Dáil debates

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Residential Tenancies and Valuation Bill 2020: Second Stage

 

9:30 am

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am grateful to the Ceann Comhairle and to all Deputies for facilitating the urgent passage of this very important legislation through the Houses this week. The programme for Government recognises the important role that the private rented sector will continue to play into the future. The Government is seeking to address challenges in this sector, including those relating to standards, security and affordability for renters. I am asking the Oireachtas to pass the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Bill 2020 to help mitigate the adverse social and economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic which, unfortunately, have been felt by many tenants in the residential rental sector.

The Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 was enacted on 27 March last. Part 2 of that Act modifies the operation of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 during the Covid-19 emergency period, initially for three months, to better protect tenants by prohibiting rent increases in all cases, and tenancy terminations in all but limited and exceptional cases. Section 4(1) provides that upon the request of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, after consulting the Minister for Health and with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, the Government may make an order to extend the emergency period for such time as it considers appropriate if it is satisfied that making the order is in the public interest, having regard to the threat to public health presented by Covid-19, the highly contagious nature of that disease and the need to restrict the movement of persons in order to prevent the spread of the disease among the population. On 19 June 2020, the previous Government made an order extending the emergency period until 20 July 2020 in accordance with the aforementioned section 4(1). On 20 July 2020 upon my request, a further Government order was made to extend the emergency period to expire on 1 August 2020. This extra time has enabled me to develop policy and law for the consideration of the House today in the form the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Bill 2020.

The recitals at the start of the Bill set out the policy context in which the temporary and limited restrictions on landlords' constitutionally protected property rights are framed, in Part 2 and section 12, for the social common good. Covid-19 has undeniably caused a crisis for the world and Ireland has not escaped, with significant adverse impacts being visited upon those who have contracted the disease, their families and their friends. The broad social impacts of Covid-19 are closely interwoven with the adverse economic impacts. There has been a substantial and sudden increase in unemployment. Many in the residential rental sector have faced job losses, restricting their ability to pay rent and putting them at risk of losing their homes.

There is a significant risk that some renters will have difficulty securing alternative rental accommodation and might end up in overcrowded accommodation at a time when the State is keenly focused on continuing to suppress the spread of Covid-19. We want to minimise the occurrence of any overcrowded accommodation and, in doing so, minimise the risk of transmission of Covid-19, which has already cost this country dearly.

We want the economic recovery to start now with the help of the July stimulus package. Working together and continuing to adhere to public health advice, we can arrest the fallout for our society and economy by getting our people back to work.

The Bill recognises that Covid-19 has been hard on many tenants, particularly those working in the worst affected sectors of the economy, such as hospitality and retail. It proposes short-term and long-term solutions. Where a tenant makes a written declaration that the economic impact of Covid-19 has rendered him or her unable to pay rent and at a significant risk of tenancy termination, my Bill provides for increased notice periods for failure to pay rent from 28 days to 90 days in respect of notices of termination served on tenants in the residential rental sector during the emergency period from the passing of this Bill to 10 January 2021. Any notice of termination grounded on rent arrears and served during the new emergency period cannot specify a tenancy termination date earlier than 11 January 2021. There will be a prohibition of rent increases on tenancies of dwellings during the new emergency period.

In the longer term, there are more permanent measures. Amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act in the Bill provide that, before a notice of termination grounded on rent arrears can be served, a tenant will have 28 days to pay outstanding rent. Those 28 days will start from the date of receipt by the tenant or the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, of a written rent arrears notification from the landlord, whichever date occurs later. That is an increase from 14 days currently. The Residential Tenancies Act will be amended to include specific requirements relating to the giving of notifications and notices of termination by landlords to tenants and the RTB in respect of arrears of rent. The Bill also provides for a one-off extension from ten years to 12 years of the period under the Valuation Act 2001 within which a valuation list relating the rating authority area of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council shall be published, with a return to the usual ten-year period from 2023. This temporary provision is required to counter the logistical difficulties caused to that local authority by the Covid-19 restrictions.

We must continue addressing the immediate and drastic economic and social consequences of Covid-19, protecting as many jobs as possible and making sure that families and businesses can survive financially. The economic recession that the pandemic has caused is the most rapid and dramatic ever experienced by anyone in the House. The emergency measures introduced in March, with all-party support, have prevented a much deeper social and economic crisis.

Last Thursday, the Government approved my proposals to progress residential tenancy legislation before the summer recess to better protect tenants who remained vulnerable as society and business reopened after the Covid-19 lockdown. In light of the prevailing economic situation caused by the pandemic, this Bill provides further protection during a new emergency period until 10 January 2021 for tenants who have been impacted economically by the pandemic.

I will turn to the main provisions of the Bill. There are three Parts, comprising 13 sections. In Part 1 the preliminary and general sections 1 and 2 contain standard provisions relating to the Short Title, collective citations and definitions.

Part 2 provides key and urgent enhancements to protections for tenants during an emergency period where they have been economically impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and are unable to meet their obligations under the Residential Tenancies Acts to pay the rent due.

Section 3 defines "emergency period" to mean from the date of the passing of this Bill to 10 January 2021.

Section 4 provides that Part 2 shall apply unless the tenant makes a written declaration that he or she is unable to comply with his or her obligations to pay rent due because he or she: was or is temporarily out of work due to having contracted Covid-19, without entitlement to be paid by his or her employer; or was in receipt of, or entitled to receive, the temporary wage subsidy or any other payment out of public moneys provided for by or under statute and paid for the purpose of alleviating financial hardship resulting from the loss of employment occasioned by Covid-19, including rent supplement or a supplementary welfare allowance, and, as a consequence, is at significant risk that his or her tenancy will be terminated by his or her landlord. Such a declaration must be served on the RTB and copied to the landlord. It shall be an offence to make a false or misleading declaration.

During the emergency period and where the declaration has been made, section 5 provides that before a notice of termination is served by a landlord on foot of rent arrears, a tenant must have been afforded with a minimum of 28 days to pay his her rent arrears after a written rent arrears notice has been received by both the tenant and the RTB. A 90-day notice of termination period will now apply where rent arrears are the basis of the termination. The corresponding notice period for rent arrears terminations outside of the emergency period is 28 days' notice. A notice of termination served during the emergency shall not specify a termination date that falls earlier than 11 January 2021. A tenant cannot acquire Part 4 security of tenure as a result of this section.

Section 6 provides that no rent increase can take effect during the emergency period and no increase in rent will be payable in respect of any time during that period.

I am proposing a new section for insertion into the Bill by way of a Committee Stage amendment to clarify that tenants can submit the relevant declaration to the RTB by electronic means to avail of the enhanced protections under Part 2. The Government also needs to make a technical amendment to section 4(3).

Part 3 provides for amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, the Emergency Measures in Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 and the Valuation Act 2001.

Section 7 provides that during the period from the date of the passing of the Act to 10 January 2021, tenancy tribunals are not required to be held in public. This is a continuation of the provision first introduced in the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 in the interest of public health and safety.

Section 8 provides for an amendment to the table to section 34 of Residential Tenancies Act 2004 to provide a new separate ground - 1A - for termination of a tenancy for non-payment or rent within the minimum 28-day period afforded for payment following receipt of a written rent arrears notice by both the tenant and the RTB. The 28-day period commences upon receipt of the written rent arrears notice by the tenant or the RTB, whichever occurs later. Section 9 is a consequential amendment to section 35 of the Residential Tenancies Act arising from the new ground 1A provided for under section 8.

Section 10 inserts a new section 39A into the Residential Tenancies Acts. The new section 39A provides that where a landlord serves a notice of termination on the failure to pay an amount of rent set under the tenancy, a copy of that notice must sent to the RTB at the same time as to the tenant. When it receives a copy of the notice, the RTB will notify the tenant in writing of his or her right to refer a matter in connection with the notice of termination to the board for resolution under section 76. In the resolution of any dispute arising, the RTB adjudicator shall have regard to any advice provided to the tenant by the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, when making a decision or determination. Where there is an appeal to a tribunal, the tribunal shall also have regard to advice provided by MABS when making its determination. This is a new provision and a further new protection for tenants.

Section 11 provides for a number of amendments to section 67 of the Residential Tenancies Act. Paragraphs (a) and (b) provide conditions for the serving of a notice of termination where the tenant has failed to pay an amount of rent due. The conditions are that the tenant and the RTB have been notified in writing that an such amount of rent due as is specified in the notification has not been paid, and that the rent has not been paid to the landlord within the minimum period of 28 days following receipt of that notification by the tenant, or by the RTB, whichever occurs later.

Paragraph (c) provides that where the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, receives a notification that an amount of rent due has not been paid, it shall provide information in writing to assist the tenant in getting advice from the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS. Provision is also made that any notice of termination for failure by the tenant to pay an amount of rent due shall be deemed to be invalid if the landlord fails to simultaneously serve a copy of that notice on the tenant and the RTB.

Section 12 amends section 5 of the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 in subsection (6) to redefine the revised termination date so that it cannot expire earlier than 10 August 2020. This applies to tenancies where a notice of termination had already been served but the notice period had not expired before the 2020 Act came into law on 27 March. Section 5(7) of the Act is also deleted to ensure that Part 2 - Operation of Residential Tenancies Act 2004 - ceases to operate at the end of the emergency period under section 3(1) of that Act.

Section 13 modifies the application of section 25 of the Valuation Act 2001 by extending the period from ten to 12 years within which a valuation list in regard to the rating authority area of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown shall be published, with a return to normal in 2023.

This Bill is being introduced during an economic emergency. The measures that we take now have to target those who most need our help. The tailored approach in this Bill targets a prohibition on rent increases to those who need them. It protects tenants from imminent tenancy termination caused by rent arrears. The earliest they will have to leave their home is 11 January 2021. We also recognise that some landlords also find themselves on the wrong side of Covid-19, and we recognise constitutionally protected property rights. That is the reason this Bill balances the need to protect those worse affected by Covid-19 with the need to respect property rights and the legitimate interests of landlords.

Evidence suggests that we are moving from a public health emergency into an economic recovery phase. It is in this context of the hard-won progress that this Bill is being introduced. We must respect the efforts that all of society have made in getting us this far. We must adjust to this new normal. The residential rental sector has its part to play during the economic fallout and has some time to run.

This legislation seeks to protect both tenants and landlords. Landlords accept that some tenants will face serious financial challenges over the coming weeks and months and I know that they will work with tenants to the greatest extent possible. Landlords recognise that forbearance is required. The provisions in this Bill will help during and after the economic fallout from Covid-19. It will ultimately help landlords by ensuring early and active engagement by tenants with Government supports where they find themselves in difficulties paying rent. The usual rental protections under the Residential Tenancies Acts will apply as normal from 2 August. It is only where rent arrears is a problem during the emergency period to 10 January will the temporary prohibition on rent increases and terminations apply.

Earlier this month, the RTB, in conjunction with the ESRI, published a paper entitled Exploring the Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Rental Prices in Ireland from January to June 2020: Early Insights from a Monthly Rent Index. The analysis shows that the annual growth rate of rent amounts declined significantly compared to the period prior to the lockdown. While the annual growth rate in March was over 3%, by April it had fallen to 0.4% and it declined again in May to 0.1%. By June, the annual growth rate had turned negative with prices falling by 3.3% compared to the same month the previous year.

The findings clearly show early downward pressure on rental prices and a lowering in the number of registrations, the latter of which is consistent with the restrictions on economic and social life brought in to stop the spread of Covid-19. Early estimates for April through to June 2020 show annualised rent falls in Dublin, with a clear reduction in the year-on-year growth rate in other areas.

My Department and the ESRI operate a programme of collaborative research principally focused on housing economics. Under this programme, researchers from the ESRI and my Department prepared a research paper exploring the short-run implications of the Covid-19 pandemic on the private rented sector. The research paper focused on rental payment affordability and the potential incidence of arrears during the first three months of the pandemic among non-supported private market renting households, that is, among renting households which do not receive a housing subsidy.

Changes in consumption patterns arising from public health measures are also considered in this paper. The preliminary research findings do not identify a significant rent arrears problem emerging during the first three months of the pandemic. I understand that this report will be published today. While tenants are legally obliged to continue to pay rent during this emergency, the Government is fully conscious that some tenants have seen a reduction in their working hours, some have lost their jobs, and others have been forced to self-isolate to protect their communities and in some cases have contracted Covid-19.

The Government has made a range of income and rental supports available to anyone in financial difficulty. I encourage tenants encountering difficulty to engage with their landlords and the Department Of Employment Affairs and Social Protection at the earliest opportunity to seek whatever income and rental support might apply in their case. Covid-19 has presented this country and the global community with enormous challenges over the last five months. The pandemic will continue to present challenges in the medium to long term, particularly for those most vulnerable in society and those working in sectors most heavily impacted by it.

The programme for Government, Our Shared Future, asserts the Government's ambition to meet those challenges, repair the damage that has been inflicted on our people by the pandemic and translate the renewed spirit arising from these challenging times into action. This has been a very stressful and testing time for our people. The economic impact of the pandemic will continue to be felt in all parts of the country and society for a long time to come. We now need to move decisively to recover from its devastating social, economic and cultural impact.

The key goal is to get as many people as possible back to work in a safe manner at the earliest possible time. The Government is committed to helping people who need help to meet their housing needs. It believes that everybody should have access to good quality housing to purchase or rent at an affordable price, built to a high standard, located close to essential services and offering a high quality of life. We understand that the provision of more affordable housing has a profound social and economic benefit. We believe that the State has a fundamental role in enabling the delivery of new homes and ensuring that the best use is made of existing stock. We will prioritise the provision of public housing on public land. We will build more social homes for families and individuals and we will make affordable homes to purchase or rent available to our working people.

As Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, I know that people need to get back to work and to be able to pay their rent, mortgage and other bills as soon as possible. This Bill will help tenants who most need it. I commend the Bill to the House.

9:55 am

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I understand Deputy Eoin Ó Broin proposes to share time with Deputy Martin Browne.

Photo of Eoin Ó BroinEoin Ó Broin (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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I do. The programme for Government promises to improve security and affordability for renters. The Fianna Fáil election manifesto, on which the Minister campaigned vigorously, went further, promising to launch a "new deal for renters". Both documents also committed to reducing homelessness, yet the very first piece of legislation introduced by the Minister is nothing short of an attack on renters. It strips vital protections from the vast majority of tenants at the very time when they most desperately need them. If this Bill passes, rent increases are back on the table, as are existing and new notices to quit on all grounds. Contrary to the Minister's claims, the protections for renters whose incomes have been hit by Covid-19 are weak, overly complex and will be very easy for a small number of rogue landlords to get around. The result will be a significant undermining of both security and affordability for very many renters and a return to increasing levels of homelessness, particularly for families with children.

As the Minister knows, the private rental sector was in crisis before Covid-19. Rents were and continue to be at unsustainably high levels. The Daft.ieindex for the second quarter of 2020 tells us that new asking rents average at €1,400 across the State and at more than €2,000 in Dublin. The Residential Tenancies Board index, which combines new and existing rents, showed that at the end of the first quarter the average monthly rent was €1,200 throughout the State and more than €1,700 in Dublin. That is a nationwide annual increase of 5%.

Vacant possession notices to quit continued to drive family homelessness until the ban introduced by the Oireachtas by 27 March. Limited shifts of short-term lets into the long-term rental market have been heavily offset by the loss of long-term rentals. In the past three years, as a result of the inaction of the previous Government, we lost 17,000 rental properties in the market, with very significant consequences for renters and homelessness.

