Thursday, 29 March 2018
Affordable Housing: Statements
If it is appropriate, I congratulate Deputy Barry Cowen on his elevation within his party and thank him for the courtesy he has shown me while working together over the past ten months.
At the outset, I wish to address the February homeless figures that I published yesterday. This latest report repeats what we saw in January and would seem to indicate a worrying trend since the beginning of the year in respect of the number of families presenting to our homeless services. However, I reassure the House that we are putting a huge amount of time and resources into helping people in homelessness every single day and night of the week. These efforts are having an effect. The number of single adults in homelessness fell last month by 84 and the number of rough sleepers is dramatically down by 50% on last year. People will have seen the huge efforts made during Storm Emma. In January and February, almost 300 families have been prevented from entering emergency accommodation or have exited it. Of the more than 100 families who presented in Dublin in February, only 20 were accommodated in hotels. During 2017, more than 2,000 families left hotels for sustainable tenancies, the majority into homes. Last year, more than 4,700 adults exited homelessness. As such, a huge amount is happening and it is thanks to our partner organisations whom we fund through taxpayers' money, including the Peter McVerry Trust, Simon and Focus Ireland, working with our own teams. However, the underlying challenge remains, namely, to build more homes and to do so at affordable prices and rental levels.
The Government is absolutely committed to ensuring that people throughout Ireland can access affordable housing based on their means. For people and families, particularly those renting in our cities and urban areas and perhaps trying to save to buy their first home, this can be a real challenge. For this reason, I made a firm commitment when I was appointed as Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government that housing affordability would be a central focus of my work. In order to make housing accessible and affordable, we need all elements of the housing system working optimally, delivering a mixture of homes, including social and affordable apartments and houses to rent and to buy. To judge our housing system today, we need to put the progress that has been achieved in some context. Lest we forget the situation in the early part of this decade, residential construction was on its knees, housing construction had fallen by 90%, there were a handful of social and affordable homes being built, there were no starter home estates being built, employment in the construction sector had fallen by almost two thirds and local authorities had reduced staff numbers by a third. The residential construction sector in Ireland was decimated and we all acknowledged at the time that it would take time to rebuild it. The Government took immediate remedial action to get Ireland building homes again, which culminated in the comprehensive Rebuilding Ireland: Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness in July 2016. Happily, all the hard work is paying off and Rebuilding Ireland is now having a real impact.
In 2017, over 25,000 households had their social housing needs met. This was significantly ahead of target.
Increasingly, under the €6 billion programme, social housing will be delivered through new build. To get house building at scale moving again, the Government has invested €200 million in key enabling infrastructure, updated, streamlined and de-risked the planning and regulatory regime for houses and apartments, progressed large-scale local authority developments, which will deliver 2,500 new homes; made development finance available to house builders; and helped first-time buyers in putting together their deposit.
There has been a massive concerted effort across the public and private sectors in Ireland to get Ireland building homes again and it is working. I want to put on the record the Government's recognition of all that work. All this hard work is paying dividends. Housing activity indicators continue to show encouraging trends. Planning permission was granted for almost 20,800 new homes in 2017, an annual increase of 27%. The CSO's preliminary quarterly national accounts for 2017 showed a 33% growth in construction investment for residential in Ireland last year.
Increasingly, we are seeing significant residential developments coming through the new strategic housing development process in An Bord Pleanála - that is the new fast-track process that I signed into effect last year. I am sure Members will have seen granting of permission for the 420-home scheme on the site of CIÉ's former lands in Cabra in the newspapers this week — another major step forward in getting large-scale developments moving. Rebuilding Ireland is working, the construction sector is recovering and getting back into house-building at scale, but we will not be taking the foot off the pedal.
As Ireland continues to progress towards delivering the levels of housing supply we need, the Government is committed to ensuring that the new homes are accessible and affordable. Recognising that people want a choice of affordable purchase and rental, depending on their stage of life and circumstances, we need to be providing both. Importantly, new measures introduced are specifically targeted at delivering more affordable homes, which have the potential to deliver more than 3,000 new affordable homes to buy or rent initially. The target is for the delivery of at least 10,000 new affordable homes in the medium to longer term.
The emphasis is on delivering affordable homes from our State landbank in urban areas where affordability issues are greatest. Initial indications from local authorities in the main target counties around the main cities highlight the potential for almost 4,000 affordable homes from their land.
