Dáil debates

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Affordable Housing: Statements (Resumed)


3:20 pm

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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As Deputy Funchion has pointed out, housing is one of the foremost issues that we deal with in our constituency offices. Day in and day out, Marian in my office is heartbroken with people who are facing homelessness. They have absolutely no faith in this Government to deliver for them. That is not based on anything other than an assessment of all of the available facts. There are children growing up in hotel rooms and we do not know what impact that is going to have on them. In case the Minister missed it, when An Taoiseach advised that perhaps people could get the money for a deposit off their parents, that made people extremely angry. Those people to whom the Government Deputies often refer, the men and women who get up early in the morning, cannot afford to buy houses in Fine Gael's republic of opportunity. They are facing homelessness. I spoke to a young nurse a couple of weeks ago, a woman who studied hard and has a qualification and whom we should be begging to stay in the State. She tells me she is closer to homelessness than she is to owning her own home.

The Minister advised that he would not be taking his foot off the pedal. There are people out there who feel like he has his foot on their neck. They really do. They are put to the pin of their collar. Maybe those who sit on the Government benches have never experienced the mental distress caused by not having a secure place to live and do not understand how damaging it must be for someone to know that no matter how hard they work or how early they get up in the morning, no matter how hard they struggle, they are never going to be able to afford a house. The median price of houses in my constituency is €301,000. That is in no way affordable for any couple on average, normal wages. I do not know, even if their parents had the means to give them a deposit, if that would actually help.

A significant number of people are being forced into debt just to keep a roof over their heads. A republic of opportunity - I really do not think so.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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The debate is on the affordable housing issue. Anyone who is going down that route is either living at home or in rented accommodation. We know the difficulties that exist for anyone who is in rented accommodation. The rents are going up to such an extent that anyone who is working is finding it more and more difficult. They cannot actually afford to live in rented accommodation. The solution everyone thinks is out there is to buy something and to go down the affordable route. The first obstacle they have is that when they go to the local authority to try to buy an affordable house, the houses are just not there. That is the major difficulty. Workers understand that there was a crisis and know they did not create it. They are the ones who had to go through the recession and had to dig deep in their own pockets, take the pay cuts and all the rest. Now we are told the recession is over and so on, yet they are still looking over their shoulder and living in fear that the landlord is going to come and increase the rent.

Affordable housing provision is the answer. The problem is that since taking office in 2011, Fine Gael has not delivered a single affordable rental or purchase home through any Government scheme. I agree with other Opposition speakers that there is no urgency to address this issue. Some people say there is no empathy. Yesterday, Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy referred to the latest figures on homelessness. People like Sr. Stanislaus and Fr. Peter McVerry work in this area day in and day out and if they are saying they have no confidence in the Government to address this crisis, it is not merely the Opposition that is saying it; it also is those on the front line who are working with the homeless.

The housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme is regularly mentioned. According to the Simon Communities, 93% of the 11 areas they looked at are not covered by HAP. All of these elements are clearly not working. People genuinely do not have confidence in the Government on this issue. There is no urgency in terms of delivering and the situation is worsening.

In his opening remarks, the Minister referred to gains in particular areas. The number of children per day entering homelessness is equal to the number of children in a classroom. I could speak all day about the statistics on homelessness. Like others, when a family comes to me for help I do not switch off from their problem when they leave and simply move on the next one. I like awake at night thinking about families. I do not believe I am any different to anybody else in the House in this regard. We worry about people. One would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the stories being told by homeless people. Also, there are many people who work very hard and want to buy a home but they are unable to get finance to do so from the banks. They also cannot get finance from the credit unions or their parents. Many of the parents I know have used their savings to subsidise their children's education and so on. There is no avenue open to these people.

The Government lacks urgency and it also lacks empathy with those who are stuck in this situation.

3:25 pm

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick City, Labour)
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We need to see a sense of urgency from Government on this issue and I did not detect that in the Minister's speech today or in any of his contributions in the many housing debates we have had in this Chamber recently. We seem to be going nowhere. The Minister mentioned in his speech that we need all elements of the housing working optimally. They are not working optimally. We do not need announcements on expenditure and plans; we need delivery. There was nothing in the Minister's speech that gave me a sense that there is any intention to deal with this issue in an urgent way. The Minister also said that all of this work is paying dividends but the dividends are not happening quickly enough. He also mentioned the delivery of more than 3,000 new affordable homes initially. The target is at least 10,000 new affordable homes in the medium to long term.

On cost rental, the Minister mentioned that one scheme has commenced and two are about to commence and that these will be relatively small scale, providing very valuable learning to the system and will shape the model for future large-scale developments. All of the measures mentioned by the Minister will happen in the future. We need houses sooner and I do not detect any sense that this will happen. The number of houses delivered last year is only a fraction of what is needed. None of the targets set out in Rebuilding Ireland have been reached, be that rapid-build social housing or moving people out of hotels. There has to be some kind of intervention to determine what is going wrong.

One of my Dublin colleagues told me yesterday that somebody in Dublin City Council said it takes approximately 50 weeks to get approval, that is, to move a project from the proposal being put forward to the start of construction.

There is no national affordable housing scheme. There are 700 publicly owned sites around the country, most of them owned by local authorities. We have the LIHAF fund, and there will be a call for a second round of that. However, unless there is a national affordable housing scheme and councils can get going quickly on delivering social and affordable housing, the private operators will step in. The councils will engage them because they want to get some type of development going on the sites. Those operators will make a profit and the houses will be unaffordable for people. That cannot be allowed or accepted. These 700 publicly owned sites are the family silver. Private developers should have to fund whatever they do with their privately owned sites, but they should not be able to jump in on the publicly owned sites when we so desperately and urgently need affordable housing, whether it is for rent or for purchase. We need a far greater sense of urgency. We must get rid of the blockages. If that means just one stage of approval for local authority houses, so be it. Give the authorities the money and tell them to build, but monitor it and have targets, including time targets. If they do not spend the money it should be given to others to spend. The situation simply cannot continue as it is.

The homeless figures are shocking. They are increasing and there is nothing in what we heard from the Minister to give us any solace that they will start to reduce. There are 3,755 children in homeless services. As Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy said this morning, that is an increase of 48% in one year. Children have only one childhood. In many cases they are being moved away from their local communities, schools and so forth. There was an article in TheJournal.ieabout a woman who had been renting for ten years in an area of south County Dublin. She is now in a hotel. The main thrust of the article was about the conditions in the hotel but the point is that she was renting. She has two children and was getting rent support and working part-time. She lost her home because the landlord said he needed it for a family member. I introduced a Bill on First Stage earlier and I will not repeat what I said this morning, but one of the measures in it is about tightening up this matter of family members and the claim of doing up the house so the tenant must get out. There is also the issue of linking rent to the cost of living, which Deputy Funchion and others have raised today. All of us have raised it at various times. We must deal with that in the short term and keep people in their homes. If that means testing the private property versus social good elements of the Constitution, so be it. I believe social good would win. We need immediate legislation in that regard.

We also need to see building. The Minister said that and I doubt any Members disagree with it. However, it has to happen. O'Devaney Gardens has been ongoing for years. It is now quoted as one of the developments that will solve certain problems but it should have moved a long time ago. The Nevin Economic Research Institute conducted a study recently which was published in January and which showed that national median disposable income after tax has increased by just under 8% since 2012. However, according to daft.iethere has been a rise of almost 60% in average rents across the country and 40% growth in asking prices for residential properties in the same period. The cost of buying or renting a house has jumped way beyond people's wages. As a result, an increasing number of people are all stuck in the private rental system, whether they are waiting on social housing lists or they are people who cannot afford to buy, cannot afford the rents being asked or cannot afford to save for a deposit. It has been estimated that approximately one third of the population needs some type of support with their housing costs. All of those people are in the same squeezed section.

These problems will continue to get worse unless there is some urgency about introducing an affordable scheme. There are models. We have had models ourselves previously and there are models in Britain and other countries that could be used.