We know the ban on evictions, notices to quit and rent increases introduced by the Oireachtas on 27 March gave renters a much-needed break. It did much more than just shield tenants from the impact of Covid-19. It led to a dramatic drop in the number of families presenting as homeless and in emergency accommodation; this was the first substantial drop we have seen since Fine Gael took office in 2016. There was a 56% drop in April of families presenting as homeless and an even higher drop in the numbers ending up in emergency accommodation. We now have the lowest numbers of families in emergency accommodation in three years.

This confirms the argument many of us have been making that banning vacant possession notices to quit was key to reducing family homelessness. We know from Focus Ireland and the Dublin Region Homeless Executive that vacant possession notices to quit are the single largest cause of family homelessness. It speaks volumes that it took a health emergency for the outgoing Government to act decisively on reducing homelessness. Great work was done by the Department dealing with housing, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive and homelessness organisations in limiting the spread of the virus and key to this was decongregation and reducing numbers of families with children in emergency accommodation.

There was widespread expectation that the ban on evictions, notices to quit and rent increases would be extended by the Government, and the Minister said it would be helpful to do so only a matter of weeks ago. Many of us called for the Government to go much further and we wanted the ban to be extended for all renters until January 2021, as well as the introduction of a comprehensive rent arrears debt resolution process, including the option of debt write-downs. However, just like with Deputies Eoghan Murphy and Simon Coveney, the previous Ministers, instead of getting legislation that protects renters, we are getting a Bill under the cover of a restrictive interpretation of the Constitution that leaves renters exposed to greater insecurity and unaffordability. Fianna Fáil's new deal for renters looks exactly like Fine Gael's old bad deal for renters.

I will deal specifically with the provisions of the Bill. The Minister claims Part 2 of the legislation protects renters whose tenancies are at risk due to Covid-19 income loss. In many respects, I simply do not agree with this assertion. This is a very cumbersome and complex provision, and for a small number of rogue landlords, it would be very easy to get around it. This is in no way a criticism of the drafters, as again, just like with previous Ministers, departmental officials have been given the impossible task of trying to construct very detailed and complex legislation in short periods.

The written declaration element is wholly unnecessary and it is a contradiction to research that Threshold recently published by Dr. Mick Byrne that indicates tenant-led renter protection often does not help the most vulnerable people. It will cause real difficulty for renters with capacity issues, including those related to mental health and addiction, as well as those with literacy and language difficulties. The threshold of "significant risk" to a tenancy is not defined and therefore we could see a series of disputes where landlords object to a tenant's claim that a tenancy is at significant risk clogging up the Residential Tenancies Board and preventing the vindication of these rights.

We also have the case of tenants fearful of receiving a notice to quit who may feel under pressure not to object to a rent increase. I spoke recently to a very senior and capable journalist who lives in the private rented sector. She told me that her experience is that because there is a huge demand for rental properties, tenants will often not seek to vindicate their rights because of a fear of receiving a notice to quit on other grounds. Just as the remainder of this Bill makes clear, if a tenant seeks the protection of this section, a notice to quit on any of the other grounds may be issued by the landlord. Otherwise, landlords will simply proceed as normal.

I accept there are some minor improvements on existing provisions with Part 3.

10 o’clock

I must say that the Minister is wholly overselling these as major interventions. Increasing the rent notice period to 28 days from 14 is welcome, as is formally introducing MABS in the Residential Tenancies Board process. However, as all the other grounds for ending a tenancy are still available, rogue landlords are likely to avoid the new rent arrears notice and look for a simpler or speedier way of getting rid of a tenant. The idea of giving someone with an eviction due date of 1 August a paltry nine extra days is really shameful.

On the issues not addressed in the Bill, vacant possession is the one I really do not understand. It is hard to understand why the Minister did not include a ban on vacant possession notices to quit in the Bill. Does he not understand the impact this one measure has had on levels of family homelessness? Does he not understand the impact of an increase in families in emergency accommodation on the spread of Covid-19? Did he consult with the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive or homeless non-governmental organisations about the removal of this vital protection? Does he not know the consequences of this significant omission? My great fear is that the enormous progress made since March will be wiped away with this one single decision. I have no doubt that such a measure would have been consistent with section 4(2) of the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act had it been properly crafted.

I have been contacted by a very large number of renters in recent days who are bitterly disappointed that the Minister is allowing rent increases again. Contrary to his claim that there is no constitutionally sound way of banning rent increases, I believe, and there is significant legal opinion, that it is possible. I understand that one NGO has forwarded one legal opinion to the Minister on this issue. It is clear that like his predecessor, he simply does not have the political will to do this. The consequence will be real financial hardship for tenants who were already paying far too much rent before the Covid-19 crisis.

The Minister had other choices. He could have extended the ban on evictions, notices to quit and rent increases until the end of the year. He could have amended the emergency legislation to allow limited notices to quit in cases such as wilful non-payment of rent, serious anti-social behaviour or where a property owner was at risk of homelessness. Those provisions would have made eminent sense and allowed the vast majority of renters to be protected. Instead he decided to do exactly what his predecessor would have done and shaft renters. Every time I hear a Minister say that we have to balance the rights of landlords and tenants, it is almost as if somehow these two groups of people have equal power in this relationship when we know that is simply not the case.

This is a very bad Bill. It is bad for renters, it is bad for the stability of the rental market, as it will lead to increased notices to quit and an exit of landlords from the market, and it is also bad for the local economy because every rent increase takes money away from renters' disposable income to be spent on local goods and services at such a local time. That is something that in the context of a stimulus plan makes no sense at all.

The Minister should not just believe me or listen to other members of the Opposition, he should listen to what the advocates working on the front line with renters are telling him Threshold, in a submission to Deputies this week, has said it is too narrow, overly complex and "will fail to protect many tenants who are at serious risk of homelessness". Focus Ireland, one of the country's leading family homeless charities, have said in a submission to Deputies this week that the Bill will not significantly prevent an increase in the numbers presenting as homeless. The legislation will be open to landlords to ignore rent arrears and evict on other grounds. The Simon Communities have called for "an extension of the moratoria until the end of 2020 with amendments to address some of the legitimate concerns of landlords", a sentiment I agree with wholeheartedly.

I am not surprised that Fianna Fáil or indeed Fine Gael would back this Bill, all the evidence shows they have never stood by renters, but for the Green Party to support this is genuinely shocking. This is not what that party campaigned for in the general election, or what was committed to in its manifesto, and in my view it is not what the party's Deputies were elected to this House for.

I know they will not vote against the Bill, so I urge them to absent themselves from the Chamber. If the Minister for Health could absent himself from the Chamber for the election of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, it would be eminently honourable for Green Party Deputies who say they want to stand by renters simply not to come to the Chamber to vote for this legislation later this week.

Sinn Féin, as I have said publicly, will table significant amendments. We look forward to what I think will be constructive amendments from other parties in opposition and commit to supporting those. Without meaningful change to the Bill, and without real protections for all renters who are experiencing insecurity and high rents, Sinn Féin will not support the Bill because we will not support legislation that creates greater insecurity and greater unaffordability for tens of thousands of renters in the private rented sector.

10:15 am

Martin Browne (Tipperary, Sinn Fein)
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Each and every day, people in my constituency of Tipperary contact me with issues relating to housing, which is one of the main issues facing people today. Housing is incredibly hard for people to come by. People are waiting years for a house that is suitable for their needs. The changes the Government wants to implement will only make that waiting list longer and leave people without a home that suits their needs or without a home altogether. In my constituency, young people with growing families are encountering incredible difficulties in getting a home that suits them. I am dealing with a number of cases in which young couples who are expecting a baby are forced to live apart at their parents' family homes as they wait for suitable local authority accommodation to become available to them. Can the Government imagine the circumstances that will face them when they realise that the local authority has little to offer and they are forced to look to the private sector for accommodation, given the changes it is making with the Bill? It will extend the ban on evictions to 10 January but that will be only for tenants who have lost jobs or income due to Covid-19, and they must confirm this to the RTB. The Government is, in effect, watering down the supports for tenants and giving landlords the power to evict others.

Let us look at the implications for the private rented sector of the changes the Government is suggesting. The impact of this will be felt in all sectors of society. The number of people looking for accommodation will increase, while competition for accommodation will get stronger and force rental prices upwards. The availability of accommodation available to the public will drop significantly. Homelessness will increase - the Minister can be sure of that - which will result in more and more couples like those I have mentioned having to live apart, or having to lower their standards and live in accommodation that is unsuitable for a growing young family, and they will be the more fortunate ones.

Let us now look at those on the other side. What about those who are forced out and have nowhere to go, who do not have the means to pay the high rents they are faced with because the market is once again geared towards landlords? The Simon Communities have stated they do not believe the Bill will provide the preferred level of protection to vulnerable renters. The organisation has stated it will not protect those tenants who could be made homeless if the landlord requires the property for his or her own use or wishes to sell it. It has described this policy as having been a driver of homelessness over the period of the housing and homelessness crisis. It is worried that removing this protection without providing comprehensive supports will lead to an increase in the number of people having to present to homeless services.

These aspects of the Bill - forcing tenants to vacate if the landlord requires the property or intends to sell it - are the most concerning for me. Who will be in a position to determine whether either purpose has been realised? Is the RTB funded enough to police this? Requiring the landlord to offer the property back to the tenant if either purpose has not been fulfilled after a year is not realistic. Over the course of that year, the tenant will have made other arrangements if they are fortunate enough. Otherwise, who knows what challenges they will have faced? While the Bill provides certain protections from eviction and rent increases, those protections will be available to far fewer people. This is an indictment of the failure of successive Governments to provide people with a fallback when it comes to accommodation, namely, the availability of local authority housing, which Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have ignored. We are over-reliant on the private sector in our rental market.

Landlords need an income and renters need accommodation but when demand outstrips supply, prices soar and those seeking houses lose out. When demand increases because of these measures, what plans are in place to deal with the people who are going to need accommodation?

I want to move on to those renters who would qualify for these protections. The Bill requires them to self-declare that they cannot make their payments due to loss of work or income. How are people going to be advised of how this process works? Is it going to be a complicated, drawn-out process or has the Minister created a structure that allows it to be streamlined? Will assistance be available to people? Can the Government assure us that no one is going to fall through the cracks here like before?

It is an absolute scandal that in this day and age people are going homeless and young people are being priced out of the rental market. The Minister has an opportunity to reverse the trend that has seen families living in hotel rooms, bed and breakfast accommodation and even in cars. Right now, he has a chance to address this dysfunctional rental system so I appeal to him to protect our renters now and to take the time to draw up a plan to reform the system into one that is fair, equitable, affordable and accessible. If that is too hard for the Government to do, the Minister can just ask us. We will be more than happy to send on Deputy Ó Broin's Sinn Féin housing policy to help it.

10:25 am

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin Bay North, Labour)
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The Labour Party will be opposing the Bill and submitting a number of amendments. We feel that this Bill has limited protections for those impacted by Covid-19. It seems strange, when a measure introduced in March has been seen to work to keep people out of homelessness, that we would change the provisions that were made. Homelessness and housing have dogged political debate for years now. They are one of the greatest crises we have had to grapple with as a nation. Measures have finally been taken that have seen a drop in the numbers presenting, but now we are changing the very provisions that saw these numbers drop. Because of this legislation, we can be sure that we will now see an increase in homelessness in the autumn. The Government must prepare for that reality because this flawed Bill will not stop people losing their homes. Unfortunately, we are going to have a debate in the autumn when we will point to this moment and say to the Minister that we told him. I presume the Minister will use devices or excuses to explain why the Opposition is wrong and he is right. I hope we are wrong and he is right. There is nothing from experience to suggest that will be the case.

The pandemic ban on evictions clearly worked to stop the increase in homelessness. Under this Bill, no-fault evictions are back, substantial renovation evictions are back and evictions for the benefit of family members are back. There is no beefing up of the staffing of the RTB for inspections and protections of renters in such cases. Let us be clear about the type of people who will be most affected by these measures and the type of people who are renting in our economy. A huge number of them are younger workers who have been most seriously affected by the economic collapse. Some 30% of 20 to 24 year olds and 42% of 25 to 34 year olds are renting. The job losses in sectors where large numbers of workers rent are as follows: 38% in accommodation and food; 28% in administration and support; 27% in retail; 23% in arts; and 21% in construction. These are massive job losses in areas of the economy where a huge section of workers rent. About 200,000 renters are in sectors most severely affected by job losses.

Unfortunately, the proposed law leaves too many exceptions in the terms of evictions and there is a significant risk that, from September, we will see homelessness rising again. The changes will only give protection from eviction until January to those who can prove that they have been financially impacted upon by a limited set of circumstances and will put in place a complicated process to apply for that exception.

It is important to re-emphasise the point that the Bill does not take into account in any adequate way those who have addiction issues or mental health challenges or those with lower levels of literacy. We live in a country where 17.9% of Irish adults are functionally illiterate. This means that they cannot access application forms or read medicine bottles. That is one in six adults. The House can be sure that a disproportionate number of them are in the rental sector. The Bill will result in more people losing their homes in view of the fact that they will have to navigate a cumbersome and technical system that has been criticised by many homeless agencies.

Disturbingly, the Minister plans to criminalise tenants for false declarations without doing the same in respect of landlords availing of eviction exemptions. To do this to someone at risk of losing his or her home is despicable. The Minister also needs to clarify whether the Bill, as proposed, will stop rent increases until January 2021 for all tenants or just those impacted by Covid-19.

This is the latest last-minute Bill over many years that attempts to address issues in the body of law covering residential tenancies. Sadly, it fails to address adequately the main excuses used for evicting tenants, which are a driving force of homelessness. If something has successfully prevented people from losing their homes and entering homelessness, why change it? We have tabled 12 amendments to various sections. We look forward to debating those points with the Minister as the Bill progresses.

10:30 am

Photo of Cian O'CallaghanCian O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay North, Social Democrats)
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I acknowledge that a significant amount of work has gone into this Bill and that there are some aspects of Part 3 that will be useful. There has been a great deal of mixed messaging in the lead up to the Bill, though. There was more today in the Minister's speech relating to the public health aspect. We have been told on the one hand that there is a significant public health risk of evicted renters potentially moving into overcrowded accommodation and, on the other, that we are moving out of the public health emergency and into economic recovery. We need clarity. Are we in a public health emergency or is the Government asserting that we are exiting it? Outside this Bill, it seems clear that the Government's messaging, and correctly so, is that we are in a public health emergency. The reason we are in the Convention Centre Dublin and spaced so far apart is because we are in a public health emergency. The reason for the measures that people are living with every day is because we are in a public health emergency. When it comes to renters' rights in the private rented residential sector, however, we are being told that we are moving out of a public health emergency. At the same time, the Minister has acknowledged that renters being evicted could create public health risks by them moving into overcrowded accommodation. We need to have some consistency on public health messaging from the Government.

There has been some mixed messaging in respect of the Bill. Initially, the Minister informed people that there would be an extension until October. Subsequently, he stated that the rent freeze would be extended. In the past couple of days, much of the media coverage on the Bill referred to the eviction freeze being extended to January for those who self-declare and gave the impression that all evictions will be banned for tenants who are able to self-declare even though that is not the case.

We know that if a tenant self-declares, he or she cannot be evicted on rent arrears but can be evicted on all of the other grounds.

It is very important that the mixed messaging on this is dealt with. If not, it is only going to lead to more confusion. It will mean that if this Bill is passed, we are going to have more and more people getting in touch with us, people who thought they were protected, had made a self-declaration and would not be evicted but who then receive a notices to quit and eviction notices.

I have a number of difficulties with this Bill. Most tenants are excluded from the main provisions of the Bill and rent increases and evictions generally will resume for most tenants within the next few days at the start of August.

