Kerry in 2014. In 2013, €1.3 million was supposed to be made available for housing. After inquiring to see what had gone wrong, we found out that, although an announcement had been made, there were four stages of approval to go through before any house could be built. In Kerry, three local authority houses have been built in the past eight years. As to the four stages of approval, a design must first be sent to the Department for its agreement, which takes three or four months. The next stage involves design changes, which take three or four more months. The council's costings are then sent but the Department might not agree with them. One can never determine the cost until a project is put out to tender. People ask us where the €62.5 million has gone but it was never there. We have been held up in red tape because the Department insists on unreasonable requirements.

Some of the schemes, for example, the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, and long-term leasing, are not working because the caps are too low. In Killarney town where houses are like gold dust, rent has increased to €900 but the cap is somewhere around €600. People fear that they will be out on their ears because rents are increasing. This is a fact. We need to address the caps. If the Minister does not, many more people will become homeless in Kerry.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle, as I know that my time is up.

5:35 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Deputy. Is Deputy Lawless sharing time with Deputy Jack Chambers or is he on his own?

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am on my own. In my first contribution in the House and as a fellow Kildare man, I congratulate the Ceann Comhairle on his role.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Thank you.

Photo of James LawlessJames Lawless (Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I commend him on the diligence and professionalism he has displayed in office and I wish him well in his role.

A number of factors contribute to the housing crisis: purchase and rental affordability; availability; the backlog in social housing; and the lack of private home construction and supply across the board, which are functions of affordability. As a councillor until three weeks ago when I entered the Dáil, the single greatest issue being raised at my clinics on a daily basis was housing. People attended my clinics in a variety of situations but all had the common challenge of lacking a

home or roof over their heads. Unfortunately, the only response that I could reasonably provide was that there was no supply, light at the end of the tunnel or stock to be allocated. Housing lists have extended from five years to six, seven or many more years. In some cases, we were fortunate enough to be able to assist a family in getting what was essentially a lucky break but a lucky break is not good enough for what is a basic requirement, namely, providing a family with a home. The majority of families in that situation do not get that lucky break. Indeed, they are sent back from clinics and the housing departments of local authorities to conditions in which they face homelessness or are on the verge of homelessness, staying with their families in overcrowded accommodation and sleeping on mattresses on kitchen floors in a form of hidden homelessness that is not reported in the statistics or on any planning radar. This is not good enough.

The housing assistance payment, HAP, and RAS are relatively useful in this situation but they have their difficulties, primarily because rents have soared to the extent that the RAS, in particular, does not cover anywhere near the full rent. Under-the-counter cash payments are being taken by landlords on top of RAS, leaving families bereft and living on the bread line. In my constituency of Kildare North in the commuter belt, rents are typically 30% to 40% higher than is covered by rent allowance.

A problem with HAP is that once a family has been accepted onto the scheme, it is deemed to have had its housing need met. This means that, at the stroke of a pen, the family is struck off the housing list after years of waiting and is effectively back to square one. This precludes many from taking up the option.

In County Kildare, 6,600 households are on the social housing list, comprising 19,000 individuals, making it the third largest waiting list in the country after the cities of Dublin and Cork. While there has been ongoing discussion on councils of money to be allocated from central government, it has not arrived. In fact, the number of social housing units completed in 2014 was just three per local authority. In 2015 and despite the alleged money coming through, only 28 social units were built by local authorities.

There is a significant problem with vacant and derelict properties across the State but this also presents an opportunity. The power under derelict sites legislation to sanction the owners of derelict properties and, in some cases, seize possession of those properties is only rarely exercised by the State. There appears to be a systemic reluctance to do so but vacant and derelict properties would present an opportunity to provide accommodation were the State only to intervene more proactively.

Commercial properties also present an opportunity. Many retail sector and high street buildings traditionally contained accommodation over their shops. This practice has declined in recent years but I call on the acting Government to examine concessions, perhaps by way of rates, to encourage retail outlets to create over-the-shop accommodation as well as in other fit parts of their properties. This would also provide a stimulus to the high street economy of our small towns and villages.

I will touch briefly on private market supply. There has been a major contraction in construction in the past five years and its costs have increased due to regulatory overheads. Before any construction cost is factored in, the regulatory cost of house building is €40,000 per unit more than it was previously.

Younger families, first-time buyers and expanding families have a particular difficulty with affordability in the private sector. Central Bank rules are forcing more households to remain in unaffordable rented accommodation, thereby reducing supply in the rental market and driving up rents while making no contribution to the goal of home ownership. Fianna Fáil is advocating a first-time buyers saving scheme with a 25% top-up to enable individuals to move towards deposits. It must be acknowledged that many couples and young families are paying significant rents while attempting to save for deposits and yet these factors are not always taken into account by banking rules.

I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to contribute on this debate and I hope that these solutions are considered in a constructive fashion.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The housing supply crisis that we are experiencing is the last blow-back from the economic crash.

It is often the sector that causes the crash that is the last to recover. Ultimately, the issues we face are manifest but very simple. An insufficient number of houses and apartments are being built. Last week’s ESRI report confirms that but that is not to say we are not making progress on these issues, particularly in areas for which the State has direct responsibility. We are tackling the rough sleeping problem and have recommenced social housing construction for the first time in many years.

There is a tendency to conflate various aspects of the housing issue. It is worthwhile separating them so we can focus and act on each to determine what we are doing about them. While the root cause of many of our problems is the lack of construction, it has different manifestations, each with its own complexities. Rough sleeping is the most tragic and visible manifestation of homelessness. When homelessness is mentioned, people’s minds often turn automatically to the issue of rough sleepers. During the election campaign, I recall seeing an RTE programme on emergency accommodation but which featured rough sleepers. This thinking was also evident in The Irish Times. Homelessness and rough sleeping are not the same thing. This is a complex issue, as the death of five rough sleepers in Northern Ireland so far this year makes clear. I do not know what Sinn Féin has to say about that. Undoubtedly, it will be somebody else’s fault and a further manifestation of a different attitude north and south of the Border. By contrast, the number of rough sleepers in Dublin has fallen by 46% in 12 months as a result of a 32% increase in funding for that particular aspect this year. The funding increased by 56% in two years. There is now a bed available in Dublin for anyone who chooses to use it. As Deputy Finian McGrath has said, each rough sleeper has a complex and individual case, as those of us who have dealt with individual cases know full well.

The emergency accommodation problem is the most obvious manifestation of the lack of supply in the housing market. Those who might otherwise be receiving social housing via a local authority or a rent supplement scheme find themselves in emergency accommodation in hotels or other temporary accommodation that is just not suitable. Again, this problem finds its root in the financial crash.

The very first priority for this Government when the economy began to recover was to recommence a social housing programme. Two years ago, we provided €2.2 billion in the budget. The first time we had money to spend, we spent it on social housing. Social Housing Strategy 2020, published in November 2014, was the major building block of our strategy. By 2020, the aim is to provide 35,000 additional social housing units through an investment of €3.8 billion as the Minister responsible for housing said. A further 75,000 households will have their needs met by local authorities through the leasing of private rented accommodation. Over 13,000 new social housing units and social rented dwellings were delivered last year. This represents an 86% increase on unit delivery over the previous year. NAMA delivered 2,000 social housing units on top of that.

In this year’s budget, I increased the allocation for social housing by a further €125 million to €812 million, representing a 20% increase in the funding for social housing over that for the previous year. The funding provided this year will deliver a further increase in units of houses to meet social housing needs. The strategy will result in the giving of keys to 17,000 households. It will also contribute to the provision of over 5,000 new social housing units under the construction programme. In budget 2015, I announced the launch of the second phase of the Government’s PPP programme to provide for €300 million of private investment in social housing to be delivered through the PPP system and with the aim of delivering another 15,000 social housing units.

I wish to pick up the three points made in what, by and large, has been a constructive debate. Deputy Eamon Ryan referred to not enough being spent on capital generally in the past five years. We had no money and were obliged to prioritise. There was no money unless we took it from current spending, which is what the Commission wanted us to do according to reports. If we had cut social welfare, we could have had more money but that is not the choice we made.

Deputy Finian McGrath made a very valid point on there being money available from the European Investment Bank and elsewhere. It is not a question of there not being money available to borrow but of our not being able to spend it under the fiscal rules. From the sale of Bord Gáis Éireann, BGE, we have €300 million allocated for social housing but we are still looking for a vehicle allowing us to spend it on social housing within the fiscal rules. I hope there will be a consensus in the House on dealing with these challenges.

A very constructive point was made by Deputy John Curran. He referred to the absolute need to grasp one nettle, namely, the need to rebalance the constitutional rights of people who require housing with the constitutional right to own private property. That is one nettle that I hope this Dáil will tackle and put to the people.

5:45 pm

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It was quite incredible to sit here and listen to some of the contributions from the Government, including the caretaker Minister and, in particular, the Taoiseach, during the past couple of hours. The Taoiseach said, quite rightly, that there are many people, including families, living in fear. They fear not having money to pay for the mortgage or rent and they fear losing their homes and becoming homeless. However, there was no realisation whatsoever among many of the Government representatives that the reason tens of thousands of families across the State are living in fear and are in desperate need is because of the absolute failure of the outgoing Government’s housing strategy. Teachta English said we need to remain calm and that this debate should be calm. We are calm but, for heaven’s sake, can we not just build the houses that people need? That is the solution. While we can talk continually, in respect of which I have heard about Oireachtas committees and the need to set up a Department and to have more dialogue to tease through the issues, people need a roof over their heads. We need to build housing. That is the solution and there is no other. We do not have enough housing to house our citizens, including families.

Before I came into the Dáil Chamber today, I received a telephone call from a family who are currently in bed and breakfast accommodation in Waterford city. They have two children, one is three and the other is 14 months. The mother is four months pregnant and unwell. The family are sleeping in bed and breakfast accommodation. They contacted the city and county council and were told by it that the solution was to put them into hostels, whereby the father would be put into one and the mother and the two children into a different one. That is the solution that has been given to many families across this State. Yesterday at my constituency office, I dealt with 34 cases involving families in need of housing. The story from them is the same, namely, that they cannot find rental accommodation where landlords will accept rent supplement or sign up to the RAS. Despite this, they are told this is the solution. I am sure that if I am receiving this much representation, then so too are the Minister, Deputy Howlin, other members of the outgoing Government and everybody else present. That is the absolute reality facing families. Therefore, I cannot understand all this talk about reform, the setting up a Department of housing and an Oireachtas committee and engaging in more dialogue. We know what the problems and solutions are; what is lacking is political will from the outgoing Government. It must be said that this problem arose under Fianna Fáil in the first instance. The solution is to build homes.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It is lamentable that we find ourselves here again speaking about the homelessness and housing emergency. This incredibly important and urgent issue has been debated in this Chamber on many occasions. Solutions have been highlighted but, unfortunately, what was said appears to have fallen on deaf ears. The homelessness and housing emergency continues to spiral out of control and it is not just an issue relating to Dublin. According to recent reports, there are 1,012 individuals in need on Monaghan County Council’s housing waiting list. That represents a considerably greater number of people desperately waiting for months, or even years, to have somewhere they can call home. Such a huge number on a small county’s housing waiting list cannot come as a surprise to anyone, certainly not in this House, particularly when one considers that, during the lifetime of the previous Government, the local authority construction fund was cut by a colossal 80%.