The Ó Cualann model, which many of us have spoken about in the House, is a co-operative housing scheme. It has been able to deliver affordable houses in the Dublin area in conjunction with the local authority, which gave them the sites for a relatively low price and did not charge the development fee and so on. They have been able to do that so there is no reason why it cannot be done. We really have to use the publicly-owned land that is there. This is available to us and it is essential that it is used for this purpose. It should not be the case of just trying a few in Dublin and then maybe spreading them out to the rest of the country. The numbers of these types of developments are too small and the numbers of people who need housing support are growing all the time. This is why a sense of urgency is needed. We really need to see urgency and action rather than plans, figures and intentions. We need to see action because the people who are facing homelessness today and those who are in homelessness cannot wait for plans that have a delivery date three years down the road. I urge the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to take action and bring a sense of urgency that I certainly did not detect in his speech today.

3:40 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Boyd Barrett is sharing time with Deputy Paul Murphy.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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The truly appalling rise in homelessness figures, especially child homelessness figures, should lead the members of this Government to hang their heads in shame at the hardship and suffering inflicted by the Government's failed policies on the 10,000 people now suffering homelessness, particularly for the children who suffer. The numbers of children in homelessness are increasing month on month. The disastrous figures published recently are the bitter fruits of six years of failed policies by Fine Gael and the Labour Party, and then by Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance. The figures are the direct consequence of the policies the Government has pursued and the inevitable consequence of the policies that have favoured the interests of private developers, private landlords, speculators and vulture funds over and above the needs of citizens for an affordable and secure roof over their heads. This is the simple fact of it. It is unbelievably surreal and insulting that the Minister's speech highlighted all the achievements, as he sees them, of the Government. One of the most incredible phrases in the Minister's speech is "all this hard work is paying dividends." It is Orwellian to say this in the week that record figures are announced for child and family homelessness. It is totally beyond belief. At what point will the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, recognise that the policies are failing disastrously? Their failure centres on the fact that the Minister is trying to get the private sector to do something it is completely incapable of doing. For six years we have called for an emergency programme of direct public, affordable housing provision on public land. We have also called for evictions to be frozen completely and for rent controls to be imposed that bring rents to affordable levels, not for rent certainty as some of the Opposition has called for: that is not enough. Rent certainty is no good when rents have reached unaffordable levels. What is the point in linking rents to the consumer price index when average rents in Dublin are €1,800? It is pointless. Rent has to be brought back to affordable levels. This would involve local authorities going in to rental accommodation and saying the landlord cannot charge more than a certain amount. The rents that landlords are allowed to charge must be based on what is affordable for real human beings on the incomes they have. Anything less than these measures and the problem is going to get worse and on the current trajectory it will get worse.

These figures do not surprise me, as appalling as they are.

I am not surprised but I am appalled by the proposals for affordable housing. When the Minister first announced the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, funding, which was intended to deliver affordable housing, the promise was that every project where there was LIHAF funding would deliver 40% of that development at €300,000 or less. He immediately backtracked on that. Now we discover, for example, that of the 8,000 houses to be built at Cherrywood, which have been financed with €15 million of LIHAF funding, we will get 5%, not 40%. In the best case scenario there, a three-bedroom house will cost €357,000, and more likely significantly in excess of that. That is useless. What is the point in telling us that all these houses will be built if they are completely unaffordable for the majority of people, to rent or to purchase?

The time for talk is over, and the time to get on the streets is now. Government policy will be changed only when the people affected and angered by this crisis get out on the streets and that means joining the national demonstration called by the National Housing and Homelessness Coalition on 7 April at 2 p.m. at the Garden of Remembrance. If people are angry about this, they need to get out on the streets because the Government is not listening.

3:45 pm

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, Solidarity)
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The latest homeless figures are an unbelievable and shocking indictment of the Government's approach to housing and the homelessness crisis. The fact that it is accelerating at an increasing rate and that in the next month there will be over 10,000 people homeless in this State, with a massive increase in the number of homeless children, is shameful. I could not agree more with Deputy Boyd Barrett that nothing we say here is going to convince the Minister to change the ideology that lies behind his approach, and he will not do anything to resolve it. The crisis will get worse and worse. As people who are concerned by this, we need to get on the streets to build a movement as we did successfully on other issues and to force action. The next stage of that is the National Housing and Homeless Coalition protest on Saturday, 7 April at 2 p.m. in Parnell Square.

The Government has no strategy that can produce affordable housing on a meaningful scale. It adds more pro-landlord policies based on the same failed market-based ideology. They will not work and the Minister knows that but his ideology, combined with his party's close relationship with developers and landlords, means that he will continue to pour public money into private hands as opposed to using resources to build homes. The sheer scale and depth of the Government's failure was demonstrated earlier this month when the Simon Communities were locked out of the rental market report. That could not be more damning. There were just 532 properties available to rent nationwide over three days in mid-February 2018, fewer than half the number available when the surveys began in May 2015, and only 39 of those, 7%, were within housing assistance payment, HAP, or rent allowance limits. In Dublin, the story was even worse. There were only four properties available within HAP limits, three in Cork and none in Limerick. The Minister has created an out of control rental sector that is a nightmare of precarious living with unaffordable and poor quality housing for the 800,000 people living in rented accommodation.

The Government disgracefully seeks to distract from that failure, looking for scapegoats to engage in nasty, ugly, victim-blaming assisted by the likes of Conor Skehan. The Minister and the Taoiseach misused data on homelessness to claim falsely that it is low in Ireland compared with other countries, and tried very hard to normalise homelessness. Their failures and victim blaming were called out last week when a new report from FEANTSA, the leading representative body for European housing non-governmental organisations, NGOs, supported by the European Commission, included devastating criticism.

It stated "the last few months have seen vague, incompetent announcements from senior government officials, sometimes announcing figures far below the reality of homelessness, sometimes justifying – in bad faith – the mediocre results of state action by claiming that some people refuse to be housed, or that they even profit from the system by pretending to be homeless to get priority on ever-growing waiting lists for social housing". The Minister knows this was aimed at him, his Government and his victim-blaming accomplices. It is an indictment of his policies.

We know where the root of this is. Before the start of the neoliberal era, a brutal economic philosophy to which the Minister subscribes, one in five households lived in council-owned social housing. The building of social housing stopped, so that now only one in 13 households live in council-owned homes. The answer to the housing crisis is for the State to directly get involved in building social and affordable homes. This is not what the Government proposes to do. In South Dublin County Council, in the constituency of Dublin South-West, there is a plot of public land in Kilcarbery Grange in Clondalkin, where the council proposes to build 30% social housing and 70% for profit at market price housing that will be out of reach of the vast majority of ordinary people. The point is the land is available and we need to build public homes on public lands with a mix of social and affordable housing.

3:50 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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The Minister is the third in the role since I was elected and I have only been elected for two years and three months. We have continuously made the same speeches, and here we are again, two years and three months after I was elected, making the same speeches begging and imploring the Minister to declare a national emergency.

At a conference well before I was elected, Fr. Peter McVerry said there was a national emergency. We came into the Dáil as alternative voices, not to make the life of the Minister difficult but to try to do something about housing, health and public transport, and here we are again. Earlier today, the Taoiseach told the housing committee that he had no difficulty in describing the crisis as a national emergency but that it would not solve the problem. He said the increase in figures is extremely frustrating. To put it mildly, that is a Taoiseach who is out of his depth, because the figures are not frustrating; they are an absolute scandal and we should all be ashamed but particularly the Government that is leaving housing to the market.

If we declare an emergency, that should determine the type of solutions we seek rather than the one the Government has been seeking. It was the same with Deputy Kelly and the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, when they were in the role, with regard to the market, and now we have the Minister.. He came in here today with a speech on affordable housing but the events and shocking figures have overtaken us. He changed the first part of his speech but not the other part, where he spoke about how all the hard work of the Government is paying dividends. It is certainly paying dividends but it is paying dividends for the landlords, property investors, real estate investment trusts, REITs, estate agents and property developers. This is who it is paying dividends for and we know this. I do not put all of the blame on the Minister. I put the blame on the policy of the Government and successive Governments that have stated the market will provide and that we cannot distort the market. Is this not the language of the neoliberals of Europe? We cannot distort the market but the market is allowed to destroy people's lives and to destroy the concept of a house as a home.

In the two years and three months I have been here, I have seen all of the tinkering. The Government has accused us of being caught up with an ideological slant and that we do not see the wood from the trees. Here we are, directly as a result of the Government policy, with almost 10,000 people homeless and with a 40% increase in the past month. The Minister knows the figures but I will state them for the record. There are 9,807 people, of whom 3,755 are children. Is this not a national emergency? Is it not a point where we all should say we cannot go on like this and it is time to see what we can do?

