Thursday, 3 June 2021
An Bille um an Naoú Leasú is Tríocha ar an mBunreacht (Ceart chun Tithíochta) 2020: An Dara Céim [Comhaltaí Príobháideacha] - Thirty-ninth Amendment of the Constitution (Right to Housing) Bill 2020: Second Stage [Private Members]
Tairgim: "Go léifear an Bille don Dara hUair anois."
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
It is worth noting that we originally tabled this Bill in the previous Dáil in September 2017. At that point, not surprisingly, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael voted against it and, as a result, it did not pass. In the context of the earlier debate, let us be absolutely clear: we wanted to put the right to secure, affordable, dignified and appropriate housing into the Constitution and make it a right for every person living in this country. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael voted against it. People need to hear that fact.
This Bill seeks to delimit the protections given to private property in favour of the common good, which does allow, even under our Constitution, the Government to override private property rights. However, it does not define clearly what the common good is and, specifically, it does not include in it the right to housing as a clear part of the common good and give it priority. This is what we are setting out to do.
I will not read all the wording but the Bill states:
The State, in particular, recognises the common good as including the right to secure, affordable, dignified housing, appropriate to need, for all the residents of Ireland and shall guarantee this right through its laws, policies and the prioritisation of resources.
It goes on to state that we will delimit the right to private property in this regard. Why is this necessary? Why did the Government, or the two major parties in government, oppose it on the previous occasion? The Green Party supported it so it will be interesting to see whether it is consistent with its previous position on trying to get the Bill passed into law to get a referendum so we can insert this right. Why is it important to do this? I will not rehearse the obvious about the absolutely shocking, obscene and outrageous housing and homelessness crisis we have in this country. We only have to walk through the city centre to see the tents of people who are homeless littering the streets. We only have to think of the 100,000 families on housing waiting lists. In my area, they have been on these lists for up to 20 years, waiting for social housing they will never get. We only have to think of the fact that 70% to 80% of working people in this country do not have a prayer of being able to buy a house when property prices have increased by almost 100% over the past seven years. Rents, certainly in my part of Dublin, are now running at an average of €2,000 a month, with €2,500 being common and €3,000 not uncommon. How is anyone supposed to pay for this? It is a disaster.
All along, the Government has facilitated the vulture funds and the corporate landlords who are profiting from this crisis. Its policies are designed to facilitate them and prioritise their rights over the right of people to have secure and affordable housing. Today, we had residents from St. Helen's Court protesting. I have raised their case in the Dáil I would say 30 times over the past four years. They are still in the desperate plight they have been in for all that time at the hands of a vulture fund. Vulture funds were invited into this country by the Fine Gael and Labour Party Government in 2012 and 2013 and they have profited handsomely from the housing misery people are facing.
The residents were protesting today because they are now overholding and have been evicted from where they have lived for years by a vulture fun. They are part of the community. Some of them are elderly and some are unwell. The council is telling them that it has nowhere for them to go and that they will probably have to go to homeless hostels. They are looking for affordable tenancies but cannot find them. The rent they were paying before they were evicted by the vulture fund was €900 a month but the problem is that same landlord can now get €2,000 a month for the same properties. This is why it wants them out. Over the past two years, it tried on five occasions to get them out. Now it has succeeded because the law that protects tenants is not robust enough to deal with the ruthless profit hunger of these vulture funds and the Government does nothing because we cannot interfere with private property rights, that is, the right of corporate landlords and vulture funds to make profit by making other people homeless.
This is why we need to change the law and put the right in the Constitution to protect tenants, stop unfair evictions and take action against vulture funds, land hoarders and property speculators who profiteer from the housing misery of other people. The Government has consistently failed to do this because it is dancing to the tune of these landlords.
The Irish rich have always got rich through property, through landlordism and through their investments in these kinds of investment vehicles. They now want to move into the public land bank. People are getting very rich from property, and specifically from the housing misery and homelessness of huge numbers of people - those who are in the dire situation of being homeless and those who are trying to get to buy a home or trying to rent something that they can afford. If you are a tenant, there is the constant insecurity that you could be put out on the street.
This Bill will remove the obstacles and excuses to taking the effective action we need in order to have rent controls, in order to give security to people and in order that the State will prioritise the resources it has to make housing a basic right for everybody in this country.
The Government, for years, has hidden behind the Constitution. It has hidden its class interest, the class interest of those it represents, behind the Constitution or has attempted to do so. It has avoided taking action that would resolve the housing crisis but hurt the profits of those who benefit from the housing crisis because it represents those who benefit - the developers, the speculators, the cuckoo funds, the corporate landlords, etc. Instead of coming out and saying that this is the class that it represents and it will not implement measures that will hurt them, the Government has repeatedly said that it would like to do what needs to be done but it cannot because of the Constitution. It suggests that when it comes to rent controls, an eviction ban and a rent freeze, the Constitution says "No". I do not believe it.
