Tuesday, 11 May 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
During Covid-19, more than ever, we have all seen life-changing things happen. In that regard, a home is so important for people, and there is the saying that your home is your castle. In that context, I raise the qualifying thresholds for social housing, which are too low, especially in my area of Carlow. A review is being done, and I am here to ask the Minister of State about the status of that review. I would also like to know if we are looking at those thresholds realistically.
Ten years have passed since the latest review of income thresholds to qualify for the housing list. I recall, as a Senator, speaking with the Minister of State, Deputy English, at the time and then it was said that a housing review was being undertaken.
It is unacceptable that we have been waiting on this review for ten years. I believe that this is resulting in the exclusion of genuine people who should qualify for social housing. It is unacceptable that people who are trying to work and make ends meet are being told that they do not qualify for the housing waiting list. I have consistently raised the issue and have been told that it is being looked at. People in County Carlow are caught in limbo because they do not qualify under the social housing income threshold but they do not earn enough to afford a mortgage. There they are caught again. When one is not on the housing list, one does not qualify for HAP. For example, if someone is paying rent for accommodation of €12,000 or perhaps €13,000 per month - and rents in Carlow have soared in the past few years - he or she cannot save for a mortgage.
The Housing Agency Summary of Social Housing Assessments 2020, which was published earlier this year, states that the number of households in County Carlow that qualified for social housing supports by the local authority in 2020 was just 505, down from 519 in 2019, which is not a true reflection of the number of households that need social housing there, at least not if I can judge it from the conversations I have with people.
The Social Housing Assessment Regulations 2011 set the maximum net income limits for each local authority in different bands according to area, with income being defined and assessed according to a standard household means policy. There is an urgent need to finalise the review of these limits and to increase the income eligibility limit for social housing in County Carlow and most likely in other counties. Carlow currently has one of the lowest income thresholds in the entire country. The maximum net income for a single person is €25,000; for a couple with no children, it is €26,250; for one adult with one child, it is €25,625; for two adults with one child it is €26,875; and for two adults with more than one child, it is €27,500. This compares to a limit of €38,000 in County Kildare for two adults with one child and €39,000 for two adults with more than one child. Not only is it unrealistic to have such a marked difference between counties, the limits are a disincentive for opportunities that will increase household income.
The idea of welfare is to help people get on their feet, not to cut them to knees to qualify for unrealistic caps. That a difference in approximately €11,000 exists in income thresholds between counties Kildare and Carlow is unacceptable. The Minister of State is from the same area as me. The difference in income thresholds between counties Carlow and Kilkenny is €6,500. That is not right. Unless a person is on the local authority housing list, he or she will not get HAP, so the income threshold needs to be increased. We must ensure that this is done.
It is most important that action is taken on this issue. It is unacceptable. Everyone has seen hard times, but it is more important than ever that we give families the chance to qualify to go on the local authority housing list.
I acknowledge that this is an issue that affects my own constituency as well as 14 other local authorities in the country.
Applications for social housing support are assessed by the relevant local authority, in accordance with the eligibility and need criteria set down in section 20 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 and the associated Social Housing Assessment Regulations 2011, as amended. The 2011 regulations prescribe maximum net income limits for each local authority, in three different bands according to the area concerned. The income bands are expressed in terms of a maximum net income threshold for a single-person household, with an allowance of 5% for each additional adult household member, subject to a maximum allowance under this category of 10%, and separately an additional allowance of 2.5% for each child.
It is important to note that the limits introduced also reflected a blanket increase of €5,000 introduced prior to the new system coming into operation to broaden the base from which social housing tenants are drawn, both promoting sustainable communities and also providing a degree of future-proofing.
Given the cost to the State of providing social housing, it is considered prudent and fair to direct resources to those most in need of social housing support. The current income eligibility requirements generally achieve this, providing for a fair and equitable system of identifying those households facing the greatest challenge in meeting their accommodation needs from their own resources.
As part of the broader social housing reform agenda, a review of income eligibility for social housing supports in each local authority area has commenced. The review will have regard to current initiatives being brought forward in terms of affordability and cost rental and will be completed when the impacts of these parallel initiatives have been considered.
The programme for Government, Our Shared Future, clearly lays out our commitment to putting affordability at the heart of the housing system. The Government approved priority drafting of the affordable housing Bill 2020 on 22 December 2020, the general scheme of which was published on 20 January 2021. The Bill includes provisions to underpin three schemes delivering on the Government's commitment to prioritise the increased supply of affordable homes through affordable homes for purchase delivered by local authorities, a new affordable purchase shared equity scheme for private homes and the introduction of a new form of tenure in cost rental. The Bill was approved by Government last week and it is intended to bring the Bill before the Oireachtas in the very near future to allow for the commencement of the scheme this year.
It is very worrying that ten years have passed and there is still no date for the completion of the review. I really worry about that.
I do understand the new initiatives that have been introduced by the Government. I will provide the Minister of State of the example of the Rebuilding Ireland home loan. First-time buyers can apply for a Rebuilding Ireland home loan to purchase a new or second-hand property or build their own home. They can borrow up to 90% of the market value of the property. The maximum market value for properties in County Carlow is approximately €250,000. However, this year, just one Government-backed mortgage has been approved for a first-time buyer in County Carlow, out of four applications. I have seen the figures in other counties and the refusals are worrying.
Are the criteria right? Why is it that out of four applicants in County Carlow, one was approved? We are here promoting Rebuilding Ireland home loans. I am worried about this issue.
I wish to raise another concern. We all want to make sure that people can buy their own homes, and homes that are affordable. In particular, we want to ensure that those who do not qualify for the housing list are in the position to buy their own homes. We must ensure that the programme for Government enables people to buy affordable houses that are actually affordable. It is the same with the shared equity scheme. It is most important that we give the younger generation that opportunity to own their own homes. We have seen this past week the concerns raised about funds buying large housing estates. We cannot allow that to happen. We must ensure that the young people get the chance to benefit from affordable housing and shared equity schemes and can get on the local authority housing list. We must ensure that we get this right.
I know that there are some good initiatives coming up in the programme for Government and I welcome that, but we must ensure that there are no obstacles in the way and that we get it right.
As I have stated, affordability is at the heart of Government policy in the programme for Government. I also wish to confirm that the review of income thresholds has commenced. As I have outlined, no final recommendations will be made until the determination can be made on the impact of the parallel affordability initiatives.
I am aware that this affects 15 local authorities in total, namely, those in counties Carlow, Cavan, Clare, Donegal, Galway, Laois, Leitrim, Longford, Mayo, Monaghan, Offaly, Roscommon, Sligo, Tipperary and Westmeath. Like Deputy Murnane O'Connor, I have spoken with Carlow Chamber of Commerce and have met on a number of occasions with Carlow County Council because I know that it is a cause of serious concern in County Carlow, as I am sure it is in the other counties I have mentioned. Once the review is complete, it is our intention that a recommendation will be made. That is our commitment.