In addition, the previous Government failed to tackle the issue of unaffordable rents for five years. Recent research found that rents were, on average, 9% higher in 2015 compared to 2014. In County Monaghan they increased by 7.3% in the period in question, while the increase in County Cavan was a staggering 11.4%. The litany of failures goes on. The Government must stop paying lip service to the problem and ensure appropriate action is taken.

5:55 pm

Photo of Imelda MunsterImelda Munster (Louth, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Is the Minister aware of the sheer scale and magnitude of the homelessness and housing crisis? Worse still, does he care about it? I say this for a particular reason. I am the former chairperson of Louth County Council's housing strategic policy committee which invited the Minister several times to meet it to discuss the housing crisis in the county and on each occasion he turned down our invitation. Almost 5,000 people are on the housing waiting list in County Louth. Of these, almost 2,000 are on the waiting list in Drogheda alone and many of them have been waiting for up to nine years for a house. The county has 70 acres of land zoned for social housing, on which not one house has been built. The only solution which is one that requires political will is the roll-out of a State-wide, State-funded and State-led social housing building programme.

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The previous Government, knowingly and deliberately, created and caused homelessness. I say this because the State owns Allied Irish Banks, permanent tsb and the Educational Building Society. The Minister and current caretaker Administration are allowing these financial institutions to evict people from their homes. They can stop such evictions by telling the banks to stop causing homelessness. No legislation is required to do so because the Government, through the Ministers for the Environment, Community and Local Government and Finance, could issue a simple directive to stop financial institutions from making people homeless.

The National Asset Management Agency which is owned by the State is creating homelessness by evicting people and selling residences and apartments to vulture funds that are engaging in evictions. The State could also stop this practice by issuing a simple instruction to NAMA. I reiterate that the State is deliberately creating homelessness and should stop doing so immediately.

I will refer briefly to the Tánaiste's reference to the housing assistance payment. The HAP scheme is an outrageous rip-off of tenants, most, if not all, of whom must pay differential rent to their local authority and a top-up to their landlord, which is often as much as €50 per week. The scheme should be stopped immediately.

If we are to address the homelessness and housing crisis, the Government and the new Dáil must declare a housing emergency immediately. Otherwise, we will not be able to deal with the problem. The Government should also take up the offer made by the credit unions to provide between €5 billion and €8 billion to help address the housing problem.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Anti-Austerity Alliance)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I agree with the points made by Deputy Seamus Healy. I will make several points about the scandal that recently unfolded on the Eden estate in Blackrock in Cork city where tenants in 35 apartments received letters earlier this year terminating their leases and giving notice to quit. Many of them had lived in the properties in question for years. The letters were issued by Grant Thornton, the receiver in charge of 127 apartments on the estate, which was appointed by the State-owned IBRC in November 2010. This is the latest chapter in the saga of Anglo Irish Bank and the Irish Nationwide Building Society.

KPMG has been the Government appointed liquidator of IBRC since January 2013. As instructed by the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government, the liquidator's only interest is in maximising the financial return to the State from the carcases of Anglo Irish Bank and the Irish Nationwide Building Society and it has no regard for the social impact of doing so. In this sense, it is an even more heartless and anti-social arm of the State than NAMA.

As of January 2016, IBRC had netted €2.1 billion from sales such as those envisaged on the Eden estate. This sum has not been used to address the housing crisis because most of it has been ring-fenced for distribution among IBRC's creditors which include Anglo Irish Bank subordinated bondholders. Some of the money is intended to be used for payment in full of "certain employee and pension claims prior to the date of liquidation". Does this include pension payments to former members of Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide Building Society management such as Mr. David Drumm and Mr. Michael Fingleton?

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

In the past five years the normal set-piece for me in debates such as this has been defending the position and actions of the Government in dealing with the issue under discussion. Since I am not the caretaker of anything other than perhaps my seat, I will take the opportunity to point to one or two issues that are causing difficulties with the Government's programme. In doing so I may agree with the points made by previous speakers. It is a pity the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government is not present. Perhaps the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, who is present will convey some of the points I raise to the Minister.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Of course, I will.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

People who need to access rental or social welfare assistance from the Department must be on the housing list. Some 4,500 people are on the housing list in County Meath. The housing department of Meath County Council knows that the number of families seeking homes in the county is not 4,500. However, the requirement that those seeking rental assistance be on the housing list means that approximately 40% of those on the housing list in County Meath are not looking for houses. Will someone explain the logic of having a social welfare payment linked with the provision of housing by local authorities, given the absence of a direct link between them? I accept that some of those in receipt of housing assistance want homes, but I do not see any reason a person must be on the housing list to obtain a rental assistance payment.

Government Deputies defended the roll-out of the housing strategy last year and pointed to the allocation of €180 million. I note that Deputy Michael Healy-Rae announced that County Kerry had secured €62 million for housing. County Meath secured only €24 million, of which not a single cent has been spent. The four-stage process means that an application to build 76 houses that was approved last March is only now reaching the planning application and advertising process. Not one sod has been turned on the project and no contracts have been awarded. Only now, 13 months after the process started, is a planning application being submitted for the 76 houses, the reason being the four-stage approach to housing developments. It is frustrating that six months has been spent arguing with the Department about whether a central heating system or a back boiler will be installed in the new houses. For God's sake, is there no standard model in place? Such models were applied in the 1970s and 1980s and new models should be introduced for typical three and four bedroom semi-detached homes for particular types of family. The Department should pre-approve such models based on standard sizes, the use of square windows and the installation of a back boiler. Let us just build these houses.

While the single-stage process developed in the Department represents a good initiative, for some strange reason, it takes two steps forward and three backwards. Why develop a new initiative and then tie the hands of local authorities by applying a maximum expenditure limit of €2 million?

We are doing precisely that by putting in place the maximum requirement of €2 million. Then in the case of any money over-spent by the authorities, it is up to them to find a solution. Departments and local authorities do not actively plan to over-spend. However, we have actually put a hindrance in front of them already by instructing them not to do this. It is as if there is a big neon sign stating that they should not go near this because if they make a mistake or if something goes overboard, then they will have to find the money and the Department will not bail them out.

Either we are in this crisis or emergency together and we are willing to pull together to build the houses which, the Members of the Opposition have rightly pointed out, we need, or we are not. Can we please take away the roadblocks that exist in the housing strategy? The strategy could work if it was simply allowed to work. Everyone in the Chamber today wants to build houses. The programme exists but there are some obvious reasons it is not working. Caretaker or no caretaker, can we get our act together and start doing it now please?

6:05 pm

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

As this is my first opportunity to speak in this august Chamber, I wish to make note of the appreciation I have for the people who invested their trust and votes in me. I had been looking forward to the opportunity to wish the Ceann Comhairle, Deputy Seán Ó Feargháil, well. He is my constituency colleague and I was going to assure him that the constituency of Kildare South is in safe hands. However, I wish the Acting Chairman from Kildare North well.

Social stability is built from several basics, among which none is more important than having a roof over one's head. The housing crisis that has spiralled out of control in the past five years has many victims. First among these are the people who are homeless or who about to become homeless as a result of evictions, including 1,830 children, 884 families and 1,500 individuals. A total of 6,500 of these people are on the housing list in Kildare County Council and the figure is increasing by at least 100 every month. Next are those who are unable to save enough to get the 10% or 20% for a mortgage. This problem has been fuelled by high rents. For many young people starting out in life, owning a home is the first step in their future. However, under the previous Government, the dream of homeownership began slipping away from an entire generation. Under new Central Bank rules, more and more people are being frozen out of the credit market and are unable to get a mortgage to buy somewhere to truly call home. Of course, those parents who worry about whether their children will be able to find a home in their locality or community are victims as well. The previous Government did absolutely nothing to help first-time buyers who want to settle down in their home communities. Under the Government, the number of homes being built slipped to below 10,000 per year, although 25,000 per year are needed.

Social housing construction has disappeared from 15,000 per year between 2007 and 2010 to 1,500 in the past four years. This is leading to soaring rents, putting even more pressure on young people struggling to save up for a deposit.

My party believes in home ownership. Owning a home is good for families, individuals and communities. It is imperative to introduce a new first-time buyer savings scheme to help young couples save for a deposit by topping up their savings account by 25%. The average tax component of a new house purchase is 40%. We need to address the high taxation on starter homes. It is essential to call on the Central Bank to include rent in the calculations to help these young people - indeed some are not so young - trying to make ends meet while saving towards a home. We will not allow home ownership to become the sole preserve of the few. Every hard-working individual and family deserve a chance to buy their own place and make a home. The current Government is happy to let that dream fade away for most people. Communities and families will suffer from that uncertainty.

The housing crisis is one of the biggest crises to face the State in recent history. We need a Government that understands the major consequences of homelessness for families and society. However, the current housing policy being pursued by the outgoing Government is not treating this crisis with the level of emergency or priority it requires. While the number of families becoming newly homeless is at record levels, more urgent and bolder actions are needed to keep families in their homes and provide secure accommodation to families who have already lost their homes. Like all Deputies in this Chamber, I am dealing with families on a day-to-day basis who are losing their homes through no fault of their own. These people have absolutely nowhere to turn. This morning in Newbridge I was dealing with a mother who has eight children. They have lost their home and the children are being farmed out to different families. Their mother is in a house on her own, apart from them. That is absolutely no way for a family to be in this day and age. I am also dealing with another family. When times were good they decided to buy out their local authority house. Unfortunately, when times became worse the banks moved in. The banks are now taking that house are unwilling to do a deal with the local authority to buy it. Again, this case involves a mother and seven children. Under severe stress, her relationship with her partner broke up. She is left in this very difficult situation. Furthermore, her eldest daughter, who has two small children, lost her home and has had to come back to the family home. Now there are 13 adults living in a home and they are going to be made homeless.