It is some coincidence and convenient for the Government that the limits of the Constitution always seem to be just as far as it is willing to go and no further. When it came under massive pressure with Covid, the Government found a way. All of a sudden it was constitutional, because of Covid, to have an eviction ban and a rent freeze. Now that Covid is hopefully coming towards an end and we are heading back to normality, all of these things are simply unconstitutional again. As I said, I do not believe it. I think it is class interest that is at play here. That class interest is reflected in the kind of Constitution that we have but the Government hides behind it.
There is no hiding anymore. If the Government is actually in favour of taking measures to ensure that renters are able to rent at an affordable rate and if it is actually interested in tackling homelessness, it would not only allow this Bill to pass Second Stage but it would allow a referendum to happen and allow people to vote overwhelmingly to enshrine the right to housing in the Constitution and to mean there can be no such perceived, imagined or invented obstacle to doing what is necessary in the future. We understand that the Government is saying it will allow the Bill to pass Second Stage. We do not consider that a victory yet and we would say that to people outside who are watching. We think it is a manoeuvre by the Government to avoid openly opposing it in order instead to bring it into committee and drag it out. At that stage, presumably - we might get a hint of this from the Minister of State's speech today - it will replace it with a watered-down wording that will not make a difference for people. I would send a warning to the Government not to try to kill this Bill and this referendum in that way and not to try to water this down. If it does, it will face very significant movements of protest. One can see housing already emerging as the key political issue and people will mobilise in their thousands and tens of thousands on this issue in the autumn.
Clearly, the Government is under massive pressure in relation to housing. It is reflected in the fact that they will allow this proposal to pass Second Stage now when they did not in 2017. They did not even know that the issue of the 8% rent increases for many renters existed because they are out of touch with renters. This week, under pressure, they moved to say they would deal with it. We need to see the details of how they will deal with it to ensure there will be no such rent increases of more than 4%. We will be campaigning for rent controls to bring them down. Even in terms of dealing with this situation, we want to make sure nobody is left out of those protections. We need to see the details.
The far right in this country has been trying to capitalise on the fears of people around Covid. They will try to build on that in the aftermath of Covid and they will try to take up the issue of housing. They will try to point the blame for the issue of housing particularly at immigrants and say they are the people to blame rather than the capitalist free market system within housing. I point out to people that elements of the far right have shown their true colours. They are campaigning against this Bill because they say wrongly that it will mean the Government will be able to take ordinary people's homes. Obviously, it does no such thing. However, it reveals their true colours. Ultimately, they are not on the side of the working-class people they claim to represent because they are not willing to challenge the free market system. They defend that system and they defend those who benefit from it.
There are critics in this House who will argue that this Bill will not build a single house and we all know who they are. It is a tiresome response from those who have presided over the State for the past ten years as the housing crisis has become the catastrophe it is today and a generation has been scarred from the failure of the State to provide a basic necessity to its people.
Normal ordinary people have a desire for secure and permanent shelter. The only way they think they can do it in this country is to own their own home because there is no long-term rental security, even after all the days and fights of the Land League in the 1800s. It is not deep in the psyche of ordinary people to own their own property - it is deep in the psyche of the wealthy elite in this country to profit from property. The nexus of estate agents, financiers, consultants, stockbrokers, builders, developers and the legal apparatchiks around them all make sure that housing policy is made for them and our laws and legislation are made for them, from Planning and Development Acts to tax laws and law-and-order Acts.
There is always a housing crisis for the poorest in society but it is not a crisis that is a mistake. It is a crisis that indicates how the system works and is meant to work on behalf of the cohort of the wealthy. We commodify housing on behalf of the elite. We create a scarcity of public housing on their behalf. We watch for decades as homeless numbers rise and rents rocket. Now we watch as vultures and cuckoos snatch available homes with the promise that the State will pay exorbitant leases for them for 25 years and then hand back the homes to them in good condition 25 years later.
We have scrapped rules and regulations on sizes, on aspects of property, on the height of property and on the standards we expect them to be built to. We treat builders and developers as if they had some need for profit that was a natural occurrence of God and needed to be accommodated. We do this even as the crisis worsens before our eyes. We have a range of justifications and reasons for doing this, but we do it mostly because it suits the cohort I speak about.
The State and past governments have a deep resistance to the rights of citizens. It has failed to legislate for the rights of children with disabilities such as autism, the educational rights of people or even something as basic as housing. For years, we have talked reverentially about the our constitutional respect for private property rights. We have never accepted that constitutional priority for private rights over the common good. It does not explain all the failures of the State but others seem to think that defending this lack of action will allow the State off the hook on the basis that we cannot do anything because of private property rights.