To support local authorities, I have secured additional infrastructure funding of €25 million for infrastructure on their sites to facilitate affordable housing provision. I expect that the call for proposals for this funding will issue to local authorities shortly after Easter.
Additionally, as part of the budget for 2018, I announced that an additional €50 million in Exchequer funding will be available for a second, local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, call. This will be subject to matching funding by local authorities, bringing the total available to €66.5 million. The criteria for the second call are currently being finalised and I expect to announce phase 2 of LIHAF in April or early May 2018.
Yesterday, I published details in respect of 30 major public infrastructure projects that had received final approval under the first phase of LIHAF in December 2017 and February 2018. These projects will enable and activate the delivery of almost 20,000 new homes across public and private sites by 2021. More than 28%, or some 5,600 of these 20,000 new homes, will be social or affordable homes. In addition, a further 5,600 of the homes will have a LIHAF-related cost reduction and another 8,800 will be sold at market rates, greatly increasing supply and with many in locations offering very good affordability.
In January last, I announced new initiatives to help people buy a home. First, we are supporting first-time buyers to buy a new or second-hand home through the new local authority home loan. Eligible first-time buyers can now access affordable mortgages from local authorities with fixed interest rate options of 2% to 2.25% for terms of up to 30 years. With the fixed interest rate over the lifetime of the borrowing, borrowers have absolute certainty of their repayments for terms of up to 25 or 30 years and the local authority also has greater certainty of the borrowers' capacity to repay the debt over the lifetime of the loan. As of the end of last week, there had been over 90,000 visits to the Rebuilding Ireland home loan website and some 1,350 application forms had been downloaded.
To ensure the supply of affordable homes for purchase, affordably-priced homes will be built as part of local authority mixed-tenure schemes on appropriate sites. For example, two large Dublin City Council sites, at O'Devaney Gardens and Oscar Traynor Road, are being procured on the basis of a 30% social, 20% affordable purchase and 50% private market housing mix. Dublin City Council is progressing the procurement of these sites as a top priority. In total, the two sites will deliver over 1,200 new build homes and some 240 of these will be available for affordable purchase. I expect to see more sites following suit shortly.
As part of the Government's reform of the Irish housing system, it is clear that we need a third sector to sit in union with social and private market housing delivery. That is why the development of a new affordable "cost rental" sector is so strategically important for this country. The key benefit of this model is that the rented home will remain a publicly owned asset and future rent increases can be controlled to ensure affordability. Looking to European cities like Vienna and others, if we can deliver cost rental homes into the market at scale, we can make a sustainable impact on housing affordability, national competitiveness, the attractiveness of our cities as places to live as well as work in as well as providing security for tenants of an older age.
I am determined to get some major cost rental projects moving in Dublin and then roll it out more broadly. Two cost rental pilot projects are currently being progressed in Dublin, in Dundrum and Lusk. While the projects are relatively small-scale, they are providing very valuable lessons to the system and will shape the model for future larger-scale projects.
We have been working with the European Investment Bank and other key stakeholders and it is my intention to announce the first major cost rental project in Dublin city shortly with a programme of cost rental projects across Dublin and other cities to follow. I had another meeting on this particular project earlier this afternoon to ensure that progress is being made at a pace we would wish.
Ireland is recovering from the economic downturn, the economy is growing at 3.2% and unemployment is very low at 6%. Given the upheaval in our residential construction sector and housing supply in the recent past, it is understandable that housing supply has lagged behind. However, I am confident, and all the indicators show, that it is catching up. This Government has made housing a top priority and we are making real progress. Rebuilding Ireland is delivering in terms of addressing short-term supply and we are also planning to ensure a much more sustainable housing system into the longer term. The trends are positive for all activity indicators in building. All efforts are now being concentrated towards increasing output, particularly in terms of affordable homes to rent and to buy.
Affordable housing is a key element of the medium to long term strategy to solve our housing crisis. Following the publication of the latest homeless figures yesterday, all of us in this Chamber must pause. The figures released yesterday deserve an emergency response by the Government, the Dáil, the media and every local authority. Where is the red alert?
