Tuesday, 10 December 2019
Rent Freeze (Fair Rent) Bill 2019: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
As everybody in this Chamber knows, rents are completely out of control. A quick look on daft.ietoday confirms this. In Cork city, the cost of renting a standard two-bedroom home is €16,000 per year. In Lucan, which is in my constituency, the cost is an astonishing €24,000. Across the electoral boundary, in Castleknock in the Taoiseach's constituency, the cost of renting an average family home with two bedrooms is €25,000 a year. In parts of the constituency of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government , Deputy Eoghan Murphy, rents can be as high as €34,000 annually. That is absolutely insane. How is any working person or a couple on a modest or average income meant to afford this? Average rents in Dublin are now €1,700 per month. Across the State, the average is €1,400. In many cases, one would need a household income of between €80,000 and €100,000 to be able to afford these kinds of prices. The impact of astronomical rents can be seen everywhere. Renters live under huge financial pressure. First-time buyers are forced to move back home with their parents in order to save for a deposit. Local economies are starved of spending as workers pay 40% to 50% of their disposable income on rent. Small and medium-sized employers struggle with rising wage claims that, in the main, are being driven, by high housing costs. The crisis in the rental sector is hurting people and damaging our economy.
It was not meant to be this way. When he was Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, launched his strategy for the private rental sector in December 2016. He promised to "moderate the rate of rent increase" and stated that after three years "new supply will have come on stream and pressures will have eased." He and his successor have failed because Fine Gael has left it to the private sector to increase rental supply. Fine Gael has failed to deliver a single cost rental home in three years. It is relying on the private rental sector to meet social housing need, increasing demand and rents for all. Crucially, rent pressure zones are not working. Fine Gael said rent pressure zones would limit rent increases to 4% a year for three years. Since January 2017, rents in Dublin have increased by 23% and by 24% across the State. That is double what the Government promised. No doubt the Minister will claim that there is finally some evidence that rent inflation moderation is happening. Even if that is true - and it is not clear yet - it is far too late. This policy has failed. Any future rent increases for hard-pressed renters are completely unacceptable. It it time to give renters a break.
The Bill before us, co-sponsored by my new constituency colleague, Deputy Mar Ward, does just that. It seeks to put a month's rent back in every renters' pocket through a refundable tax credit and to stop rents from further increasing. Fine Gael has given tax breaks to just about everybody else in the housing system. First-time buyers got the help to buy scheme, landlords got increases in mortgage interest relief and vulture funds get even more generous tax breaks. What about renters? Do they not deserve the same support? A refundable tax credit, as we outlined, would put up to €1,500 back into the pocket of every renter. It would cost the Exchequer €260 million a year but, in our view, would be money well spent. Meanwhile rents, would be frozen for three years at their current level for existing tenants and at the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, rent index level for that size and location of property for all new tenancies.
This is an emergency measure. It is intended to ease the pressure on renters and to give the Government some time to address the issue of supply. The private sector cannot and will not deliver affordable rental accommodation, especially in large cities. That can only be done with public housing on public land. In 2014, the Fine Gael Government promised to invest in affordable cost rental accommodation. In 2016, Rebuilding Ireland made the same commitment. Only this year, the first pilot cost rental scheme went on site. Just 50 units will be delivered next year. That is 50 affordable rental units throughout the course of Rebuilding Ireland. In its alternative budgets for 2019 and 2020, Sinn Féin proposed a major investment in council-led affordable rental accommodation. We committed €395 million to deliver more than 1,700 cost rental units in a single year. This is in addition to a commitment to deliver more than 4,000 affordable purchase homes in the same period. That scale of ambition is required. Anything less will condemn renters to a decade of unaffordable rents.
The Government will claim that the Bill is actually bad for renters because it will deter investment and choke off supply. That is absolute nonsense. Given Fine Gael's generous tax breaks for institutional investors, combined with record high rental yields, investing in rental accommodation is a pretty sure bet, even with a rent freeze in place. That claim is just cover for Fine Gael doing what it always does, which is looking after the big investors and landlords while letting working men and women fend for themselves.
I understand that some of the other Opposition parties have concerns about the Bill. I give a commitment to every Deputy in those parties that Sinn Féin will work constructively with everyone involved to iron out any potential difficulties and improve this Bill, if necessary. With the right approach, there is no reason this legislation could not pass before the end of the year. Let us roll up our sleeves, work together and give renters the early Christmas present they rightly deserve, namely, a refundable tax credit that will put a month's rent back in their pockets, an emergency rent freeze for three years and real investment in affordable cost rental accommodation. The latter will ensure that workers and families can access the secure and affordable accommodation they so desperately need and rightly deserve.
Rents in the State are too high and are continuing to rise. It is time to freeze rents and put money back into the pockets of families and workers. Fine Gael has had eight years to tackle the housing crisis and it has simply not delivered. Some 4,000 children are homeless. More and more people are being moved onto the housing assistance payment, HAP, and rent and house prices continue to soar. In my constituency, rents stand at almost €2,000 a month, which is an increase of 5% in just one year. Rebuilding Ireland has failed and a real housing policy is needed. This is beyond a shambles.
We need to do something to halt rent rises and reduce costs for tenants. We are discussing putting a halt to the cycle of record-breaking rents quarter after quarter. There are solutions to the housing and rental crises families are facing. This Bill would introduce a State-wide rent freeze and a refundable tax credit to all renters, equivalent to one month's rent. This Government has given tax breaks to developers and landlords, and it is now time to give renters that same break. Being in government is about making choices and taking a stand. Sinn Féin stands with families, workers and those trying to put a roof over their children's heads. We choose to do what is right and end the cycle of exploitation that is the housing crisis in Ireland.
Renting in this economy and society is extremely hard, even if one has a decent job and a secure income. It can mean paying a quarter, a third, or even more of one's income to secure half-decent accommodation. It may mean giving up for a long time, perhaps forever, the possibility of ever owning one's own home. The possibility of a permanent home is removed as such people do not qualify for social housing. If the situation is difficult for those on decent incomes with secure work, it is practically impossible for those on lower income or who suffer the slightest misfortune. Deputies on all sides regularly have constituents come to their clinics in respect of this issue. Some of the hardest cases to deal with are people who have received an eviction notice, who may or may not be on a housing list, and who are desperately trying to figure out where they will go. Those on HAP or lower incomes go through their options, look at the lists on daft.ie, ring around and try absolutely everything, but nothing is within their ability to pay.
People are paying far beyond what they can realistically afford for housing. I dealt with a woman last week who was constantly falling into arrears with electricity and gas in order to pay the rent. She would try to meet those bills, but she knew it was ultimately unsustainable. I met a couple a few months ago who had gone into almost €1,000 of arrears just because unpaid bills and arrears mounted up on a place they could, in theory, afford. They found themselves in a desperate situation. They received support from others to clear those arrears and they are managing as best they can, but they are making serious sacrifices to do so. Serious sacrifices are being made by families and workers in every part of this country. The rental situation is utterly unsustainable. In Cork, the average rent is €1,372, which is the highest it has ever been, and it still rising by 5.5%.
The Government will vote against this Bill, but its efforts will be defeated because Fianna Fáil is backing it. I welcome that support, but I am mystified at Fianna Fáil's late conversion. When Sinn Féin first proposed a rent freeze, the national average rent was €960 a month. It is now €1,403. I do not know when the threshold was reached. At what point did rent become too expensive? At what point did the number of homeless people and homeless children get too high? I welcome Fianna Fáil's support of this Bill, but we would be far better off if we had gotten to this point some time ago.
I said last week that people outside this House are sick and tired of politicians debating the housing crisis. We have put forward many solutions to it. The rental crisis is a product of this Government not building the homes people need for the last eight years. Many families want to own their own homes but do not have that option, first, because the Government is not building any affordable homes and, second, because the high rents many young couples are paying deprive them of the opportunity to save money to do so. The Government is robbing many young families of their futures and their dreams of buying their own homes.
The Government has sat on its hands in respect of this issue for eight years, as has Fianna Fáil. When we pointed out to the Government that this would get worse unless direct action was taken by the State, it refused to do anything and told us that the market would sort itself out, because this was a market problem. It was nothing of the sort. It was a crisis created by the Government because it did not build social and affordable homes. Everybody, including those with social housing needs, was then forced into the private rented sector, which created the perfect storm of this crisis in rent. The Minister knows a rent freeze is needed. He knows it will give those young people a break.
Some families and couples no longer rent homes, especially in Dublin. I have said this to the Minister before. They are renting rooms in houses. Three, four, or five couples and families rent rooms in one home because that is the only opportunity they have. People are paying over €1,200 a month for a room in a house. In some cases they are renting beds and sharing rooms with other people because of the rental crisis.
The Government closes its eyes to this situation and rejects any proposals from the Opposition. Fianna Fáil has had a late conversion to this, as Deputy Ó Laoghaire noted. It previously ridiculed our past proposals regarding a rent freeze. It has now changed its spots and says it supports the proposal before the House, as it does with every issue, because of the by-election results and because we are getting closer to a general election. In reality, those in Fianna Fáil, like the Government, sat on their hands. This is an opportunity for the Minister to do something right, although I do not think he will. We have gone beyond talking about no confidence in him or the Government. What is the point? They have never listened. As long as the people of this State keep voting for this Minister, his party or even Fianna Fáil, there will be no solution to the housing and rental crises. Only with a Sinn Féin Government will there be any real change.
Every single day of every single week in almost every constituency clinic the length and breadth of this country, there is one issue that one can guarantee will be to the fore. That issue is the housing crisis, and the fallout from it, and it is being raised by people who have been on the housing list for over a decade, those who have been put to the pin of their collars paying extortionate rents and individuals who have been served with notices to quit. I do not know if the Minister has ever sat across a table from someone who has been served with a notice to quit because one can see straight away that blind panic has set in. This panic stems from the very real fear of becoming homeless because there is nowhere to rent and there is certainly nowhere they can afford to rent. People are also paying huge rents for substandard accommodation. When they complain to their landlords, be it about damp throughout the house and their children developing coughs and asthma or about the heating not working in the depths of winter, some will just turn around and say "Oh, I was thinking of selling it anyway". I have heard this numerous times. Why are they saying that? It is to put the fear of God into people in order to get them to stop complaining. It is a case of put up or shut up. That is what they are saying and that is happening on a regular basis.