I have a particular difficulty that front-line workers, many of whom are on low pay and kept essential services running during the pandemic, will not necessarily receive any protection. It is not the case that those most vulnerable or most affected by Covid-19 will receive protection. Everybody, to a lesser or greater degree, has been affected by Covid-19. Front-line workers who have been under additional pressure will not necessarily receive protection here. They have not been on a Covid-19-related payment or may have not been out of work but they may well be on low pay and they will not receive protection. Indeed many vulnerable tenants, who will not have been on a Covid-19 payment, will not receive any protection under this Bill and there are significant issues with that.

There are issues with the whole self-declaration process outlined in the Bill. This is going to hit vulnerable tenants. In particular, it is going to hit tenants with literacy issues, of whom we know there is a significant number. It is also going to hit some migrant tenants for whom English is not necessarily their first language, who may not have access to public information around this and who already feel vulnerable as to the power imbalance with landlords.

The penalties for getting a self-declaration wrong are going to put some people off making one, people who could legitimately make a self-declaration, and this will scare some of them away. This will cause general confusion as to what protections are in place and for whom and what declaration are in place for people who make self-declaration. This will create a level of conflict between some landlords and tenants as there will be misunderstandings in that regard.

This Bill is going to do probably the one thing that we do not need in the private rented residential sector which is to introduce more loopholes and complexities. That is probably the last thing the sector needs.

A key test for good legislation is that it is clear, transparent, simple and easy for people to follow and understand. If we apply that a key test to this legislation, it fails dismally. We have seen to date that misunderstandings have occurred in the media commentary on this Bill. If the people who are taking a close look at this Bill are under some level of confusion as to how it is going to operate, how will that apply to tenants who will not necessarily have that detailed look at it or a background in the understanding of complex legislation? We know that from other changes in the private residential sector over the years that it can take a number of months and, indeed, years for those changes to bed in and for people to get a wide understanding of how they apply. We are going to have those kind of difficulties with this legislation if it passes.

As other Deputies said, this Bill will drive more people into homelessness. I understand the Minister and the Department’s constitutional concerns. Legal advice has been sent to the Minister by the Simon Communities of Ireland in which Siobhán Phelan SC noted that the circumstances of the public health crisis which led to the introduction of the Emergency Measures in Public Interest (Covid-19) Act 2020 are still with us and the public health advice is replete with references to a second surge, that it seems clear from the public discourse that regional spikes are anticipated and that if this is the case, then there should be sufficient justification available for the Legislature to introduce a new power to extend the moratorium either on a delegated basis or by way of primary legislation.

There is contrary legal advice that there are other options available to the Minister.

In addition to that, there are a number of missed opportunities in the Bill. There are two things the Minister could have done with this Bill that would have made a very significant difference to renters and to addressing homelessness. It is important to acknowledge that the emergency legislation has been successful in that regard. There are multiple reasons for that, but one of the reasons there has been a reduction in homelessness is because of the additional measures and protections afforded to renters. The first missed opportunity is that the Minister could have brought forward legislation for tenancies of indefinite duration, to which he said he is committed. I note his recent comments about incentivising tenancies of indefinite duration. That should apply to all tenancies. The five years and six months limit on tenancies should be removed and tenancies of indefinite duration should be brought in across the board.

The second missed opportunity is that the Minister could have brought forward legislation to limit the grounds for eviction and to remove the provision of vacant possession from evictions and notices to quit. That would be a very effective measure. We know, not just from the research done by the homeless organisations but also from data from the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, that more than 75% of notices to quit and evictions are given to tenants on the grounds of vacant possession, either for sale or because the landlord or a family member wishes to move into the property market. We also know that more than 200 enforcement cases are being taken by the RTB where there is a suspicion that landlords are citing those grounds on a bogus basis. We know there is substantial evidence of abuse of those grounds and that the result of not removing vacant possession from the grounds will be more tenants evicted into homelessness.

There is a very high cost to evictions. There is both the social and the human cost but there is also a high economic cost. We know that evicting people into homelessness is much more costly than preventing homelessness. We know also from research that victims of home loss experience feelings of painful loss and continued longing that can lead to depression, symptoms of psychological and social distress and a sense of helplessness. We know that there are particularly negative consequences for children in the loss of home, and the experience of homelessness can arise from that. We know from a study of 22,000 households in Sweden that those who have lost their home where a landlord had applied for an eviction were, sadly, four times more likely to die by suicide.

The private rented sector, as a tenure and a sector, is broken in many respects. There is mistrust between landlords and tenants in many cases. There are loopholes that are exploited. There is a power imbalance between the person who is renting and whose home it is and the landlord who owns the property. I believe there is a level of fear in the sector that many tenants and landlords experience. Tenants are afraid of getting a landlord who will exploit loopholes, will not give them back their deposit or could issue them with a notice to quit at any period on the multiple grounds for notices to quit, at no fault of the tenant. A significant number of landlords fear getting tenants who will not pay their rent and may cause further difficulties for the landlord, which happens also. Underpinning those fears and problems in the sector is that, traditionally, regulation of the sector has been weak.

We need a stable, secure and well-regulated private residential sector which gives certainty to both tenants and landlords and where there is good security of tenure and good support for both tenants and landlords. That should be our long-term vision for the sector. Unfortunately, this Bill does not bring us significantly closer to that. Unfortunately for most tenants, the private rented sector is not a tenure of choice. It is for a small category of tenants, such as those on high incomes who might be international workers living in Ireland for a number of years, but unfortunately, for most other people it is a tenure of last choice.

That is partly because of the lack of sufficient affordable housing, including cost rental and social housing. It is partly because the sector is not sufficiently well established. More than 20 years ago the Commission on the Private Rented Residential Sector envisioned moving towards a sector in which many people would feel secure renting for the long term. That vision has not been realised because of the many loopholes in the legislation and the lack of long-term tenancies. A renter should be able to feel that the property is his or her home and will remain so for the years to come, so he or she can plan ahead, get involved in the community and choose a school for his or her children. That allows people to put down roots, which is good for them, their families and their children. That long-term stability is also good for the wider community.

We should achieve the situation in other countries, where tenants can remain in a property if it is sold. It is incredibly destructive for someone to have to move out of his or her home and possibly move to another area, with all the attendant stress and hassle, especially if the property is then rented again. That should not be necessary. We should be providing the protections that are the norm in other jurisdictions. Fundamental to this is recognising that a property is not just a rental unit but a person's home and understanding everything that goes with that.

I want to touch on the research of the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, of which there is media coverage today. Front-line workers in lower-paid and less secure professions are among the most essential to the economy, particularly during the pandemic. The ESRI analysis shows that they face the highest risk of severe outcomes from Covid-19 infection. They face worse health outcomes, more severe illness and the possibility of hospitalisation and mortality. They have a higher incidence of underlying conditions. We are talking about carers, people who work in meat plants, cleaners and migrant workers. These are the very people who are over-represented in the private rental sector. Many of these front-line workers will not receive any protections from this Bill. Where is the public health analysis behind this Bill and the analysis of its impact on homelessness? Is there any serious analysis of this kind? If there is, the Minister might share it with us. I do not see it at the moment. This Bill is complex, is full of loopholes, has a limited use, ignores the fact that we are still in a pandemic and passes over the fact that everybody has been affected by Covid-19. It effectively seeks to introduce two sets of rules within the private rental sector. I am not sure of the legal justification for that. I will be tabling several amendments to strengthen the Bill.

There are three things on which we should reflect with respect to this Bill, and which the Government and the Minister in particular should consider. First, front-line workers have been absolutely invaluable to this country, running essential services throughout the pandemic. Many of them will not receive protections under this Bill. Evictions and rent increases will resume for a large cohort of essential though low-paid front-line workers. That must be considered. I do not think it reflects the will of this House, and I certainly do not think it reflects the will of the Irish people. The second important point is that this Bill will resume evictions into homelessness from the private rented residential sector. We know that in most cases, failure to pay rent is not why people are evicted into homelessness. This Bill fails that test. Third, when we talk about evicting more people into homelessness from the private rental sector, we should remember the reports of five people who have died in homelessness services in recent days.

Substantial cuts have been made to community health teams working with homeless people. Specifically, there have been cuts of 13% in funding to mental health community teams over the past two years, which is utterly unacceptable during a pandemic, when people are under increased stress, and especially as this Bill will allow evictions into homelessness to resume.

Will the Minister address that point? The provisions are funded by the Health Service Executive and the Minister's Department would not deal with this directly but it is the responsibility of his Government. The vital work done by community mental health teams needs to be supported, and if anything the funding should be increased instead of cut. There would be no support from the public for such cuts and a number of people have contacted me, aghast that the Government and this House approved a €16,000 salary increase for some Ministers of State at a time when there has been a 13% cut in funding community mental health teams that work directly with homeless people. I urge the Minister and the Government to address that matter in particular. I thank Members for listening to my contribution.

10:50 am

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett is proposing to share his time.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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Yes. I intend to share time with Deputies Bríd Smith, Mick Barry and Paul Murphy, who I hope will be here shortly.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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The slithering, sliding and U-turns of Fianna Fáil and the Green Party in particular have begun in earnest with this Bill. This is a shameful betrayal of tenants that opens the door to a new wave of evictions into homelessness in the midst of a pandemic. It allows for the unthinkable. We were warned yet again this morning on national radio by Mr. David Nabarro of the World Health Organization that a second wave is coming and, more than ever, we must ensure physical social distancing but this Bill allows for the resumption of evictions into homelessness, where people would be put in more vulnerable positions. They will be on the streets, in shared accommodation provided by homelessness services or couch-surfing in overcrowded conditions with relatives and friends. How can the Government stand over allowing evictions in such scenarios when the pandemic is still with us and the public health threat remains? It is absolutely disgraceful.

Fianna Fáil has demonstrated an ability for contriving spin on a par with Fine Gael in the way it has presented this Bill, incredibly implying the legislation "extends" protection for tenants when it removes protection for tenants during this pandemic. Emergency protections that were introduced have been removed in this legislation, reopening the door to evictions that were prohibited as a result of emergency legislation in March.

The betrayal by Fianna Fáil in particular in this regard, aided by the Green Party, is striking in that Fianna Fáil supported the People Before Profit and Solidarity Anti-Evictions Bill 2018, which specifically prohibited evictions on the grounds of sale, which are the type of evictions being practised by unscrupulous landlords and vulture funds. Fianna Fáil backed that Bill, Second Stage of which was passed by the Dáil, and condemned Fine Gael for its refusal to support the Bill but the party is now opening the door precisely for such evictions on the grounds of sales. The party's Members voted against such a practice in the previous Dáil.

Fianna Fáil also voted for a People Before Profit amendment that sought to strengthen the emergency legislation to prevent evictions that was introduced in March. Our amendment specifically indicated that all evictions should be prohibited during the period of pandemic. Fianna Fáil and the Green Party supported the measure but they are now betraying such action, leaving tenants to the wolves and vultures. It is important to say that is not rhetoric. I have cited for this Minister and his predecessors on numerous occasions the group of tenants in the St. Helen's Court complex directly across from my office.

They will be evicted if this Bill goes through. I can see the Minister signalling. I hope he is going to intervene in that case.

10:55 am

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy should send me the details.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I did send the details. I emailed the Minister last week. If this Bill goes through, the vulture fund that has been trying for three years to evict those tenants will succeed in evicting ten households, including families who have paid their rent for years and have never missed the rent. They are working people who will be evicted into homelessness as a result of this Bill's passing which will allow the vulture fund which bought that complex to evict them on the grounds of sale. It is shameful and runs completely in the face of public health guidance.

It is not just Threshold, the Simon Communities, and others who have said that at very minimum - and we are tabling amendments to this effect - the eviction ban should be maintained for everyone until the pandemic is over, or at least until the end of this year, so that no one is evicted in the middle of a public health emergency. The National Economic and Social Council, NESC, which is under the remit of the Department of the Taoiseach, produced a report in recent weeks saying that overcrowding was incompatible with the protection of public health during the pandemic and that the emergency ban on all evictions should be retained for the duration of the pandemic. Even a body under the aegis of the Taoiseach is saying that the Government should not be doing what it is doing, yet the Minister is opening the door to evictions which will happen immediately. Homelessness has decreased as a result of the eviction ban, just as we said it would. It is now going to start to increase again as a direct result of the passage of this Bill. How can the Minister possibly justify that in any circumstances but particularly during a pandemic when the Government will directly endanger the lives of the people who will be evicted into homelessness because of the threat of Covid-19? The Minister is dancing to the tune of greedy vulture funds and landlords who want the right to evict tenants on the grounds of sale, refurbishment and other ways to maximise the value of their property. That is what this is about: putting profit of landlords and vulture funds ahead of people.

I ask that the Minster please not give us the legal excuse. All the public health agencies, including the World Health Organization, are warning of a second wave. It is almost inevitable we will face further spikes in Covid-19 until there is a vaccine. The emergency context that allowed the passage of this legislation in March continues. The suggestion that somehow this is incompatible with the Constitution is nonsense and, frankly, it is unacceptable that an Attorney General who is himself a landlord would not recuse himself from giving advice on this issue. We absolutely reject that contention. To assist the Minister, today I will introduce the right to housing Bill which seeks to amend the Constitution to give greater powers in the area of housing to override private property provisions and ensure the common good by protecting people's right to secure and affordable housing, in case the Minister wants to use that excuse, which is not acceptable.

We will seek to amend the Bill to ensure that the protections are retained, but we will vote against it because it is an absolutely disgraceful betrayal of tenants which will directly lead to a resurgence of evictions into homelessness of families and individuals who have done nothing wrong. I do not know how the Minister can do this in the midst of a public health emergency.

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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I listened to the Minster's opening statement. Couched in the language of helping tenants, in reality he is launching a massive attack on renters and tenants. I do not know if he understands the fear and insecurity in the hearts of many families as the eviction ban is lifted from 10 August. We believe this will open the floodgates for evictions.

The language in the Bill makes it clear that the Government's chief concern is explaining that the measure is temporary and in response to an emergency but that the rights of private landlords must be protected at all times, and that this is only because of Covid-19 and for a short period. It does not seem to understand the public health threat that exists. What I picked up from the Minister's contribution was almost a smell of fear that the Government was daring to interfere with landlords' rights, and that it could not wait to effect an emergency measure that will not protect as many people as is claimed but, rather, only a minority of tenants.

The Labour Party seems to think that the Government is making a mistake. This is not a mistake. The Government's priority is to get back to normal and look after its own class. The landlord parties of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, with the Green Party again acting as a mudguard, are looking after their own. I appeal to journalists out there to carry out the research and find out how many landlords are Members of the current Dáil, like they did during the lifetime of the previous Dáil.

From 10 August, landlords will be able evict away for reasons of renovation, change of use, wanting to use the home for a relative and, chiefly, the sale of the property. Despite this, our Library and Research Service, Threshold, the Simon Communities and so on have shown that the main reason for evictions is not rent arrears but instead all of what I have just mentioned. The Bill shows us we are not all in this together, by any manner or means. Any Deputy who is a landlord - I make this as a public call - should abstain from the vote. Just as Deputy Boyd Barrett pointed out that the advice given to the Government by the Attorney General reflected a vested interest, any Deputy who is a landlord has a vested interest in voting for the Bill. Such Deputies should abstain and absent themselves from the House. It is inconceivable that they would allow what would be a tsunami of evictions to take place after 10 August.

We are still in the middle of a pandemic, and the protection proposed in the amendment we have put to strengthen the Bill should still apply to those in rental rooms and casual licensees, such as the Travelling community in particular. If arrears are not the main issue in the context of evictions, why is that the only issue being addressed in the Bill? It is because the Government cannot wait to give the landlords and vulture funds the freedom they need. It is just kicking the can down the road to January, even in respect of those in arrears. The Bill assumes that people could do better by budgeting differently, so the Government refers them to MABS, etc. It is a total insult. No account is taken of the permanent loss of income that many people will suffer.