I have served in this House for 24 months. During that time Members have stated many times that housing and homelessness was the No. 1 crisis facing our people. Our Government, Dáil, local authorities, civic society groups and our media have all claimed to be relentlessly focused on this issue during that time, yet month after month the number of people - individuals, families and children - declared homeless has increased each month of that 24 months.
In the last 12 months we have witnessed a new procedure for red alerts when it comes to severe weather events. We have seen two such red alerts in the last 12 months. We have all witnessed the national response, the co-ordinated response by national and local Government, the emergency service and the media. We have seen the live media broadcasts, the emergency Cabinet meetings and the sense that there is a response to what is, after all, a weather event.
What will it take for a similar approach to our homeless and housing crisis? We have nearly 10,000 people homeless in our republic of opportunity. Tonight there are 3,755 children in our Republic, an increase of over 500 children in one month. This is the largest monthly increase in our child homelessness since we started gathering data in 2014.
With a severe red alert weather event we have a forecast for, at best, seven days and specific criteria as to what constitutes a red alert. That is correct and welcome. Our Government was warned consistently as far back as 2014 by all the experts that our country was going to experience an epidemic of housing shortage and homelessness. It was forecast by all our experts four years ago. What will it take for a red alert response on housing and homelessness from this Government? Is there a figure that we have to reach? Is there a degree of media coverage that must occur before alarms sound? I am not blaming individual Ministers who are trying, but they are failing. In business, sport and life, I believe one learns from failure. There is nothing wrong with learning from failure but there is everything wrong with ignoring or denying it and living in a parallel universe. My colleagues and I will work with the Government and we have said this before. This is a national emergency and demands a response. I hope the Minister takes that on board. However, as a Member of this Dáil, and of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government, and a citizen of the Republic of Ireland, I am asking the Government to declare homelessness to be a national emergency and do it now. Our homeless national emergency needs a whole of Government response that delivers results. The Government should assure our people that housing provision in Ireland will no longer remain subject to a speculative market and declare that the common good of our nation dictates that Government ensures a minimum standard of housing for all our people.
Affordable housing needs to mean what it says on the tin. The measures which need to be taken by the Government, the Dáil and each local authority must be strong enough to deliver affordable homes for all of our people. If policies are not working we need to change or dump them immediately. There are nearly 10,000 homeless human beings in our nation today, and that needs a better response.
This debate was called to discuss affordable housing. The crisis is all-encompassing and involves all strands of housing, including social housing, affordable housing to rent or purchase, the private construction sector and the rental sector. In the five minutes allocated to me I will not solve the crisis considering that Fine Gael, which has been in office for many years, including the past five years, has struggled, grappled and failed to address this issue in the way in which one would have hoped. This week's homeless figures are very disappointing, frustrating and disastrous. Record numbers of families and children are in emergency accommodation and no amount of spin will deviate from those stark problems and damning statistics.
When facilitating the formation of the Government we did not specifically state exactly what had to be done. However, after three years in office, having facilitated three budgets and allowed for the sort of pro rataspending on taxation and expenditure which was required we expected that the Government would have been able to, as the agreement stated, substantially increase the provision of social housing in the State. I am afraid that to date the Government has not done that.
The Government stated it would introduce a State affordable housing scheme to counteract the one which was done away with in 2012. We have yet to see that. The Minister mentioned some ongoing schemes, but there is no State-led template - which could be used across the country - which one could buy into or for which specific funding has been allocated. As great as the problem is in Dublin and other cities, this problem is every bit as problematic in rural constituencies throughout the country.
A commitment was given to take away the barriers to construction. The main barrier is cost. There has been some tinkering around the edges there, but unfortunately nothing like what was needed to address the issue.
If I were asked to summarise how Fine Gael, in terms of being in government and leading the Government, has dealt with the issue I would acknowledge that a wide process of consultation took place on the formation of the Government. All stakeholders and representatives of all parties and none, through the all-party committee which was set up when the Dáil was initially convened, fed into the process. At the time we said there were many credible pronouncements within that, but it was always going to be about implementation.
Fine Gael's approach has lacked urgency. It has been painstakingly slow and cumbersome in the way in which it goes about making changes. As I said, it has tinkered rather than grappled with the issue in the manner in which it should. It has been protracted and nervous. There has been a fear of interference in the marketplace. The marketplace in respect of housing is totally distorted and needs extraordinary interference. It could still respond to such interference.