The average monthly rent in Louth is €1,236. In Meath, it is €1,334. Rents have increased by 3.6% in the past year in both counties. Rents in Louth and Meath have more than doubled since their lowest point. Rents have increased by over 100% in both Louth and Meath. If that does not indicate a crisis, I do not know what does.
At what point will the Minister call a halt to this? How much misery do people have to endure before he will take responsibility and deal with the situation? A rent freeze would help to alleviate the financial misery people are in. It would work and can work. All it takes is the political will and the ideology. How much more does the Minister want people to suffer before he does something?
Despite what the Minister says, I am not certain that he truly understands the impact of his policies in real life and on real people. I am not certain that he has ever had to deal with a person facing uncertainty when he or she has been given a notice to quit. People will tell one that it is a landlords' market and that they are the vulnerable ones and do not want to speak up. They do not want to raise concerns about damp making their children cough and the living conditions in which they are forced to exist because they are in fear of their landlords. What the Minister has tonight is an opportunity to send a message to those people that he is not solely on the side of landlords and that he is on the side of renters and recognises that there is an emergency, that renters need a break and the need for this Government to take its foot off their neck and stand with them.
I commend Teachta Ó Broin on bringing forward this legislation because, as he has said, it is emergency legislation designed to deal with an emergency. However, I do not believe that the Minister understands that there is an emergency. I do not believe that this has got through to him. I do not think that he has seen the actual impact of the rental crisis. People are forced to bring their children up in substandard accommodation. No parent wants to do that but parents everywhere are being forced to live in damp and unsuitable accommodation for the simple reason that they know it is a landlords' market and that the Government will always be on the side of landlords ahead of renters.
I thank Deputy Ó Broin for bringing forward this Bill. Rents are too high at the moment. They are impossibly high for many people. I am the housing Minister and I am responsible. I deal with this crisis every day. I deal with it not just in the context of Private Members' business or when I am taking my constituency clinics, but every day. It is my responsibility. The Government is not supporting this Bill because we do not believe it is a solution. In fact, we believe it is the opposite of a solution.
The Opposition will state that this is because we are pro-landlord or only on the side of landlords. That is nonsense. In June, we passed new legislation for tenants that was all about renters' rights. It was all pro-tenant. It was supported by Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil because it was for tenants so they should not forget their own hypocrisy in this debate. Why is it okay to be anti-landlord? Why is it okay to speak against landlords because they are part of providing housing in this country, as they have been for years, and they are a very important part of it? We must find a balance in everything we do. We must protect tenants but we must also ensure that there are landlords operating in this country. As a result of the crash we had so recently, we know that many people became accidental landlords and that they continue to be landlords. Deputy Ó Broin says that being a landlord is a sure bet. Why do we keep seeing landlords leaving the market if it is a sure bet? Others in opposition will say that we are ideologically opposed to rent freezes. That is rubbish. We are not ideologically opposed to any solution we believe will work, but where is the evidence that this will not cause more harm? Where is the evidence that it will not mean a loss of supply in the rental sector?
Where is the evidence that it will not harm tenants?
We can expect this populism from Sinn Féin and the left because they supported the rent pressure zones and the rent reforms that are less than six months old and went out and spoke against them immediately. They say one thing and do another. Deputy Ó Broin quotes rents from his own constituency. Was he welcoming the 1,000 homes that got planning permission that his party was against only a year ago?
Sinn Féin must recognise its own hypocrisy in this debate. That hypocrisy makes it okay for Sinn Féin to block housing developments throughout the country. Of course, we can expect populism from Sinn Féin. I am not quite sure what to expect from Fianna Fáil because it seems to be for and against this Bill at the same time.
I do not quite understand what that means. Is it the Sinn Féin tail wagging the Fianna Fáil dog again? I am not sure but it is actually quite reckless because it is supporting a Bill without there being any evidence in favour of it. It is supporting a Bill without any evidence that it will help and when all the evidence is stacked against it and that it is a bad idea.
We heard speculation about a rent freeze in 2015. What happened? Rents skyrocketed. It coincided with a 50% increase in children going into emergency accommodation.
It went up by 1% in the past 12 months and 50% during that period. Sinn Féin does not like what it is hearing. Its Deputies can heckle me all they want. They had their choice to speak without interruption so I would appreciate the same courtesy in our Parliament.
What we have seen without even opening up this Bill is that it is unconstitutional. One has to wonder whether anyone read it. For some bizarre reason, HAP tenants would still get rent increases when nobody else would so those who are most vulnerable in the context of this crisis would suffer rent increases.
Any simple constitutional reading of this Bill would tell one that it does not pass the proportional treatment test but one wonders if Fianna Fáil even read it before it gave its support to it. Where is the evidence that it would work? Where is the evidence that it is constitutional? Where is the evidence that the Government would be able to pay the €260 million that would be required for this tax credit. Again, we are back to-----
I am being interrupted again and that is the problem because Sinn Féin does not like what it is hearing. It voted against every single budget we brought forward that reformed this economy and put us in a position whereby we can invest in public services again. Now we are meant to believe that the alternative budgets it brings forward are credible. That is a nonsense. We are back again to tax credits, hollowing out the tax base and putting our economy at risk within ten years of the previous crisis when the lack of a proper taxation system and fiscal controls brought our country to its knees.
I know that rent freezes sound good to most people because the idea is that their rent will not increase. However, we know that rent freezes also freeze movement within the rental sector. People do not move out of their homes. Look at what has happened in New York over decades, where movement within the rental sector was completely frozen. Movement for new renters into the rental sector here will also freeze up because there is nowhere for new renters to go because people are not leaving the homes they are renting. It freezes investment in supply and property upkeep. It is nothing but negative when it comes to what tenants actually need. Members need not take my word for it. Rent freezes have been introduced in Berlin and the experts there warned that freezing rents did not offer a solution for those looking to rent, that the level of new supply would fall, that existing homes would not be modernised and that it would not contribute to climate protection because people would not retrofit their homes.
What has happened? There has been a 40% reduction in building permissions in Berlin, year on year, to September of this year. There has been $1.1 billion of investment frozen and a risk of a loss of 5,000 properties in the rental sector. The Federal Government in Germany has also stated that the measure is unconstitutional. That is evidence that rent freezes are a bad idea.
What do our experts say? The Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, has stated that this measure would send compliant landlords out of the market and we would lose supply. The RTB also stated that it would drive other landlords underground which is bad for tenants who would have no protection in those circumstances. It stated the measure would unfairly hit landlords who have been charging below market rents for years. The Bill would be unworkable for the RTB because its whole premise rests on the annual rent register, which comes from legislation that I introduced earlier this year and which Sinn Féin supported. The rent register will not be full and in place until next year. That would mean a lacuna during which rents would again skyrocket, hurting tenants further.
We are still facing legacy issues from the economic crash and landlords are still leaving the sector. Being a landlord is not a sure bet, contrary to what Deputy Ó Broin has said. Rents are still increasing but the rent controls we introduced in 2017 has to purposes, namely, to protect tenants and prevent the undermining of supply. What has happened? In the past 12 months, roughly 20,000 new homes have been built, the highest number in a decade. Apartment completions increased by 42% on the previous 12 months. The third quarter of this year will see an 81% increase in apartments compared with the same period last year. Of course, that figure needs to increase further. I point out to Deputy Ó Snodaigh that we need more apartments in places where people want to live.
We must move away from the idea that people who own homes do not want to see any disruption to the area in which they live. They do not want extra traffic or footfall but still want good jobs for their children and affordable homes. If people keep objecting to new homes and politicians adopt the same position, we will see the delivery we need.
Rents are still too high but the new rent controls that we have put in place have worked to a degree, and independent evidence published over the summer reflected that. That evidence showed a dampening of rent inflation of between 2% and 3% as a result of rent controls.
Daft.ie, in its latest rental report, stated that the long run of high rents that we have sustained for too many years seems to be at an end. Rents are still rising at roughly 7% but new supply is pushing this number down. The so-called cuckoo funds that were not covered under rent controls are now covered, thanks to reforms I brought in six months ago which were also supported by this House.
There is a discrepancy between existing and new tenancies but we have addressed that with an annual rent register that will come into force next year and through new powers and inspectors for the RTB. Cases are already under way. We changed the qualifying criteria for rent pressure zones and more than 65% of rental properties in the State now come under rent control. We have extended rent controls for two more years.
We now have cost rental on site. The first project will deliver rents at €1,200 for a two-bedroom apartment. It is a pathfinder project. We want cost rental to account for at least 20% of the rental market but that cannot be achieved overnight. Given the finances involved, we need to get this right the first time because if it fails, it will not be repeated on other sites.
We have incentives like the help-to-buy scheme and the Rebuilding Ireland home loan precisely to help people out of the rent traps that they are in. We recognise that rents are too high, unsustainably so. Rent controls are working to drive down rent inflation without affecting supply. Fundamentally, all of this comes back to making sure that new homes are being built to buy and to rent. We are helping those who want to buy out of the rent trap, recognising that rents are too high. That is what we are doing now and that is why we cannot support this Bill. Rent freezes sound good to someone who is renting but all of the evidence tells us that a freeze will damage supply, as is happening in Berlin right now after this measure was tried there. We also know the Bill is unconstitutional, as Fianna Fáil would have seen immediately if its members had bothered to read it.
We all know that an entire generation now risks being permanently locked into a rental trap. Two parts of that trap have been set over the past several years by the policy of Fine Gael Governments. On one side, we have the unprecedented rent levels that have soared by 81% since 2011, while on the other side we have the unaffordable house prices that are beyond the reach of most workers with ordinary incomes who are competing directly with the cuckoo funds the Minister mentioned and the State, which is snapping up properties that could be available for first-time buyers. Ensnared in this trap are the 900,000 people caught in the rip-off rental market across this country. For Fine Gael, the shift to rental is a positive outcome of a move towards a continental rental model. It is Fine Gael policy to move people into private rental accommodation. For Sinn Féin, it is a chance to reject home ownership.