We need a national building programme in which all primary stakeholders, including the Department, local authorities and the voluntary co-operative housing bodies, are given the resources and mandate to fast-track social home construction. They should be held to account if they do not succeed. We also need to consider providing for situations whereby the tenants of co-operative housing are allowed to buy their own homes. There is a stalemate situation at the moment. If they have the resources, the money should go into financing the transaction.

Photo of Peter FitzpatrickPeter Fitzpatrick (Louth, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the opportunity to speak today on the issue of homelessness and housing. There is no doubt that this issue is one of the greatest challenges facing not only the Government but society as a whole.

There is no quick-fix solution. I strongly believe that this issue should not be used as a political football simply to score political points. We all need to work together to find a solution that will not only provide a short-term solution but also prove to be a long-term sustainable answer. It is clear that we now need a strategy to increase the supply of quality housing for a population that is increasing and an economy that is growing faster than any other in Europe.

I agree that it is simply not acceptable in 2016 to have families in emergency accommodation. A proper solution to the housing issue needs to be found and it must include home ownership, sustainable construction, social and affordable housing, protection for renters and addressing homelessness.

We also need to work more closely with people in local authorities who are at the coal-face dealing with these issues. This week I met Denis McArdle, a full-time housing officer in Louth County Council. He gave me an update on the current state of affairs in County Louth. In County Louth, the Simon Community has a total of 25 beds available, of which the council has an allocation of 14. The Gatehouse has a total of seven beds while Drogheda Homeless Aid has a capacity of 30 beds, of which eight are allocated to Louth County Council. In addition to these facilities, the council also has exclusive use of three bed and breakfast houses in Dundalk and five in Drogheda. I note that 12 new units are due to come on stream in the Linen Hall Street area of Dundalk soon. This is welcome news.

Louth County Council is one of the few authorities which has a 24-hour contact number for people at risk of homelessness. Officially, Louth does not have any people sleeping rough or homeless. I believe this is a result of the measures already mentioned and the good work of people like Denis McArdle and Joe McGuinness, the current director of services in Louth County Council. Denis McArdle and Joe McGuinness deal head-on with housing problems and homelessness on a daily basis. It is clear to me from speaking with such people that a workable and sustainable solution can be found if we work together. For example, a short-term temporary solution could be to use private accommodation to replace the expensive bed and breakfast accommodation and hotels. Not only would this prove a more cost-effective solution, it would also provide a better living standard for the families involved. It is estimated that this measure alone could save approximately €2,750 per family per month. Another measure worth investigating is a system whereby families could be encouraged or incentivised to rehouse family members who have found themselves in the unfortunate position of being homeless.

I imagine Members from all sides of the House will have further ideas on housing issues and I would welcome an opportunity to discuss them if it means we can improve the situation and improve the lives of our constituents. It is incumbent on us to act now. I know many people will highlight the problems in today's debate but that is not what we need.

We need work together to find solutions. Solutions to the housing crisis can only be solutions if they prevent homelessness, eliminate the need to sleep rough, eliminate the need for long-term occupation of emergency accommodation, provide long-term housing solutions and ensure effective services.

I know from working with my party colleagues that Fine Gael has a sustainable solution which would provide long-term answers. This includes the delivery of 110,000 social houses by 2020, working with housing associations to provide a low-cost rental option for low-income families, increasing tax relief for landlords who accept rent supplement and HAP tenants, the protection of renters, the introduction of a positive retention scheme to operate by 2017, an increase in the relevant notice period for compliant tenants in the event of rent increases or lease terminations, streamlining the powers of the Private Residential Tenancy Board and supporting the concept of home ownership through the tenant purchase scheme for social housing tenants.

It is critical that we do not make the same mistakes as the last Fianna Fáil Government when it comes to creating a sustainable construction industry. The people of this country have already paid a very high price for the mistakes and the boom-and-bust policies it pursued. To create a sustainable construction industry which will provide the necessary housing, Fine Gael proposes the following: annual housing output at sustainable levels of 25,000 by 2021; improving the availability of finance for new home construction with a €500 million joint venture to finance the building of 11,000 new homes through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund; tackling the holding of land by developers by introducing a vacant site levy on serviced land in urban areas; streamlining the local planning process with "use it or lose it" planning permission; and amending the planning guidelines with respect to student accommodation to support the construction of on-campus or near-campus purpose-built student accommodation.

I would like to put on the record of the House my support for any measures that would improve the housing and homelessness issues, no matter from what side of the House they come. We must all work together to tackle these issues and, once and for all, eradicate housing issues and homelessness from Irish society.

6:15 pm

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Like a previous speaker, I want to take this opportunity, in my first contribution to the Dáil, to express my thanks to my constituents in Dublin South-West for electing me as their Deputy and putting their faith in me.

I would like to focus on certain issues. I have followed the debate. Many issues have been raised, and in the brief time allocated to me I would like to share some of my thoughts. I am thinking of some of the people who voted for me and whom I met during the campaign. A younger generation than me - namely, those aged 25 to 30 - would in previous times have left home and struck out for a final piece of independence by renting a place of their own. They cannot afford to do that now and there are obvious societal impacts. I think of those who traditionally expected to own their homes, such as public servants, white-collar workers, bank officials, nurses, teachers and gardaí. There is an emerging generation of people who can no longer aspire to that, something of which we have to be very mindful.

I think of those who sleep rough at home in overcrowded houses, bedding down on a sofa every evening, perhaps because they could not afford to pay the rent for previous homes and had to return to their family homes. I think of those in hostels, who are separated from partners, and those who spend their days keeping warm in hospitals, shopping malls and public libraries, to name just a few. I think of those on the housing list, as mentioned by previous speakers, for what seems like an eternity.

I think in particular, but not exclusively, of some separated people who have lost their homes, perhaps as a result of separation, and whose access to their children is, as a consequence, far from ideal. They often have to bring their children to their parents' homes during visiting periods. I think of families living in hotel rooms without an address to speak of, who are considered to have been accommodated by local authorities.

I know of a couple who have paid close to €150,000 in rent over the past 15 years. They have fine secure jobs, but earn too much to avail of a council mortgage and not enough to avail of a bank mortgage. They have no capacity to save for a deposit, but have demonstrated a capacity to meet their rental commitments over a decade or more. I refer to them because their landlord, as is his or her entitlement, now wants to sell the house in which they live. There is nowhere for them to rent. Their children have been in local schools for the past number of years and, as a family, they have set down roots in their local community.

I think of the mental and psychological toll on families living in hotel rooms. There is a lack of personal, developmental and creative space and a lack of privacy or opportunity for private time. The psychological cost of the housing and homelessness crisis has never been fully counted, but I am convinced that it is a cost we will be paying for decades. The focus has been on building, which is correct, but we also need to focus on the need for proper interventions to be put in place for families and staff working behind counters who deal with these issues on a day-to-day basis and for whom it is also a very stressful occupation.

The outgoing Government lost the confidence of the people when it came to housing and homelessness, particularly in regard to the rental market and the provision of social housing. My constituency, Dublin South-West, is administered by South Dublin County Council. No social houses were built in 2014 and 2015. It is likely to be the second half of 2016 before any social houses are constructed. In this new fragmented Dáil, everyone elected must play his or her part in contributing to an end to the housing crisis. It is not good enough for people to sit on the ditch and pontificate but not participate. I do not think the electorate will easily forgive those who work in their interest alone and not in the national interest.

Fianna Fáil put forward two key points in its manifesto, among a wide range of proposals. One was to restore Part V of the Planning and Development Act 2000 in full and, in addition, put in place dedicated Part V teams in local authorities to ensure the scheme can be run.

I again refer to the couple I mentioned. One of the platforms of our manifesto was that if an individual can demonstrate that he or she has met rental payments over a period of time - in 65% of rent cases, rent payments are more expensive than mortgage repayments - that should be evidence that one is capable of repaying a mortgage.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Deputies Gerry Adams and Louise O'Reilly are sharing time.

Photo of Gerry AdamsGerry Adams (Louth, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the opportunity to make a statement on housing today, although, as I said earlier, I am disappointed that this is as close as the Dáil will get to debating very topical issues at this time. The responsibility for this and the contrived impasse in the formation of a Government lies with the two conservative parties in the House.

Those in need of housing, in emergency accommodation, on hospital trolleys or on unacceptable waiting lists for operations are still in a precarious situation, and that is the legacy of the Government. The emergency crisis is a direct result of Government policy. Time and time again during the last Dáil, Sinn Féin and others warned the Government of the growing housing crisis. Today, families from Tyrrelstown protested at Leinster House. They have been forced into homelessness by the stroke of a pen from a vulture fund, yet the Government is doing nothing. Today's statements on housing and homelessness will not help a single one of the families in need. What they need are homes.

Sinn Féin has set out its stall. It is possible to deliver security and certainty for tenants and to support homeowners and buyers. It is possible to stop the profiteering of banks at the cost of mortgage holders. It is possible to ensure that a minimum of 4,000 of NAMA's 20,000 private homes are used for social housing.

Most of all, it is possible to invest an additional €2.2 billion in housing to provide 36,500 new homes over the next five years. This Government decided otherwise. It decided it was better to give the money to the banks and to the golden circles.

Last year, five new council homes were built by Louth County Council. In 2014, four were built yet there are 5,000 people on the housing list. At the rate houses are being built it will take over 1,000 years to clear the housing list. That is an indictment of this Government and of past Governments. As the centenary of the 1916 Rising approaches, that is the scale of work required to tackle this emergency.

I commend the credit union initiative in offering €8 billion for investment in social and affordable housing, yet the Government has not agreed to it. The Minister might give an explanation as to the reason for that. The answer from my point of view is simple: the Government does not believe that citizens in this centenary year of the Rising have the right to a home.

6:25 pm

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

That is not true.

Photo of Gerry AdamsGerry Adams (Louth, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

This party believes that everyone has the right to a home. We are saying clearly that our plan is about ensuring that this right is realised. The Minister knows that he took the wrong decisions. If he and the Government had taken the right decisions it would have brought this crisis to an end.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

There are 9,000 people on the housing list in Fingal, 225 of whom are families. Some 185 of those families will sleep in emergency accommodation tonight.

I have been contacted by a young mother from Swords who has two children with special needs, one of whom has a service dog. That woman had to fight tooth and nail to get a service dog for her poor child. She is facing eviction in May and has nowhere to go. There is nowhere for her to rent and there is no emergency accommodation that will take her, her children and this vital service dog. This is Ireland in 2016, and it is not right.