We are back to normal, back to rent increases and people not being able to access rental accommodation because rents are too high. As the kids return to school and the threat to public health remains, the Government is putting many families into a very fearful and unpredictable future. The Bill is splitting the heads of people and giving them plasters for their fingers. That is exactly what the Government is doing to renters and people who rely on private tenancies.

I will probably make a pre-recorded message of the following and have to replay it time and again. I appeal to the Green Party not to vote for the Bill. It is not why people voted for them and it is not the sort of change they were elected on the promise of.

11:00 am

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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The ban on evictions was introduced on 27 March and it worked. It was a very effective policy. At the end of March, 9,907 persons were in emergency accommodation in the State. By the end of April, that had declined to 9,335. By the end of May, it had fallen again to 8,867. At the end of March, 3,300 children were living in emergency accommodation. By the end of May, that was down to 2,787. In the space of a mere two months, the overall numbers forced to live in emergency accommodation in the State declined by more than 1,000, the number of children forced to live in emergency accommodation declined by more than 500 and the overall numbers living in emergency accommodation were the lowest in the State in the course of three whole years. I would go as far as to suggest that was actually the most successful Government housing policy in recent years, yet the Minister is scrapping it.

I know he will stand up and say he is keeping protections for people whose incomes have been hit by Covid, those who are on the temporary wage subsidy scheme and the pandemic unemployment payment. However, there is no doubt and no argument that many people who have protection today will not have protection in a couple of weeks when the blanket ban is ended.

The Minister should not take my word for it. Probably more than any other organisation in the State, Threshold is grappling with the problems facing tenants and the challenges of people facing evictions. Threshold says of the Bill that the protections are "too narrow" and that the Bill "will fail to protect many tenants who are at serious risk of homelessness." Those who are offered the protections are asked to supply a written declaration that their income has been hit by Covid. The Minister or I can write a written declaration, as can the majority of people. However, there are many people in our society who will struggle to do that, many people who are immigrants and do not have the language, and more than one or two people who are functionally illiterate. The Minister should check out the rates of functional illiteracy in the State. They are very high by European standards. The private rented sector is precisely the housing sector where we will find a lot of immigrants and people who do not have full literacy skills.

Much of the focus of the debate has been on the question of banning evictions. There needs to be more focus on the issue of rent increases. The Irish Property Owners Association has put it up on its website that although until now landlords have not been able to increase rent during the course of the ban, that does not stop them organising rent reviews. In other words, it is "on your marks, ready, steady, go" for rent increases as soon as the ban is lifted. We can expect to see rent increases throughout the country in the month of August. The Minister could have fought a court case instead of cowering in a craven fashion before the landlords and taking the advice of an Attorney General who is a landlord himself. He could have gone before the courts and said a ban on evictions and rent increases is in the public interest. He need only look at the figures I quoted earlier. He would have had strong grounds for winning such a case in any court. However, he backed down. This is a backward step. It is not for the public good. It will result in notices to quit appearing on the scene again in the month of August and an increase in homelessness. There are important amendments to this Bill and the debate is not going to finish today. It will continue through the week and afterwards.

11:10 am

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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What we needed was a real extension of the evictions ban and rent controls to bring rents down, but that is not what we got. This Bill is a triumph of spin over substance, with the Government getting headlines about extending the evictions ban while in reality the Bill slashes the rights of tenants and opens the floodgates of evictions by removing important protections for renters.

In recent months we have seen a decline not just in Covid-19 but also in homelessness. Now, due to mismanagement by the Government, we are at risk of a second wave of the virus and this Bill, if it is passed, will unleash a second wave of the housing crisis. Against the advice of the homeless charities and the demands to extend the evictions ban and rent freeze, the Government wants to make it easier for landlords to kick tenants out. Section 12 will allow landlords once again to evict someone simply so the landlord can get a higher sale price for the house.

Tenants who have done nothing wrong, paid every bill and been good neighbours could be evicted simply because the landlord does not want to sell the property with tenants in situunaffected, as is the norm across the world and for commercial property in Ireland. Yet again, ordinary people have less right to safety and security than businesses. There is little to stop landlords who want to evict someone for rent arrears caused by the coronavirus from using these other clauses to get rid of them. It means that the Government is lying when it claims that the Bill will protect those in arrears due to Covid-19.

The Government has not included protections for those in high-risk categories. Elderly people and those with underlying conditions could now face eviction. How are they supposed to cocoon on the streets of Dublin or in homeless shelters? Instead of the reintroduction of evictions, we should extend the evictions ban and rent freeze until at least the end of the year. The past week has seen five deaths of homeless people on the streets of Dublin, five people failed by the Government and the State. How many more must die on our streets before the Government realises that this, too, is a pandemic that requires emergency measures?

The evictions ban this year managed to reduce the number of people in homelessness and we saw emergency accommodation being taken over by the State to help get people off the street. We have seen that where there is a will there is a way to end homelessness. However, there is no will from the Government. Deputy Hourigan, who negotiated the programme for Government, has said that the programme will make homelessness worse. It is a Government of landlords and developers and it seems that mortgage holders, renters and the homeless are an afterthought. We can cure the housing crisis, but it means having a left Government with socialist policies that is willing to take on the private landlords and developers, cut rents and build public housing.

11:15 am

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Verona Murphy has been called away for just a minute, so we will move to the Rural Independent Group. Is Deputy Nolan first?

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offally, Independent)
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Deputy Michael Healy-Rae is.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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How much time have we?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Twenty minutes.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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And how many speakers in that time?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Five.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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Have we four minutes each?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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That is up to the Deputies. They have 20 minutes in total. We will revert to Deputy Verona Murphy after the Rural Independent Group.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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Deputy Mattie McGrath, our chairman, will stop me. I am sorry about all of that, a Cheann Comhairle.

Since it has been done by another Deputy and as I always do, I wish to declare an interest in this sector. It was stated that perhaps certain Members should not partake in today's vote if they were involved in or had an interest in the matter. That means that, if there were an issue with agriculture in future, every Deputy who farmed or had land at home would not be able to participate in a vote and Deputies who were teachers could not partake in education debates. That is totally ridiculous.

I appreciate what the Government is trying to do. All Deputies present, be they in government or not, are contacted every day of the week by people with housing needs and who are facing urgent situations. That is not a gift of a certain section of Members in this Dáil who believe they are the only people standing up for tenants' rights. We are 100% committed to ensuring that tenants have rights, but also that the people who own property have rights. Property has been talked about this morning as if it falls out of the sky and lands in people's laps. They are mortgage holders as well. It does not fall out of the sky at all. There are terribly good landlords who are doing their level best. They run their properties like a business and in a professional way just like a person running a shop, farm or anything else does. If they were not in that sector and doing the work they do, the State would not be able to take care of the housing needs of everyone in Ireland.

I do not want to see people renting indefinitely. That has been my belief all my life. There is a certain period in people's lives where they might have to rent, but I would love to see young couples in particular in their own homes, be it by eventually getting a local authority house or by getting up on their feet with mortgages and front doors of their own.

11 o’clock

For everybody in life, there is a period of time, for example, starting out, perhaps even before they get married that people set up home together and they need to rent a property or they might need to rent because of work, to get their feet under them and realise where they want to finish up in life. It is not as though renting is a bad thing, but the one thing that is being portrayed here all the time is as if the people who own these properties are bad people and they are doing some harm. It is the exact opposite. They are taxpayers. Every penny that they get, they give half of it in tax. The people on the left here seem to continuously knock this sector, but of course they knock every businessman and woman. They knock people who create employment. They knock them as if they are evil people. What would the left rather they do - leave this country and go abroad and perhaps create jobs somewhere else and leave everybody here with nothing and pay no tax here in this country? These are the points I want to make.

I am acutely aware of the situation. I thank the Government for bringing in the regulations whereby people could not be evicted if they lost their jobs during the pandemic. I thank the previous Government and the present Government for what they are doing in that regard, but we have to remember that it does happen that people whose jobs were not affected and who did not lose any money due to the pandemic turned around and stopped paying rent. That has happened. I have been contacted by people who own property and who are not receiving rent. They have to continue paying their mortgage. They have to insure the property and maintain it and they might not be getting one penny for it while all of that is going on. That is wrong. I know of cases where people who have been getting rent allowance did not pay their rent. One has to be balanced and fair on this entire issue. I would like to make more points but the Chair is telling me my time is up. I am sorry if I ate into anybody else's time. I appreciate where the Government is coming from on this issue.

11:25 am

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offally, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I wish the new Minister well in his role. No doubt there will be many challenges to overcome.

The Bill provides for increased notice periods for notice of termination served on tenants in rent arrears in the residential rental sector during the emergency period and up to 10 January 2021. It is an acknowledgement by the Government that many thousands of people, including families, will have been going through an extremely stressful time as the original end point for reviewing the existing moratorium approached.

However, everyone is not confident the Bill goes far enough. All of us here have received emails from the Simon Community outlining its concerns that the provisions of the Bill are complex and that more vulnerable tenants will require support to navigate the new provisions. One step that could be taken, according to Simon, is the inclusion of a duty on a landlord serving a notice to quit based on arrears, to include in the notice the list of services such as rent supplement, HAP, MABS and the RTB, which may be available to the tenant in the case of difficulty.

Such a notice should also include information on the right of tenants to make a declaration to the RTB under section 4(1) that they are a relevant person unable to pay rent. These seem to be small but they are significant steps that can be taken to ensure the protection of the law is extended to the most vulnerable, who need it most.

There is something profoundly concerning about the rationale behind this and similar Bills. On the one hand, we accept that during a public health crisis people should be supported to remain in their accommodation, but the Government and others are saying out of the other side of their mouth that as soon as this crisis has passed, we can get back to a situation whereby the scales of power are once more disproportionately stacked against the tenant. That is not tolerable or fair.

This is more of a legal than a political problem that we will need to address in the longer term, probably through a constitutional amendment. In the meantime, other measures can be taken outside of the kind of emergency powers we are debating. In my constituency of Laois-Offaly, for example, I have been calling for an extension of the RPZs. In April, I welcomed the long-overdue designation of Tullamore as a rent pressure zone. This followed the nationwide rent freeze that came into effect under the Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Act in March. The designation of Tullamore as an RPZ did provide some support and financial certainty to tenants but only in the medium term. What is needed in Tullamore, as in every other town in the country, is social and affordable housing schemes for people who are unable to access mortgages.

The designation of Tullamore as an RPZ was badly needed because at that time the figures from the RTB's rent index showed an increase of almost 10% in Laois and an increase of almost 6% in Offaly in the period from 2018 to 2019. This meant that many of my constituents in Tullamore and Edenderry were paying €1,000 in rent every month before the current crisis. That was unsustainable for many families and young couples and it was leading to people being forced into homelessness. Today, I ask the Minister to consider including Edenderry, another large town in north Offaly, in a revised list of RPZs. Could he also indicate when the list is likely to be drawn up?

We need to put in place a regulatory regime that is genuinely capable of responding to the rent and arrears pressures that tenants face without the threat of homelessness or eviction hanging over them.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Ar an gcéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a ghabháil leis an Aire. I wish the Minister the very best. I know how hard he worked on the housing committee. He had some great ideas and I hope his officials will work with him and allow him to bring those ideas to fruition.

I wish there was a Utopia. Deputy Michael Healy-Rae alluded to the view of the left that all landlords are demons, evil and bad, they plucked a property, which fell from the sky, and they make maximum profits from it, pay no tax on it and mistreat their tenants. Nothing could be further from the truth. We need a healthy balance of people who are willing to invest, buy properties, put them out for rent and look after their tenants, and we need good tenants as well. There are thousands in both categories. It is very important to put that on the record. However, we need legislation and, therefore, I welcome the Bill. I supported the introduction of the freeze on evictions in March when the emergency period started. I am concerned, however, that the hassle and evictions did not stop for tenants of commercial properties. Neither did the court procedures or the vultures stop there, including the intimidation of people and eviction of families because they got in trouble with loans on their commercial properties. That has happened in Dublin city and elsewhere and it is a very regressive trend.

There will always be people who will abuse the good intentions and goodwill behind legislation, including this Bill. We have situations where landlords are tormented by tenants, who cause significant levels of anti-social behaviour, throw parties, deal in drugs, commit theft and torment and abuse their neighbours. We have seen examples of that. We have seen huge parties of young people. I am a supporter of young people. I have young people in my own family. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí. There were instances in Cork where a solicitor and another neighbour had to go to court to stop the parties. That is not fair. The neighbours have been subjected to appalling treatment. The landlords try to deal with the issue by removing the tenant. The Garda have been involved and recommended eviction but the landlord's hands were tied and he could not do anything about it. Those situations are intolerable and we must address them as well in order that there is a balance and fair play. The tenants are giving two fingers to everybody and nothing can be done with them because of the moratorium and the so-called Covid pandemic.

I also know of cases where tenants have simply stopped paying rent and abused the current situation. I accept that is a minority, perhaps even a tiny minority, but a heinous one. Landlords must pay their debts, taxes and everything else. In some cases, tenants have continued to refuse to pay their rent and have refused to vacate the property. I refer to cases where tenants have suffered no loss of income due to the pandemic, but where people have suffered the loss of income, wages and everything else, they must be supported.

This Bill is probably weak in some ways. Like all the legislation we have had in the present climate, it is too rushed. We have not had pre-legislative scrutiny and we have not had proper time to debate it. Rushed legislation can often be bad legislation. I appeal to the Minister, who has plenty of common sense, to use it and to use his experience as well. It is very hard to create legislation that covers every aspect of every situation, but we need to protect and support decent tenants, and as I said, the vast majority of tenants are decent. We also need to protect and support good landlords because without them the housing crisis would be far worse. Over the past ten years the building programme from the State was non-existent, so without the landlords we would have had nothing. We need a balance of the two. I suppose two roads shall turn, whether right, left or whatever, but we need good, solid legislation that protects good tenants and supports landlords as well.

I wish the Minister well; I will work with him. However, the problem with this is we will go into recess on Thursday, and if anything crops up, we will have no opportunity to address it until the autumn, which is a long time to wait. The provisions on evictions and rogue landlords have been stuck in the mud since March and are now going to be stuck until December or early January. That is not good. I welcome this Bill. There are good aspects to it I want to support and there are bits of it I cannot. Overall it is an effort by the Minister to bring his stamp to his Department. It is rushed because of the situation we are in but I wish the Minister luck with it and want to support him. Legislation that is for the greater good, for the greater number of people, is what we want and we should always be moving forward in that vein.

11:35 am

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I am glad to get the chance to talk about this Bill. I congratulate the Minister and look forward to working with him. Knowing the approachable kind of man he is, we are at least going to be able to consult him and he will listen to us. The most important thing is that he listens to the voices of Deputies when we are relating the concerns of the constituents we represent.

I welcome the extension of time provided for in the Bill. I must also declare that I am a connected person. I do not rent properties myself but I am connected to a man who is renting houses. On a point that was brought up earlier, I would be very concerned if this Bill in any way allowed vulture funds to evict people out of their houses. I hope there is nothing in the Bill to facilitate those kinds of people. Security of tenure is most important to tenants. In these troubled times when people cannot pay their way, pay all the bills and make ends meet because of losing jobs due to the dreadful virus we are still enduring, we have to extend the time. We have to protect the good tenants and the good landlords. If we do not protect the landlords, we are going to have greater demand on fewer houses. I know that many landlords are pulling out now. The one thing they keep mentioning to me is the cost of the tax. If they get €1,000 a month for a house, they have to pay back €500 in tax. That is a serious matter. If the Government could do something with the tax take it is getting from landlords, we could help to reduce the price of the houses for the tenants.