Is it not the time to haul the county and city managers in every month to update us on their land banks and what is being done with them, and to find out what obstacles are stopping them from being developed. We have been told there is no problem with money. The money is being spent on housing assistance payments, HAP. Perhaps the Minister will tell us the HAP figures before the end of the day. I can provide the figures for Galway, where I come from. Following the implementation of the Government's policies, this time last year we had 182 adults without a home. This year we have 237. Last year we had 63 homeless children. There are now 146 children homeless. Is that not a major emergency? Given that a person in Galway has been on a waiting list for a house since 2002, is it not time to say our housing policy is not working? We cannot talk about affordable housing without a direct housing build. The Government must enter the market and send out a strong message. That is the only way to calm the market. We need the market to provide homes, but we need the Government, through local authorities, to build directly in order to bring down the prices.

In Galway land was bought at astronomical values when I was a councillor. I was part of that, and okayed it. Loans were taken out. That land is sitting there, unused. More than two thirds of that land is frozen for a road that will not be built. That is adding to the problem. In the meantime we are looking at the remaining landbanks that can be given over to public-private partnerships. Affordable housing will be built on them which will not be affordable. We should be building public housing to balance the market.

3:55 pm

Photo of Tommy BroughanTommy Broughan (Dublin Bay North, Independent)
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I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to raise with the Taoiseach the issue of the housing lists and homelessness in Dublin Bay north. My constituency has the longest housing list in the country and some of the worst homelessness statistics, bigger I believe than the whole of Fingal and south Dublin. I highlight the fact that from 2015 to 2017 neither Fingal nor Dublin city delivered anything significant. There were totals of one or two houses being built in a year. That is ludicrous.

The Minister has said he is worried. He should be worried about his job and the future of this Government, because this will be a huge issue in the forthcoming general election. There does not seem to be any reason the Government is not declaring a housing emergency. As part of that it could look specifically at Dublin because, looking at the figures, it is striking how profoundly Dublin is affected. Some 13,029 out of the 17,039 families who are homeless are based in Dublin. Some 18,046 adults are homeless. Some 2,801 of the total of 3,755 children are from Dublin as well. It seems that there is a profound argument for perhaps having a Dublin housing executive under some kind of dynamic leadership. I have always supported having a mayor for Dublin because we have not had the dynamic leadership at local level that we need to address these profound issues.

It is shameful that 488 children were made homeless in one month. That is a net figure. We know others have been diverted away from homelessness; some have been housed, most likely in the private rental market through HAP. Media reports state that an extra 488 children "became" homeless, but of course the reality is that those children and their families were made homeless. I am not sure what happens at the Minister's information clinics, but in those that I conduct, virtually everybody I meet who is seeking a home is being evicted. These people are being put out of their homes. That is the reality. I do not know from where this fantasy that Conor Skehan and other people have mentioned came. It is not the reality I face. This weekend I will hear from people who have been evicted by greedy landlords, as a result of the housing mindset that Fine Gael personifies via its support of landlords and developers.

I do not know how many more times I and my colleagues on this side of the House can implore the Government to declare a housing emergency and to use emergency measures to compulsory purchase order and compulsory lease order vacant properties, to build urgently on local authority land and to reduce rents to affordable levels.

In other words, cap rents and follow the example of some continental administrations in the European Union.

Whether we pursue cost rental or another model, we need a massive programme of public building. It is simple economics. We know that developers and landowners are withholding supply to push prices up. We know that because of the lack of affordable rental properties, many are living in dangerous and overcrowded accommodation. The rental market has become so competitive that there is little hope of people on lower incomes or in receipt of State housing supports acquiring such property.

The Minister has left. He is the kind of guy who knows the situation. He is not a fool. He can see that there is very little housing available in the market for less than €175,000. If someone is earning a minium wage and has an annual salary of €20,000 to €25,000 per year, how does the Government expect him or her be able to get a deposit together? With the loan-to-value ratio set at 3.5 times people's salaries, they will still need to have substantial savings. As I already noted, the Minister seems like a smart individual. I fail to understand how he cannot see that there is no affordable supply, and that most normal working families on lower incomes do not have a ghost of a chance of getting into the affordable housing market. Houses that are available for less than €200,000 on daft.ie and other sites are being targeted by greedy, profit-hungry landlords and speculators. They know they can have low mortgage repayments for those prices and charge double or triple that amount in rent. Neither the Minister, his predecessor nor anyone else has addressed the escalation of rents during the past ten years. The bottom line is that 3,755 children are homeless. The Minister is responsible. He should take dramatic action, especially across the four Dublin counties, to sort this out.

4:00 pm

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this issue. I will begin the way I began my previous speech on affordable housing in January. In A Programme for A Partnership Government, the Government made a promise in respect of "Providing affordable, quality and accessible housing for our people is a priority for the New Partnership Government". In fact, this is the very first line under the general vow to end the housing shortage and homelessness. There is no doubt about it; we are going around in circles. We have been here before on many occasions. I have raised this issue on the floor of the Dáil, but nothing seems to have changed. Affordable housing in Ireland is basically a myth. The demand for accommodation is far in excess of the supply and housing providers are totally taking advantage of this situation. Yesterday, some new figures were released about the homelessness crisis. As previous speakers indicated, there are 10,000 homeless people in our country. Over 3,000 of those are children. That figure is approximately equal to the combined populations of Clonakilty and Bantry in my constituency, Cork South-West. This has gone far beyond crisis point. It does not seem that the Government is living up the promise it made in 2011, when Fine Gael came to office. A total of 3,744 people were homeless at that time. This was also unacceptable, but it was much better than the current situation. To put that figure into perspective, it equates roughly to the population of the town of Macroom in north-west Cork.

I accept and acknowledge that this crisis is not purely of the Minister's making. Previous Ministers and Governments are responsible for the mess in which we find ourselves. We do not just need to create more housing, we must also make that housing affordable for people on all incomes. Last year's €90 million help-to-buy scheme is driving up house prices and doing the opposite to what was intended. There is an urgent need to compulsorily purchase and develop land and to free up landbanks in key areas of demand that are currently tied up in NAMA. The Government should also reintroduce the affordable housing scheme that the previous Fine Gael-led Administration wrongly scrapped in 2012.

All the schemes that the Minister's predecessors in government introduced were aimed at first-time buyers. He is leaving behind those who fell victim to the economic downturn, those whose houses were repossessed or sold due to the huge and unattainable mortgages given to them by the banks and those who are trying to start again but are not considered first-time buyers. I hope the Minister can take theses people into consideration too and allow them a second chance at owning their own homes. I will admit that many people in my constituency have been seeking information on the council loan to assist buyers, recently called the Rebuilding Ireland scheme. In fairness, this is very positive.

They hope they may now see some light at the end of what has been a very dark tunnel for them down through the years. There are still obstacles to be removed but at least there is a move in the right direction. People were being refused loans by the banks on the grounds that they were not earning enough and then going to the council only to be told they were earning too much. This scheme at least seems to be recognising people's incomes. I hope it works out.

I hope affordable housing does not end up like affordable sites in my local authority area. I live in Schull, where there was an affordable site sold in the past year for top dollar. It was supposed to be affordable. There is a large number of houses in the area. The children are going to the local school and the parents are working locally, supporting the locality. I cannot understand why the site in question did not remain affordable. In a place like Schull, it is almost impossible to buy a site.

Young people are looking for light at the end of the tunnel to start their lives. What has been occurring has been a blight for many young people. Another issue that needs to be tackled concerns the many young people seeking planning permission to start off their lives. Every obstacle is being put before them. There is no help. In one case in south-west Cork, there is a planner who will not sit down to engage in pre-planning with young people seeking planning permission. To me, that is part of the job and if the person is not willing to do it he or she should be removed from the position. One wants to give people an opportunity to start their lives and one should not put obstacles in front of them. Some people are quite reasonable if you sit them down and say a house cannot be located in a certain location, for example. At least that gives those affected an opportunity.