Between those two extremes are the vast majority of renters who want to own their home but are caught in up the financial mire of renting. Survey after survey has shown that tenants want out. They want to break free of the rent trap and get a place they can truly call their own. We need to consider the long-term consequences of this trap and the financial impact it entails. The cost and consequences of the rent trap being set by Fine Gael, based on its obsession with the new continental model, will be disastrous. Likewise, the wish list economics of Sinn Féin, which has its own fixation on locking people into a social rental model, would have dire long-term repercussions. In contrast, Fianna Fáil believes in home ownership. It is good for individuals, families, communities and the country at large. We believe that tenants stuck in a rip-off rental market should be given the opportunity to break free of the rent trap and purchase their own home. That is why we are supporting the Bill on Second Stage, as a measure to help break free of this suffocating rent trap.
There are several reasons that we are better off with home ownership. Financially, housing soaks up much of the disposable income of workers and is a key asset in building up wealth. Owning one's own home is cheaper than renting and allows a store of value to build up wealth. This wealth can be transferred on to the next generation to give that generation a better start in life. With rent levels soaring by 81%, as I noted, the financial case against long-term renting in the private rental market is proven. Paying off a mortgage is a foresaving mechanism, particularly after the first few years when interest repayments are replaced by equity. Each repayment is an investment in the future, as well as a charge on accessing that accommodation. By contrast, renting is a monthly cost, essentially a charge for using a service with no return on the money spent at the end. With buying consistently cheaper than renting, owners have the benefit of saving and investing more.
The recent emphasis by the State on private rental also ignores the ticking time bomb that goes off when a generation of renters reaches old age. The shifts we are witnessing now will mean that, in a few decades, private renters no longer earning wages on entering enter retirement will be reliant on heavy State subsidies to afford high rents in a competitive market where they are pitted against younger workers.
Beyond these clear financial benefits, there are also real social benefits to promoting home ownership. Giving individuals and families a clear stake in an area and a sense of place that they can transfer to their children is a stabilising force in society. Greater community participation and increased general well-being are consistently captured as the results of home ownership in academic research. The instability of renting is no substitute for that. Home ownership is the most secure form of tenure. That is why we need affordable housing for working people.
These factors are all part of a broader reason that Ireland historically promoted owning the roof over one's head. It is the reason that, in survey after survey, young people still overwhelmingly aspire to buying their own place. That is why Fianna Fáil wants to help renters break free of the rent trap.
As I said, Fianna Fáil will support this Bill on Second Stage. Allowing this legislation to proceed to pre-legislative scrutiny will give an opportunity to tease out its ramifications. For example, as the Minister stated, the constitutionality of the Bill may be disputed. Its impact on supply and the fact that it covers the entire country, not just the existing rent pressure zones, also need examination. Furthermore, it will give us an opportunity to discuss in detail the rent tax credit cost and its impact on the rental market.
We need to strike a balance between restraining the extortionate rents tenants are paying and keeping ordinary landlords in the system and not penalising those who have not hiked up their rents in recent years.
I will focus briefly on the impact on small landlords. There are 150,000 landlords in Ireland, 80% of whom have either one or two rental units. They do not enjoy preferential tax treatment in contrast with the real estate investment trusts, REITs, and cuckoo funds this Government has cultivated. Fine Gael has focused on attracting REITs and Irish real estate funds, IREFs. Institutional landlords which are the norm in countries like Germany have begun to rapidly expand into Ireland but will not fill the gap left by the traditional landlord. REITs are heavily concentrated on the high income accommodation sector of the market, leaving large cohorts behind.
Haemorrhaging properties from a severely pressurised market further drives up prices, freezing out low income workers and vulnerable households which, in turn, is generating our abysmal homelessness crisis. Despite this, the Government has done nothing other than accelerate mortgage interest relief under pressure from my party to address this embattled sector. Instead, it has pressed its thumbs on the scale in favour of institutional investors.
The Minister may remember the publication in 2017 of the report of the working group on the tax treatment of landlords. That remains unfinished business. At pre-legislative and Committee Stage of this Bill, Fianna Fáil will ensure that the report's proposals on alleviating the burden on small landlords are addressed. The proposed rent freeze should not be a further spur to losing badly needed homes from that sector. A rent freeze alone will not address the multiple facets of the rent crisis, which goes much deeper than that. A new national rent deposit scheme will help address the disputes around deposits. A local authority rent accommodation quality certificate will help to improve standards. Rolling out cost rental to scale after years of missed deadlines is a badly needed step. Broader steps to tackle construction costs, reduce land prices and get bricks and mortar in the ground to boost supply are vital. Ultimately, however, we need to give renters an opportunity to realise their dreams and ambitions to own their own place. The Fine Gael vision of a private rental sector is both economically and socially unsustainable. The Sinn Féin model of total social rental is equally damaging. We should not be afraid to actively support people to own their own home.
The Bill should not be viewed in isolation. Fianna Fáil support for it is a recognition of the pressure and strain the rent trap is placing on the shoulders of tenants across Ireland. We will work on Committee Stage to further refine the Bill and ensure the playing field is levelled out for small landlords. Most important, we will ensure this Bill forms part of a suite of measures to help renters smash out of the jaws of the rent trap and buy a place of their own. Fianna Fáil's Planning and Development (Amendment) (First-Time Buyers) Bill 2019 passed Second Stage last week. Our affordable housing scheme, supports for renters to save for their deposit and shared ownership models must all form part of a campaign to arrest the decline in home ownership and break the rent trap once and for all.
Tonight's debate provides us with the opportunity to discuss solutions to the housing crisis in the rental sector rather than continue to play politics with the national emergency caused by the failure of current Government policies in respect of the rental sector.
Rents are at an all-time high and many families cannot afford their rent because of the rack-renting taking place in certain parts of the country. We have the perfect storm whereby rental units are leaving the market and being placed in the sales market, thus reducing the supply of homes for rent and putting extra pressure on families, particularly in the Dublin area and the wider commuter belt, including County Wicklow where I live.
The market based approach to the rental sector taken by Fine Gael in government is simply not good enough. Fine Gael had to be dragged kicking and screaming to introduce the rental pressure zones some years ago. I pointed out at the time that the best way of introducing the pressure zones would have been to introduce a national rent pressure zone and then remove areas that did not need to have such measures. Instead, the scheme has been reluctantly expanded, which has caused total confusion in the rental sector in County Wicklow regarding which areas are included in and excluded from the rent pressure zones, and the reasons for doing so. The lack of a coherent policy response by the Government to the rental sector has created deep uncertainty for tenants and landlords.
Fianna Fáil has introduced a number of Bills to address the rental crisis. Our recent Overcrowded Housing Bill provides for a new statutory definition of overcrowded housing to replace the outdated 1966 definition and the limited penalties currently used. The aim of the Bill is to provide clarity to ensure that landlords cannot exploit the current rental crisis to impose unsafe and substandard living accommodation. It sets the basic minimum, not the preferred option. The Fianna Fáil Bill would strengthen the legislative framework for tackling overcrowding and it should be reinforced by additional resources to local authorities to roll out comprehensive inspections.
Rents are at an all-time high. In the short-term letting sector entire homes and apartments are being rented to tourists while children and families are being accommodated in hotels, including my hotel in Glendalough, which is 50 km from Dublin city centre. Fianna Fáil introduced a Bill to control the unprecedented expansion of the short-term letting sector and the impact it is having on the rental market. Tonight, in Dublin alone, more than 4,600 homes and apartments are available on just one of the short-term letting platforms, the majority of which should be available to long-term tenants and not tourists. As a party, Fianna Fáil has always supported families in their aspiration to own a home of their own. We know that these families are failing to save for their future. The excuse that people prefer to rent is often used to explain reduced ownership levels. However, that ignores the growing difficulties that young families are experiencing in saving for a deposit in a rip-off rental market while faced with greater credit constraints. We introduced the Planning and Development (Amendment) (First-Time Buyers) Bill to give these families a chance.
A moral and ethical imperative must apply when it comes to the rental sector in housing. Spreadsheet focus and profit margin expansion must be limited by the common good. As we all know, the constitutional provision enshrining private property rights subjects those rights to the common good. The common good is being negatively affected by the rent profiteering in certain parts of the country, especially the greater Dublin area. This cannot be allowed to continue in the face of the housing and homelessness emergency. Responsible government mandates radical action in emergency circumstances to protect citizens from the risks and consequences of homelessness.
Fianna Fáil, as a solution based party, is willing to allow this Bill pass this Stage in order to introduce changes that make it workable. Fianna Fáil is making it clear tonight that there are no sacred cows in our determination to tackle the housing crisis. Fianna Fáil will introduce all measures needed to provide homes for all Irish people.
Tackling the issue of rent prices is far from a new phenomenon. Going back to the early part of the 20th century, we can see that efforts were made to tackle rent prices in worsening economic times. Following the end of the First World War, temporary rent control measures were introduced to tackle spiralling rents caused by a lack of supply of housing.
Some commentators try to help the Government by stating that the Opposition does not produce workable solutions. However, it is a bit like a football manager and his approach to how the game is played. At its core, this is a simple game and those who do not over-complicate it achieve most success. The basic principles of the housing problem and the solutions to it have not changed since The Irish Times, a century ago, reported on the rent control measures after the First World War. It referred to a lack of supply, spiralling rents and an increase in homelessness. Is that not a familiar theme?
One of the most depressing realities we all face in our constituency offices every week are the people who come into us who, having been approved for the housing assistance payment scheme, cannot find a property to rent because of the dearth of houses and apartments. In the case of those who are lucky enough to secure a home or an apartment, the prices we are seeing in our offices are depressing. Today, checking estate agents in Navan, my home town, I found that renting a four-bedroom semi-attached home in an estate would set one back €1,700 a month. That is €600 to €700 above what most people in the town would be paying in a mortgage for the same property. That is €20,400 per year just to keep a roof over one's head.
In the course of this debate there is no harm in reiterating those statistics and putting them on the record because it reinforces the reason for such debates and initiatives. It also goes to the core of the ideology in respect of housing not only from Government but also driven by statutory bodies such as the Housing Agency during the past decade. That ideology has in effect brought us to this point, at which people cannot access properties to rent even if they can afford the astronomical prices being sought.