Availability of houses in places like Killarney, Kenmare and Dingle in Kerry is scarce at present. The local authorities for one reason or another are building a few houses now but it is not really enough. We would have more council houses only there are so many voids and they do not have funding to repair them. Before, we used to have the tenant purchase scheme. When tenants got on their feet and had the funding or could go the route of buying the house, the council got that money and used it to repair vacant houses so that people could be put into them or they could be rented to people who were on the list. I appeal to the Minister to bring forward the tenant purchase scheme to allow county councils acquire the funding to make voids fit to live in again.

The housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme is not appealing to many landlords. It is the option that the local authority gives so many tenants. Families with three and four children have nowhere else to go. The HAP scheme is just a hames. The tenant has to pay so much to the landlord and so much to the local authority. Then the local authority has to pay the landlord. It is such a rigmarole it takes three or four months to get a family housed. I appeal to the Minister to get rid of that scheme and bring forward an ordinary long-term lease or even a short-term lease if a landlord will only rent a property for a couple of years. I will talk more when I get another opportunity because there are certain things that can be done. I will be in discussion with the Minister practically every day.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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By arrangement of the Ceann Comhairle I call an Teachta Verona Murphy.

Verona Murphy (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Bill. In the first instance, I would like to stress that the rental market in Ireland is a critical component of the housing market. There are people living in private rented accommodation who do not wish to be there. They are obliged to rent as there is no alternative. There are individuals who are eligible for social housing who are in private rented accommodation temporarily while they wait for social housing to be provided. There are others who do not qualify for social housing, who are earning significant money and are in private rented accommodation but have no capacity to save the deposits required to allow them to purchase their own homes. Successive Governments over many years have failed to address this issue. I sincerely hope that I am right in giving the Minister and the new Government the benefit of the doubt and that they will implement a housing plan that delivers the social, affordable and private housing required to avoid legislation of this nature.

The reality is that where tenants are in extreme difficulty, they should be offered social housing. It should be facilitated immediately, keeping them from the peril of homelessness. This would do away with landlords having to litigate with the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, and clogging up the courts, and in so doing would take the landlord out of peril in respect of financial institutions. In the general spirit of a normal letting, this legislation would seem unnecessary, but as we are not in normal times, it is understandable that such legislation is required. In most instances, it is accepted that it is required. However, it will not be without its problems and instances of exploitation. I welcome the fact that it is more specific and targeted than much of the legislation of late.

What is not understandable, however, is that prior to Covid-19 it was evident that the RTB was broken. It is not working. For the majority of landlords and tenants being compliant is not an issue. They acknowledge and respect compliance and want transparency. Landlords, indeed, believe that landlords need to be held responsible. For many, their reputation is important to them. In the same way, tenants respect their rented accommodation as they would if they owned it but often endure tenant neighbours who do not wish to live in harmony.

Many good people, tenants and landlords, do what they are supposed to do and make a call if there is a problem or simply call in. I have even known landlords to drop in for tea and treat tenants as they would family and so on. They are not all rogues or faceless corporations.

I want to raise an issue which if not addressed may well see the rental market only contain faceless corporations. I want to address the issue of the significant inequity of timelines in cases dealt with by the RTB. I have constant complaints that cases take an inordinate amount of time, whatever the issue, be it on behalf of the landlord or tenant. Decisions made by the RTB are regarded as ridiculous and it appears that court orders are unenforceable because of a wording issue. I believe the Minister is already aware of this issue. As a public representative I find it impossible to get in touch with the RTB and I will be writing to the Minister in this regard as it is extremely frustrating for many constituents in Wexford.

I have constituents in abundance who have raised queries about the delay by the RTB in hearing cases being told an adjudicator is unavailable. Some have raised issues about equity and impartiality. There needs to be a register of tenants and landlords who breach or default on contractual obligations. There must be mandatory disclosure of a conviction for antisocial behaviour by a prospective tenant to a landlord. Details and findings of all RTB mediations or hearings should be published, with the in camerarule applied to protect identities, to allow transparency and consistency. There must be a timelined and streamlined approach and where the RTB is inordinately causing the delay there must be a compensation fund that deals with this issue for the aggrieved party. We need landlords in the property market as much as we need housing. I remind the Minister we do not have institutional landlords in the regions or rural Ireland. Many depend greatly on small private landlords as they are the only landlords that exist for Wexford constituents and those in other small rural and regional towns.

I hope it is the Minister's intention to secure a compensation fund for those disproportionately affected by the legislation. Remember that in March 2020 the initial moratorium was aligned with the forbearance of the main banks and financial institutions but this is not the case now and many buy-to-let and small private landlords will be affected and will need assistance. The legislation is necessary but I call on the Minister to consider its gravity and, as a minimum gesture, set up a task force as a matter of urgency to conduct a complete review of the RTB and ensure equity for all concerned.

11:45 am

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Fáiltím roimh an deis páirt a ghlacadh sa díospóireacht. Tá rudaí dearfacha sa Bhille ach cuireann sé olc orm nach bhfuil comhthéacs ar bith maidir leis an ngéarchéim atá ann ó thaobh chúrsaí tithíochta. Mar is eol don Teach, tagaim ó chathair na Gaillimhe. Tá na figiúirí ó thaobh cúrsaí tithíochta i nGaillimh damanta. Tá deis ag an Aire ceannaireacht a thaispeáint. In ainneoin go bhfuil rudaí dearfacha sa Bhille seo, tá an Rialtas i ndáiríre ag cur tuilleadh srianta ar thionóntaí tráth a bhfuil géarchéim tithíochta ann.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I have gone through the Bill and once again I thank the Oireachtas Library & Research Service, which does an excellent job in educating Deputies. I come from Galway city and I have repeatedly put on the record that housing there is equally bad if not worse than in Dublin. I will deal with the Bill in a second but I need to put it in context. COPE is an organisation that deals with homelessness in Galway. In 2019, 1,622 people availed of homeless services in Galway. I am waiting on a text to confirm whether my memory is correct regarding somebody who came into my office who was on the waiting list for more than ten years and has been going from bed and breakfast to bed and breakfast for almost two years with a young family. Of the 1,622 people, 1189 are adults and 433 are children. I could go through the statistics.

Osterley Lodge caters for women who are homeless. According to a report by COPE, one woman said before she arrived at Osterley Lodge she had been sofa surfing for 18 months and that she had been in Osterley Lodge for 11 months and finding accommodation in Galway city was near impossible. The report also states domestic abuse is an epidemic and one in five women in Ireland will fall victim to this crime at some stage of their lives. They are not counted in the homeless figures. This is the context in Galway city. It is difficult to get the exact figures. The Minister knows that since Fine Gael and the Labour Party introduced the housing assistance payment scheme in 2013 and 2014 anybody who falls under it comes off the waiting list. From my long experience as a local councillor, and I have kept in touch with the issue, anything up to 12,000 or 13,000 people are on a waiting list in Galway for a public house. We have a serious crisis in addition to the pandemic.

What the Minister is doing will provide extra protection for some tenants, which I welcome, but in the guise of extra protection for some tenants he is withdrawing protection for other tenants and this is simply unacceptable. There is no recognition of the pandemic. There is no recognition of the housing crisis or having a home as of right. I would have thought that particularly Fianna Fáil, and I have great respect for it with regard to public housing, might get in touch with its roots and realise the housing crisis cannot be solved without an absolute commitment to public housing on public land as an integral part of its plans. Tenants and, quite clearly, landlords deserve to be treated with respect and properly under the law. I have no difficulty acknowledging that we need landlords but we need the State as the primary landlord to send out a message to the market that a home is not a commodity. A home is something that is the most basic fundamental right that should be enshrined in our Constitution.

Speaking of the Constitution, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael misused the Constitution to justify their action because the Constitution also acknowledges that the common good is an extremely important objective to serve. The Minister is not serving the common good by increasing the number of evictions among the tenants he is not protecting. He is not serving the common good by relying on the market to provide homes. This is not serving the common good. In my humble opinion I have no doubt there would be no constitutional problem if the Minister sought to enshrine a home as a basic human right in our Constitution.

I welcome the extension of the notification period for all tenants to 90 days in the Bill. The Bill is very short and it appears that what the Minister is really doing is limiting the scope of the moratorium and the scope of the rent freeze. Quite clearly, a house in Galway cannot be got at the levels set under the housing assistance payment. It is just not possible. We used to have under the counter payments are now we have over the counter payments. As the Minister well knows, families or individuals in receipt of the housing assistance payment get money that is capped and they must come up with money out of their own pockets. What the housing assistance payment is doing, and I have said this so many times, is backing up private market rents to a level that are simply not affordable for anyone.

The Bill is an opportunity to look at putting this in context rather than limiting evictions and the rent freeze in a time when we have a serious housing crisis. Many organisations have spoken out. The Simon Community has spoken out and while it was positive, as I am myself, with regard to some aspects of the Bill, it points out that it does not believe the Bill provides the required level of protection to vulnerable renters. It also states the Bill will not protect those tenants who could be made homeless because the landlords require the properties for their own use or wish to sell the properties.

No more than the debacle at Dublin Airport and the unacceptable divisive approach of the Government in singling out people on the pandemic universal payment or the jobseeker's payment, it is doing the exact same here with our housing problem.

We have the hims and hers and the landlords on that side and we Deputies on the left ostensibly complaining. That is not part of my philosophy. We need landlords and we must protect them properly, but we also need absolute protection for our tenants. The rights of landlords and tenants must be enumerated in a constitutional framework where the right to a home is protected. Protections should follow from that, with the Government right in the middle of the market, i lár an aonaigh, ag cur in iúl do na tionóntaí agus do na tiarnaí talún go bhfuil sé dáiríre faoi chúrsaí tithíochta agus gurb é an chloch is mó ar a phaidrín teach a sholáthar do dhaoine ionas go mbeidh siad in ann páirt a ghlacadh i gcóras daonlathach.

I will not use all of my time. I will finish, but I appeal to Deputy Darragh O'Brien as a new Minister. Many mistakes have been made, including the debacle at the airport and the divisive approach. Let us stop this and unite on what is important. Providing a home as the most basic and fundamental requirement is an essential. Let us lead. Let the Taoiseach and the Green Party lead. The Government has its moment and we will support it. Recognise that there is a crisis as we did with climate change so that actions can follow from that, not just a tinkering with the market or a charity approach. It is a basic human right. We all need homes so that we can participate in society.

In that context, I have serious difficulties with what the Minister is doing in this Bill. Although it will do one or two good things, it will actually reduce protections for tenants.

11:55 am

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Níl an Teachta Fitzmaurice i láthair. Is é Teachta Haughey an chéad duine eile ar an liosta.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
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I am sharing my time with Deputies Niamh Smyth and Murnane O'Connor.

I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, on his appointment. He has certainly hit the ground running. Housing was a major issue in the general election and there is much work to be done, to say the least. I wish the Minister and the Minister of State every success in their endeavours for all our sakes.

I am happy to give the Bill a broad welcome. It freezes rents and allows for an eviction moratorium in respect of tenants affected by Covid-19 up to 10 January 2021. It is important that current protections be put on a sound legal basis, which is what the Bill proposes to do. It will also provide new long-term protections for tenants separate to the measures connected with Covid-19.

Concern has been expressed about the position of those renters who do not qualify for these new legal protections. Is it the case that these non-Covid cases, as it were, now face the possibility of having their rents increased? Any clarification from the Minister would be most welcome.

What is the position regarding the eviction of tenants engaged in anti-social behaviour? It is my understanding that, under the current arrangements, a tenant engaging in anti-social behaviour cannot be served with a notice of termination but must continue to pay rent and observe the other normal terms and conditions of his or her lease during the emergency period. What is the position under the Bill regarding the eviction of tenants who are clearly engaged in anti-social behaviour? I would welcome some clarification.

I will briefly mention the provisions under the strategic housing development, SHD, measures. The Minister told the Dáil last week that they would not be renewed after 31 December 2021. That is good. In my constituency, a number of planning permissions were given under those provisions for large-scale, high-density, multistorey, build-to-rent apartment developments. I have in mind places like Coolock village, Howth village, Clarehall and areas generally on the city's northern fringe. Sustainable development and local democracy were thrown out the window. New residential guidelines issued by the then Minister facilitated that. Development plans were overridden and the need for mixed tenure schemes was ignored. The sooner we get back to sustainable planning for housing, the better.

I wish to deal with the issue of affordable housing. The programme for Government places it at the heart of the housing system, which is as it should be. Sooner rather than later, we need to see the construction of affordable houses and the putting in place without delay of a practical and affordable housing scheme under which people know where they stand and can make applications.

In my area, there are 200 affordable houses planned for Oscar Traynor Road in Santry and 300 affordable houses planned for the former lands of the Oblate Fathers in Belcamp. These houses must still be constructed, but we need an affordable housing scheme under which people can apply to get them. The possibility of constructing housing on Oscar Traynor Road has been ongoing for years. It has been held up all over the place in the Department and Dublin City Council. There is talk of appointing a preferred bidder, but planning permission is still required for their construction. A housing scheme for the site was first proposed in 1991. How long ago is that? Will the Minister and the Minister of State please get the lead out, pursue this particular scheme and remove any administrative blockage and bureaucracy that is preventing the houses' construction?

We need to get the cost rental scheme up and running. In my area, there are plans for 100 cost rental units at Cromcastle in Coolock.

I wish to address the issue of social housing. I welcome the commitment to build 50,000 new social housing units over the next five years. Our local authorities need to be central to this ambition. Do they have the capacity, resources and expertise to set about building and constructing social housing like we did down through the decades? Local authorities need to start building social housing again. The approved housing bodies, AHBs, are doing a good job and form part of the overall policy of providing social housing, but local authorities need to be front and centre in meeting this objective.

The Department needs to sanction proposed schemes much more quickly than it is doing currently. Local authorities submitting schemes to the Department for approval seem to face inordinate delays in getting sanction for them. I do not know what the problem is. There seem to be inordinate levels of bureaucracy and red tape. I know that the Minister dealt with this issue in opposition and is determined to cut out delays in sanctioning schemes because people are being left on waiting lists by such delays.

We need to get people off the housing assistance payment, HAP. I welcome the commitment in the programme for Government to reduce the reliance on HAP as a social housing solution. The HAP system has got out of control. Landlords are making significant profits and people do not really have security. If they are considered to be adequately housed under HAP, they go on a transfer list and that is the end of their social housing quests. We need to reduce the reliance on HAP and build social and affordable housing.

What is the position relating to local authorities buying up houses on the open market for social housing? I have significant concerns about this. Surely it freezes out young couples who are trying to buy houses as they cannot compete with local authorities. In this regard, I draw attention to the Call for Housing 2020 campaign, a document produced by the Department. It seems that a call has been made encouraging private homeowners to sell their houses to local authorities. Surely this will cause a problem. Surely we should build social housing rather than buying up private houses to use. Young people are being frozen out of the market and cannot afford compete for housing, dear enough as it is. There is, it seems, no affordable housing scheme in place. I would like clarification on that. I hope I have not misread the call for housing document. It is misguided. People should not be selling houses to local authorities. This call should not be put out. It might be part of the solution but I would not like it to be seen as the total solution. I would welcome the Minister's view on that.

Generally, I welcome the commitments on housing in the programme for Government. Housing was a huge issue in the general election and people expect results. The Minister has done a lot of work in his first month in office to get the ball rolling on the various issues. We must build social housing and fulfil the 50,000 unit commitment over the lifetime of the Government. We need to build affordable housing and put an affordable housing scheme in place. These extremely important measures must be undertaken without delay.