In the past week alone, nine people called to my constituency offices and clinics telling me they had planning permission issues. That is an extraordinary number in one week alone. The area covered is from Kinsale all the way back to Beara Peninsula. One after another is coming with a planning issue. We are trying to plead on their behalf. They are young people trying to get their lives off to a start. If they do not get planning permission and are continually refused, where will they go? They will be put on the social housing list. This will complicate the problem again.

4:10 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak. I was here for the Minister's speech. I did not read it but I heard it. I do not know who wrote it. Honestly, hand on heart, the Minister should not have read it out. When is the Minister and the committee Chairman going to admit this is utterly bewildering and that there is utter failure? I refer to the figures that have been produced. Four hundred children were made homeless last month. There are 3,700 children homeless: my goodness. There are 1,700 families homeless. This is shocking. This is an indictment of the Minister. He is the fifth or sixth Minister for housing in the past seven years. I do not know what AK-47, Deputy Alan Kelly, was going to build. Fine Gael is in government. There has been an abysmal failure. Why can the Government not call what is happening a crisis, which is what it is? I have asked the Minister, his predecessor and the Minister of State from Meath, Deputy Damien English, on countless occasions to ring up the county managers and directors of services responsible for housing. There is nothing going on. Eleven houses were built in Tipperary, my county. There were over 3,100 approved applicants in five years. There was a rise from 11 to 16. It is a joke.

The Chairman of the housing committee, Deputy Bailey, is shaking her head. I wrote to her several times about a company in Cahir that is interested in providing steel-framed homes and she would not even invite them before the committee. I wrote several times and got no answer. It was several months before she came back to me, through emails, and I was eventually told "No" because my request might be perceived as favouritism or whatever. The Chairman is not interested in solving the problem. If she were-----

Photo of Maria BaileyMaria Bailey (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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On a point of order, a charge was made about me. I do not make those decisions. I bring the matter before the committee for it to decide. We cannot pick one company over another: we are impartial. If Deputy McGrath had actually attended the meetings and stayed at them, he would realise that.

The point is made.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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May I continue? I am not blaming Deputy Butler. She is the Chairman of the committee. I am saying it took forever to get the reply. I have been on to the Chairman several times.

Photo of Maria BaileyMaria Bailey (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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If the Deputy had been at the committee meeting, he would have heard verbally straight away.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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No, several times. It just proves to me that there is no interest. There is a lethargic effort. The Government is supporting the banks and vulture funds. The Taoiseach was before the finance committee today and refused point blank to say the vulture funds would not get business or anything else. The Government is working for the banks or the big house down the road, 100 yards from the front gates of this House. There is some greater power such that the Government is not interested.

4 o’clock

The Government is interested in nothing. It cleared the decks to come back a day early. It cleared the Business Committee for four days to discuss the abortion referendum. The Government is interested in that all right and will sit all night, sit today and set up a Citizens' Assembly and a stuffed racket, unfair Oireachtas committee. However, it has no Citizens' Assembly or committee to deal with the emergency in housing. Its moral compass is in its feet, toes and shoes and the Government should be ashamed. With the ineptitude that is going on, not a house is being built anywhere. It is talk and report after report. I have nothing against the Minister personally but the head of one of the homelessness agencies said this morning that if he does not do something soon, he should just get out. Someone has to call time on this. It is farcical. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government but I seldom attend, as the Acting Chairman, Deputy Durkan knows, because I am fed up of reports and investigations. Why will the Government not go to see the system in Northern Ireland where, if a house becomes vacant, it must have a new tenant within 12 weeks? Here is takes four or five years and longer. We all have vacant units in our constituencies, including the Acting Chairman. They are boarded up everywhere.

There is inertia. It is a farce and a disgusting way to treat our people. They will be waiting for the Government at the next election as well as in the referendum on the eighth amendment. They will see all the time the Government can give to this and the money and the spin. Then, one has the Tánaiste, Deputy Simon Coveney, who changes his mind four times a day about what he is doing. He is the second highest man in this country and I have nothing against him, but he changes his mind every time he crosses back and over the River Lee. Then, he says something that is completely unconstitutional. The Government is out of its depth. It does not have a clue and its members do not seem to care, which is worse. Their clinics are full of people too. My clinic at my office in Clonmel has never been as busy as in the past two weeks. I do not know what has gone wrong. I am inundated. Queues of people are homeless and the Government is allowing the banks to make them homeless. They are being kicked out of their houses. We see the sheriffs. At least county registrars are giving some bit of protection to families. We are talking about affordable housing, but the people will never get a house given the cost. The Government has had one failure after another. It can have a Citizens' Assembly and a committee to deal with abortion because it wants to force liberalisation on the people. It will not be forced on the people. They will have their say. On housing, however, it will not do anything. It will not hold a Citizens' Assembly or emergency meeting. It will have no emergency Dáil sittings.

We are here on Holy Thursday evening before the last supper. The Government will get its last supper from the people. They will give the Government nothing. They will get rid of it because it is an abject failure. It is a disgrace. It does not have one idea among all its members, it only has talk, reports and bureaucracy. We cannot get planning permission in the country. I have at least ten couples who want to build in Tipperary but the arrogant planners will not even meet them or me. However, no one says a word because none of them can be held accountable and sacked. However, the Government can be sacked by the people and it will be because it deserves no better. There is some greater power preventing this housing crisis being solved but it is not in this building. It is down the road about 100 yards on the right-hand side. That is who the Government is working for, namely other powers, banks and big business and to hell with ordinary people. It is a disgrace.

4:20 pm

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin Bay South, Green Party)
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I am very glad to be able to join the debate on this critical issue for our country and our people of how to get affordable housing. I listened to the Tánaiste, Deputy Simon Coveney, replying on Leaders' Questions to questions on housing. At several points in his answers, he said the Government was open to new initiatives and ideas. I was screaming in my office as I watched on the monitor because we have brought forward an initiative. The Dáil voted on it three weeks ago when it approved the cost-rental motion we presented to the House. The Minister was not able to contribute on the debate and we did not get the written version of his speech during our own Private Members' time. However, I am glad to see in his speech today a recognition that cost-rental social public housing is strategically important in addressing the issue of affordable housing. I welcome that. However, I want to tease out what that might mean and what scale we should go at because I have real concerns about what is in the Minister's speech in that regard.

The Minister said the aim was to deliver approximately 3,000 new affordable homes to buy and rent. That is not the scale we should be considering. If one takes out the homes which would be for sale, one is talking about only a couple of thousand, if that, in terms of affordable rental options. We need ten times that scale of ambition as we move to cost-rental as well as social housing and an increase in supply in the private market sector.

The case for that is so clear. In this homeless crisis we face, these dramatic figures are the tip of the iceberg of the our difficulty, particularly in the private rental sector. The Minister would agree that our real problem in housing is the high rental prices in the rental sector. That is the crisis that is driving the homeless figures so high. Families who historically would not have been put out of the private rental sector are being forced out of it because of increases in the private rental sector and it is the rental sector where the real crunch is and where the attention has to be. Within that, there is a recognition that our real supply shortage is in apartments close to the centre of cities and towns. That is why the scale of ambition of 3,000, of which I presume rental will be half at most, is not commensurate with the pinch point of the crisis.

Dr. Ronan Lyons wrote last week in support of these cost rental proposals. He stated that if we want to guarantee a right to a home for all, then cost rental is a critical key ingredient in our response and that we cannot keep pursuing a policy which is to try and address this issue by increasing rents and what we need to do is focus on lowering costs. The reason I say we have been engaged in a policy of increasing rents is that the alternative to a cost rental model, the one that the Government has been pursuing, is merely to pump more money into HAP. The Government keeps saying it is spending ever increasing amounts of money but most of the money we are spending is in subsidised supports to the private rental sector that are doing nothing to bring the rents down. They are actually feeding this continuing bubble in rental prices. We have to shift and the way to do so is towards cost rental and the way to do that is to use State lands because as Dr. Lyons states we must concentrate on bringing the cost down to make it affordable.

I still stand by my party's Bill. I do not believe we will see a better solution than going to Broadstone or, indeed, Cathal Brugha Barracks, and taking State action with State land and going not for 1,000 or 2,000 units but, on those two sites, for 3,000 units and then going beyond to other sites to get another 3,000 and another 3,000. That is the scale of response we need in this cost rental sector. I asked the Minister of State at the Department of Defence, Deputy Kehoe, the other day about this and he did not have a reason not to do it. He stated there were security reasons but he could not divulge them: he would have to kill me and it would put the State at risk. It is not good enough that lack of ambition.