The statistics that the Minister and other Ministers will quote tonight will refer to the impact of this Bill or the impact of Rebuilding Ireland. Yet, if the reality was different from what we experience each week, there would be no need for debates such as the debate we are having tonight. This is not coming out of fresh air. That is the brutal reality.
In the wake of last week's motion of no confidence, there was an acceptance, even among staunch Fine Gael backbenchers, that the issue has not been grappled with. Perhaps tonight and, more importantly, when we go beyond the set piece of Second Stage and the Bill goes to Committee Stage, the opportunity to thrash out what can work should receive a fair hearing.
Let us consider the issue of rent pressure zones. Many of us raised the fact that additional towns needed to come under the auspices of the scheme because of spiralling rents. We were accused of being merchants of doom for saying so, but we were reflecting the reality faced by renters in our constituencies. The town of Navan had seen these pressures, and belatedly this was acknowledged when, in March of this year, the town was added to the list along with Limerick city. Earlier, I quoted an example of a house in Navan on the rental market for €1,700 per month. It is obvious that the problem is manifestly real. Added to the problem of skyrocketing rents is the fact that there will be no hope of reversing the trend. This is affecting the desire of young couples and people to realise the dream of owning their own home because of the money they are pumping into rent. The decreasing levels of home ownership will continue in this country.
The process of implementing ideas in respect of the housing crisis is a two-way street. When we came to the House some weeks ago with proposals for first-time buyers, it was depressing to hear the manner in which the Minister was not only dismissive but aggressively dismissive and negative towards the means by which first-time buyers could be given preference.
Like the debate tonight about a freeze on rents, the fact that we will get the support of the House to move to Committee Stage is positive because at least it shows there is a willingness among the majority of parliamentarians to look at this problem in a broader way rather than through the narrow prism in which it is being viewed at the moment.
One of the biggest problems I have come across is the lack of any security in rental agreements. When a family gets notice to leave, the crisis really hits because no alternative homes are available. That is why these families end up in some circumstances in homeless accommodation. We need to rethink the way we do things when it comes to our housing crisis. That is why I support the progression of this Bill to Committee Stage. We need to rethink security of tenure of homes as well. All we have to do is look at what happens in agriculture. When the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government started in secondary school, the vast majority of farm leases in the country were of 11 months in duration. Today, long-term land leasing of between five and 15 years plus makes up over half of all farm leases. This is because our tax system incentivises long-term leasing. This needs to happen in the housing rental market and should focus on small land owners rather than international companies. If, like farm land, half of all rented homes were under leases of a minimum of five years, then it would leave far fewer families under the threat of homelessness.
The problem of affordable housing is complex and no single measure can promise a comprehensive solution. There are certain risks with some proposals and there could be unintended consequences, but we must take those risks in the interests of all our families. I encourage the Minister to look at the long-term leases in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and replicate the model in the housing sector to provide security of tenure to families.
First, I wish to state that the Labour Party will be supporting the Bill on Second Stage. There is one particular issue to which we will propose an amendment on Committee Stage, but I will come to that later. It is clear from the numbers present that the Bill will pass on Second Stage. I too welcome the late conversion of Fianna Fáil. It will mean that the Bill will pass, and that is positive. However, it would have been more effective if that particular view had been expressed at an earlier stage in the life of this Dáil, because we might have been able actually to do something practical.
Quite honestly, we are coming close to the end of this Dáil and the practicalities of getting the legislation all the way through both Houses of the Oireachtas are fairly difficult. Since there is a clear majority in favour, maybe that muscle can be used to move the Bill forward on Committee Stage. Perhaps we can have pre-legislative scrutiny quickly and not have a delay in taking the Bill on Committee Stage. We may be able to get it back to the House for Report Stage and then through the Seanad. Clearly, the Opposition numbers are greater in both Houses than the Government numbers. I am putting that challenge out tonight to be worked on.
As Deputy O'Brien said, there is a raft of Opposition Bills with nothing happening. What is the point really? We constantly debate the issue of housing here in this Chamber, but if we cannot actually do anything about it for the people who are stuck in rented accommodation that they cannot afford, then what is the point? The idea that people would pay in excess of €20,000 per year is absolute madness when we think of what average incomes are and the kind of incomes that people are trying to pay those rents from. We should make a concerted effort actually to achieve something within the lifetime of this Dáil rather than have all these worthy Bills going nowhere. Some of these Bills have come from me or my party as well as other parties. I called this place a do-nothing Dáil once and I see more and more evidence of that.
Many people present will remember when, three years ago, we sat in the Chamber late at night to bring through legislation that the Government considered to be important. There were some positive measures in it. It was the legislation that brought in rent pressure zones. We debated a complicated formula that was actually wrong and we had to put it right. We were here until midnight. There is no reason we cannot do business if we want to. One of the amendments we proposed at the time - it was proposed by other parties too - linked rent increases to the rate of inflation. If that had happened then rather than rent pressure zones, we would not have the kind of increases that we are looking at now. Such increases are putting us in the position of requiring a temporary rent freeze.
I wish to comment on the Berlin proposal. I had a look at it on my telephone. The proposal has not been implemented yet. There are warnings about how it might affect the housing market, but the legislation is not yet in place. There are protests about it and so on. We need to give it a chance to see how it works. The linking of rent increases to the rate of inflation is in place in several countries and is effective. I believe that is the best idea, if we get it in time.
Clearly, we have reached a point where rents are simply unaffordable for people. According to the most recent Daft report, in my city of Limerick the average rent is €1,219. I meet people all the time - we all do in our work as public representatives - who simply cannot afford the kind of rents they are being asked for. Before I came to Dublin yesterday, I met a group of elderly people in a retirement village. They are now being faced with rent increases that are simply impossible for them. They went into the retirement village believing that they were going into secure accommodation with rents that would not go up beyond a certain point, but they are now faced with significant rent increases.
Clearly, we need supply. No one disagrees with that. I want to comment briefly on that as well because we have seen affordable rental proposals being made while little is happening. I know there are intentions for several areas in the Dublin area in particular. Sites have been identified as suitable in my constituency and in other cities but we have seen no progress. We have not seen affordable purchase moving in a speedy fashion either.
The vacant sites levy is meant to encourage the provision of land for the development of housing, but there is no great evidence that that land has being forthcoming either. Increasingly, the private sector is choosing to build on the public land that has been made available to it, something we debated on many occasions should not be the case.
I submitted a proposed Bill, which has not yet come back from the Ceann Comhairle's office, on something that my party included in a previous Private Members' Bill, namely, implementation of the Kenny report of the early 1970s. This would discourage people who own land that is appropriate for development from sitting on it and hoarding it until they can make a significant profit. This would be done by limiting the amount of profit to the current value plus 25%. I hope I will be able to introduce that Bill in the House in the near future. That brings me back to the point of us in opposition making proposals that do not move any further and are left, and us not being effective.
I support this Bill in principle. I would like to see a concerted effort to get it through. My party's concern, on which I would propose an amendment, relates to when the Bill is near implementation, and that is that people outside of rent pressure zones should be protected from their landlords increasing their rent significantly in anticipation of a freeze. That is always a fear with legislation and we would need to have measures to prevent that from happening. There may well be other proposals amending the legislation.
In principle, the concept is one that my party supports and is one we have proposed as well. We should move this on to Committee Stage but then we should move it further. Otherwise, we will have a new Dáil coming in with a pile of wonderful suggestions and Private Members' Bills that have not been enacted. We will have not been able to do anything significant to protect those who are stuck in private rented accommodation, cannot afford a mortgage, and are outside of the social housing income limits. Even if they are within those limits, they are probably still on waiting lists anyway. We need to do something to protect the people who are renting in Ireland.
This is not just a debate about rent. It is a debate about class warfare. Since Fine Gael came to power, rents have increased at a rate more than twice the rate of wage increases. In the capital, rents are up 75% since Fine Gael came to power but the minimum wage is up only 30% in the same period.
The well-paid worker has been put to the pin of his or her collar. The medium-paid worker has been put onto a rack. The key worker, such as the nurse and the teacher, has been forced out of the cities in search of cheaper rents. The young worker has been forced to stay at home with mam and dad. The low-paid worker has been priced out of the market entirely and, in quite a few cases, forced into homelessness. The landlords grow richer. Working people grow poorer.
I mentioned on my Facebook page today that I would be speaking in this debate tonight. The most common comment was that the motion does not go far enough, that this should have been done five years ago, and that a rent freeze now would still leave them locked out of the market. Do not get me wrong, I will be supporting this motion. A rent freeze would be a step forward. If it can be done in Berlin, it can be done here too.
Everybody knows what is likely to happen next. The motion will be passed, tonight or on Thursday. It will be sent to Third Stage, to the Select Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government where, if it does not languish for months and months, it is likely to be blocked by one of the Government's money messages.
Thousands of people marched on 5 December to protest homelessness. It was a demonstration of real raw anger, a collective j'accuseagainst this landlords' Dáil. The marchers are correct to have no faith in the Thirty-second Dáil. They march again on 11 January. That needs to be a huge demonstration so that what was done to the political establishment in this country on water charges can be done again now on the issues of homelessness, rents and the entire housing crisis that the Government has created.
People Before Profit will be supporting this Bill. The Minister of State, Deputy English, will agree that the rent spiral is out of control, and when something is out of control, it needs to be stopped. We are at 20% more than peak rents in 2008. We all know what happened in 2008. Even by comparison with 2011 when it was trough rents, rents are 40% more now. Rents are completely unsustainable at present.
I had a look on daft.ieat three houses in Clondalkin and the statistics are incredible. At present, a three-bedroom house in Clondalkin is €2,400 a month, a two-bedroom unit is €1,500, and a one-bedroom unit is €1,400. These are extraordinary figures. Doing the maths, two people on the average industrial wage would have to forgo half their income on rent alone, which is incredibly expensive and almost completely unsustainable. The recommended spend on rent or mortgage is one third of income. A person on or just above the minimum wage can forget about rent in Clondalkin or anywhere else.
I want to mention the housing assistance payment, HAP. Not only are landlords discriminating against tenants on HAP, they are looking for homeless HAP. They drive up rents so much that they get more than €2,000 because people are desperate and the Government is giving this money out to landlords.