At different times in its history the Dáil has met with huge crises and deliberated overnight on occasion to deal with issues such as the banking crisis, the crash and the introduction of extra budgets to bring about the sorts of expenditure savings which were needed to stabilise the economy before building upon it.
People looking in have not seen that same level of urgency on the part of Government, nor have they seen it seek the commitment of Opposition parties to address this matter in such a way that this could be done across the board rather than in the slow, painstaking manner in which it has been done.
Regarding affordability, I met Technology Ireland recently, an association within IBEC, and one company said - this was one of many examples - that its Irish workforce has grown by 30% in recent years but that its workforce in Poland has increased by 50%. It could have grown to a far greater extent here had we been in a position to make available residences at affordable prices, but we do not have any. I heard the Minister of State, Deputy English, say that we could do damage to our potential by talking up the housing crisis. Hearing these figures repeated regularly, we are doing damage to our society. Funding levels are 25% below what they were in 2008, despite the protestations of the Minister and others when they say funding is not issue. If funding levels are 25% below pre-crash levels, where should they be? No agency has been put in place to drive development of State lands. The Government moved a little towards this in its 2040 document, in which it refers to a regeneration agency. That should be in place and should have a much broader spectrum than that. I talked about a repurposed NAMA that could have at its disposal State funds and private funds that could drive that delivery.
Regarding affordable units, there should be reduced charges in respect of costs, more RPZs and increased housing assistance payments in the short term. Landlords should be rewarded for quality of tenure improvements in order to improve the assurances given to tenants about length of tenure and so forth. There should be a one-stop shop for the certification process for local authorities in respect of the renovation of existing buildings. There should be NCT-style systems for local authorities-----
-----in respect of rented properties. As I said, I will not solve this in five minutes when the Minister has not done so in five years. I am merely contributing and giving an indication of the necessary methods, which should be all-encompassing and much more comprehensive than those we have seen so far.
That is right. We will take four minutes, three minutes and three minutes, respectively.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I did not prepare a speech when I was thinking about what I wanted to say because, to a certain extent, when we come in here and talk about housing, the housing crisis and affordable housing, I feel like it is Groundhog Day. I do not know how many stories we must raise of people living in emergency accommodation, whether in bed and breakfast accommodation or hotels, and of people on notice to quit. I know several such people scrambling in both Carlow and Kilkenny trying to find a property for themselves and their families. There are 33 properties available to rent in the city and county of Kilkenny and 14 in the whole of County Carlow. The average rent is €1,100 in Kilkenny, which is completely out of the reach of ordinary families. So many landlords will not accept tenants on the HAP scheme. We have people living in desperate conditions and in substandard accommodation who are completely afraid to speak about it to their landlords or to raise any issues all because they are afraid they will be served notices to quit. Much of this comes back to a rent control system. We would not have the level of notices to quit and rent increases if we had rent controls. At least they might keep people in some sort of secure accommodation for the next year or two while houses are being built. I do not know how many stories and heartbreaking situations we must outline to the Minister before he actually listens, pays attention and does something. I do not accept that enough is being done about it. He says it is not a funding issue and that the money is available. What is the problem then? Why are no houses being built? Why are there so many people on notice to quit with absolutely no hope and so many individuals for whom a mortgage is absolutely unthinkable? Mortgages were possible for some of these people under old schemes the councils used to provide whereby one had to have a 3% deposit. That has now changed to 10%. Again, this puts mortgages further out of people's reach.
All I can say about this is to stress, as so many other people who come in here do, that it is probably the number one issue with which we deal. People are under a great deal of pressure and are really stressed. We have become nearly desensitised to it. It is having a huge impact on people's mental health, and that is only the start of the problem. In the future we will be dealing with many issues, particularly that relating to children who have spent a year or perhaps two calling a hotel room - a completely unsuitable environment - their home.
I appeal to the Minister to put some proper actions in place. A rent control system is one of the things we should be looking at. A lot of landlords, as we all know, are putting people on notice to quit and coming up with whatever reason so that they can increase the rent. If there was a rent control system in place, they would not be able to do this. I appeal to the Minister to examine this. There are countless suggestions from our spokesperson, Deputy Ó Broin, on this. I urge the Minister to put some of these measures in place. People's mental health cannot handle this situation any longer.