There is rightly concern on this side of the House that the problem with Fine Gael is it is sticking with the status quo. It is not willing to reform. It is not willing to break away from the old developer-led model that it inherited from Fianna Fáil. I refer to this belief - it is riddled through the speech, much as I welcome the agreement to move towards a cost rental model - that things are going well and volumes are increasing. Construction activity is increasing but it is bringing us back to that old model that got us into trouble in the first place. We are not reforming and that is the key critical reason Fine Gael is getting hammered. That is why Fr. Peter McVerry, Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy and all the others are coming out stating that they have lost confidence. Fine Gael is seven years in government, but it is two or three years, I suppose, since this crisis became absolutely clear in its scale and urgency and none of us has seen Fine Gael being willing to reform. They have just been applying an old Fianna Fáil model.

If I can give an example of how it is not working, in the constituency the Minister and I represent where the crisis is at its worst reliance on the Government building all the numbers and construction activity increasing is undermined by the reality. I am told there are 1,000 new apartments being built in the docklands. One could well say, if one was merely doing a numbers game and not reforming, that we have got it back again, we have the numbers up and everything is working, as the other comments in the Minister's speech would make one think until one looks on the reality of the details. Of those 1,000, I understand 600 or 700 are already contracted into the technology sector, which has an urgent crisis on its hands in terms of housing its employees, and those are not effectively going on the market unless one is an employee of one of those companies. The danger is we end up in a divided city where one does not have a diverse population, particularly in our constituency which is most at risk from an affordability point of view.

The remaining 10% might go into the Part V social or affordable housing provision. However, we know that in those very expensive housing areas the local authorities face a very difficult choice of whether it should spend a huge percentage of its budget buying them or if it should do a deal where the private sector takes them away and the local authority gets commensurate cheaper units elsewhere. That way lies madness: a divided society, a less successful city and a deeply unjust and insecure, gated-type city. We do not want to go that way. Playing the numbers game, saying that construction activity is increasing and development is taking place, is not its answer on its own. It is time to reform, including in the social rental sector. There must be a move away from the divided, completely diverged systems towards what the National Economic and Social Council says, namely a more unitary housing system. That is where cost rental comes in.

I am glad that the Minister supports this. It was already in the programme for Government but the Government had said nothing about it. The Minister must come at the matter at a large enough scale. It is not good enough, as the Minister has set out, that he will approach it with a European Investment Bank-funded single project in Dublin. I know the European Investment Bank. It deals in hundreds of millions of euro rather than tens of millions. We should not go to the European Investment Bank with a vision of 500 or 2,000 homes, or whatever the figure is, to be delivered by that mechanism. We should be looking for several hundred million euro initially and several billion euro in the short to medium term to put into that response as part of the delivery of affordable housing solutions.

I welcome the change of tack in the Minister's speech. I do not see why Fine Gael could not, based on its own policy, support our motion. I want the Minister to tell me why he would not try to develop Broadstone or Cathal Brugha barracks on that basis. Can he indicate what sites he is thinking of? If not those sites, which are the biggest, best, most effective sites that I can see, where does he suggest? Will we take south Dublin port back? That is one option that I would favour. I do not believe that storing boxes at a port within two miles of the city centre is an effective use of that land and it would be another location where we could consider availing of public land.

If the use of public land is only at the periphery and, as the national planning framework sets out, the Government is going towards 50% of new housing to be outside existing urban areas the result might be affordable but it will not be accessible. It will not create the type of cities that we want. The Minister has to start to be specific. Where is he going to apply this cost rental model? Why is he limiting it at 3,000 units including rented and house purchase? Will he proceed with that strain which almost every expert I have listen to and read agrees is one of the key strategic elements? It should be something that is not an afterthought, or something to test now and see if we continue it later, but be the centrepiece of the Government response.

4:40 pm

Photo of Maria BaileyMaria Bailey (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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I had not intended to speak until I heard some of the spurious remarks that were made in the Chamber. Just because someone shouts louder or is more animated does not mean the person is coming up with or delivering any solutions or that the person's intent is legitimate. It is obvious to see who is here in the Chamber and who cares or who speaks and makes it look as though they are concerned but then leaves immediately afterwards rather than hearing other ideas and proposed solutions from other Members. It is really grating as a backbencher who is very involved in trying to make a difference, and I believe I am making a difference, as is Deputy Pat Casey across the Chamber who is also on the joint committee on housing. He is there all the time when we meet three times a week, formally and informally, with all the additional meetings and is there trying to come up with ideas and solutions - legitimate ones - that are founded on real answers to achieve real results.

I have heard Deputies talk about marches and using the Chamber to advertise marches they are holding about various topics. It is great to mobilise people and I have heard the phrase "people power". I am all for communicating and bringing people with one. Where are they bringing them to? They are not actually coming forward with any ideas. Instead, all they are doing is ranting. The perception is that by shouting louder, being animated, speaking over people and making spurious remarks that they are doing everything. I do not see them at the housing committees or the ideas they are coming forward with, and I do not see them in the Chamber now. The legitimate people who want to make a difference are here. Other people can disagree with me if they want to.

I have been in politics long enough to see when people are mobilised and what happens when they start getting legal letters because they have not paid their bin or other charges. I see the same individuals who have been elected disappear when people go to them with legal letters. They do not help them. That is preying on vulnerability and abusing one's position. The responsible politicians are left to help those people because that is our duty. I do not believe in leading anybody up any garden path unless there is an answer at the end which will help them. I find it very insincere and disappointing that at this level in this Chamber this is happening. I am not somebody who is animated, rather, I am somebody who get on with it and does my work to the best of my ability.

The figures which were released yesterday are bitterly disappointing. This has been a serious issue for a very long time. Just because I am not animated does not mean I do not care. I have met many of the people affected. As a committee, we visited family hubs and discussed many of the other solutions in the plan to help people. We talked to people who are in difficult housing situations about how we can amend, fix or prevent situations like homelessness from occurring. The only way to inform policy is by talking to people who are currently going through a frustrating and serious situation which will have long-term consequences for their lives and have people who are informed and work in a professional manner help them come up with solutions in terms of implementation.

I have been involved in this for a long time. In local politics I saw at first hand the withdrawal of central government when it came to social housing. I saw that we moved to a system of private developers providing social housing, which was a mistake. It was not a decision made by this Government, but I do not want to go over the past because Fine Gael is about looking to the future. This Government has come into place with the answers, ideas and solutions which are required. We are also dealing with the mess that is substandard buildings. We have been asked to fix that and the taxpayers have to pay for it. They were the mistakes of the past when we did not put in place proper regulations. A previous Fianna Fáil Government did not put in place the standards and regulations which were required and taxpayers have to pay for their mistakes.

I want to outline number of ideas and solutions which have been implemented. I am not saying they are all perfect, but they are making a difference. The Government has amended planning laws with An Bord Pleanála, including a proposal that any building comprising over 100 units will go through a fast-track process of 25 weeks. The Minister came before our committee during the week. Planning permission has been granted for thousands of units. Fast-track planning permission is also allowing student accommodation to go through in 25 weeks if it is worthy. The numbers of planning permissions granted for such units number in the thousands. The rebuilding plan is a jigsaw with about 100 pieces. All of the pieces have to come together for it to work. In order to provide social, affordable and private housing we need all of the sectors to work together.

Some 32,000 people currently avail of HAP, which is not a long-term solution. An additional 17,000 families and individuals will be added to the list this year.

There are 500 family hub spaces. Again, I accept they are not a perfect solution. They are the short-term solution that will allow us the time to build long-term homes for those who live in the family hubs.

Approximately 8,000 social units will be delivered this year under the build, acquire and lease programme. This gave us breathing space to get that delivery up and running. However, to get delivery up and running, a broken sector that had no confidence to get on site had to be fixed. There is a massive risk involved. I know some people here think that if anyone who is in business, self-employed or in development is making a profit, he or she is a bad person. People will not build houses for nothing; they have to earn a living. This is always lost in the argument when the Deputies across from me bring it up. We have 700-odd sites around the country that are owned by the State, but it is up to us as Deputies to put pressure on our local authorities to come forward with plans for those sites. We can keep moving the blame elsewhere and to everyone else, but we as politicians have a responsibility, regardless of the party to which we belong, if the intent is to deliver housing for all in this country, to put pressure on and help our local authorities to come forward with schemes for those sites and support them when they do so.