A report earlier this year showed that one in ten people in Ireland is spending over 60% of his or her income on rent. This is completely unsustainable. All this is having a corrosive effect on society. Not only are three generations living in houses but also 10,000 find themselves in homeless accommodation because of the perfect storm of the policy of no public housing and rents going through the roof.
I agree with the Minister that not all landlords are bad. There are some accidental landlords who, for certain regions, have a house to rent etc. There are some decent people out there. However, the over-reliance on the private market, super landlords and other landlords has distorted everything and has created a situation where it is completely unsustainable.
Government policy, regardless of whether the Minister of State, Deputy English, likes it, because he has been in government for the past nine years, has created this crisis. The Government has created a crisis where rents are completely unsustainable. There are three ways that will be tackled: a rent freeze, rent control, and the Government being shown the door.
One in four of Deputies who will vote on this measure on Thursday is a landlord. Almost one in three members of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael who will vote on Thursday is a landlord. When Deputy Micheál Martin was asked at the weekend about the double jobbing of one in three Deputies in this House, he stated, "Parliament has to represent the diversity of people." What the Deputy forgot was that while one in four Deputies is a landlord, one in 25 people in general is a landlord. This is not a question of diversity. It is a question of class representation by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. They should be absenting themselves from the vote. More importantly, it is a question of politics. It is not about Members' personal interests necessarily. It is about the fact that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael represent the big landlords and the big developers. That is why we have the housing crisis that we have and we need to kick them out.
I have a question for the Minister of State, Deputy English. I asked the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, outside when he was leaving and I got an inconclusive answer. Will the Minister of State meet a committee of people from those who organised the protest on 5 December? They have selected a committee of people and they want to present their demands. They were asked about what they think needs to happen to resolve the housing crisis.
They want to present them to the Minister. Will the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, agree to meet them?
I support the Bill and agree that a rent freeze is not enough given that rents are already unaffordable for great numbers of working class people. What we need in reality are rent controls linked to income. Nobody should be spending more than 20% of their income on rent or accommodation costs. We need a massive public home building project driven by a State construction company. For all those landlords who are talking about the difficulties and so on when, in general, profits are up, there should be an option simply to sell to the State and for the State to provide housing. We should be demanding the nationalisation of the corporate landlords as is being demanded loudly in Berlin at the moment. To make those things happen, we need a movement. On 11 January and 28 March we must make this a huge issue for the general election next year.
I am sharing time with Deputy Connolly. The latest report on average rents in the private rental sector from daft.ierecords a new high of €1,400 a month nationally. This is the fourth year in a row that a new high has been recorded by daft.ie. Average rents nationally are up 5% over the past year and this is a fall from a 12% rise a year earlier. It is a reflection of the limited effect of rent cap zones, which I believe makes the case for a stronger, more effective measure which the Bill advocates in the form of a three-year national rent freeze. Even keeping rents at their existing level means people still face unaffordable rents in the private rental sector. The average rent in Dublin is now a staggering €2,044 a month. In Dublin 8, part of my constituency, rents are even higher. Since 2010, average rents in Dublin 8 have risen by 125%.
At the same time as we have a new record high in rents, we have a new record high in terms of the 10,514 people living in emergency accommodation. The housing charity Threshold has said this figure would be doubled were it not for the fact that it has assisted a further 11,500 people to keep their homes. The report for the year showed an average of 320 calls a day for assistance from tenants in the private rental sector. It also showed that 75% of notices of termination did not arise from wrongdoing by tenants. The main reason was that the property was being sold, often a bogus claim by landlords. Almost 50% of notices to quit were found to be invalid by the Residential Tenancies Board. There are exceptions but the housing crisis is increasingly giving rise to a new rapacious class of rack-renting landlords. We have a new phenomenon of mass evictions due to the entry of vulture and cuckoo funds into the market. The Minister said earlier that there were no new landlords coming on board. I just checked again on my phone. The report states that there were 170,282 registered with the RTB in 2015; that rose to 175,250 in 2016 and 176,251 in 2017. I could not get the figures for 2018 but it did mention that they would rise again. There is a solution which has been raised repeatedly by me and other Deputies in this Dáil. That solution is to use existing State-owned land at the low interest rates available through the European Investment Bank for a massive programme to build public housing for rent at affordable rents with proper security of tenure. As long as the Minister and this Government set their faces against such a programme, the crisis will continue. No amount of spinning the figures can disguise that fact. I will be voting for the Bill.
I am not really sure how many times I can step up and speak on housing. I do this tonight in the context of tomorrow's meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, when we have a number of groups coming in to talk about access to justice. One of them is the Mercy Law Resource Centre which stated:
We make this submission at a time of desperate crisis in homelessness. As of October 2019 there were 10,514 people homeless in Ireland. This is the highest number since the Department started recording these figures. Of those recorded in the official statistics as homeless, 1,733 were families and 3,826 were children.
A couple of days ago I asked what figure is the one at which the Government will realise its policies are not working. I wonder how many more times any of us on this side of the House can stand up, but we have a duty to do so. It is a privilege to be here. We are on a good salary and we have a duty to highlight that the Government's policies are directly causing the housing crisis. The Government has to realise that at some stage. If the figures for homelessness do not capture its attention, perhaps Galway city will. We have lots of public land, we have land zoned residential, yet we have a major housing crisis. The Government declared it a rent pressure zone, yet we have people who are on a waiting list for a house since 2004 or 2005. Yesterday in my office I looked at a situation where somebody has been 14 years on a waiting list and never once been offered a house, which in itself raises serious questions about housing policy. Now that person and the family have been in emergency accommodation for over six months. Perhaps that might draw the attention of the Minister of State. Perhaps the fact that we have 183,312 empty properties throughout the country would draw his attention. As regards the schemes the Government has introduced, the repair and leasing scheme since 2017 has led to 102 homes coming on-stream. The vacant housing reuse strategy 2018-2021 is notable for its lack of urgency and its lack of a plan. There are absolutely no numbers coming back under that strategy. A report into vacant properties in rural areas, which I welcomed, and a pilot project selected six towns, significantly none of them in Galway city or county. There is absolutely no urgency in publishing that report. There is no cost-benefit analysis of the Government's policies in terms of the HAP and RAS long-term initiatives, or on the cost of them as opposed to direct building on public land.
I am glad the Minister of State is nodding. It is very good that he is nodding. The previous Minister, Deputy Coveney, also agreed with me when I spoke. I get a little confused. He agreed with me when I said that development in Galway is developer-led, that there is an absence of an overall plan and that the common good does not come into the picture at all. He nodded and agreed. It is in the Official Report. I am not sure where the difficulty lies if the Minister of State is agreeing with me. It is not social housing, but public housing on public land which will give the message to the market that the Government is serious about the provision of homes. A home is not a commodity to be traded. It is the most basic requirement for people to live, to have warmth and to enable them to participate in a democracy.
I would expect the senior Minister to come in here tonight and, instead of trading insults and standing up as if it was a debate in Trinity College or one of the other universities, to come in with a written speech and outline what progress has been made on the five pillars in respect of the provision of social housing. The Taoiseach misled the Dáil today regarding the number of social houses. Public housing or social housing does not mean HAP to me. The Minister of State said HAP was a temporary measure, which is a complete misinterpretation of the legislation brought in by the previous Fine Gael and Labour Party Government. It was brought in as a long-term solution to the housing crisis and the provision of housing. It is an integral part of the problem. The first of the five pillars was to address homelessness and there is failure on that. The next was to accelerate social housing and there is failure on that because social housing for the Government is HAP. The next was to build more homes and the Government has made some progress on that. The next was to improve the rental sector and there is absolutely no progress on that. It is impossible. In Galway, the Simon Community has written report after report on the Locked Out of the Market studies. Another pillar was to utilise existing housing and there is utter failure on that. There are over 183,000 units empty in the country. At the very least, the senior Minister should have gone through this and said, "This is where we are, this is where we are going, bear with us." Instead of that, he came in and traded insults. We have pleaded with the Government to call a housing emergency. Galway City Council and its councillors, who are not known for being radical, called for an emergency in April this year. At what stage will the Government use its ears to listen and stop giving glib responses?
I do not have long to speak so I will touch on only one element of this debate, one that is often forgotten here, namely, that the free market is the space in which much of this problem will be resolved. I hear this from Fine Gael and from the media. This assertion presupposes that there is a free market in the sector, which is rubbish. There is massive distortion in the housing market, as there is in the insurance market and in the beef market. Fine Gael is the architect of much of the distortion and dysfunction that has been created. One of the main ways in which Fine Gael has created dysfunction is by rolling out the red carpet to the international vulture funds. I sat in front of Deputy Noonan four years ago and asked him about trying to get more supply into the market. He stated that houses were not expensive enough. The red carpet was rolled out to the international vulture funds at that time in order to increase the price of houses and improve the balance sheets of the banks. This was achieved by an extremely generous taxation policy and light-touch regulation of the vulture funds and international investors. It is not just me saying this. The UN condemned Ireland for allowing multinational vulture funds buy up vast swathes of properties and charge sky-high rents in respect of them. Cash-rich funds are buying up entire apartment blocks and housing estates and that, in part, is leading to high rents. Until the Government deals with the dysfunction to which I refer, it will have continue to experience major difficulties.
I wish to apologise on behalf of our colleague and good friend, Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, who is absent through no fault of his own.
I take this opportunity to declare that I am not a landlord and never have been. Unlike some of the previous speakers, especially the members of Solidarity-People Before Profit, I do not demonise every landlord. Are we going to drive all landlords out of existence? If we are, then what will we do? We have to be reasonable and fair. Rent freezes were meant to be introduced in Berlin - one was brought in many years ago in New York - and other places. However, the rent freeze for Berlin has not yet been implemented. A rent freeze is a simplistic solution. We need real solutions but we also need to be rid of this Fine Gael-Independent Alliance Government because it has an ideological hang-up about building local authority houses and about looking after people from the cradle to the grave. It does not want to look after anyone. That is the fundamental problem.