I extend my support to the campaign spearheaded by Councillor Paul Donnelly in Tyrrelstown. While we welcome the news from the developer that there will be no evictions until the tenants have found alternative accommodation, we see now a shrinking rental sector with more tenants coming on stream. Those people will be competing now for accommodation with the young mother and her two children with special needs.

We have a caretaker Government and we need strong legislation to prevent more situations arising such as the one in Tyrrelstown. We cannot rely on the goodwill of so-called vulture capitalists. There are potentially tens of thousands of people in the same situation as the people in Tyrrelstown, and that will continue until we have the legislation in place to deal with it. It is not good enough for the Minister in charge to simply do nothing.

The heavy reliance of this caretaker Government on the private rental sector and the increase in rents, coupled with the decrease in rent allowance, has led to a sharp increase, especially in the towns of Balbriggan and Swords, in the number of families no longer able to bridge the gap between rent allowance and the rising cost of rents, so they find themselves at the mercy of the housing department in Fingal County Council. That situation continues in Fingal and throughout the country. We need action, not just debates. We do not need a trip to the twilight zone courtesy of the Tánaiste speaking as if there was no crisis. In the real world, not the twilight zone where the caretaker Government lives, there is a very real crisis.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

This is a very important debate in which I will make a few salient points. As Members of the House all of us, regardless of our political parties, have been approached by people who are in severe difficulties in terms of housing accommodation. One of the key issues we must address is where there are properties for rent, and where there are properties for rent in some parts of our country, and certainly in County Louth, we should relax the rent cap on the families that would like to move into those properties. Specifically, we should target families currently in bed and breakfast accommodation. We could be paying €800 or €1,000 per week for families in bed and breakfast accommodation but why do we not increase the cap for families in such accommodation to allow them go into a rented house, which would cost between €1,000 and €1,200 per month? That is a rent per month versus a bed and breakfast cost per week. That is a simple sum we can all do, and we should do it right now.

The second action we must do is look again at the room to rent scheme. Currently, a person living alone who has a room to rent can rent it to relations but not to a family member. The rent is paid for that. The person can get that income and if they are on certain basic social welfare benefits it does not affect that income.

We need to think outside the box. If we are spending €452 million per year on rent subsidies and other ways of supporting families, why do we not relax the rules for the room to rent scheme and include, first, where couples are living in such accommodation and second, ensure that where people are on benefits other than basic social welfare benefits, the income they get would not be counted against their tax liability.

We should look again at the question of family members. If there is space in the family home, in theory the family member could move back in. They are currently excluded from that. I do not understand why we should not consider that as an option and see what happens.

Another basic point is that there are shops and other businesses in the centre of our towns and cities which have all the services including sewage, water and lighting, yet nobody is living over those shops. Those of us who have an interest in history and read the 1911 census will know that in our town centres hundreds of people were living in those accommodation areas at that time. There is nobody living in them now. We should consider introducing a new exceptional scheme for town centres and designate those areas to allow for the people who own those properties to be either grant-aided or write off the cost of bringing up that accommodation to a liveable condition. Alternatively, the income they would get from such properties could be tax free for a period of time. Living over a shop would not suit everybody and it certainly does not suit families with young children but it would suit a significant number of people.

A category not often mentioned is the single male who generally comes to my clinic who is separated and has been living in appalling accommodation, perhaps shared accommodation in some cases, with other people who are single in terms of their living conditions. Many of them are in their 40s and 50s; some of them are in their 60s. Some of them have other problems also. Other Members mentioned drug and alcohol problems, which is a significant issue in our community.

There is also the question of those with mental health issues. I have people who suffer from significant mental health issues come to my clinic who cannot get accommodation. They are living difficult and stressful lives. If we look at those areas we would be able to facilitate that category of person in terms of providing accommodation.

We must think outside the box. This debate is an example of us all working together to get the best ideas from all sides of the House to ensure that the families and individuals we want to help most can be helped. We should break all the rules because it does not make sense to be spending a fortune on accommodation in bed and breakfast facilities and hotels when for less than the money we pay for that family in a month they would have a house with two or three bedrooms.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I, too, am delighted to speak in this debate but as many previous speakers stated, and I compliment the new Members on their maiden speeches, it is a time-wasting exercise because it will not rehouse any person who is not already housed.

I am glad the caretaker Minister is in the Chamber. If he built anything near the number of houses he promised, announced and turned sods, the housing crisis, certainly in some parts of the country, would be halved.

It was all announcements and no action. That is what happened with the previous Government. It was about spin and everything else, but it forgot about the people. Fr. Peter McVerry, for whom many people have great respect, stated recently that from January to October 2015 the number of families in emergency accommodation rose from 401 to 774. This is an increase of 93%. Where are we going? This was last year, when we were here rubbing our hands and the Minister was making announcements all over the place and turning sods and God knows what. During the same time period, the number of children in those families in emergency care rose from 865 to 1,638, which was an increase of 90%. In 2016, when we have all the hoo-hurrah commemorating what went on in 1916, we allowed this to happen under the watch of the previous Government. The people have spoken and have dealt with this.

I listened to the caretaker Minister, Deputy Howlin, who was one of the management team who did not have money for this or for that. He and the Minister, Deputy Michael Noonan, should have called in the banks and told them in some way to stop the cruelty, repossession, torture and terror. People got rich through expelling people from their homes, terrorising them in their homes and evictions. They are the vulture companies which exploited the entire situation, the repossession companies, the county registrars and county sheriffs. It is disgusting behaviour and this industry has become very lucrative with those involved resorting to all types of tactics. I attended some of the scenes myself. They employed force, with balaclavas and dogs crawling across fields to terrorise widow women and other people. This went on under the previous Government's watch and is still going on. It is going on now, which is why it is so important to have a Government soon because there is a free for all with no one to stop them or say anything to them. It has become a very lucrative business and industry. I call it blood money because it is nothing short of it. It is disgusting and depraved activity, preying on ordinary people who housed themselves and who might have invested a few bob in their businesses. Some of them had their homes paid for and mortgage dealt with, but remortgaged a small amount to keep a business afloat in challenging times. This is the thanks they are getting from the banks which the country bailed out and for which the people are paying. We must rein in the banks and NAMA. Whatever new Government is there must deal with this, otherwise it will be banished as well.

I agree wholeheartedly with the former Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd. Town centres are dying. On O'Connell Street in Clonmel three families live above their business premises. I would go one step further in the regeneration scheme Deputy O'Dowd mentioned. Make town centres alive again with people living in them, and encourage people who have shops closed five or ten years to reconvert them to living accommodation without huge punitive charges. We would gain two things. We would have accommodation for some of the people mentioned, including families and single people, and we would regenerate town centres. It is not rocket science. The voluntary housing sector has a huge role to play. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government had a dedicated section to deal with it, but An Bord Snip decided to get rid of it. It was too efficient. It was a dedicated section to deal with voluntary groups, of which I am a member. Now, one must deal with seven aspects of the Department in various towns throughout the country. It is a closed shop. We have too much talk and too much paper being passed and no houses being built.

Recently I spoke to a businessman in Clonmel who wanted to convert his failed business into apartments. He went to the bank manager with his accountant but was told it would not be viable to do it because of the charges for the change of use, charges for parking spaces, the punitive charges by local authorities and the Government and VAT. A total of 62% of the investment would be in charges and it would not be viable so he could not get a bank loan. We need to look at these crippling situations of bureaucracy. We also need to help our local authorities. They are no longer fit for purpose to deliver housing. It is a sad indictment that in the 1950s and 1960s we could build thousands of houses every year, but last year we only had five built in County Tipperary, from where the Minister with responsibility for the environment comes. This tells us what type of a Minister he was. Never mind the rest of the country, because if he could not do it at home he could not do it anyplace else. He would rather speak about it, spin it and hype it. When all-party committees went to him he insulted half of the members with arrogance and by not listening to them. The voluntary sector can play a huge role here and we need to think outside the box and rein in the likes of Carlyle investments, which are terrorising people and causing suicides in my county and elsewhere throughout the country. We need to rein in the vile vulture funds before we do anything else.

6:35 pm

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I appreciate the opportunity to speak in the debate. There has been much talk about the serious state of the housing situation in Ireland and homelessness. I have a very simple view on this matter. This is a national emergency and anyone who thinks otherwise is only skirting around the edges. We can talk all day about all of the bits and pieces causing the problem, but until we face up to the reality that we have a national emergency on our hands we will not deal with it adequately.

A few years ago in difficult times when the economy was in a very tightened economic situation our Government and the most recent Government brought in various legislation called Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Acts. The time has now come for the same serious approach to be taken to the housing situation. We need new legislation in the form of the financial emergency measures in the public interest housing Bill 2016. This is what is necessary and anything less is not adequate.

We can talk about all the various issues and I will put very simply some of the issues that must be grasped which have not been dealt with. On my way home this evening I could call to Portlaoise and meet 300 people looking for social housing, but within an hour I could identify 300 vacant houses. Before I got to Portlaoise I could stop in Monasterevin where I could identify 70 people looking for social housing and 70 vacant houses. I could call to Portarlington and identify 100 people on the housing list and at the same time identify 100 vacant houses. In some areas there is a shortage of houses, but in those parts of the country where there are vacant houses the State has failed to match them with the people who require social housing. It makes no sense in some of these areas to have people homeless when there are hundreds of vacant houses. It became very clear to me when I was canvassing last July, August and September and met so many people on the housing list and then turned a corner and saw 20 empty housing units.

There is a variety of reasons they are empty, many of which have to do with the hold the financial institutions have on the housing market. We know they are not letting people get onto the property ladder. The former Governor of the Central Bank, Professor Honohan, had proposals to make it very difficult for people to overborrow, but he did not take into account how people could put together a deposit if they are paying rent which is more than a mortgage repayment would be. It is illogical. The banks are delaying the sales of houses because they know prices are increasing. I know of houses which could have been sold last year at a €20,000 profit, but people are holding on to them for an increased profit. We need financial emergency measures in the public interest housing legislation to deal with this emergency.

Photo of Jack ChambersJack Chambers (Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Today, many residents from Tyrrelstown in my constituency of Dublin West protested outside the Dáil and sat in the Gallery. They fear they will be the next families to lose their homes. Last night, I attended a public meeting with Deputies and councillors from other parties in the constituency and canvassed many of the homes involved. The people there fear they will be the next homeless statistic.

According to the statistics, more than 1,800 families were homeless at the beginning of this year. When the children's rights referendum passed in November 2012, the Taoiseach stated it would help make childhood a good, secure and loving space for all our children. This is an incredible claim when we examine the rapidly deteriorating situation today, because homeless children are being denied a proper childhood. I have been contacted by teachers in schools throughout Dublin West, from where two out of every five homeless families come, who tell me of the devastating impact losing a family home has on a child's ability to learn and interact with other pupils.