We also had an issue in the downturn whereby we lost many good, experienced staff in local offices around the country. I know the issue is not funding around housing, but there is also funding that has been made available for additional staff when it comes to housing. Approximately 1,800 posts have been approved and sanctioned in the past 18 months for local authorities to help them across many of their departments, but in particular in the delivery of housing. One needs the staff on the ground to come forward with those schemes and one needs the funding to put those staff into those positions. That funding has been made available, and that has taken time. I know people like to forget that we were in a recession and that we are now down to 6% unemployment. I know people like to forget these good news stories, but we needed to get to that in order to get the rest of the country up and running.

Other things within the plan that are working are the Building Control (Amendment) Regulations and the SIRI Bill, as a result of which we know we will have quality builds. Whether it is commercial or residential, it is about quality builds. We know we have a shortfall in our construction area in respect of staff and we are working towards rectifying that now. The problem is not now; it will be in three years' time. We are working to offset that with upskilling programmes, new college programmes around the country and efforts to get people back to this country. We must get people back from Australia, Canada and America, and they must see a sustainable housing and construction market here, which is happening right now.

There are many pieces of this jigsaw. The cost-rental model that Deputy Ryan mentioned and the limit of 3,000 is only a start. We hope 20% or 30% of the rental market will be cost-rental. I accept everything is not perfect and that we have a long way to go. I absolutely accept that it is upsetting and frustrating for those 10,000 individuals and families who are going through this really difficult time in their lives, but we all have a duty of care here and a responsibility to make a difference in this, regardless of our party or the side of the House on which we sit. However, I ask those Deputies, rather than to rant and not come up with any solutions-----

4:50 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Or misrepresent people, as the Deputy did earlier.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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One speaker, please.

Photo of Maria BaileyMaria Bailey (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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-----to come forward with those ideas and not lead people up the garden path without an answer. I always have been solution-focused, and Deputies might not agree with me - Deputy Mattie McGrath made charges against me earlier - but I absolutely know where my moral compass is, and it is to help people who need our help. However, I am just not animated about it because I am practical about it.

Photo of Joan CollinsJoan Collins (Dublin South Central, Independent)
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I am a little underwhelmed by Deputy Bailey's speech, but she is right: she has her opinion, and everyone else has theirs. It does feel like Groundhog Day: we come in here nearly every week to discuss the issue of housing. However, it is a very important day for us to be here because two reports have been published in the past 24 hours.

The first was compiled by ALONE and makes the point that there were 15,883 people over 60 renting in the private sector last year. The number of older people is going to increase in the coming years. ALONE estimates that there will be 1.42 million pensioners in Ireland by 2031. It also makes the point that the average rent in Dublin is €1,277 per month. The contributory State pension is €1,032.63 per month. That says it all. Many people who are in work at the moment and renting will, when they are at a pensionable age, find it impossible to maintain that level of rent. Seán Moynihan stated yesterday that the Government's housing strategy, Rebuilding Ireland, did not recognise this. He stated that there seems to be an assumption within this plan and within the pension system that older people do not rent and do not have accommodation costs. This is a huge factor. We have recently seen individual instances where people have found themselves homeless. Homes were found for them but this is not the way we should be planning our housing policy.

We have seen the report today on the increase in the number of families and children that are homeless. There are 500 extra children this month who are homeless. That is an absolute scandal. How the Government can fail to call this a national emergency is beyond my understanding. We have pushed the Government on this issue over the past three or four years. It was not just yesterday or today that we knew this was happening. Four years ago, Deputies Durkan, Boyd Barrett, Catherine Murphy and I were all in here nearly every week outlining that we were seeing the initial signs of it in our constituency offices. The reason we are in such a bad situation did not come to the fore today or yesterday, either. The failure to invest in public and local authority housing for decades and a reliance on the private sector to deliver what should be a human right.

I heard Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy on "Morning Ireland" earlier today. She said that she has lost all confidence in the Government solving this issue. She made a very poignant point to the effect that an amazing amount of student accommodation has been built so quickly in the past two years, yet we are still talking about affordable housing. In the Dublin 8 area of my constituency, 3,500 student accommodation units have been built adjacent to Thomas Street in the past year. Where developers can make money, they are building. The second biggest type of construction in the area is hotels and the third is offices. No homes are being built. That is what people are getting frustrated about.

The Minister had a report in respect of the European Investment Bank. The programme for Government, which was published in 2016, makes reference to a European cost-rental model. We had been raising the matter over the previous two years. We are still waiting for action. I think the Minister is to get a report back in two or three weeks. However, the Housing Finance Agency has loads of money to give out. It went to Dublin City Council a year and a half ago and said, "We have the money, do you want it?" The council would not take it and said it was not in the business of housing at the moment. This is where the interventions should be. The Housing Finance Agency has the money. The credit unions offered money four years ago and we are still waiting for that process to go through. There is no will there. That is what is comes down to. We have student accommodation being built and loads of money is being made. We have hotels being built for tourists and families are living in them. In the meantime, residential homes are being rented out to tourists through Airbnb. The whole housing system has just gone absolutely mad.

The Minister is right that we need more supply, but it will not be provided by private developers. In 2006, the private sector produced a staggering 87,000 homes but prices still rose by 12%. This is going to happen again. I agree with others Deputies that we need social housing building programme on a massive scale. This would be a game changer in terms of reversing the current situation. We also need a public construction company and to encourage the young construction workers who had to leave this country eight years ago to return on the basis that if they help to build these homes they will be given one of them. Public housing should be available not only to those earning €33,000 per annum or less but to those earning €55,000 or €60,000 per annum. It should be available to workers in offices, the construction industry and the transport sector and so on because these people will never have an opportunity to buy a home owing to market conditions.

A couple of weeks ago, the Minister announced an increase in the affordable mortgage to €320,000. He also mentioned affordable rents but we have yet to see them. I agree with Deputy Eamon Ryan that what we need is not 50, 60 or 200 houses here and there but a major public housing programme that will be a game changer. We need public housing on public lands. We should not allow lands which are build-ready, such as St. Michael's Estate and other big pieces of land, to be handed over to private developers. What is happening is an absolute shame. I take exception to Deputy Bailey's point about calling people out onto the streets. I withdrew from the steering committee of the homeless and housing campaign because the Labour Party joined it. I could not sit in the same room with anyone from that party which, while in government for five years, introduced cuts and the housing assistance payment. I note there is nobody here from the Labour Party or on the Fine Gael backbenches. I would not sit in the same room with them. People should protest on this issue, as they did on the water charges issue. As a result of the huge numbers of people who marched on the water issue, the Government was forced to back down on it. In regard to bin charges, bin services should never have been privatised. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are responsible for the privatisation of bin services.

I never allowed anybody from our campaign to go into a court alone. Moreover, Deputy Boyd Barrett also did not allow anybody to go into a court on his or her own. I ask the Minister to call a national housing crisis emergency. I received a text from a person today stating that the Minister had done so earlier. It would be really good to hear him do that, as well as coming into the House with a programme of public housing that will be a game changer for people in this country and not a sop to people.

5:05 pm

Photo of Declan BreathnachDeclan Breathnach (Louth, Fianna Fail)
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I came into this House to make a difference. I stand over my job as an Opposition Deputy within the context of the confidence and supply arrangement to hold the Government to account. Desperate times require desperate measures. I will try not to be repetitive or animated but I will be passionate. I believe that if we put our heads together, we can solve this problem. I have spoken many times in this Chamber on housing issues and on what is an ever-escalating housing crisis. While the public might not believe it, I acknowledge that most people in this House are genuine and sincere about wanting to solve the problem. When it comes to the supply and availability of affordable houses, which is 17% across Europe as compared with 9% here, it is clear we have a problem.

Coincidentally, I watched a television programme on the BBC last night which referred to a 48% reduction in social housing in England. That speaks for the policies that were being pursued not just here but elsewhere.