An Teachta Tóibín is 100% right. The Government will welcome in the vulture funds. The banks are making people homeless. It is a case of to hell with ordinary accidental landlords who might happen to have been left a house. The Government has no interest in these people, it wants to protect the corporate landlords and big business. It has never been interested in the ordinary people. I can tell the Minister of State that. There is no senior Minister here tonight and no Government Deputies. The benches are empty. The Government lost two votes in the Seanad tonight because it had no one there to oppose the votes. The life has gone out of this Government. The sooner it lies down, the better. It has no interest in the ordinary people but they have a lot of interest in it and, as they showed in the recent by-elections, they are waiting for it. They are waiting in the long grass. It might be the middle of January and the grass will be low, but they will find the Government with the peann luaidhe in the ballot box and it will be banished. We have had nine years of this Government and it has done nothing only line fat cats' pockets and give way to corporate greed and vulture funds and everything else. That is what it is good at. That is what it always did but it will get its answer and then it will be to hell or to Connacht with it.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in support of this Bill. It has been confirmed that a majority of those who are becoming homeless are from the private rental sector. There were 10,514 people homeless across Ireland by the end of September. This figure included adults and children. More than one third of those in emergency accommodation are children. A huge proportion of my constituents, from Bantry, Baltimore, Skibbereen, Clonakilty, Roscarberry, Bandon and Kinsale, to name only a few areas, are unable to get on the property ladder and have to resort to paying enormous rents. The increase in rents is driving people out of rented accommodation and potential first-time buyers are struggling to pay such high rents. This is making it impossible for a large number of people to save for deposits and leaving them feeling trapped in their homes and only living to work. The latter is giving rise to a crisis in people's mental health.
This Government has spoken many times of its plans to build more houses in a bid to ease pressure in the market, which, hopefully, would lead to a fall in rents. This has not happened. As we see with many things from the Government, it is all hope and no real action. The latest daft.iestatistics show a 10% increase in the number of homes available for rent, compared with this time last year. Rents, however, have continued to climb. If better controls were put in place in respect of things like security deposits, rent increases and termination procedures, it would go a long way towards giving the tenant the protection that is needed. It would also give landlords clearer rules and created a more protected environment for them in the context of renting out their properties. In order to reduce the impact of the housing crisis, this Government needs to consider encouraging more property owners to become landlords by providing protections and making the option more appealing. I have heard horror stories of landlords not being paid rent for months on end. I have stood many times here in this very sport and advocated for the vacant spaces above commercial units to be refurbished in order to provide much-needed residential dwellings across west Cork. One need only drive through any village or town to see vacant above-shop units. I have encouraged this Government to consider offering refurbishment grants in respect of these vacant properties.
I thank Sinn Féin for giving me the opportunity to talk again about rent and housing. It is surely a problem in Kerry and especially in Killarney, where rents have gone from €700 and €800 a month to €1,200 and €1,500. People just cannot afford to pay such amounts. The real problem is that we do not have enough houses. It has to be remembered and acknowledged by the Minister of State that in many cases the Government is taking 50% because the landlords are taxed 50% when they go over a certain threshold. The Government should do something about that because landlords are exiting the sector and selling off their houses to private interests. They are getting out because with all that is involved they cannot comply. As dear as the rents are, they cannot make ends meet with the tax that they have to pay.
The HAP scheme is a disaster. It is purely a means of getting people off the housing list. More supply is the answer. Another problem is that local authorities are taking much too long to turn around the vacant houses. The tenant purchase scheme that was to assist us in doing that is no longer an option for many tenants because 80% that apply to buy out their houses are not qualifying. We have asked the Government often enough to do something about that but it has done nothing about it.
Another desperate thing that the Government is doing is taking people with three or four children off the housing list when their income exceeds €33,500.
I very much welcome this Bill. It feels as though there is a renewed momentum to change the narrative on housing, at least among the real Opposition. For too long, the suggestions from this side of the House in respect of measures to help resolve the housing emergency, or even to draw attention to the fact that there is one, have been ignored. The Social Democrats called for a rent freeze over a year ago and Fianna Fáil refused to support us. Had that party not sat on its hands, we would have had fewer rent increases over the past 12 months. The same is true of many things in the confidence and supply situation. It has taken the focus away from the critical issues. Not only has that distorted the Government, it has distorted the Opposition as well.
We are all aware that the private rental market is the single biggest avenue into homelessness. This morning the Taoiseach said that homelessness was stabilising at a very high level in Dublin. It is far from stabilising outside Dublin. The Minister of State should know that. People are facing spiralling rents and little or no security of tenure in a market where the balance of power lies predominantly with the landlord.
People are afraid to report the need for even minor repairs because they do not want to remind their landlords of their existence. They just want to pay the money into the bank every month.
This Government's housing policy is predominantly dependent on transferring huge sums of public money directly to private landlords, with an estimated €500 million due to be transferred in 2020 alone. This is the 32nd quarter in a row in which rents have risen. The average rent is now more than double what it was in the Celtic tiger era. Thousands of renters are paying over 70% of their income in rent which is utterly unsustainable. The argument made by the Taoiseach and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government against a rent freeze is that it would be too expensive or could have unintended consequences. We know what the intended consequences of not having a rent freeze are because we can see them clearly. They are catastrophic for people who find themselves homeless, in emergency accommodation or trying to self-accommodate, which often means sleeping on some one's couch.
The Social Democrats support this Bill but we are likely to seek to amend it on Committee Stage, particularly the tax provision section. We remain to be convinced that an incentive-based scheme is the best way to ensure fair treatment for all in the rental sector. As with the help-to-buy scheme, it could have a distorting impact on the sector and may well disadvantage some people.
I will conclude by saying for the fourth time in the past couple of weeks that what is happening with HAP, which was already problematic, is utterly chaotic. The length of time that people have to wait to go through the HAP administrative system means that it is almost impossible for them to secure accommodation in certain parts of the country. This must be addressed and I will keep on saying it until it is addressed. It seems that no matter what we say in this House, the Minister remains absolutely convinced that what he is doing is right. He really needs to start to listen but that is something that has not been evident up to now.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in support of this Bill and to confirm that I will be voting in favour of it. The provisions of this Bill are quite similar to those in legislation - the Housing Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Bill - I sponsored over 12 months ago. Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil voted against that legislation. I welcome the road-to-Damascus conversion of Fianna Fáil on this occasion but I think the latter may be more to do with the forthcoming general election than anything else.
As already stated, the Bill that I sponsored more than a year ago contained very similar provisions to those contained in the Bill before the House. It included the prohibition of rent increases, a reduction in rents, the prohibition of eviction from buy-to-let properties that are sold and a statutory declaration of a housing emergency. A recent Threshold report found that the rental market in Ireland is insecure, unaffordable and of poor quality. There is no security of tenure, no real rent control and rental properties are generally of poor quality. The sale of buy-to-let properties with vacant possession is a very serious problem which is leading directly to homelessness in many cases. There is no rent control whatsoever on new tenancies.
Rents have skyrocketed in recent years and are now out of control. Everybody knows this except the Government, whose members have their heads stuck in the sand. They seem to believe that we are getting places with the rent pressure zones but the fact is that many people in Dublin are paying over €2,000 per month in rent. That equates to €24,000 per year, which is astronomical. Even in the rent pressure zones, rents are approximately twice what they should be. Many low-income families are falling between two stools in that they do not qualify for local authority housing or for a mortgage. In Tipperary, for example, a family of two adults and two children earning €27,501 will not get on the local authority housing list and have absolutely no possibility of getting a mortgage. On that kind of income, the maximum mortgage allowable, even if one was available, would be €96,250 but the average price of a house in Tipperary is €183,688. Of course, those applying for mortgages must have a 10% deposit, which is practically impossible. Many families are now paying 40% or more of their income in rent. Even HAP tenants are paying €200 per month in rental top-ups. The situation is hugely difficult for ordinary families and it must be tackled. The measures in this Bill will go some way towards tackling it. While more needs to be done, I will certainly support the Bill.
I spoke last week in support of the motion of no confidence in the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government and nothing I have heard this week has made me change my mind. The Government's housing policy is a failure. It has failed the 4,000 children who will wake up on Christmas morning in emergency accommodation. More and more families are entering homelessness due to spiralling rents in this country. They simply cannot afford rent increases on top of increases in the cost of childcare, insurance, education and normal everyday life. There was a time in this country when families worked to live but now many families just work to survive and any extra cost can push them over the edge. Rents are out of control and continue to rise. The annual 4% rent increase permitted in rent pressure zones is something that families have come to dread. Let us take the example of a family with three children on a very modest income who are just over the threshold for social housing and therefore not eligible for any assistance. This family cannot afford to save for a mortgage because of rental costs. In 2016, the family's rent was €1,400 per month, which they could just about afford. The 4% increase kicked in from January 2017, when their rent increased to €1,456 per month. In 2018, it increased to €1,514, in 2019 it went up to €1,574 and in January 2020, their rent will be €1,637 per month. In a few short years, this financially crippled family has seen its rent increase from €1,400 per month to €1,637. The annual rent increase has not only pushed working families into poverty; it has pushed many into homelessness.
This Sinn Féin Bill, if passed, would ensure that renters are protected from the worry of future rent hikes. It would also give workers and families a break by putting up to €1,500 back into their pockets. Renters deserve better and all Deputies in this House, including the Minister - but I will not hold my breath - have a chance to give them a much needed break.
For many in the rental sector, this is a very worrying time. Spiralling rents and decreasing numbers of rental properties are making them feel very vulnerable and not in control of their lives. Many who are in good, secure employment are facing the prospect of homelessness. Sinn Féin has been advocating a rent freeze for years. I called for such a freeze on a number of occasions when I was the Sinn Féin housing spokesperson during the last Fine Gael Government's term. Since then the situation has not improved but has deteriorated significantly. This Government's response to the crisis has been to allow rents to spiral out of control and to enact legislation that allows landlords to increase rents by up to 4% every two years.
The implementation of the Government's rent pressure zones has been on what can only be considered a sporadic and ad hocbasis. We are at a stage now where for many people it would be cheaper to have a mortgage than to rent. The ability to get a mortgage for families on the average industrial wage is very difficult, if not impossible, and is unachievable for those families living on the minimum wage. Most lenders will ask for up to 10% of the property value as a deposit which is out of the reach of most families.