We must increase rent supplement and end the banks' veto powers on dealing with arrears cases.

I heard the Tánaiste earlier trying to defend her stubborn approach to rent supplement. It has driven the wave of homelessness in this country over the last couple of years and she should be ashamed of her legacy in what she called the Department of Social Protection. We must ensure that NAMA, one of the biggest asset management companies in Europe, delivers more social housing to finally become part of the solution to the housing crisis. A number of options now need to be looked at in the market.

This Government allowed all the assets and distressed property loan books to be swallowed up by big fund buyers. It stopped individuals participating, not allowing any bite-sized opportunities. I see that in my own constituency, with portfolios coming up for sale that have hundreds of apartments in them, as well as big commercial assets. The tenants or housing co-operatives cannot participate and are at the mercy of the buyer, whether that is a long-term investor or whether it is just out to make a turn on a distressed book. That is not a sustainable way to run our housing policy.

These tenants, too, may get swallowed up by big funds, as is happening in Tyrrellstown. This swallowing-up approach to sales by NAMA needs to be stopped. Many of the initiatives proposed by my own party, Fianna Fáil, are eminently achievable and will undo much of the damage caused by five years of inactivity, apathy and incompetence by the outgoing Government in this area. Proper implementation of a real plan can end the wave of homelessness hitting this city and this country, so that the fear and uncertainty facing residents like those in Tyrrellstown do not become commonplace.

6:45 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I congratulate Deputy Chambers on his maiden speech. This will certainly not be Deputy Durkan’s maiden contribution in this house.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I will take this opportunity to congratulate the Ceann Comhairle on his election to that particular office. I have no doubt that he will do the job in a way that will be exemplary and I look forward to working with him.

The housing situation is exactly as has been described on all sides of the House. The problem is that everybody seems to be able to attribute it to a particular issue. I want to point out one thing: this issue did not arise in the past five years. It did not even arise in the past ten years. The housing situation we now face in this country has its origins about 19 years ago, when the Government of the day decided to shift the responsibility from the local authorities and hand it over to the private rental sector to provide housing for the people who would ordinarily be on the local authority housing list. It was deemed to be a great idea. At the same time, the notion was fed into the public arena that really Irish people should not be so preoccupied with home ownership, that we should be more continental in our approach and that the way of the future was to rent a property instead of the conventional way of building local authority houses and offering loans to people who could buy their own houses.

As the Ceann Comhairle knows, in County Kildare we have approximately 6,500 people on the list. It must be more than that, actually, because there were 6,500 people on the list five years ago. I cannot understand how they have remained that way ever since and I know they have not. We have gone away completely from the conventional methods that were proven to be helpful in dealing with the housing situation. The local authority loans are long since gone. When a person who was on a local authority housing list was eligible or below a certain income level, they could apply for a local authority loan. Young civil servants, teachers, nurses and gardaí always got local authority loans. Where are they gone now? They are finished; there are no loans available. The formula used to be two and a half times a person's income, as the Ceann Comhairle might remember.

When the shift took place 20 years ago, property prices went mad, to such an extent that nobody could buy a house anymore except by borrowing multiples of what they would be entitled to on the basis of previous criteria. It was a sad thing and it did irreparable damage. It hugely increased the price of property and created a situation where people had to pay up to 50% of their available income to pay their mortgage. That is crazy stuff. That is how we have arrived at the situation we are in now, where banks and lending agencies are moving on people. It is utterly ridiculous. The Ceann Comhairle and I have seen situations where people were awarded loans that we would not have granted them under any circumstances. It was just ridiculous. All of these people are now being forced onto the housing list; the local authority is no longer building and has not done so for a number of years.

Incidentally, I and everybody else in this House who was in the business at the time managed to rescue people who were homeless right in the middle of the boom. There were so many houses around at the time that it was possible to rejig the situation and help them out, but there plenty of people were homeless at that time and the situation has got much worse. I would agree entirely with those who say we need to focus on the housing issue in a more serious way than we have done. Remember, the money has been provided; almost €4 billion has been provided by the last Government. It is already in place and is there for drawing down by the local authorities, but it is not possible to do it in the time in which we would like to see it done.

Some kind of an emergency must be declared in order to try to introduce legislation that will bring about a rapid improvement of the situation within three to six months. If that does not happen, I can say from my experience of this business that we will see a further escalation in the homelessness situation. It does not matter what Government is in power – unless something is done to focus on that particular issue in the shortest possible time, the situation will get immeasurably worse. When it does, all of politics, and all colours and shades in this House, will suffer. For my tuppence worth in this situation, I would strongly urge that whoever is in government would recognise the need to focus immediately on introducing emergency legislation. This has been done in other countries and it was done after the Second World War. It had to be done in an emergency situation. It can be done now, it just requires us to take the matter by the scruff of the neck and introduce the necessary legislation.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

We move to Deputies Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire and John Brady. Both are making their inaugural address and are very welcome.

Photo of Donnchadh Ó LaoghaireDonnchadh Ó Laoghaire (Cork South Central, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Comhghairdeas leat, a Cheann Comhairle, faoin ról nua. Ar an gcéad dul síos, gabhaim buíochas le muintir Chorcaigh Lár Theas as an deis a thabhairt dom bheith mar ionadaí acu. Two and a half minutes is not much time by any measure, but particularly to try to do justice to many of the complaints, fears, concerns and frustrations on the issue of housing that my constituents sent me here to convey.

Rent is rising faster in Cork than in Dublin now agus feicimid go bhfuil lucht caipitil ag baint leasa as sin anois, mar shampla, in Eden sa Charraig Dubh agus in áiteanna eile go luath. There are inadequate protections for tenants, which requires urgent legislation to stop families being thrown out on our streets. The increasing numbers on our streets, sleeping rough and the utterly unacceptable number of people living in hostels, hotels and Travelodges by way of supposedly emergency accommodation is an ongoing scandal.

There are aspects of the housing crisis that are not being discussed, difficult though that may be to believe. The housing crisis does not stop at the front door. The lack of social housing is causing overcrowding on an outrageous level, with seven and eight-person households in two-bedroom flats. It is now so commonplace to have three generations under the one roof as to be unremarkable. We hear a lot about bad landlords, but the biggest landlord in Ireland is the State and it is failing. There are thousands of households living in conditions of the most brutal damp and cold. They have blackened, wet walls, rotting doors hanging from hinges, and roofs and eaves practically heaving with neglect, letting water into the house. There are houses and flats that have seen barely any significant maintenance for 30 or 40 years. Even among those who are housed, there is squalor. There is no question in my mind that this is affecting the health and well-being of thousands of families in social housing in a very serious way, particularly the elderly, the very young and those with respiratory diseases. This is a direct result of the massive cuts to funding to local government for over ten years now. Níl an Rialtas seo tar éis na ceachtanna a fhoghlaim ón stair. Tá an ghéarchéim tithíochta mar thoradh ar an easpa tithíochta sóisialta. The Government's housing policy has cut Part V to ribbons and it is over-reliant on the private rental sector to meet social housing need.

Only a substantial housing building programme will deliver a solution to our crisis and the Government's programme is a triumph of spin over substance.

6:55 pm

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Homelessness is not just a blight on those left behind by society due to substance abuse, mental illness or tragic personal loss. For years legislators have failed these people, leaving the responsibility of care in the hands of hard-pressed volunteer organisations whose resources were cut in the fire storm of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour austerity.

Today homelessness affects thousands of children and their parents, many of whom are in full-time employment but have been forced onto the streets due to the spiralling uncontrolled rents and a catalogue of pitiful policy failures. One hundred years on from the Easter Rising of 1916, there are nearly 6,000 people in emergency accommodation of whom 1,830 of them are children. In my own constituency of Wicklow-East Carlow, 146 families, including 240 children, presented as homeless in 2015. This is certainly not the republic envisaged by the men and women of 1916.

In the Circuit Court in Wicklow, yesterday 68 families faced eviction from their homes by financial institutions that we bailed out to the tune of €64 million, and in some cases we actually own. They feel helpless in the hands of a system that treats them as no more than a statistic, a system which sees them as an inconvenience and an embarrassing reminder of the incompetence of a Government which put banks, financiers, developers and corporations ahead of the people they are sworn to represent. The situation in which these families and thousands more like them across the country find themselves is a direct and shocking consequence of Government ignorance, Government failure and Government indifference.

All of this has been described as a national emergency, a national crisis. This is true, but let nobody be under any illusion. It is a damn shame on this House and on all those who occupied the Government benches over the past ten years. Nero fiddled while Rome burned but the Minister and his colleagues in government have gone one step further by throwing petrol on the flames.

The implementation of the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act 2013 is now facilitating the repossession of family homes forcing ever more families onto the streets. The priority of this caretaker Government and whatever new Government is put in place should be to protect the family home and stop more families becoming statistics. This can only be done by reforming the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act 2013, as was proposed by Sinn Féin in 2014.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Deputy Brady's contribution is appreciated. Deputy Broughan has five minutes.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I would like to share time with Deputy Joan Collins, if that is agreeable to the House.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Agreed.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I listened carefully today to the speeches of the Minister and the Taoiseach on housing. I note the Taoiseach talked about this new housing initiative and dramatic moves that we could take. Of course, it has to be asked why we did not end homelessness in the 31st Dáil and why we did not proceed with fairly dramatic attempts to increase the supply of social housing. That is an unanswerable question. It is related to the disastrous economic policies which were followed over the past five years by the Fine Gael-Labour Government.

I proposed a Department of housing 18 or 20 years ago because in some respects we have always had some kind of housing crisis. We have always been short of social housing, particularly in the Dublin area, especially after the Ahern-Haughey Administrations stopped the production of large-scale social housing and left us with the kind of situation which emerged from the crash of 2008 where we simply did not have the supply of housing coming forward, and we have never recovered that. The very least we need is a Department of housing.

Many Deputies referred to the most recent data from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, with 500 families and 1,600 children in this city living in hotel rooms tonight under all kinds of difficult circumstances. It is intolerable. The Minister had the chance on many occasions to simply end homelessness by taking the necessary dramatic steps which he refused to take. It is very much a Dublin-oriented situation. This House has failed the people of Dublin, particularly those who have depended on social housing, and has simply ignored the needs of this region.