I wish to address a number of issues to the Department generally. In August 2017, the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, announced some key actions, one of which related to vacant housing. This is an important issue for me. He said that a dedicated empty homes unit would be established in the Department's housing delivery office to drive and co-ordinate actions at central and local government level and to support local authorities in their actions. What is the position with this initiative? The Minister also said that all local authority chief executives were requested to designate vacant homes officers in each of the local authorities to examine the 2016 census and other data on vacant homes in their areas and to identify, through a vacant homes action plan, priority vacant hot-spot areas and properties that can be quickly brought into use. What has happened on that and what is the current position? I realise that vacant homes will not solve the problem but, as I said earlier, desperate times require desperate measures. There has been a huge disparity between the number of vacant homes identified by the CSO and the number of properties that are actually vacant. The CSO figures cannot be used as a measure of vacant homes as the office identified approximately 30,000 in Dublin city last year when the actual figure was closer to between 900 and 1,000. However, they would make an impact if they were made available.

A circular went out to all local authority chief executives regarding the repair and lease scheme on 1 February last, changing the rules so that property owners would not have to enter into such a long-term lease for the property. Why has there been such a low uptake of the repair and lease scheme? Has an analysis been carried out? I have no difficulty discussing this issue because I spent 25 years on my local authority. I know how successive Governments starved local authorities of money and staff and denuded them of powers. In my constituency, Louth County Council is acknowledged as having a great track record on acquiring vacant properties under compulsory purchase order, CPO. It uses its powers under the Housing Act to acquire non-derelict homes that are vacant, as part of the local authority’s obligation to provide housing. The director of housing in Louth has said that from start to finish, if the property is in reasonable condition, there can be somebody in the property within eight months. That is taking action. The Government has to get tough on local authorities that are failing in their duties in respect of vacant properties, so they can be brought back into use as soon as possible.

Others have referred to the figures on homelessness and I will not repeat them but it is imperative that urgent action is taken. In County Louth, for example, 65 people presented as homeless in January 2018 and a further 79 tenancies are being supported in order to prevent families becoming homeless. Some €3 million has had to be spent on emergency accommodation and €500,000 on bed and breakfast accommodation. Indeed, the spend in Dublin on emergency accommodation is approximately €60 million. The figures speak for themselves.

Of course, we could also deal with the unscrupulous vulture funds that are coming in to buy up distressed mortgages and the housing problem in one move. I have said this previously but nobody is listening. I do not have a monopoly on wisdom but offering the distressed mortgaged properties to the local authorities at the same knockdown prices the vulture funds are getting them for would remove the sword of Damocles hanging over the many people who are waiting for the grip of the vulture. I believe the Minister and the Minister for Finance, if they cannot introduce legislation on the matter, can instruct the banks, particularly Permanent TSB, that they must as a first priority offer any loan book that is suitable for housing to the local authority once they have been unable to engage with the person whose loan is in distress.

I hope the Minister will hear what I will say next. In my constituency there is a significant number of vacant dwellings arising from defaulting housing loans and repossession orders. I believe this represents 80% of all vacant dwellings in County Louth, the balance being tied up in legal difficulties such as probate or disputes around wills. I have also been reliably informed by my local authority that in its experience with financial institutions and compulsory purchase orders, there was no challenge to the constitutionality of it. It is my view - and that of senior officials in Louth County Council - that some 300 to 400 of these houses are boarded up. Most are former local authority houses in excellent condition and could be offered by the banks to the local authorities but hey are only interested in making money through the vulture funds. Because most of these dwellings are former local authority units they are in fair condition and only in a limited number of cases have been vandalised or tampered with. All have been vacant for between two and four years. Importantly, they are not on the market and their non-availability has reduced housing supply and is increasing the rent levels because of the pressure on demand. Hence the request for rent pressure zones to be extended.

Rebuilding Ireland has tasked the Housing Agency with acquiring portfolios of properties from financial institutions. Last year the agency acquired several hundred individual units. These units have subsequently been offered to approved housing bodies. I acknowledge the return of these units to productive use but I am satisfied that they represent only a portion of the vacant stock held by the banks. As an example, I note Permanent TSB has a large number of distressed vacant units in County Louth and it is neither bringing the properties to the market nor to the Housing Agency for disposal. I am strongly of the view that these units should be offered to the local authorities in portfolios. I am conscious that councils have been given limited targets to develop units and the acquisition of distressed units may conflict with national policy and balance sheet politics. I am aware, however, that Louth County Council, which has been very proactive in acquiring properties to solve the problem, would have no problem in seeking a Housing Finance Agency loan to acquire these units in one bundle to cover acquisition and refurbishment. This loan could then easily be repaid by ring-fencing the rents that are gained from putting these units to use and through future sales to tenants. As well as being the right thing to do, it would practically wipe out the council's housing list and it would improve communities by removing vacancies. The properties already sit on existing infrastructure. A measure such as this would sustain town centre communities and towns by contributing to school numbers and the footfall to small enterprises.

I do not believe I have been listened to in one respect and I am not the most popular person for pointing out the diminished role of local authorities. On the good work being done at local authority level to solve the housing crisis, I asked a parliamentary question last year on the number of approved housing bodies and staff employed. At the time there were 547 approved housing bodies employing approximately 6,500 staff. This has denuded the local authorities of their responsibilities in this area. If responsibility for housing provision was given back to the local authorities, we would have a more streamlined process, with one set of managers and administrators per local authority area instead of the hundreds of people who are managing the approved housing bodies. I am aware, however, that this would open up a new can of worms.

5:20 pm

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois, Sinn Fein)
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Earlier, I raised the figures for homelessness with the Tánaiste. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government was present when I did so. I pointed out that in one week in February there were 85 adults in emergency accommodation in Laois, Offaly, Westmeath and Longford. The figures we received from the Department did not specify the number of homeless children in the four counties. The problem of homelessness is not confined to Dublin and Cork or the major cities. In the midlands and rural areas there is a significant problem with homelessness.

I have read the programme for Government. When will the Government honour its commitments there and initiate the affordable housing scheme? There are several parts to solving this problem. That is one crucial part of it. We need to look beyond the M50 for the cost-rental scheme. It is needed in Portlaoise, Mountmellick, Tullamore and other large towns down the country, particularly for those who do not qualify for social housing because their income is barely over the limit. In Laois and Offaly that limit is €25,000. A couple with over that amount cannot get on the social housing waiting list and neither can a couple with two children earning over €26,000. They cannot get a mortgage and are stuck perpetually in private rented accommodation with up to half their income going on rent. I am familiar with the cases.

There is a need for rent controls to put a hold on runaway rents in the private market. Rents in Laois and Offaly are rising at between 11% and 13%. That is what the figures show. Rebuilding Ireland is not working. I am not saying that in order to play Punch and Judy with the Minister. It is not dealing with the scale of the problem. The response from the Government has been very disappointing. Recent figures show that the problem is increasing.

We need to recognise this is a housing crisis. Deputy Bailey said that we need solutions. I agree with her. Four or five years ago we put forward solutions, as did Deputy Ellis and others who were Members of the 31st Dáil. We know the Minister cannot wave a magic wand. We cannot wave one but we have to focus on this problem and agree that we have an emergency. That is the start in solving any problem. We need a comprehensive action plan to get badly needed homes in place and to get to grips with the homelessness crisis.

The main components must be the affordable housing scheme, the cost-rental scheme, the provision of social housing and the introduction of rent controls on private rented accommodation. Would somebody go over to the Customs House and put the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government onto a different track for processing the approval of local authority housing? Local authority staff around the State complain about it constantly. They must be saying it to the Minister and people in his office. The process is too slow. It takes years upon years. There is a case in Portarlington that will take three or four years from the time it is approved to putting shovels in the ground. That is too long. We need to speed up the process and liberate the local authorities.

The average rent in Laois is €932 a month. It is rising and landlords are doing side deals. I know of plenty of higher rents, with under-the-counter payments. People pay them to hold onto the property. We need to be bold about it. There is money available. The credit unions have a significant amount of money. There are pension funds from this State involved in all sorts of dodgy stuff overseas. I do not mean dodgy in the sense of being illegal, I refer, rather, to questionable projects that may not be sustainable. There is a return on some of these projects, such as those relating to the cost-rental model. Other countries do it. The Minister should go around northern Europe and he will see it being done. We need to recognise that and not have ideological hang-ups about these things.