Contrary to what the Taoiseach may think, their parents' pockets do not go that deep. We welcome Fianna Fáil's recent conversion to rent freezes, having previously opposed all attempts at their imposition. An election must be coming up soon.According to the RTB, in the first quarter of 2019, the standard average rent for Dublin stood at €1,662, up from €1,532 in the same quarter the previous year. This is a clear indicator of how fast rents are rising and of the failed rent pressure zone policy.
Rents have skyrocketed in the last few years. In the last year alone, Laois renters experienced a 7% increase in their rent, bringing their average monthly payment to €980. In Offaly, renters saw a 5.5% increase, bringing their rents to an average of €915 per month. Compared with 2017, renters in Laois are now handing over an additional €2,808 a month to landlords, while in Offaly tenants are handing over a whopping €3,700 a month to landlords. This is a huge increase with some workers paying up to half their wages in rent. These are workers who are just scraping by and going without essentials, like proper clothes and heating. Enough is enough. The rental market is out of control and the only people who cannot see it are those in the Government. Rack renting landlords must be reined in.
This Government has been too reliant on the private market for social housing, using measures such as HAP and leasing. These are reducing the supply of housing available for renting in the private sector and, in turn, driving up rents. We have brought forward yet another piece of legislation to give workers and renters a break. Our Bill would enforce a three-year rent freeze across the State, and through a rental tax rebate Laois renters would get €980 back and would be €980 better off, while Offaly renters would be €915 better off.
Alongside this measure, Sinn Féin would double the output of social and affordable housing in 2020. We would kick start the affordable housing purchase scheme to allow workers and their families who cannot get a mortgage from banks to buy a house - contrary to what Fianna Fáil was trying to say earlier on - and escape the rental market. We would also develop a cost to rental programme through local authorities and approved housing bodies. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, said earlier that the Government cannot give renters a modest tax break and that it would cause chaos. This Government has no problem giving tax breaks to landlords.
Sinn Féin has the solutions to the housing crisis and we are calling on all parties across the House to support and implement them.
It is crystal clear that Rebuilding Ireland has failed. Regardless of how many times the statistics are recycled or quoted by the Minister of State or the Minister, the evidence is overwhelming. The record number of people in homelessness is proof of this failure. The record, all-time high rents are more evidence. The squalid conditions that many renters are forced to live in shows this. The thousands of adult children and young families forced to live in their parents' home is further proof. The dogs in the street know that Rebuilding Ireland has failed. The only places that one will hear otherwise are in the ivory towers of Government Buildings. We often hear the Taoiseach say that he cannot just build houses overnight. He clearly does not realise that Fine Gael has been in government for almost nine years. No one expects thousands of homes to be built overnight but what we did expect was the realistic ambition to build tens of thousands of houses over the last decade and the Government simply has not delivered that.
The Minister of State always talks about the issue of supply, but he and the Minister have failed to tackle one of the biggest blockages in this area, namely, void houses not being brought back into use. In the previous vote of no confidence in the Minister in September 2018, I raised the issue of 70 such houses in Limerick city. Today there are 151. The Minister of State cannot tell me that his system is working. These houses take a lot less money and time to put back into service and public use. It should have been a priority to ensure that they were back into use and that there are no empty voids left lingering for years while thousands wait on the housing list. Again, this has not been done by his Government.
I commend my party colleague for bringing this common-sense Bill forward which will really help renters. I hope that in the general election next year people will turn to a Sinn Féin Government that will take the much-needed, radical decisions that are needed to help workers, renters and their families. I am glad to see that the impending general election has awoken Fianna Fáil from its three-year hibernation and that it is ready to support our Bill.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and am grateful for the opportunity to say a number of words on this Bill.
Before I do, I wish to comment on the voids question that has been mentioned. It is not true to say, as Deputy Quinlivan has done, that we have not tackled voids, which even his own party's spokesperson will recognise. It does not mean that we are not sometimes annoyed that some local authorities are a little slow in turning them around. The Deputy referred to Limerick in 2018 and afterwards. When we checked it at that time, Limerick was allocated the resources it needed to bring those voids back into operation, both in rural and urban areas. The voids programme in general has brought 10,000 houses back into use over the last number of years.
I am answering the Deputy's question and I presume he will raise this information again. He raised it here a couple of years ago. We checked it out. Money was allocated and Limerick did not spend as quickly as it should have done. It eventually did so. I will check again regarding the houses the Deputy has just mentioned. I suspect that these are another round of new houses that have become voids. If they are the same ones that is a different story. I doubt if that is the case. Over 10,000 houses have been brought back into the system over the last couple of years and rightly so, as they should not have been left empty for so long. Thankfully, that is one area that we can agree in which much progress has been made. That does not mean it is perfect but there should be very few long-term voids left in the system now. Every local authority was told in October 2018 to apply for any extra resources they wanted to bring any voids they had back into use. This included Limerick which was written to specifically. The resources were there to fix them. I will take other criticisms, but not that one. If Deputy Quinlivan is saying that there are that many voids, we will check those out again because they may be new ones.
There are a couple of questions on this Bill which I will address. In the first instance, the Minister clearly outlined our position at the outset of this discussion. This Government is all too aware of the challenges posed by the rental market and the impact on renters. We acknowledge and know that the rents are too high for many people. There is no disputing that. The figures are there and recorded.
Our opposition to this Bill is an evidence-based position derived from evaluating the medium and long-term outcomes from a crude intervention such as this. This is not something that we have not researched. We have checked this out and looked at the evidence and we do not agree with it. I accept that Sinn Féin holds this view and has held it for a long number of years, which I do not dispute. Sinn Féin is genuinely bringing the Bill forward in good faith. I do not believe it will have the right outcome that it thinks it will have, but we will differ on that. In fairness, the party is bringing out some very well thought-out policies and proposals which I respect. It is wrong in this, however. There is no evidence to back the party on this. Only time will tell which of us is right on this Bill. There is no evidence to show this, and the evidence that we can see shows the opposite outcome, where it has hit supply. There are issues there that need to be looked at. From purely an evidence-based point of view, we do not agree with this Bill but I respect the view that Sinn Féin holds, which I believe is wrong.
Fianna Fáil's view is a dangerous one to hold where it is flip-flopping around when it comes to rent controls, rent freezes and pressures. We have had it before from its party's previous spokesperson and we have it again now. This is not a good way to develop housing policy. I listened to Deputy Darragh O'Brien earlier but he is not here to take the criticism. I do not believe he is supporting the Bill at all. I am not so sure if Deputy Jan O'Sullivan may have been conned and may not have heard all of the interviews. I am not so sure if Deputy Ó Broin has been conned because he knows well that Fianna Fáil is claiming to support this Bill as it is a populist stance that sounds cool, but I wonder if it will vote for it on Committee Stage next week or the week after that. The chances of Sinn Féin bringing the Bill through Committee Stage in the next couple of weeks are very slim because it is quite clear that this is a holding position by Fianna Fáil. It does not really believe in the Bill, which is possibly a positive in one way. However, Fianna Fáil is claiming to be for the Bill because it sounds good.
I listened to many of the Fianna Fáil contributions and I will concentrate on them for a few minutes. I apologise to Deputy Connolly for so doing because I know she wishes me to go through other issues. I listened for a few hours to Fianna Fáil speakers last week and again tonight. There is a trend emerging that it is the party to be left in charge of housing. We have seen that before and we had that, we know where that got us, and it was not a positive outcome. I listened to Fianna Fáil's spokespersons tonight and they were talking about a generation renting. I have no problem admitting that rents are far too high now. They are not going to be so for a generation. These are temporary. We will deal with them. Already we can see the daft.iereports saying that rents have reached their height and are beginning to come back down which is because of supply. We will keep honing in on that. With all of the changes to the rent pressures zones I have no doubt that we will get those rents back down again. It will not be for a generation. Rents are absolutely too high today. That is different to what Fianna Fáil had, the so-called party of homeownership, which I heard in the speeches again tonight and last week.
People of my generation and others were left with 30 or 40 year mortgages and massive, highly inflated prices. It is not a couple of years of paying rents that are too high, although it is definitely unfair to anybody when rents are too high. They were 100% mortgages for 30 or 40 years for properties that were not worth that price. The mortgages were unsustainable. The Fianna Fáil way is to stick people with mortgages that they should never have had in the first place for their entire lives, not for a couple of years. It is hard to take this talk, that it is for home ownership, from Fianna Fáil week after week and certainly in the past couple of weeks when it was heightened. I am sorry Deputy Casey has to listen to this again tonight because, in fairness, he does not do that, but the rest of his colleagues do it repeatedly.
However, if Fianna Fáil wishes to make that claim, it should check the figures on home ownership before telling me that my party, the Government or other parties are changing home ownership. We have not changed it. To be clear about the statistics on this, home ownership in Ireland peaked at 79.3% in 1991 and has fallen continually since then. In that time the party that was in government most often was Fianna Fáil. In the last couple of years it has been at 67.6%. The biggest drop in home ownership occurred when Fianna Fáil was in government. The statistics are available. In fact, there was the highest number of private rental landlords when Fianna Fáil was in charge in 2006. Home ownership changed during those years, and we should be clear about that. Those who were lucky enough to get a house were unlucky enough to be stuck with a mortgage that was unsustainable. That is Fianna Fáil's record when it comes to housing. Fianna Fáil comes into the House week after week and tries to rewrite the statistics on home ownership. The statistics have been recorded and cannot be rewritten because they are factual. Instead of repeating that mantra, it should check the statistics before coming to the House to debate this matter further.
Some Members asked about going back to Rebuilding Ireland. We did that last week and I am happy to do it again next week, but I will stick with what is in this Bill. We all acknowledge that the number of homeless families is far too high. The number is one of the highest ever, and nobody denies it. However, it is likewise with the social housing building programme. In 2020, the number will be the highest in the last 20 years, through boom times and difficult times. It is the highest social housing output through direct build. This does not include the other houses we will acquire through voids, empty houses, leasing and so forth, which are in addition. The direct social housing build will be the highest next year. I have no problem with analysing the facts but I urge Members to look at this from our side as well. We will listen to them, but it should be vice versawhen we present facts and figures. We are not making them up. They are there and they can be teased and argued about. It is a two-way conversation.