The Bill affords protections to renters and tenants during the Covid-19 emergency and sets out the criteria to be met to qualify for these protections. I worry about other renters who do not qualify for the Covid-19 protections. I hope sufficient protections are in place for them. Their case also needs to be heard.

12:05 pm

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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I wish the Minister well in his new role. We have very challenging times ahead.

While I welcome the extension of the rent freeze and ban on evictions, we need to take time to future-proof the rental sector. We need to take a long-term view of what criteria are used to evict tenants. We also need to encourage small landlords back into the system and protect vulnerable tenants. Some accidental landlords may now need to move back into their rental property because they may have lost work due to Covid-19. We must take a more robust approach to ensure no landlord is playing a dangerous game.

I am concerned that tenants must almost self-declare their dire situation to the Residential Tenancies Board. What happens to the renter who does not have the wherewithal to do this, either through a lack of understanding or capacity? Will the Department launch a public awareness campaign? Will housing authorities write to every registered landlord, erect signage or engage in awareness? How will this be communicated? Timelines are also very important. I am not sure the moving deadline is helpful. We need a long-term strategy to provide certainty to everyone.

In the previous Seanad, I introduced a Bill to set out new statutory deadlines for processing housing assistance payment applications and social housing support applications. It would have halved the current social housing assessment times and set a three-week deadline for processing HAP applications. This would have given applicants certainty and more confidence. It was a technical Bill to address paperwork issues in housing applications that many constituents have complained about. The Bill lapsed following the dissolution of the previous Government. We need to look again at these kinds of short turnaround times for decisions. More understanding is needed. People tell me that their jobs are not secure and they are uncertain about their futures. They are looking to go on the housing list. I am very disappointed that the income threshold to qualify for local authority housing has not been increased for nearly ten years. This is causing people to become homeless.

I am concerned that HAP is being used to solve certain problems while creating others. Like a plaster placed on a broken bone, it does nothing to solve the crisis. It is often used to keep families from becoming homeless but they are not securely housed as they are still at the mercy of private landlords. We need to address this, especially for families with young children who need stability to lead full lives.

While I welcome the certainty provided in the Bill, we need a longer plan. I have spoken to so many families during the Covid crisis. One's home is one's castle. One woman rang me who was very upset. She told me she knew she could not be evicted at that time but her husband had lost his job and she did not know if he would return to work. She did not know what to do as she did not qualify for the housing list and had no help. We must ensure that every case is examined on its individual merits. There are genuine cases where people are not getting help. No appeal mechanism is provided in respect of the qualification threshold for local authority housing. In the case of someone whose income is €20 over the threshold, I would not be able to make representations or ask to make an appeal on grounds such as the person's outgoings and need. We need to put a procedure in place to deal with urgent cases. While I understand that staff have been transferred to local authorities to deal with homelessness, which is important, the bigger picture is that every case and situation is different. We come across cases that involve children and families who are very upset.

I raised the issue of domestic violence with the Minister last week. There has been a huge surge in domestic violence. We need to ensure no family is left homeless. We must be able to contact our local authorities to secure help for families and ensure they have a place to stay.

We also need to look at accommodation. What kind of accommodation do the local authorities have? We do not want families to be evicted or made homeless. We must ensure that every child in the country has a home and no child is left with nowhere to go.

Photo of Niamh SmythNiamh Smyth (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I will leave time at the end for the Minister to respond to my comments. I congratulate him on his appointment as Minister with responsibility for housing. It is a big portfolio but I know he brought great energy and enthusiasm to the role of Opposition spokesperson. I agree with my colleague that he has hit the ground running. I have no doubt that he has taken the bull by the horns in the Department to ensure delivery. I also congratulate the Minster of State, Deputy Noonan, on his appointment to the Department. His name is held in very high regard in Kilkenny County Council.

We are discussing one of the most basic human rights, the right to have a roof over one's head and a house to call home. This was one of the biggest issues, if not the biggest issue, of the last Dáil. I have no doubt the Minister will bring a new vision, energy and enthusiasm to housing but it is a massive ship to turn around. Regardless of constituency, whether it is in an urban area such as in Dublin city and county or a rural area such as counties Cavan and Monaghan and north County Meath, the issue is the same. People have been waiting years on housing lists for the all-important roof over their head and place to call home.

It is unacceptable in this day and age that people have to wait years for a home. As my colleague, Deputy Murnane O'Connor, observed, sometimes a family's income is only €20 over the threshold. The threshold can put genuine cases out of kilter in terms of their entitlement to a council house or their ability to apply for one. This issue will have to be addressed by the Minister in his time in the Department.

The plan is very welcome and it is ambitious in its aim to deliver 50,000 social houses or homes over the lifetime of the Government.

I have been a public representative for ten years. Before my time as a public representative, I always looked around the county and could see where schemes were constantly popping up all over the place. I would have said it was one of the most active parts of our local authority of Cavan County Council. Over the period of ten years that I have been a public representative, however, those schemes seem to have slowed down somewhat. There was perhaps a reluctance on the part of the local authority to be the driving force in house-building schemes. Many housing authorities came on board to take up that mantle but, ultimately, that is the responsibility of our local authorities.

I would love to see the housing sections within our local authorities going back to that all-important job of the delivery of homes. I know they are making every effort with the resources available to them to find empty homes and to provide renting schemes such as the housing assistance payment, HAP, to get people out of their homeless or almost-homeless circumstances as a short-term measure. Nevertheless, we really need to show vision, and we have always said the Government will be judged on its delivery. I certainly hope we will not be found wanting when it comes to the delivery of the 50,000 social homes.

The July stimulus package took account of that as part of its town and village renewal scheme. I very much welcome that, particularly as someone who represents a rural constituency such as Cavan-Monaghan. Many rural towns and villages throughout the constituency are dying on their feet. One of greatest problems that businesses point to is the fact that no one lives in such towns and villages any more. There was an effort from the previous Government to address this issue, but it is something that, as part of the town and village renewal scheme, we really need to reconsider. There are many homes above empty shop units, of which there are also a great number. What can we do to incentivise people to bring back footfall and capacity to our main streets? It would have a knock-on effect on revitalising our towns and villages.

The Minister might respond in the time remaining.

12:15 pm

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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There is no facility for individual responses on Second Stage.

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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There are many holes in the Bill - more than in a sieve. What will leak out of this sieve is families into homelessness. In my area of Dublin Mid-West, good tenants have entered homelessness through absolutely no fault of their own. We need to protect families. The ban on evictions, notices to quit and rent increases that was introduced last March protected families and led to a significant drop in the number of families becoming homeless. Thanks to the ban, fewer children have had to move out of safe and secure homes into temporary accommodation, fewer children have been subjected to unstable bed and breakfast hotel accommodation, and fewer children have been forced to share one room with their parents and siblings.

I have witnessed over the years the trauma that families experience when they receive a notice to quit, the fear that parents feel for their family's future and the fear that parents do their best to shield their children from. Even with the best will in the world from parents, their children cannot but absorb these fears. Once such children are forced into homelessness, they get on the not-so merry-go-round of trying to find suitable temporary accommodation. Phone call after phone call, they are told there is no room at the inn, and phone call after phone call, parents see the spark of hope diminish in the eyes of their children. If they do find temporary accommodation, it is exactly that - temporary - and they must repeat the same process of phone call after phone call, the next day and the day after that. More hope is diminished in their children's eyes. The long-term effects of child homelessness, unfortunately, will be felt by our society for many years to come.

The Bill will provide very limited protection from eviction and rent increases for renters. Our much-appreciated front-line workers, who kept the State going during Covid-19 and are often in low-paid employment, could be in danger of becoming homeless on foot of any rent increases. I include people working in retail who kept the shops open during Covid, the cleaners who kept our hospitals clean, the bin men who removed our waste, the security drivers who minded our business, the delivery drivers who delivered the much-needed protective personal equipment to the front line and many more low-paid workers. If the Bill passes in its current form, it will see the removal of protection for renters. This Fianna Fáil Bill will make their circumstances even more precarious. A round of applause in the Chamber will not keep a roof over their heads.

It is more cost-effective for the Government to keep people in their homes than force them into homelessness. Landlords will again be able to issue vacant-possession notices to quit or to implement such notices that were served before 27 March. These notices have been the single greatest cause of family homelessness in recent years. The 27 March ban on evictions resulted in a dramatic reduction in the numbers of families presenting as homeless. Ending this ban will inevitably result in an increase in the number of families presenting as homeless. It shows that the ban on evictions, rent increases and issuances of notices to quit is working and more families are staying in their homes as a result. The ban on evictions should be extended to at least the end of 2020 and a three-year ban on rent increases should be introduced.

The Bill is another example of how out of touch Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are with the people they believe they represent. The Minister should not take my word for it. We have all received circulars from Threshold, the Simon Communities and many other organisations that have said the Bill is overly complex and that a simple extension of the current legislation to ban evictions, notices to quit and rent increases introduced would have been welcome. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have ignored these pleas.

A few moments ago, I listened incredulously to the Minister's party colleague, Deputy Haughey, who asked him not to pursue the purchase of social housing from private homeowners. This is another sign of how out of touch the Minister's party is. We need to do everything possible to increase the social housing stock. Deputy Haughey would be better off calling for real, affordable housing and an increase in the income threshold for social housing. These are the solutions.

As for the Green Party, this is not the change that people wanted or expected when they voted for it. We all have an interest in saving the planet but I do not know what planet the Green Party is on, supporting the Bill. I urge Deputies from the Green Party not to support it in its current form or, at the very least, not to enter the Chamber when the votes are called.

The Bill will require families to submit a written declaration to the landlord and the RTB to the effect that their income level has dropped or ceased due to Covid-19. Many renters, particularly those with language, literacy or capacity issues, may not be able to engage with the written declaration process. As a result, they could lose their entitlements to protections. What the Bill will do, in essence, is remove safeguards put in place to stop families becoming homeless in the middle of a pandemic. It will force more and more families into homelessness during this worldwide pandemic and that is an absolute scandal.

Ruairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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What I am about to say has all been said. It is straightforward. The Bill will fail to do what our Bill would have done, that is, to protect families, as my party colleague, Deputy Ward, stated. We needed an extension of the legislation as it existed. We needed to ensure there was a moratorium on all rent increases and that there would be no evictions, but we do not have that.

12 o’clock

We have a really complicated process whereby people who may have lost income have to make contact with their landlord and the Residential Tenancies Board. This requires a certain skill set and it would be difficult for certain individuals to do. We are talking about people who may have disabilities or mental health issues. I do not think I am going off on too great a tangent in pointing out that, once again, we are seeing a composite of many failed services where they all meet together. We are seeing the consequences of not having the mental health services, the residential beds and other services that are required in communities. Those services are consistently and constantly reliant on NGOs, sometimes even when Government funding is going to them, to bridge the gaps that exist across the board.

The whole housing crisis comes down to the fact that we have failed to build a sufficient supply of housing. I cannot help but think that previous Governments - the last Government in particular - thought at some point that they could just hold up the housing system and deal with it in the same way they dealt with the health service. People would get the idea that dealing with health is a very difficult issue and it is not really possible to resolve it, but eventually we would get it all worked out. That is what I believe happened in regard to housing. The view was that the private system would kick into action at a certain point in time, the market would rectify everything and supply would meet demand. That has not happened over many years and we have absolutely failed to address it.

I spoke last week in the Chamber about the fact there are 5,700 people on Louth County Council's housing list. I noted that the number would probably be much higher except that income thresholds are very low and a huge number of people fall between stools. The local authority in County Louth is consistently and constantly under pressure, even in respect of turning around re-lets and refurbishing its existing stock. A lot of this is down to the requirement to service the cost associated with the council's land banks, which cost some €1 million last year. The council is currently considering proposals to increase the local property tax but that would raise an amount only sufficient to service the land banks it bought under instruction from previous Governments, including at the height of the Celtic tiger boom. Some of those land banks are huge. If this debt issue could be dealt with and if we had an imaginative approach to dealing with it from both the local authorities and from Departments - I am aware of a request for a meeting to discuss the matter - a real solution could be found in respect not only of social housing but also affordable housing and affordable cost rentals. If we are to deal with this issue, that is where we have to get to.

The first thing we need is a three-year moratorium or ban on rent increases, as proposed by Sinn Féin in the Bill we put forward last week. Our view on this will not be news to anybody. It has been Sinn Féin policy for many years, as espoused by our spokesperson, Deputy Ó Broin. A moratorium is an absolute necessity and it is accepted as such by a huge number of people in our society. Alongside that, we must seek to reform the whole rental situation. I note that Threshold has spoken about how eventually, a complete ban on so-called renevictions will be needed, that is, where landlords claim they are either renovating or renting out to a family member for the purpose of getting rid of an existing tenant, who may then lapse into homelessness. Threshold has proposed that the quid pro quofor outlawing that practice would be the introduction of added protections for landlords which would, in effect, professionalise the entire sector. In fairness, private landlords will claim they are at some degree of disadvantage versus the large hedge funds and so on that have bought huge numbers of apartments and houses and are able to make huge profits and operate on the basis of only paying corporate tax rates. We need to deal with those issues.

Several speakers have referred to the need for local authority-led housing builds, particularly in the case of social housing. We really need the Department to kick into play and give councils the capacity and resources required to do that. Otherwise, everything we are hearing is empty talk. There have been a number of successful social housing projects in recent times. The Housing First initiative has enabled local authorities to provide protections to what we would term vulnerable tenants, who need an extra level of care and security. Doing so provides several benefits. It is of benefit to the whole community when housing is found for a person who may previously have caused problems in terms of how they reacted with the rest of the community. Accommodating people in such circumstances also protects the local authority because it helps to avoid some of the situations that would have arisen, whether by people not taking care or sometimes through taking bad choices, which led to the destruction of local authority property.

Louth County Council has led the way in this regard and I would like to see the Housing First approach expanded and further resourced. I am very happy to note that there is going to be a new family-orientated Housing First initiative. I would like to know how quickly it will happen, because it is an absolute necessity. We need to protect tenants and their rights and ensure we do not increase the numbers of people falling into homelessness. We also need to protect communities from anti-social and anti-community behaviour. An awful lot of the cases local authorities are dealing with involve families who may have multiple issues and problems with which the State has failed to assist them. We leave it to their neighbours and other people who live in their community to deal with the outworkings of those problems. We urgently need a heavily resourced, family-orientated Housing First initiative that will enable the local authority to deal with families and to engage with other services, whether Tusla, mental health services, the HSE or any other services that are required, to find a solution. A harm-reduction approach is required that will benefit not only the family in question but also the wider community.

I have no doubt that a lot of the elected representatives in this Chamber, particularly those who previously worked as city and county councillors, have dealt with all of these issues in their own localities. The really sad thing is that the local authorities were producing the same lists, detailing the same problems and, in some cases, the very same families, two, three or even 20 years ago. We have absolutely failed to deal with those problems and have instead left it to communities to deal with the outworkings. I do not want to be seen to be overly critical of local authorities. First and foremost, some of these issues relate to other State services. We need to have somebody who takes the lead in these matters and requisitions the required services from the relevant bodies, whether the HSE, Tusla or even schools. This type of whole-of-service solution is absolutely required and it must happen before we can deal with the wider issue of the criminal actions that are occurring in some privately owned homes, privately rented homes and council houses. Some of these cases relate directly to vulnerable people being put under pressure by nefarious and organised characters who are able to skirt around the edge of the law and will always have two or three people between them and the actual criminal act.