I have called repeatedly, as the Minister will be aware, for us to have FEMPI-type legislation in this area. As the Ceann Comhairle will be aware, we were prepared to come in here at all hours in the 30th Dáil to introduce all kinds of legislation to shore up banks, to protect banks, to protect bottom lines, to reward bondholders, etc., all of which I opposed consistently all the way through. The Minister had the opportunity, as the Taoiseach had, to have taken similar steps in housing, but the Minister has refused to do so. The Minister could have taken over all empty NAMA properties and all hoarded building land, and made those properties available while starting an immediate large building programme.

We heard earlier today some criticism of large social housing estates in the Dublin region. It has to be said though that, generally speaking, until we had very bad architecture in the 1980s those estates worked very well. In fact, they are the backbone of my constituency. They are the homes of the people who sent me and the other four Deputies of Dublin Bay North to this House. We need to build like that again. We need, in my constituency alone, two or three parishes of social housing amounting to 10,000 or 15,000 units. We need it yesterday but, unfortunately, the outgoing Minister has not delivered in that regard.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank Deputy Broughan. He is leaving very little time for his colleague, Deputy Joan Collins, but she has the floor.

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Sorry.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

As I do not have too much time, I will cut to the chase. We know exactly the reason this debate is being held today in the Dáil. We know that the housing crisis continued under the Minister's watch although I would agree entirely that this started under the Government of Fianna Fáil. It is the result of a neoliberal politics which depended on developers to build homes and that proved unsustainable.

Everybody has been getting these e-mails from Focus Ireland, Simon and the housing and homeless campaign. They all are saying the same things they were saying a year and a half ago, that we need to call a housing emergency. That must be called today. I would like to hear the Minister say at the end of this debate that we have a national emergency, that we will bring in necessary emergency legislation on housing and that we will sit down immediately with the credit unions to talk to them about the €3 billion to €5 billion they are prepared to put into local authority housing. The Minister should not shake his head. There is €5 billion sitting there waiting to be handed to the Government to do this.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I would take it anytime.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Where there is a will there is a way. If the Minister wanted to, he would have sorted that out and that funding would have been invested in local authority housing. It is outrageous and people on the doorsteps are saying they cannot understand a Government which is facing a housing crisis will not deal with this. The Minister states he has all the money to build the housing but we have not seen local authority housing built.

We asked the Minister to bring in greater security of tenure for tenants. We have asked him to put a cap on the rents. We have asked him to sell rented accommodation with sitting tenants. We have asked him to ensure the banks bring in more mortgage-to-rent. Only 147 mortgages that are in distress have been brought into the mortgage-to-rent scheme.

This is a disaster. If there was a tsunami here a year and a half ago or three years ago, we would be looking at emergency funding being put in to rebuild society. We need our society rebuilt and an emergency needs to be called from today. I want to hear the Minister being more positive when he responds to the debate.

Photo of Brendan GriffinBrendan Griffin (Kerry, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Ar an gcéad dul síos, déanaim comhghairdeas leatsa, a Cheann Comhairle, ar do phost nua. Tá súil agam go mbeidh téarma an-mhaith agat. Tá an-áthas orm a bheith anseo arís do mo dhara théarma agus táim fíorbhuíoch le muintir Chiarraí as ucht an seans a thabhairt dom leanúint ar aghaidh le mo chuid oibre.

This is a positive discussion today as we hear from all sides of the House on how we can best tackle this issue. It is important that we would listen to each other, which is something that certainly does not happen enough in this House. Some positive suggestions were made.

I also remind Deputies that while it is all well and good to come here and throw stones at the Government for not doing enough, everybody here has an obligation, given that they have the opportunity to try to govern, have an input and do what they can for their constituents. It is not good enough for people to come to the House, criticise repeatedly and then run away and abdicate responsibility at the first opportunity to govern. I do not understand the mindset. It is letting down one's constituents. We all have a responsibility to do what we can here, to do our best, and to contribute to the Government. Those who choose not to do it should bear in mind, next time they are criticising, that they are choosing not to participate in government.

A huge number of measures must be taken to address the problem. An extension of the 9% VAT rate to residential construction activity would help, as a cog in what must be a very large wheel. In my constituency, Kerry, I have seen how much the 9% VAT rate has helped as a stimulus to labour-intensive jobs, particularly in the tourist industry. There is a major opportunity for us to apply it to construction as a stimulus to increase supply and reduce the cost of housing. It would also create much employment. It must be examined. I have been calling for it over several years, and the Department of Finance responds that it could lead to tax avoidance. However, given that it is very difficult to avoid taxation, it is not a good enough answer. There is leeway to do it, and it must be considered.

Last November, I proposed a rental renovation scheme in writing to the Department. It is similar to Deputy Fergus O'Dowd's suggestion earlier today. I will give an example. Say John's parents passed away several years ago and the house they left him is in a state of disrepair and needs an investment of €15,000 to €20,000 to bring it up to a habitable standard. Because John cannot afford to do it, and cannot get a bank loan, a housing unit is sitting idle and rotting. A family nearby is threatened with homelessness because they cannot afford their rent and the council has identified that there is a housing need in the area. John goes to the council, which confirms this, and he gets a contractor to estimate the cost of bringing the house up to a habitable standard. The council would provide grant aid to do so, on the basis that John will make the house available to the council for a certain duration in lieu of rent, after which he would receive rent for it. There are thousands of units all over rural and urban Ireland that would fit this category, including old shop units in town centres that could be converted to residential use. It would benefit the tenant, who would have secure, affordable accommodation. It would benefit the owner, given that what was a rotting house would be made habitable and, in a few years' time, would start generating rent. It would benefit the localities because what was a derelict house would look well. It would benefit builders by creating employment. It would benefit the State and local authorities, which would house people on their housing lists. The Department must examine this proposal. Perhaps it is not perfect and needs to be tweaked. There is room for such a scheme as a cog in a very large wheel of measures.

7:05 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I call Deputy Katherine Zappone. You are very welcome to the Lower House.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Dublin South West, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, and congratulations on your election. Thank you for chairing the House without fear or favour, as you promised.

Dublin South-West, like many places in Ireland, suffers from a chronic shortage of social and affordable housing. A total of 291 people are registered as homeless with South Dublin County Council, not including the 64 families living in temporary accommodation or the 81 families in hotels. While it is not always apparent in statistics, many Deputies have identified the level of hidden homelessness of those who, while they have a roof over their heads, are living in overcrowded and cramped conditions. Like other Deputies, I have met such families. I recently met a family in Tallaght who have three generations, ten people, living in a small three-bedroom home. Many families and households are forced to accommodate extended family members or friends, turning their sitting rooms into living accommodation. One constituent told me that a neighbour and her child were moving from sofa to sofa to sofa, staying with anyone who would accommodate them.

I strongly agree that we need a whole-Parliament approach and a plan to address the crisis in housing supply and family homelessness, and that we need to move swiftly towards forming a functioning Government to provide immediate medium- and long-term solutions. All of us, with the Government or as part of the Government, can come together to end family homelessness and support all our citizens in securing a home for themselves. There is no reason we cannot do it if our political will is rooted in our soul.

One of the most urgent issues we must address is the protection of tenants' rights in cases in which lenders, often banks owned by the Irish people, are repossessing buy-to-let landlords. A lack of legal clarity in this area allows unscrupulous receivers to evict tenants with only days to find another home. This growing phenomenon may account for up to half of the recent cases of family homelessness. According to Focus Ireland, such evictions have become the single largest contributor to family homelessness, and the situation must be addressed without delay. We must raise rent supplement levels in a systematic, policy-based way rather than a case-by-case basis to enable people to access housing in the private sector. Now that we have introduced the 24-month rent freeze legislation, the argument that this would raise overall rents is no longer valid.

It is equally important that we urgently address the widespread practice of landlords of rent supplement recipients demanding top-up payments from their tenants. This must be terminated by creating a more serious offence for landlords who accept top-ups, rather than penalising the rent supplement recipient, who is in a more vulnerable situation.

Other Deputies have referred to the over-reliance on the private sector for social housing. Social housing delivery is a key factor in the ongoing crisis. The commitment of successive Governments to neoliberal dogma resulted in an inability to recognise the flawed logic that the private sector would deliver a sufficient quantity of social housing. This model has, instead, produced the lowest supply when the needs for social housing are the highest. We need, instead, a reliable stream of social and affordable housing constructed with State leadership and involvement.

We need a State agency to drive solutions on housing supply. Although NAMA has been suggested for this role, it does not have the expertise and skills needed, and we need to examine other options. One of the issues a State agency should examine is the cost of building. Many other Deputies have referred to it, as did the Minister in his remarks. It has been dubbed the single biggest barrier to housing supply. If this barrier could be reduced or removed, we would be a long way down the path towards resolving the housing shortage.

The Central Bank rules will effectively cap house prices, which is a principle we must defend to avoid yet another housing bubble. However, if we cap prices, we must also consider capping the cost of building. If the balance between cost and profits is not in line, it will lead to the end of our construction industry.

We must reform the private rental sector. My last Seanad Bill was an effort to do so, and I look forward to resurrecting it in some form in order to address the terms of renting for tenants and landlords in the private sector. The recent highlighting of the actions of vulture funds demonstrates how vital it is that current landlords remain in the sector and, equally important, that more landlords enter the market, but only those who respect the rights of tenants to have security of tenure and certainty of rent in their homes.

One of the most fundamental solutions, which could cement and underpin all other solutions, is the inclusion in our Constitution of the right to housing, accommodation or shelter. While it might include a public debate on Article 43, to which the Minister referred, on the right to property, I am talking about inserting a new article rather than amending an existing one.

For a people and a nation whose culture has been shaped by the seanfhocal, that we live in one another's shelter, I think in 2016 a constitutional referendum for a right to a home would demonstrate a way to tap into our ethical fibre to solve the homelessness and shelterlessness crisis.

7:15 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am due to call the Minister, Deputy Kelly, at 7.10 p.m., but if I do so I will leave two Deputies unable to contribute to this debate. I know the Deputies in question have been here for quite some time. I propose that with the agreement of the Minister and the willingness of the House, we will continue for an extra ten minutes to accommodate every Deputy who has offered. We are taking a bit of a liberty in so doing, but I take it that the House is in agreement with the proposal. Is that agreed? Agreed. I ask the remaining speakers to stay strictly within the time limits. The next two speakers, Deputies Funchion and Quinlivan, are making their maiden contributions. They are very welcome.