The previous speaker mentioned the approved housing bodies. I agree with him. It is like a patchwork quilt. Sometimes I disagree with Fianna Fáil, but this is a real problem. They have little accountability to the Minister or the Dáil. Some of them are operating lease and repair schemes. The Minister should read the details of those. There is one in operation in Laois. It is a good business for what is supposed to be a voluntary housing body to be involved in. This is not an ideological matter, it is practical.

It is not a practical proposal. It is taxpayers' money down the drain for 28 years, and the taxpayer, the local authority or the Department will not own the house. Will the Minister revisit urgently the performance and accountability agreements? They are bad value for money and they are not the way to go. We need to remove the ideological hang-ups. Let us have direct builds where they are needed and let us make sure we put housing in place. We need to get away from depending on the private sector. It is not working. The suggestion has been made to invite people back to the country. We are inviting back nurses and it is good that we are doing so. Let us invite back carpenters, block layers, labourers and plasterers to work in this country to build the social housing we need. Let us recognise we have crisis. This crisis is in the midlands. We have a serious homelessness crisis throughout the State, including in Laois, Offaly and Westmeath, and we need to address it.

5:25 pm

Photo of Dessie EllisDessie Ellis (Dublin North West, Sinn Fein)
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It is clear we are in a major housing and homelessness crisis and I do not have to tell the Minister this. Not only are we not delivering social housing on the necessary scale, but we do not even have an affordable housing scheme. For many of us the reasons for this are obvious, but for the Minister and the Government it is an ideological resistance to State involvement in the delivery of housing. The selling off of housing portfolios to vulture funds must be stopped, and Government action is needed to purchase these or to solve this issue in a more imaginative way. We own some of these institutions, such as the banks. We need a State company dedicated to house building, which would not be influenced by the private sector or vested interests.

Buildings that have been left idle need to be acquired through compulsory purchase orders, and this should include vacant shops, which are strewn across the country in every town and village. Many of these could be converted into housing or even into affordable housing if necessary. Rebuilding Ireland is not delivering because the rate and speed of delivery is too slow. It requires a major review of what is and what is not working. Lands belonging to the local authorities have been identified, such as in my constituency of Dublin North-West, around Finglas, Ballymun and Santry, which can be built on at an affordable rate. There is the capability to build several thousand units in Dublin North-West alone, so we can imagine that across the country there is the capability to build a lot more.

I am sure the State lands the Minister identified earlier can be also utilised for social and affordable building projects. Ó Cualann housing has been building and delivering affordable housing and doing a reasonably good job, but the scale is nowhere near what is required and it needs to be ratcheted up. With what other housing bodies, such as Ó Cualann, has the Minister engaged? There is a commitment to build more affordable housing and to build large-scale social housing on a number of sites identified in my area. There is nothing wrong with building social and affordable housing schemes. One of the problems in the past was we did not put in the right facilities, such as crèches, community centres, schools and shopping malls. That was the issue. We got everyone into the mindset that we had to have private housing and if we did not have private housing we would end up with ghettos. I came from Finglas. Many people I know came from working class areas. They are not ghettos, they are great places to live. Unfortunately, the only problem we had was we did not have many facilities, which has been largely addressed over the past number of years.

We need to build approximately 10,000 units a year to address this crisis and we are nowhere near building this. The almost 10,000 people homeless and the more than 3,500 children in emergency accommodation is double the number from when the Government first came into being in 2011. At that time, we called it an emergency and we were looking for it to be declared an emergency. Anyone who believes the average rent in Dublin at €1,800 per month is okay is not living in the real world. We have to do something about this. The average industrial wage is something like €600. How in God's name did we get to this train of thought?

This has to be addressed. Since I was elected to the Dáil in 2011, and having taken up the housing portfolio with Sinn Féin, this crisis has spiralled. The solutions are the same today as they were when I was elected. We warned that the lack of a social housing building programme was a major problem. That must be addressed. An emergency should be declared, and the State should get involved in building housing.

5:30 pm

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Members who spoke during this debate. As the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Murphy, said at the outset of his remarks, which were primarily directed at affordability, the latest homelessness report repeats what we saw in January and would seem to indicate a very worrying trend since the beginning of the year in relation to the number of families presenting to our homeless services. I want to reassure the House again that the Government, local authorities, the voluntary housing sector and all the stakeholders involved are putting huge amounts of time and resources into helping people in homelessness every single day and night of the week.

I acknowledge the comments of the chief executive of the Peter McVerry Trust, Mr. Pat Doyle, this afternoon. He spoke about the need for all of the stakeholders involved to redouble their efforts and to work together. He also said that while overall figures have risen substantially, it is still clear that progress has been made in some areas. An example of that progress includes the fact that the number of single adults in homelessness fell last month. The number of rough sleepers is down dramatically - over 50% year on year. The efforts that local authority staff and voluntary staff from the different agencies and organisations made during the recent weather event was clear to see.

In January and February, almost 300 families were prevented from entering emergency accommodation or have exited it. Of the more than 100 families that presented in Dublin in February, only 20 were accommodated in hotels during 2017. More than 2,000 families left hotels and moved to sustainable tenancies, with the majority going into homes. Last year, more than 4,700 adults exited homelessness. A huge amount is happening. That is due in no small part to our partner organisations which are funded through taxpayers' money, including groups such as the Peter McVerry Trust, The Simon Community and Focus Ireland. These groups work closely with the staff of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. The underlying challenges remain - to build more homes and to do it at an affordable price, and to ensure affordable rental levels.

Deputy Stanley spoke about the voluntary housing groups. Legislation will come before the House in the next number of weeks regarding those voluntary housing agencies. The Deputy said that this is a national issue, and he is correct that homelessness affects every part of the country, not just Dublin and the major cities.

It is very important that the House discusses this issue on a regular basis. I have observed many of the debates that have taken place. Given the dreadful impact of the economic downturn on housing supply and the housing sector, it has taken a long time for recovery to kick in. Now that the country is recovering economically, demand is continuing to increase. This has resulted in house prices rising, and a significant increase in rental prices. The Government remains absolutely committed to continuing to drive the recovery of housing supply through the active implementation of the Rebuilding Ireland action plan and the adoption of policies and approaches where necessary. In tandem with increasing supply, we are determined to deliver a reformed and sustainable housing system which will provide quality affordable homes. Progress is being made towards these aims. The Government has restarted the delivery of social housing at scale, which was mentioned by many speakers today. It has offered hope to people on the local authority housing list and breathed life into the ailing housing construction industry. It has also offered hope to first time buyers, people who need to trade up or down, and indeed to renters.

Social housing output has been increased dramatically; the social housing needs of almost 26,000 households were met in 2017. To put that in context, the corresponding number for 2014 was 7,000. A substantial pipeline of new schemes is coming on track, and we will continue to drive the delivery of those new homes. I commend the local government sector on all the work it is doing in the areas of housing and homelessness. Local authorities are working with the Department, approved housing bodies and the housing agencies to deliver on the front line.

5 o’clock

As Minister of State with responsibility for local government, I see at first hand the challenges that the sector faces and its excellent response across the country. Last year, 100 households a day had their social housing need met. That is 100 cases a day where all that hard work made a huge difference in people's lives.

As housing and planning authorities, local authorities are uniquely placed to drive and oversee the delivery of affordable housing supply. Now that the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has announced the Government's new affordable housing measures, local authorities will be crucial in operating and managing the new home loan offering, affordable purchase and cost rental schemes. Councils are bringing forward their sites for the construction of thousands of new social and affordable homes. We are working with them to accelerate that delivery and to increase the yield of affordable homes to buy and rent, particularly in parts of the country with very high house prices and rents. We need the political system at national level, and the colleagues we all have in each local authority around the country, to get fully behind the work. It is fair to say that some local authorities are better at delivering than others. It is also fair to point out that there is a political responsibility on all of our party colleagues and our independent colleagues on local authorities around the country to ensure that we deliver results. Councils are also working with the private sector to ensure that good sites where we can deliver affordable homes are provided. To help this, the Government is providing €275 million to fund enabling infrastructure. We have also removed potential obstacles and de-risked the planning and regulatory regime.

I have listened to most of the contributions and I want people to be assured that the Government will do as Pat Doyle, the chief executive of the Peter McVerry trust, called for today. Working with all of the agencies and bodies involved in the sector, the Government will redouble its efforts to implement real changes affecting people who are caught in homelessness.