We need to update all our laws and services and I would like to see a whole-of-government response to this. When I refer to crime, I am specifically talking about the drugs epidemic with which we are dealing and the violence that goes with it. It is happening in Drogheda, my town of Dundalk and in every village and town across this State, and it all needs to be dealt with.

That said, we are here to talk about this legislation. I welcome the limited protections in the Bill, but they are too cumbersome for the people to whom they apply. We have failed to deal with people who have now built up arrears. We need to consider a 100% moratorium because we all know the RPZs are not preventing rent increases and we need to make it as difficult as possible for people to fall into homelessness. We are currently putting pressure on local authorities to spend a significant amount getting people into inadequate emergency accommodation and we are not necessarily putting the money where it needs to be. We are just wasting it.

HAP, which was meant to be a short-term solution, has become the baseline for rents. While we are all very glad of it as it gets people into necessary housing, it is the reason there are houses for rent in some local authority housing estates in Dundalk for upwards of €1,400. That is incredibly difficult for a family that cannot access HAP. Not only is such a family up against people who can access HAP, though I am not taking away from its necessity, given the housing crisis we are in, it is also up against several young people who may be working in the likes of PayPal or some of the foreign direct investment, FDI, firms around Dundalk. We are very glad to have those companies, but the people working in them have much more spending power than a regular family. We need to ensure we can provide families with the supports and protections they need. Unfortunately, this is another failure of the Government to take the required action.

12:35 pm

Richard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and look forward to working with him in the future. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we have looked to Departments to show leadership and guidance to the public but they have not done so. Clear and concise instructions need to be given and some parts of this Bill require clarification. For example, tenants who have taken pay cuts across the board to keep their jobs and help keep our economy afloat face continued reductions in their salaries. For some tenants, this has led to increased financial worries about rental payments and arrears. This is a position in which many tenants find themselves. The economy is not stable enough, at this point, to decide on what the new normal will be. Tenants and landlords are in limbo and pinpointing a selective group in this Bill will not help flatten the curve of the rental situation we are facing.

Everyone I have spoken to since being elected to Dáil Éireann talks about rural Ireland, because they see that rural Ireland has been forgotten. We once thought there was only one border in Ireland, but now people say there are two. They say that once one passes Naas one has gone over the border. This has to stop. I come from a construction background and have been in that sector all my life. Before that, all my family came from the farming sector. From being on the ground, I can see where the housing pitfalls in our society lie. I served on Limerick City and County Council for six years and I tried to use my construction background and experience working with communities to highlight those pitfalls. We have more voids in County Limerick than we have new houses. Only 121 social houses were built in 2019. The town of Askeaton has been waiting for a sewerage system for 30 years and they can no longer build there. Oola is at capacity and they can no longer build there either. Last week, I was in the town of Hospital, where 20 new houses are to be built, with a community group. The capacity of the sewerage system is 15 houses, so they had to implement an on-site sewerage system to make it viable for a contractor to build the other five houses. The capacity was not there.

If we want to help the rental sector and have people living in rural areas, the biggest problem is infrastructure. I have been saying that since I came into this House, and said it when I was on the council as well. We need investment, we need to incentivise, and we need infrastructure. There is no infrastructure in rural Ireland. That is the bottom line. There is nothing in any town or village one goes to. They have not been invested in and are at capacity. If someone wants to build a one-off house in rural Ireland, he or she has to pay massive fees to the county council. Those fees include footpaths, water and road infrastructure. There is none of that in rural Ireland, yet rural Ireland is being charged for it.

There is also a massive number of voids in County Limerick, as well as across the country. If the Government parties want to help, they should ask someone who has been involved in this sector all his life and I would tell them that planning restrictions are an issue. Many buildings are being held up because of conservation. We have iconic buildings that need to be protected, but townhouses are also being held up because the authorities want to protect the structures. We can fix this with a small bit of common sense, by working with people and taking away all the bureaucratic bull that comes with planning.

We need to get people into our towns and villages and into housing stock, but our county councils do not have the workforce to do that. The failures of the previous Government have caused many of the problems we face today. When the crash came in 2008, the then Government shoved everyone into education. It focused on education, education, education. It sent everyone to school and it forgot about the trades. All the FÁS courses and everything else closed down and everyone was shoved into education. Education does not build houses. We need trades. We are now ten years behind on trades and we are trying to do these rapid builds. We do not have enough people in the trades because they were stopped for years. We need to incentivise them. A law came in which made contractors liable for apprenticeships while their apprentices were in college. Small contractors in rural Ireland were being punished because they had to pay people while they were in college when they used to be paid by the State. Similarly, student nurses are not being paid while they are in college and they should be. Apprentices are only paid by the State if they have been in receipt of a social welfare payment for 12 months prior.

Young people who want a trade are being forced to go on the live register when they leave school at the age of 18 in order that they will be covered while they are in college learning a trade. That does not make sense.

The whole system is wrong. We can fix the rental system by being constructive. We can help all landlords and tenants if we are constructive. Households of two people who were working and had their wages reduced are now in financial difficulty. They would be better off if they were not working because they would qualify for everything. People working in this country are the worst off because they qualify for nothing. Those with incomes marginally above the thresholds do not qualify for a medical card or the housing assistance payment, HAP, and go from pillar to post trying to pay bills.

The majority of the people leaving the country during this pandemic are not working, yet they can take a foreign holiday. The people who are working can hardly pay their rent and are falling into arrears because they are working. This has to change. Certain landlords are bad and certain tenants are equally bad, but we also have some excellent landlords and tenants who are working with one another. Some landlords are renting out a house that was left to them and on which they have a mortgage to pay. When the tenant cannot pay the rent and falls into arrears, the house is at risk of being taken by the vulture funds and the banks.

We need to step in, reward good tenants and landlords and put measures in place to protect them. There is nothing to protect the people trying their best. Restrictions are needed for the bad landlords and tenants. Checks can be done to see how good people are in their properties and how well they respect their properties. We need a workforce in the councils who will rebuild the voids. We can fast-track this process because every void in a town or village is connected to a sewer line and recorded in the database on capacity for that sewer line. Let us bypass the bureaucratic bull and accept that conservation rules need to be relaxed for certain properties. While we should keep the front facade, roof structure and streetscape, we should allow the modernisation of the rest of the building so we can move people in. These idle voids are already registered on the ESB, sewer and water systems and included in the data.

We cannot build in rural Ireland because there is no infrastructure. There are no sewerage plants and no investment. We hear talk about building houses but that will not work, apart from in cities. People in rural Ireland are sick and tired of paying large fees to councils for footpaths and roads that never materialise. We are being punished again. We are made to pay double and triple for everything we do in rural Ireland, whether that is for a septic tank or percolation test. The housing system is being made harder and harder for people in rural Ireland who are being made to pay three and four times more than people living in the cities.

We need investment in rural towns and villages and our infrastructure. The Minister can do this and I believe he will listen. The little bit we learn after the bit we know is the bit that counts, and nobody knows everything. I am willing to give every bit of advice I can to the Minister on infrastructure. I am willing to help him in whatever way I can so we can get people housed in Limerick and get others back into our villages. Village can be self-contained and can provide a system for rebuilding our communities in rural Ireland. I look forward to the Minister helping us and I will give him whatever help I can.

12:45 pm

Christopher O'Sullivan (Cork South West, Fianna Fail)
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Having missed my original slot, I thank the Acting Chairman for accommodating me. I extend heartfelt congratulations to the Minister on his new position. I know why he sought this portfolio. He deeply desires to sort out the housing crisis. That is his agenda and I appreciate that. The initial soundings and messages from the Minister and his approach in his first couple of weeks in office lead me to commend him. He is grabbing the bull by the horns and getting to the bottom of our housing crisis.

It is no harm, however, to remind the Minister that the rent pressure being experienced by renters is not exclusive to Dublin and the urban areas. The Minister is aware of this issue. I will highlight to him the experiences of renters, people on social housing lists and those seeking to purchase a property for the first time in my constituency of Cork South-West. I recently conducted a search on for the area where I am from, Clonakilty town, and the result showed two or three properties for rent. The position now is really tough. I am lucky to be renting in Clonakilty. I have been in that position for a couple of years. If I was looking for a new rental property in Clonakilty or anywhere else in west Cork, it would be tough because the properties simply are not available. There is a chronic shortage of supply and that is the crux of the issue we are facing, especially in my region.

People can forget about searching or any of the other similar websites for a property to purchase. Prices in west Cork are astronomical. For people of my generation, on middle to low incomes, and even above that, most of these properties are completely out of their range. I know the Minister is aware of this because in his contributions so far, and in his approach, he has acknowledged the challenges that people are facing.

There are solutions, however, and I have spoken to the Minister about some of those already. One example, to which most speakers have referred, is the use of over-the-shop premises. I discussed this already with the Minister. It is a challenge. We have spoken about voids. I imagine that over-the-shop premises account for many of the existing voids. We need to get these premises back into use as social housing and on the housing market. In my area at least, the repair to lease scheme has not been successful. Unfortunately, property owners are not availing of it. I am not sure if that is because of the hassle of the works required to bring properties up to habitable condition, but the scheme is not working and people are not availing of it. We need to look at other options.

I would love to see a portion of these over-the-shop premises being brought into use as local authority or social housing. That is difficult, however, because under current legislation, as I understand it, it is almost impossible to separate the ground floor retail unit, café, restaurant or whatever from the area above the ground floor. We are, therefore, at an impasse. We should introduce legislation that would allow local authorities or housing bodies to acquire the over-the-shop premises, while allowing the property owner of the downstairs unit, which may be a profitable business, to carry on. That would be a way of bringing these over-the-shop premises back into use. They are not habitable at the moment. There are empty units on every high street in the country, not just in Cork South-West. This approach would be a way of getting these properties filled. This would have major benefits. There is the obvious fact that housing would be provided for people where there is a chronic shortage of supply.

When we talk about social housing, everyone here, including the Minister, knows that a large proportion of those on social housing waiting lists are single people who may be elderly or a single parent. Those are the types of people who would be perfectly suited to an over-the-shop premises with a one or two-bedroom apartment. That is a viable solution and if the will is there, we can find a way to do it.

The second benefit is that when an over-the-shop premises is filled, it automatically creates much needed footfall on the high street. People walk down the steps from their apartments and walk into cafes, restaurants, newsagents and butcher shops. It would create a ready footfall for the high street and the economic benefits would be massive within a town. I would love to see that explored further. I know it is an issue that the Minister is aware of and for which he is looking to come up with a plan. Legislation that would allow the units to be disposed of separately would go a long way to sorting out that issue.

Another issue is the chronic lack of wastewater infrastructure in our towns and villages, which is stifling and stalling the supply of housing. Ballineen and Enniskean in west Cork are perfect examples. In the past couple of years, small, low density developments of 20 to 30 houses have been refused planning permission because the wastewater treatment infrastructure is not in place. That is happening throughout the country and needs to be solved. There needs to be investment in Irish Water. We may need to consider viable developer-led solutions to wastewater treatment that will not become a liability on local authorities or Irish Water down the line. Something needs to be done because myriad housing developments have been stalled for that reason. It is not only developers that are being affected because local authorities have also run into trouble in that regard. Dunmanway, which is one of the biggest towns in my constituency, has encountered difficulties in developer-led developments and local authority and social housing initiatives. Those kinds of issues can be overcome and we cannot let them get in the way of the provision of social and affordable housing, and housing that is available on the private market. I urge the Minister to take action in that regard.

We need to build public housing. He knows that and has repeatedly referred to the fact that we need to build public housing on public land. I know that is a part of the programme for Government but we need it accelerated. Social housing units will come online shortly in Clonakilty, Skibbereen and some other towns in my area. That will, hopefully, ease the pressure but it needs to be done faster.

I welcome the Minister's affordable housing scheme, which will alleviate pressures on low and middle income earners who cannot even think about purchasing a home at the moment. I was encouraged by he said in the Dáil on that matter last week. I would love to see the Rebuilding Ireland home loan extended and streamlined. It is a bit bureaucratic and a paperwork headache at the moment when one applies for the scheme. Having said that, I know of single people and couples who have availed of it and it has changed their lives. I would like an extension of the parameters of the scheme.

I would also like changes to be made to the mortgage-to-rent scheme. There are families who are having great difficulty with equity and mortgage repayments at the moment. Those families are trying to avail of the scheme but fall outside its parameters at the moment. I would like those parameters extended because we will see a lot of hardship unless that happens.

I will conclude by saying let us get voids into the market and social housing stock. Let us also get over-the-shop premises into social and affordable housing schemes and build public houses on public land. I appreciate the Minister listening to me.

12:55 pm

Sorca Clarke (Longford-Westmeath, Sinn Fein)
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I wish to raise a couple of issues with the Minister specifically about housing and its impact on older people and those with disabilities in our communities. I will give an example of how our social housing system has failed a gentleman I know, an absolute gent of the highest order. This gentleman was on the housing waiting list for 20 years - that is two decades. He had never been offered a property and had never refused one. The only time he sought assistance was when the third-floor apartment in which he was living was no longer suitable for his needs because he needed a double knee replacement. Unfortunately, stories such as this are common in my constituency of Longford-Westmeath.

I know of another gentleman who, due to diabetes and an associated infection, lost a leg. He is still living in a house that is not suitable for his needs, two and a half years after that operation. This young man is known in the community as somebody who can be approached and relied upon when others are in need. He now has a profound need that is not being met because of the lack of adequate social housing in our area.

I also raise the example of a seven year old girl with profound disabilities. Her mum is her full-time carer and her dad works in Dublin. Because of her dad's income, the family is not eligible for a grant to install a downstairs bedroom and bathroom for their daughter who they love with all their hearts and want to look after in the family home for as long as possible. However, if due consideration was given to the mortgage payments of this family, they would certainly meed the relevant threshold.

Issues such as those I have mentioned are being faced throughout the country. People are being failed, day in and day out, by policies that are not designed to support the most vulnerable in our society.

I turn now to the Rebuilding Ireland home loan. I spoke to a constituent the other day. He is a young man who works full time with a wife who also works full time and they have two small children. They made the decision to move house, as many families do throughout their lives. They sold their property at the beginning of March and we all know what came a few weeks later. They always knew that there would be a couple of weeks of overlap before their new property was ready to go, but their mortgage was pulled. They spent one week living in Ballymahon, another living in Tallaght, in the homes of their respective in-laws, while both of them were travelling to work in Athlone. Situations such as this must be taken into consideration and cannot be allowed to continue. We want and need these types of people in constituencies like mine.

There are fundamental flaws in the housing market. When families apply for social housing, they do not write down the area in which they want to live, but rather an area where they think they are most likely to be offered a house. That means that people are pulled away from our smaller towns and villages into larger areas, thereby increasing rural decline in little towns dotted around constituencies such as mine.

I also raise the issue of people who are escaping domestic abuse. Through the actions of others, such people and their children no longer feel safe in their homes. No viable options exist at the moment for them. There are not sufficient beds in refuge centres for people who believe that is the best course of action for them. My opinion is the opposite of that, and that it is the perpetrator of the abuse who should leave the home. What is to become of these people? What steps will this Government take to ensure that those who are being victimised and brutalised in their own homes are not forced to stay in an environment like that?

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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As no one else wants to speak, I will go back to the Minister to wrap up the debate. We will give him a minute to prepare because the debate has moved quicker than we anticipated. Deputy Andrews may come in, if he wishes.

1:05 pm

Photo of Chris AndrewsChris Andrews (Dublin Bay South, Sinn Fein)
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While I appreciate that affordable housing and rents are major issues, another serious issue for people living in the inner city, such as in complexes on Pearse Street and Kevin Street, is the need for the upgrading and renovation of flat complexes across the city. In many cases, they are like modern-day tenements.