Photo of Kathleen FunchionKathleen Funchion (Carlow-Kilkenny, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am glad to get an opportunity to speak on such an important issue for the constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny. I was first elected to local government in 2009. In my time in local and national politics, housing has been one of the single biggest issues facing my constituency. It is not surprising that there is a housing crisis, given that little social housing has been constructed in recent years and that those in mortgage distress have been abandoned by the Government and its predecessors. Some 26 social houses have been constructed in Kilkenny since 2009 even though there are 2,800 people on the housing list in the county. The three emergency accommodation facilities in the county are all full at present and have waiting lists. These statistics do not take account of the number of families sleeping in overcrowded situations on sitting room floors or in unsuitable accommodation. There is just one emergency facility in Carlow. It is a facility for men. There is no emergency accommodation facility for women.

Many Deputies have offered stories of people who are facing eviction or are living in bed and breakfasts or hotels. We have to remember that real people, who are living with the daily realities of life in hotel rooms with their children, are behind all the stories we hear. I do not think we should forget that these people did not envisage this type of life for them and their families. They are living with a sense of hopelessness as they wonder how this has become the reality of their lives in 2016. It is clear that people have been failed miserably by the Government. Anyone in these circumstances who is listening to this debate is looking for solutions and answers. There is a responsibility on us to provide them. When Sinn Féin published its proposals regarding the housing and homelessness crisis last week, it emphasised the need for long-term and short-term approaches to it. One does not need much commonsense to realise that we need to start building social housing as part of a long-term approach. We also need to come up with short-term solutions to assist those who are dealing with the realities of bed and breakfast and hotel environments. Last week, my party made the case for a complete overhaul of the rent supplement scheme in conjunction with rent regulation measures. I will conclude by emphasising that coming up with constructive solutions and ensuring they are implemented should be a key element of a debate such as this one. Such an approach would offer real hope to families that are facing into another night in hotels and bed and breakfasts.

Photo of Maurice QuinlivanMaurice Quinlivan (Limerick City, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It would be remiss of me to speak without congratulating my local GAA team, Na Piarsaigh, on its recent victory in the all-Ireland senior club hurling final. I have to mention that Na Piarsaigh is the first Limerick team to achieve such a victory.

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

That needs to be recorded.

Photo of Maurice QuinlivanMaurice Quinlivan (Limerick City, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

As a newly elected Deputy, I regret that today's discussion on housing and homelessness will not lead to any action. Nobody who is homeless tonight will get a house on foot of what we have been doing in this House today. I agree with Deputy O'Brien's suggestion that the Dáil should sit for three days this week, but that is not happening, unfortunately.

The Moyross area of my constituency of Limerick City was once distinguished for having some of the finest public housing in the State in terms of design, comfort and overall quality. The neighbouring area of Ballynanty, where I was born and raised, was another area well known for good housing and a strong sense of community. Unfortunately, many of the houses in Moyross have been demolished as part of the so-called Limerick regeneration programme. Incidentally, and by way of tragic irony, this programme has been responsible for the demolition of many more houses than it has built. I cite these examples as testimony of the fact that in much poorer times, this State was able to provide houses and homes for most of its citizens. In years gone by, the State had a clear policy of providing public housing. The rate of homelessness in this State is truly appalling. We know many of those affected by this crisis because we grew up with them or went to school with them. Some of them are friends of ours. The failure of the State to provide adequate housing for its people has been accompanied by a failure to resource homelessness services properly. As a result, more and more people are living on our streets or wherever they can find shelter. All of this is happening in a supposedly modern and civilised European democracy.

The dire situation around housing and homelessness must be one of the major priorities of this Dáil and any incoming Government. The need to begin building houses on a scale that is adequate to meet the crisis that exists is of crucial importance. My party has published properly researched and costed proposals to deal with this crisis. Our policy could deliver 100,000 new social and affordable houses, deliver security and certainty for tenants and support home owners and buyers. All of us should be open to serious suggestions on how to deal with this crisis. In this context, I believe the recent offer made by the Irish League of Credit Unions to establish a housing fund of more than €5 billion is worthy of serious consideration. There has been an over-reliance on the private sector to provide housing on the scale needed. This has resulted in the State almost retiring from the direct provision of housing. This ideologically-driven approach has proved disastrous. It has failed to provide the required amount of housing and has driven up prices in the private rental sector to an extent that leaves many people unable to avail of this option. The housing and homelessness crisis is nothing short of a national scandal. If we fail to tackle it as public representatives, and if the current charade of political posturing for short-term gain continues, we will do a grave disservice to those who have placed their trust in us.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I will try to keep my contribution as close to five minutes as I can. I welcome most of the speeches I have heard so far in this evening's debate. I have tried to follow as much of it as possible. There have been some good contributions. I would particularly like to mention my constituency colleague, Deputy Funchion. I congratulate her on her maiden comments in the Dáil Chamber. I have been a bit bemused this evening by the constant harping from Sinn Féin about the issue of three generations of a family living in one house. As someone who grew up in a particularly small house where three generations lived, I resent the implication that there is something wrong with a scenario in which three generations are living under one roof. If people decide to do that-----

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It is not by choice.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I grew up in a particular situation. My parents were not able to build a house until 25 years after they got married. They eventually left our uncle in the house in which we all used to live along with a grand-aunt. It was just that they were not able to afford to do it. I do not think it is the case that there is something automatically wrong with three generations living under the same roof. I think the way it was said was probably accidental.

Photo of John BradyJohn Brady (Wicklow, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

They are being forced to do it. It is not by choice.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I was particularly struck by Deputy Wallace's contribution. I rarely agree with him on anything, but I would say that most of what he said tonight was on the money, if Deputies will pardon the unfortunate expression. He spoke about the importance of the creation of a national investment bank, or some similar initiative, to fund housing. In fairness, some of the Sinn Féin speakers mentioned the offer that has been made by the Irish League of Credit Unions. I agree that we need to do something imaginative to tackle this crisis. When I listened to the contributions made by Fianna Fáil speakers earlier, I thought to myself that they have learned nothing from what has happened over the last ten years. Our economic collapse was intrinsically linked to construction. Housing construction was just a part of that; commercial construction was the biggest part of it.

I listened to new Fianna Fáil Deputies criticising NAMA, which was established by the late Brian Lenihan specifically to be independent of politics and government, and advocating that politics and government should somehow get involved in it. They criticised the independence of the Central Bank in establishing rules for deposits. One thing that struck me during Deputy Wallace's contribution earlier was the support he expressed for those rules. The failure to require a certain level of deposits was a glaring factor in the spiralling house prices that led up to the crisis. It is remarkable that Fianna Fáil Deputies have spoken this evening about pursuing a policy of increasing the Part V requirement to 25% once more.

Deputy Mick Wallace is correct that if this were increased to 20% it would remove the incentive for private developers to get involved in construction again. Many of my friends, who like me are in their mid to late thirties at this stage, are tradespeople and are now living in Australia, New Zealand and Canada because of the collapse in our housing construction market. That the people who drove that sector off the cliff are now putting forward proposals that were part of the problem in the first instance beggars belief. Some of the other proposals put forward tonight are, at least, different. I heard Deputy Griffin's comments in regard to what he called the "rental renovation scheme". I also heard Deputy Sean Fleming's contribution earlier, in which he spoke about vacant units in Portlaoise and Monasterevin. Deputies McGuinness and Funchion would be familiar with Kilkenny and, in particular, the area stretching from Graiguenamanagh to Callan, including the city. There are very few habitable vacant units there, whether private or public.

7:25 pm

Photo of John McGuinnessJohn McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Deputy Phelan was a very poor candidate.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

There are many vacant units that are not habitable, which some sort of scheme along the lines proposed by Deputy Griffin could make habitable. I can assure Deputy McGuinness that I canvassed as far as I was allowed by my superiors in the party. That type of imaginative proposal would benefit the centre of villages, such as Goresbridge and so on in the Kilkenny constituency which are, to a large extent, derelict.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Deputy must conclude.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Those buildings should be adapted to ensure that some dent is made in our housing lists.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I now invite Deputy Catherine Connolly to make her maiden speech to the House.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Comhghairdeas leat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ní bhfuair mé deis é sin a rá ar an gcéad lá. Guím gach rath ort. An méid sin ráite, ní dóigh liom go mbeidh an tAire sásta leis an méid atá le rá agam, ach feicfimid.

The arrogance of the Minister, Deputy Kelly, the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach is incredible in the context of the serious housing crisis in this country. There is growing consensus here today that it is a national emergency. The Minister's arrogance is matched only by the magnitude of his failure to realise the role he played in the creation of the housing crisis, his failure to learn from his mistakes and his failure and that of the Government to apologise. This housing crisis is not inevitable. Yes, there are problems with land banks and credit facilities but the primary problem is that local authorities have not been funded to build one social house. Taking Galway city as a microcosm, there are 72,000 people in Galway city. There are 15,000 people on the waiting list there, some of them since 2002.

On the eve of St. Patrick's Day there were 268 homeless people in the city of the tribes. The reason for this is the failure since 2009 to build one social house. That the Minister's response to this is not that the Government did not do its job but to blame the local authorities and city managers is appalling. Land was purchased and zoned residential but no money was provided by this Government or the previous Government for the construction of one social house. Inevitably, we have a housing crisis in Galway. On top of that the policy of the Government in terms of the housing assistance payment has copperfastened the most fundamental change in housing policy since the foundation of the State. Up to the introduction of this policy people on the waiting list could be assured that once they did their time they would get social housing. This is no longer the case. The housing assistance payment policy copperfastens the private market.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Waterford, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Hear, hear.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

A tenant or housing applicant, on becoming involved in this scheme, is removed from the waiting list and considered to be adequately house. This was mentioned earlier by one or two Members but it has not been mentioned thus far by anybody from the caretaker Government. There has been a fundamental change in housing policy but this Government has not learned anything, in particular, that the private market cannot provide. Yes, there is an important role for the private market but it cannot provide homes for our people. That is the role of Government through the local authorities.

Members on this side of the House have been accused of ranting and raving, conflating issues and of trading on people's fears. We were also accused more recently of throwing stones. I am here as a rational woman. There is a housing crisis that is being created deliberately as a spin-off from Government policy, which is to rely on the private market. I would be delighted to work with whatever Government is chosen. We must build social housing and do so rapidly.

We need an immediate audit of all local authorities in regard to what land is zoned residential, how quickly social housing can be built and how much money is required to do so. We also need clarity on the land aggregation scheme. Land was purchased at high market values, in respect of which we are now paying a fortune in terms of interest. Some of that land was transferred to Dublin through the land aggregation scheme. There has been no mention of that today. Where is that land? How much was transferred? What did it cost to transfer and when will it be returned to the local authorities?