I know the number of homeless families is far too high. Thousands of families left homelessness last year and thousands more will do so next year, and rightly so. We must get people out of emergency accommodation and into permanent housing. I cannot stress that enough. Thankfully, one area in which there is a fair amount of progress is with regard to people who are sleeping rough. Everybody can see that there is major intervention and everybody supports it. It is taxpayers' money through Government supports, NGOs and various agencies. Everybody is pulling their weight and the number of people who are sleeping rough is well down. It is certainly much lower than it was during the so-called boom years. Some progress is being made there. Nobody is denying that a great deal more work is required when it comes to getting homeless families out of emergency accommodation. We must focus on what is happening in the best way we can.
The Bill will possibly only add to the woes of renters by further reducing supply, restricting movement, disproportionately hitting would-be new entrants and driving some tenants into black market situations in which they could be paying rents that are far above those permitted under the RPZs while depriving them of the tenant protection measures and minimum standards that have been enhanced under this Government. I accept that the vital changes that were made and will have an impact were supported by the House. Already the RTB has strengthened its team and is putting more people out in the market and is taking more enforcement cases. It has big plans to take on many cases next year, sending a strong message to the private rental market. That market requires a great deal of intervention and that is why we are doing this. Those measures will strengthen the rent pressure zones and other parts of the rental market.
We will see many developments over the next 12 months in that space. I believe rents will steady. We can see that where the rent pressure zone rules are implemented rents are beginning to steady. There is still more progress to be made and nobody denies that. Berlin is a good example of what happens when one intervenes with rent controls and rent freezes due to rent pressures, even when there is talk about them. Look at what has happened to the supply in Berlin in just a year. Planned activity is down by 40%. That is well before it has happened and is due to just the conversation. That is why Fianna Fáil's conversation is dangerous. I accept Sinn Féin has this view and everybody knows its view.
The Bill also proposes to treat social housing tenancies differently. I am not sure if it is a mistake in the Bill but it would lead to an extraordinary situation where private tenancies were subject to a rent freeze while housing assistance payment rents or RAS rents could be increased without restriction. Given that the earlier RPZs came into force less than three years ago, their replacement with a straight rent freeze is highly likely to damage market sentiment. Potential investors could opt to direct investment elsewhere, not least due to the fear that the State's approach to rent control has become unpredictable. Even during my days in college one knew that investors, be they local investors, funds from abroad or credit union funds, like to have certainty. There is some rent predictability at present, but a rent freeze can deter investment and has been proven to do that. People claim we are too pro-market, but if one interferes in the market too much it affects other investments when it comes to job creation and so forth, not just housing. It is dangerous to overstep the mark. That is our warning in this regard.
I welcome the Bill. The intention is that €1,500 would be put back into the pockets of renters every year through a tax break, which they badly need. It was ironic to hear the criticism of that earlier, given that the Government has given tax breaks for the past number of years to developers and every other sector in society, except to people who are trying to rent a home and keep things together.
The possibility of a rent freeze excites people throughout the country. Everybody lives in fear of the rent going up. That is the case not only in the metropolitan areas but also in rural Ireland. In the four counties of Donegal, Leitrim, Sligo and Roscommon rents have risen by between 6% and 7% in the last year. That is happening everywhere. In many regional towns one will pay €1,000 to rent a small three-bedroom house. People cannot afford that. Certainly, they cannot pay higher rents in a rural area as they must have transport to get to work and to be able to live their lives. This is having a huge impact on people in every part of the country.
The Minister and the Opposition have acknowledged that rents are too high. Everybody seems to be in agreement on that and everybody except the Government seems to be in agreement that a rent freeze is a good idea. That is the position this evening and it is an ironic situation in the mouth of an election. The Government is telling people in this State who are paying rents they cannot afford that they will have to continue doing so because the market says it must be that way. The reality is that the market created this crisis and looking to the market to solve it will not work. Everybody knows that. Fianna Fáil has come to that logical conclusion late in the day and I invite the Government to come to it now.
A firm hand of regulation must be put in place or else there will be a runaway situation. We have had it for a number of years. It is almost three and a half years since Sinn Féin first proposed a rent freeze. Since then people have been paying rents that have been going through the roof. The Government has stood over that. It is time for it to step up and acknowledge that it has been wrong. It must put up its hand and say, "We need to move on". It should accept this Bill, get it through before the Dáil dissolves and ensure that we give people something back and show them that the Government cares and is listening. All this talk about moving forward and that things are getting better and are not as bad as they were is nonsense. People can see that and I invite the Government to open its eyes and see it as well.
The Minister of State was not present earlier when his colleague, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, had a go at me and accused me of being hypocritical for standing up for my community in Bluebell by opposing an inappropriate single planning application. I stand over my record of supporting appropriate housing, both social and private, regardless of height, density and so forth. I have met both the Minister and the Minister of State and encouraged them to build on specific key public lands and also to encourage builders in my area to develop them.
It was a distraction. At the end of the day, this is about one issue. If the Minister wants to have a debate about the market and whether housing is a market or a service, we can have that debate. Tonight, at long last, we are having a debate which reflects the emergency that has existed under this Government, the previous Government and the Government before that.
For three Governments, we have had a housing emergency in this city and elsewhere. The response of the Government is pathetic. In all of those years, rent has continued to go up and it is not just private rent. The rent the Government has been paying in HAP has increased in my area by 25% - so much for the rent pressure zones.
I do not know how many people the Minister of State deals with in his constituency office, day in, day out. In my office, the vast majority of cases I have dealt with in recent years are to do with housing. The worst cases of distress in my office, week in, week out, are families who have no alternative. They cannot get out of the hovels they are expected to pay thousands for because there is no alternative. There is no social housing being built or not enough, there is no private housing being built and there is nothing affordable, whether for rental or purchase. The Government should get its act together, get the houses built and get the rent freeze in place to allow the market to change, if we are going to depend on the market.
I listened very carefully to the Minister and the Minister of State. The question many renters, if they are watching this debate, will be asking is how much longer does the Government want us to wait. The Minister of State will remember when the Tánaiste, Deputy Simon Coveney, introduced the rent pressure zones. He made two clear commitments, first, that rents in high rent areas would be constrained to a 4% increase a year over three years and, second, that by the end of that three years, supply would be coming on stream and would start to reduce the pressure. It is in black and white on the Department's website. In that period, rents have increased by 24%, twice what the Government committed to, and supply has not come on stream. The reason is that if we leave the private sector to its own devices, it is not going to invest to an adequate level to provide the kind of affordable housing to rent or buy that people need.
Our proposal has never been to introduce a rent freeze and just leave it there. If we do that, it will not work, and the Minister is right about that. However, given where rents are at, given the astronomically high level of housing costs that families are bearing, if we introduce a temporary rent freeze, give a refundable tax credit to ease the pressure and, alongside that, have a much greater level of Government investment in affordable rental and affordable purchase accommodation, that is what will solve this crisis.
The Minister, Deputy Murphy, clearly and deliberately misrepresented the Sinn Féin position because he sat here and listened to me say all of that, and he then said we were proposing something else. With respect to Deputy Darragh O'Brien, again, he gave a clear misrepresentation of our position. Deputy O'Brien has sat here, week after week, and listened to me argue for Government-led investment in social and affordable rental and affordable purchase accommodation, which is our party's position and has been for a long time.
What renters will be left with after this debate is a Government which says its policy is going to work at some point in the future, and renters should just bear with it, despite the fact the three years in which it told renters this would work have passed. I listened to Fianna Fáil say, yes, it supports this but it needs to take its time and it needs to be careful and tease through all of the various issues, when we have had three years to do precisely that. Between the jigs and the reels of the politicking in here, renters will face another year of rent increases and another year of unsustainable housing costs. Something has to give. It is not the case that the rent pressure zone data from the RTB or Daft shows that rents are declining. There may be some evidence that rent increases are levelling off but they are still rising, and they are rising way above what people can afford.
The Minister and the Minister of State are right that I deliberately did not include HAP in this Bill. My view is that HAP should be treated like RAS. There should be no top-ups and the rents should be set by lease between the local authority and the landlord. That is an amendment I would like to make to the housing (miscellaneous provisions) Bill because it would take the pressure off low-income families, which is a separate proposition. However, I would be happy to take amendments from the Opposition during the course of this Bill through committee to address that.
On the question of constitutionality, I do not accept that is the case. We were told, for example, that rent pressure zones would be unconstitutional and there was no challenge and they have proceeded. Every time the constitutionality of constraining property rights has been brought before the courts, such as with Part V of the Planning and Development Act, the courts have said very clearly that where the principles of social justice and the common good are being met by specific Government policies, then property rights can be constrained. My non-legal view is that this would apply in the context of an emergency measure for three years, but I would be quite happy to test it in the courts.
With respect to the Minister's comments about Sinn Féin in Dublin Mid-West opposing residential development, it is not true. He made specific reference to Kilcarberry when, in fact, Deputy Ward and I have spent years campaigning for residential development on that site. We secured enormous support from local residents, often with quite significant resistance. However, what we did oppose is the sale of the land to a private developer because it would deliver no affordable homes, and I stand over that decision. Similarly, we opposed the transfer, not the sale, of key strategic public land in O'Devaney Gardens to a developer because it will deliver no affordable homes. In fact, it was Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael councillors in Dublin Mid-West and South Dublin County Council who opposed a motion by the then Councillor Ward for 3,000 social and affordable houses to be guaranteed in the Clonburris strategic development zone. Thankfully, we had a majority on the council, led by our group, and the opposition of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to affordable homes there was defeated.
With respect to other Opposition Members, I am more than happy to work with the Social Democrats and Labour Party amendments and if they are in the spirit of the Bill, we will support that. With respect to Solidarity-People Before Profit and RISE, they are right that this is a very modest proposal and, in fact, much more needs to be done, but we have to start taking action.
I stand over this proposition, which I believe is a good proposition. It is time to give renters a break, put money back in their pockets and stop rents from increasing. Crucially, at some point the Minister is going to have to deliver more than 50 affordable rental homes, which is all he is going to deliver next year. We need substantial investment in affordable cost rental and affordable purchase to do what the private sector cannot and will not do, which is build homes at affordable prices for workers and families.