Glistening ten and 12-story buildings are going up around flat complexes which have dirty stairwells and are not properly maintained. In some complexes, the wiring is poor and flats are flooding. There are infestations of rats across flat complexes in Dublin city, something that would not be accepted anywhere else. Dublin City Council is not willing to do enough to address this. It is unhygienic. Bins are poorly stored. These are important issues for people living in the flats. I understand the complexity around housing but the reality is that many people living in flat complexes have been left behind and it is important to address the issues I have raised.

I appreciate the forbearance of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and wish the Minister the best of luck. It is a big challenge, responsibility and honour. I give him my best wishes.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Níl aon duine eile ag iarraidh labhairt, so rachaidh mé ar ais ag an Aire.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Fianna Fail)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle agus déanaim comhghairdeas léi as ucht a post nua. Guím ádh mór uirthi.

I thank all of the contributors who brought forward their views on the Bill. We will move to Committee Stage on Thursday and I want to give a commitment to Members that I and my officials will consider any amendments brought forward, and where they are reasonable, practical and can be introduced, we will certainly consider them very openly.

I am also conscious of the fact that the Government has only been in situfor four weeks and this is quite a detailed Bill. We need to pass it and have its provisions up and running from 2 August. The measures that currently pertain in this country are based on public health grounds. They are, and always have been, emergency measures. Like any Minister, I was always concerned about and responsible for matters in that regard. Any protections that we afford to tenants and people in the private rented sector should be robust, durable and should endure. Apart from a few on the extreme side of this debate, no one suggests the emergency measures could continue for an indeterminate length of time. From my perspective, I and my Department had to consider how we can transition out of the emergency measures introduced on public health grounds to more permanent supports.

I will address some of the points raised. There are effectively two parts to the Bill. One is the Covid emergency protections and extending them to those who need them most until 10 January 2021. That is very clear. The Bill will have no effect on evictions or rent increases. Evictions cannot be imposed on a large cohort of people and there cannot be rent increases. It is perfectly right and proper that I, as Minister with responsibility for housing, together with the Government, do that. There is no ambiguity about the measure. It is not cumbersome. It is in the Bill in black and white.

I have noted comments from some Members regarding issues with literacy and language. We will deal with these issues. In any case, where a declaration needs to be signed, assistance will be provided where required. Language barriers or literacy levels will not be an impediment to enter into these protections. I ask people who suggest otherwise to be a little bit responsible about what they say; there has been a small bit of scaremongering in that regard.

We are all well aware of the Citizens Information services across the country. Deputies and other public representatives around the country also provide assistance. The Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, has now been brought into the tent to help with rent arrears. These bodies will advise people on what they need to do. They do not turn away people who have literacy issues, do not speak English or are the new Irish. Some have had said protections will not be afforded to new Irish communities or people who have issues with literary, which is simply not true. We will make sure that will not happen. Others have raised this matter as a genuine issue and concern, and I take that in the spirit in which it has been raised.

The overriding priority for me as Minister with responsibility for housing, the Government, the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, and others is to provide more permanent housing solutions for individuals and families. A core part of the programme for Government is the delivery of more public homes on public lands. We will empower our local authorities to do even more of that and provide affordable housing for purchase and for rent for working people.

The first meeting in my Department each week is with the homeless delivery unit, which is made up of stakeholders to whom other Deputies have referred and whom I thank for their interaction. We meet at 8 a.m. every Monday morning to determine what we need to do in the short-term to tackle homelessness across this country and to protect the most vulnerable.

As Minister, and when I was an Opposition Deputy and spokesperson, I had the pleasure of visiting many outreach services across the city and beyond. As I mentioned to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle outside the Chamber, I will move outside of Dublin during the month of August and visit regional towns and cities where I can meet our partners and people who do fantastic work in the area of homelessness.

I must mention the tragedy of the five homeless individuals who have died over the past week. What has happened pains me and I want to pass on my deepest and sincerest condolences to the deceased and their families and friends at what is a really distressing time. Many of these individuals have, unfortunately, complex and chaotic lives. I know our homeless services engaged and worked with the individuals concerned. What has happened is particularly distressing for those staff.

As Minister with responsibility for housing I feel very deeply about this issue. I know from the people who work in the sector that it is something they feel deeply about and I, like, I am sure all of my colleagues, want to put on the record of the House my deepest sympathies for the families. The interaction of health services with housing bodies presents a challenge. One of the successes of the Covid emergency has been the interaction between health and housing authorities in dealing with the most vulnerable, namely, the homeless community. I intend to keep that going.

I have met the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and there will be a formal bilateral meeting on housing and health to determine how we can keep the wraparound services provided to our homeless communities in place. Homeless people have come out of cocooning with better health outcomes than when they went into homelessness services. We need to make sure that the system is maintained. The three parties in government have committed to that in the programme for Government. We need a Government-wide response to homelessness that has health at its centre. We will maintain that.

On the protections in the Bill, we had to be guided by legal advice. There is no question about that. Anyone who says otherwise is incorrect. We must make sure that any measures we introduce are legal and constitutional and can be implemented. I have examined the large cohort of people whose salaries and wages have been affected, who have lost their jobs or whose tenancies are protected by HAP, emergency rent supplement and other measures. They will be protected in the Bill.

I want to deal with some of the matters raised by Threshold. I welcome its engagement on the Bill. It has been most helpful, and I will expand on that. I am also being guided by what has been done in other jurisdictions and countries with regard to bans on evictions. Deputy Ó Broin will be aware that no eviction ban was brought forward in the North. All the Sinn Féin Minister for Communities did in the North was to extend the notice period from four to 12 weeks.

That was it. It certainly pales into insignificance when one looks at the measures brought forward in the Oireachtas by all parties in March and is certainly greatly inferior to the legislation here in front of the Dáil.

I note and have read Sinn Féin's response to the housing and eviction ban and rent pause, which comprised a one-page piece of legislation that did not actually go to the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers. It did not mention evictions or bans on evictions, but dealt specifically with rent freezes for a three-year period. That is a one-page piece of legislation versus a robust Bill that deals not only with the current crisis and pandemic but also with measures that will endure into the future by way of the rent arrears procedures, which I will cover now.

I am aware that the moratorium had a significant impact on presentations to homeless services. Along with officials from my Department, I have been meeting the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive, DRHE, on a weekly basis throughout this crisis. The DRHE has cited the moratorium and the reduction in family breakdowns as key contributors to the reduced level of presentations. Local authorities across all regions, including the DRHE, are aware that the current moratorium cannot continue indefinitely and have been preparing for increased presentations when it expires.

As Members know, the moratorium was extended on 27 June and again by me on 20 July, at which stage it was becoming apparent that the continuation of the protections in their current format was increasingly at variation with the relaxation of restrictions in wider society and in the economy. Restrictions on estate agents were lifted in the second phase of relaxation and lettings of rental properties are now proceeding, underpinned by new operating procedures to prevent the spread of the virus. This enables tenants to move on where accommodation is no longer required. Many students returned home when universities closed, and landlords are now able to place properties back on the market in response to new demands from a range of sources, including prospective tenants who have returned from abroad.

Conditions at the end of July are very different from conditions when they were introduced on 27 March. That is why we are now introducing, as I have mentioned, a more targeted and focused Bill that is grounded in economic rather than public health considerations. We extended the current moratorium until the end of this week to make sure the Bill has time to pass through both Houses of the Oireachtas.

The new Bill aims to respond directly to the challenges presented by Covid-19 by targeting additional supports to those who are having difficulty paying rent because of loss of earnings as a result of the pandemic. We know that sectors like retail and hospitality are among the worst hit by Covid-19 and that workers in these sectors are more likely to be in rented accommodation. We know that other grounds for termination such as intent to sell, family use and renovation were sometimes used when the underlying issue may have been associated with rent arrears. That is why we introduced the enforcement protections under Part 7A of the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act 2019 relating to complaints, investigations and sanctions, which empowers the RTB to sanction landlords who evict tenants on grounds related to intent to sell, family use or substantial renovation when they fail to act in accordance with the ground cited. We have resourced the RTB to enforce these provisions through increased funding from this Department. The RTB is building up a team of 15 staff to enforce these tenancy protections and almost 200 investigations have been initiated since the unit was set up. I am keeping a particularly close eye on this and will condemn anyone who uses these grounds of eviction erroneously. They will be prosecuted.

The unit also oversees breaches of rent pressure zone protections to ensure unlawful rent increases can also be identified and landlords prosecuted. We have also extended notice periods to provide that even where a valid notice of termination is served, a tenancy of just one year's duration would benefit from a 120-day notice period. We know that citing an intent to sell as a termination ground does not always mean a landlord intends to sell and tenants are now protected from that through legislation with RTB enforcement. It has become clear that the underlying reason for many tenancy terminations is rent arrears. The main sources of RTB disputes since 2013 are rent arrears and overholding. In 2019, rent arrears were cited in 28% of all RTB dispute applications. That is a particular reason we are focusing this legislation specifically on rent arrears.

Unfortunately, we also know that some landlords have left the market. In 2016, there were almost 320,000 registered residential tenancies and by 2019 this had declined to approximately 303,000, which represented a reduction of almost 17,000. Clearly, many landlords are selling their properties. Some 70% of those landlords own just one rental property and 86% own just one or two. The vast majority of our landlords are small-scale, mom-and-pop style landlords. Covid-19 will have affected them as well as tenants. We will not keep landlords in the market by banning evictions indefinitely. Where a landlord has a legitimate need, he or she should be able to terminate a tenancy. It is reasonable to expect, especially during the fall-out from Covid-19, that some landlords might need to provide a home for a family member or to occupy the properties themselves. Equally, financial pressures may well force a landlord to sell a property. I know of such cases. The law should not prevent this from happening.

Clearly, we need protections that balance the rights of tenants and landlords equally to encourage more landlords to remain in the market. This Bill aims to do just that by respecting legitimate rights to terminate tenancies for sale, family use or renovation, with the enforcement safeguard of the RTB, while at the same time supporting tenants who are most at risk of arrears through early intervention. This can help to prolong tenancies to the benefit of tenants and landlords. The Bill focuses on tenants who experience rent arrears and aims to protect them through a combination of short-term measures and longer-term structural changes.

Research published today by the ESRI shows that the combination of income supports such as the pandemic unemployment payment and the wage subsidy scheme, combined with a decline in consumption during lockdown, means the incidence of arrears increased by just one percentage point, from 10% to 11%, during the first three months of the pandemic. The protections put in place at the beginning have filled the gap. However, the research signals the risk of increased rent arrears in the future when consumption levels rise and income supports are wound down. Recent announcements that the pandemic unemployment payment is to be extended and the wage subsidy scheme replaced until the end of March 2021 by an employment wage subsidy scheme will help to continue to abate the loss of income. In addition, the provisions of the Bill will enable greater recourse to rent supplement, which was also identified in the ESRI report as a key tool to address arrears, at an earlier stage in the process via referral of tenants in arrears to MABS. There is a provision in this Bill to make sure that happens.

The Bill will also oblige landlords when issuing notices of arrears and notices of termination on foot of arrears to copy these notices to the RTB. As well as enabling early intervention via MABS, these provisions also respond to another recommendation in the ESRI report on the need to gather data on the incidence of arrears. The provisions contained in this Bill mean that every time a landlord notifies a tenant that he or she is in arrears, the RTB will become aware of it and the tenant will be immediately provided with access to support. Building up data in this way will lead to a better understanding of the market and the impact of the arrears.

The Bill also recognises the immediate risk facing those in arrears and provides that where a tenant declares himself or herself to be at significant risk of tenancy termination and eligible for Covid-19-related supports, notice periods are extended and rent increases prohibited until 10 January 2021. This means that any tenant who is in receipt of Covid-19-related support and is experiencing difficulty with rent payments can avail of extended notice protections to enable him or her to remain in the rental property without any rent increase until 10 January 2021. It could not be clearer.

Threshold is the only specialist advice and advocacy service for tenants facing housing problems in the private rented sector in Ireland. It advocates for policy and legal change in relation to housing and proposes solutions which are informed by evidence from its work in advising tenants and protecting tenancies. As was mentioned earlier, it recently published a series of policy proposals for the programme for Government in the context of the pandemic. Among the proposals it put forward in its document on the future of the rental sector in Ireland was an extension of the moratorium on evictions. Through the Bill, a moratorium has effectively been provided for anyone at risk of rent arrears and eligible for Covid-19-related supports until 10 January 2021 at a minimum, a period of almost five and a half months.

1 o’clock

This builds on current protections, which prohibited evictions for a total of over four months since 27 March this year.

Threshold also proposed a revision to the way landlords can evict tenants for rent arrears. This Bill now provides that: the arrears notice goes to the RTB; the services of the Money Advice & Budgeting Service are made available as early as possible; the notice period is extended further; and if a termination is disputed, the input from engagement with MABS will be considered as part of any adjudication in that regard.

Threshold proposed the implementation of a moratorium on upward rent reviews. Rent increases for anyone at risk of arrears and eligible for Covid-19-related supports are prohibited until 10 January 2021. Taken together with the current moratorium on rent increases, this means that tenants at risk of rent arrears and in receipt of Covid-19-related supports will have benefited from a rent freeze from 27 March this year to 10 January 2021.

Threshold rightly called for a greater level of assistance to tenants who accrue rent arrears. I have now ensured that early engagement with the RTB and MABS will ensure a greater level of assistance, including through recourse to rent supplement. I again advise those who may be in difficulty with rent payments that the emergency rent supplement is available for them. They should contact their local welfare offices to get assistance in that regard. Fewer than 8,000 people are in receipt of that payment and people need to know it is available to them.

Threshold also asked for the notice period for rent arrears to be revised. Again, this is being done in the Bill. This period has been increased from 28 days to 90 days for those at risk of tenancy terminations and in receipt of Covid-19 payments.

Threshold asked that the grounds on which a tenant can be evicted for arrears be revised. Notices of rent arrears must now be copied to the RTB and the 28-day period for payment of outstanding rent starts when the RTB or the tenant receives the notice, whichever is later. In addition, the notice of termination must also be sent to the RTB at the same time as it is sent to the tenant, otherwise the notice is not valid, and if the termination is subject of adjudication, the adjudicator must have regard to any advice received from MABS as part of the process. Again, this is another very significant change in protection.

These policy proposals clearly demonstrate the importance Threshold places on addressing rent arrears and this is borne out by its statistics on rent arrears. In the period from March to May 2020, it experienced a seven-fold increase in queries from tenants in rent arrears. Queries increased to 270 in 2020, up from 38 queries in the corresponding period in 2019. As per Threshold’s own welcome research, these measures are being targeted at those who need it most.

The measures which I have presented here today clearly demonstrate that the Bill is well aligned with the policy objectives of Threshold and with the most pressing needs of tenants in the Irish housing market. The approach I have adopted is supported by the findings of research by the ESRI, which recognise the potential for a build-up of arrears, the need for accurate data on the incidence of arrears and the role that supports such as rent supplement and bodies such as MABS can play in helping tenants in difficulty. The approach I have adopted here today complements measures introduced last year to protect tenants where the landlord cites intent to sell or family use but fails to act in accordance with the grounds cited.

I sincerely thank my fellow Deputies for their contribution to today's debate on this important and urgent Bill. I look forward to going through the Bill in greater detail with them on Thursday. I earnestly hope that the Bill can be passed swiftly so that these enhanced protections can be implemented before the summer recess to help provide secure accommodation to all.

Question put.

1:25 pm

Deputies:

Votáil.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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In accordance with an order of the Dáil on Friday, 24 July 2020, the division is postponed until after the Order of Business, which will be later today.

Sitting suspended at 1.05 p.m. and resumed at 2 p.m.