Photo of John McGuinnessJohn McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I congratulate Deputy Ó Fearghaíl on his election as Ceann Comhairle and wish him well in his new role and in his efforts in terms of the reform of how we do our work in this House. I know he will do a fine job.

I also congratulate all of the new Deputies who contributed to the debates today, particularly my colleague from Kilkenny city, Deputy Funchion. I have no doubt that all of what was said today was said to bring to the attention of Government the crisis that exists in most cities, towns and counties throughout this country. I only hope that there will be a Government response to what was said. I have listened carefully to previous similar debates. It is as if we are speaking in a vacuum here in that we say sincerely what we mean and we ask for action but we get nothing. People looking in at this debate and, I am sure, reports in the media tomorrow on television and radio will be to the effect that this was just another example of a talking shop. If one wanted a good example of why the Dáil needs to be reformed what happened today is a good one. There are 158 Members of the Dáil, all of whom are well paid to do a job. We had several debates squeezed into one day today, with some Deputies who wished to speak not given an opportunity to do so. That is not the way to do business. Whether a caretaker Government or not, respect should be shown for every elected Member in this House.

I commend some of the fine contributions made in the course of today's debates. It was suggested that a new agency be established to deal with the housing crisis. The county councils, county managers and directors of services are all well paid and should know the number of houses that are vacant in their own jurisdictions. It is wrong for Deputy Phelan to say that within the area about which he spoke there are no houses that are vacant. There are houses that have been vacant for seven years.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I did not say that, I said they were not habitable.

Photo of John McGuinnessJohn McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Within 100 hundred yards of my office there are two locations within one housing estate on which significant amounts of money was spent by the HSE on the upgrade of houses through Respond. Those houses remain vacant to this day despite the fact that the county manager and the housing officer were made aware of the fact that they are vacant. In Kilkenny city there are at least 12 individuals, intellectually disabled, living in the Aspect Hotel because of the failure of politics and policy in this area. One young lady has been living in that hotel for five months without being offered a local authority house or any other accommodation. During the last two months, there were 52 court cases to evict people and families from their homes. I attended those court cases, where I watched the legal representatives from both sides giving the nod to each other while the judge nodded through the eviction order.

That is an absolute disgrace because it simply means people are being thrown out of their homes and on to the waiting lists. The banks, in which we have shares and one of which we own, forced those evictions and if we are going to do anything for those in this situation, we should immediately stop the banks from evicting people. We have moved way past moral hazard, which is the usual nonsense that is thrown around. The banks will have to be told to stop. They are contributing to a crisis to which the Government does not seem to have the answers. Yet, the answer is simple. Houses that require extensions should be extended to keep families in their homes, while vacant houses should be refurbished. They seem to fall through the cracks with county managers and senior executives not wanting to know anything about them. Families should be assisted to remain in their homes. In addition, unfinished estates should be finished to ensure units are coming onto the market, thereby providing a solution to some of the cases on the housing lists.

The debate will be judged on the fine contributions that were made. Those on the housing lists and those who are being chucked out of their houses will look to the Government for solutions. It is about time the Minister made impositions on those who are well paid to work for the salaries they are getting and to bring forward imaginative plans in each local authority area.

7:35 pm

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I congratulate the Ceann Comhairle on his elevation.

I thank all Deputies who are present. Some of them have been here for a long period. A total of 11 Members remain, which reflects their priorities and those of others in the context of this debate. I congratulate all those who made contributions, most of which were constructive, and, in particular, those who made their maiden speeches.

Increasing housing supply, both public and private, is a huge challenge. A whole-of-government approach to build at scale brings with it key questions in respect of viability and construction costs, the potential for households to meet asking prices and secure debt and the ability of builders to secure the necessary equity and finance. In terms of meeting the 25,000-units-per-year housing target, we are coming from a low base and progress is slow. However, output increased from 8,000 house completions in 2013 to 11,000 in 2014 and 12,500 in 2015. There is obviously much greater potential with increased numbers of planning permissions approved and more than 17,400 hectares of land available for residential development.

I introduced a range of measures, including: reforming Part V to balance viability and social delivery; retrospectively applying reduced development contributions; implementing a targeted development contribution rebate scheme in Dublin and Cork; introducing a vacant site levy - to which I will return; streamlining the process for strategic development zones, SDZs; and providing for development contribution rebates for residential developments. A view was expressed during the debate to the effect that the planning system needs to be changed to facilitate housing development. There is, however, planning permission for more than 20,000 units in Dublin right now, where planning is not an issue. If we are to be honest and open about this matter, we all need to reflect on that fact. Why are those planning permissions not being used?

The Social Housing Strategy 2020, which was published in November 2014, has returned the State to a central role in the provision of social housing but this has taken time. Earlier this year, I published the first annual social housing output statement, which was independently produced by the Housing Agency, and I ask every Member who has contributed to the debate to read that document. I do not say this for any political purpose but the statement outlines the facts about where we stand. I have also published documents on the number of keys we have provided to people to date this year and in 2015. In addition, the spending allocations for every local authority up to 2017 are on the record. For example, Galway City Council has been given €28 million while Louth County Council has been allocated €57 million. Each local authority has been given a substantial amount.

In 2015, more than 13,000 new social housing units were delivered under the programme, an 86% increase on 2014, with 17,000 to be delivered in 2016. In excess of 450 housing staff were sanctioned for recruitment by local authorities, while 2,700 vacant social housing units were brought back into use. Vacancy rates fell to 1% in Dublin city and funding was approved and sites selected for the construction of 5,000 new social housing units. There was a 10% increase in exits from homelessness year on year and a 46% decrease in the number of rough sleepers on the streets of Dublin following the work of the Homeless Summit. To better protect renters, the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act 2015 provides for an increased rent review period from one to two years, increased notice periods for rent reviews and greater protections for both tenants and landlords. This will lead to great stability.

As I said in my opening remarks, homelessness presents great challenges. The root cause of the increased numbers of families and individuals in homelessness is supply. While we are working on increasing supply, the measures to deal with the immediate effects are identified in the implementation plan on the State's response to homelessness. More than 2,000 families have been brought through homelessness and out the other side. Let us not forget that because good work is being done by many people working in these services. The Alice Leahy Trust and others have raised the issue of relationship breakdown, which is becoming an increasing factor in homelessness. This is not a political issue. The percentage of people getting into difficulty because the level of relationship breakdown is increasing all the time and we all need to reflect on that.

I have taken a number of successful actions including reforms to the private rental sector to provide rent certainty for tenants. Under the tenancy sustainment initiative, the rent supplement normally allowable to be granted to approximately 7,000 clients has been increased. I issued a direction in January 2015, which requires key local authorities to allocate at least 50% of tenancies to homeless and other vulnerable households. The most critical action I initiated was the rapid delivery of more than 500 housing units in Dublin. Anyone who is interested in this issue should visit those units before our next debate, regardless of who is in government.

I would like to respond to some of the comments made by Members. A new national agency to supply housing was proposed. While the idea may have merit, it could take years to develop and those years would be lost to the delivery of housing. Furthermore, the State has the Housing Agency, the Housing Finance Agency, NAMA, the Department and 31 separate local authorities. There has been a massive reorganisation of the housing section within the Department during the past year. I would, therefore, question the proposal on that basis.

Similarly, Sinn Féin's policy proposals have merit in certain instances but I acknowledge the honesty of the party's housing document which they published during the election campaign. On page 15 it states, "The delivery of our plan is slower [...] reflecting [...] the need for planning and design [...] and[...] the restriction of funding [in the first couple of years]". This acknowledges that it takes time to build houses. As has been pointed out in the House repeatedly, homelessness is a serious issue in the North. Unfortunately, there was bad news there again in respect of the first three months of this year.

Many political parties have put forward the idea of appointing a housing Minister. I support the idea in principle. However, such a Minister should have policy oversight over NAMA and influence over taxation and social protection measures. If that did not happen, I would not support such a proposal because I know what it is like to be in that position where one does not control all the levers.

Deputies Cowen and Danny Healy-Rae made an assertion about local authority structures in respect of the drawdown of funding. I have amended those structures and removed much of the red tape such that local authorities now have discretion and also devolved funding in respect of a certain scale of development. I hope Members will welcome that but there must be accountability for the expenditure of public money. I am sure the former Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts will agree. We cannot accept everything just at the stroke of a pen.

Photo of John McGuinnessJohn McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Minister would not allow us to inspect the accounts of local authorities.

7:45 pm

Photo of Alan KellyAlan Kelly (Tipperary, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

We cannot have a situation where there is no analysis of this. We have to analyse how public money is being spent. However, changes have been made which need time to bed down. Once they are bedded down, they will be shown to have worked.

I acknowledge the support of Deputies from a number of political backgrounds. I ask the House to support what I said in my opening statement. We must look at the Constitution and the need to rebalance the property rights of individualsvis-à-visthe common good in order to address the issues we face today. I outlined earlier that I tried to make a number of changes but was hit every time by constitutional issues. If we are going to really deal with issues such as those relating to Tyrrelstown, we may have to examine the Constitution. I am not saying we have all the answers but let us have an open and frank discussion as to whether the common good is proportionately being achieved in view of the constitutional position.

In the context of a number of the points made on Tyrrelstown, Fingal County Council and Prosper Fingal Housing Association have been in contact and have been working on trying to purchase those units. I do not want to get into too much detail on that but the fact is that activity did take place. It is not like they did not try. I want that on the record. The chief executive did that with his own councillors.

Part V should not be increased back to 20%, which would make construction unviable. I am surprised that I find myself in agreement with Deputy Wallace and disagreeing with a number of other Members on that. The issue of credit unions has been raised by a number of people. I met the credit unions and the Department has corresponded with them. The fact is that they have to go through a regulatory process and then come back with their proposals. I am waiting for them to come back to me - or whomever is Minister in the future - with those proposals. I expect the person who is in office to welcome them with open arms. It would be a very positive development. Despite assertions in the House, my Department does not control all the levers in respect of that. We have a regulatory process for a reason.

In case we do not get to debate this again while I am in office, I note that whoever takes over the role will have everything outlined to him or her in respect of our plans, policy changes, targets and what has been provided. An up-to-date report will be given to the Minister and I will even speak to him or her when he or she is place. I want to see somebody who made a contribution to the debate here today come and take over the role in an honest way and actually put up or shut up. Some people believe they have the policies that will in some way miraculously fix these things in a short period. All of these issues are complex and intertwined and they will take years to address. When I am sitting on the Opposition benches, I will provide constructive criticism where necessary but I know this is not something a magic wand can fix overnight. Somebody is going to find that out when he or she takes this chair in the coming weeks or months.