Let us change that priority now. Let us push the balance in the other direction and give people the right to housing and decent accommodation. We should not accept the excuse that the Constitution stands in their way because it will be used in the future repeatedly to stop us really improving housing policy in this country. We have to start now to defend people's basic right and their basic human need over the right of someone else to profit from their misery.
We also have to start looking at what we are doing to our cities and towns in the terrible planning decisions that are being made without any democratic oversight by locally elected councillors. That has to end. If it does not end, we will see, as has been said by other Deputies, a mass angry movement on the streets like this House has never seen before.
I thank the Deputies for raising these issues and bringing forward the Bill. I can confirm that the Government has agreed not to oppose the Bill.
As the Deputies are aware, the programme for Government sets out a commitment to hold a referendum on housing. We have supported this debate and are keen to hear opinions, as we have been, on this important issue. I thank those Deputies who have already contributed to the debate and I will listen to further contributions with interest.
It is important that the Government not rush to the electorate on this commitment. We need to ensure that we give the potential aspects of the referendum on housing and what type of provision can be accommodated within the Constitution detailed consideration. I am keen to listen to all the views expressed in the House this evening and in the further debate that is proposed to be held in the Seanad tomorrow. This highlights the range of issues that need to be considered and the depth of views and feelings across all parties.
Our Constitution rightly affects all citizens. When proposing an amendment to it, we need to be clear on the full implications. We can all agree on that principle. We cannot amend the Constitution without full clarity and knowledge as to what the change means. Since a change can impact on other rights under the Constitution, there must be a balance between them and the proposed amendment. A lack of clarity on all of an amendment's potential implications can result in legal complications for years to come and deflect important resources away from the primary focus, which is the provision of homes for our citizens and the prevention of homelessness. None of us would wish to see that.
This is why the Government has committed to historic levels of funding for housing and homelessness prevention and to ensuring that affordable and quality housing solutions are available to everyone in society. The programme for Government commits to an ambitious range of housing actions, including putting affordability at the heart of the housing system, tackling homelessness, increasing the social housing stock by more than 50,000 units over the next five years, and working with the construction sector to ensure that the number of new builds grows across the economy for all our citizens.
The Affordable Housing Bill 2021, which is progressing through the Oireachtas, will ensure that affordability is put at the heart of our housing system and will underpin the new local authority-led scheme of affordable homes for purchase, the affordable purchase shared equity scheme and the introduction of a new national cost rental scheme. It also includes amendments to the Planning and Development Act 2000 to provide for an increase to 20% in the Part V requirement in every local authority area. This will set a minimum requirement of 10% for social homes and up to a further 10% for affordable homes where required. Where not so required, the additional percentage may be used for social housing.
Securing a safe and affordable home for all needs action on the ground. Amending the Constitution on its own will not deliver what is needed. It is appropriate that the Government take time to consider the other economic, social and cultural rights that were recommended to be incorporated by the Convention on the Constitution and were outlined in more detail in the convention's eighth report. These rights must be balanced against one another, as well as the existing provisions of the Constitution, and must take into account interdependencies.
It is important to acknowledge that the commitment is to hold a referendum on housing, not just a right to housing. It will not be restricted to only considering a right to housing at this stage. We do not want to restrict the potential consideration of all options. The text of this Private Members' Bill proposes to delimit the existing right to private property. This raises many complex issues. In the interests of all citizens, substantial research and legal advice will be needed on the interaction of this amendment with other constitutional provisions, such as Article 43 on private property rights. It would be a mistake to think that the right to private property only relates to the very wealthy. The private ownership of one's home is a matter of greater concern to all, and we must not ignore it.
Another commitment in the programme for Government will be critical in supporting the holding of a referendum on housing in a balanced way. We are establishing a commission on housing, which is intended to examine the question of a referendum on housing. Work on establishing this important commission is advancing quickly. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, last week announced the appointment of its chair-designate, namely, Mr. John O'Connor, the retiring CEO of the Housing Agency, who will bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to this important post. The commission's terms of reference will now be drafted in consultation with him and having regard to the commitments in the programme for Government and the forthcoming Housing for All plan. We intend to establish the commission by September. Its duration will be set out once its terms of reference have been completed and its reporting requirement has been established. Our approach will bring together experts from various sectors and will allow for the involvement of stakeholders in a collaborative approach. This is an important step in supporting the holding of a housing referendum in a considered and democratic way. The text of this Private Members' Bill can be evaluated further by the commission as part of this process, as can the texts proposed by other stakeholders who have expressed an interest in this referendum. The Minister has had the privilege of meeting some stakeholders already, including the Mercy Law Resource Centre and the Home for Good coalition, which have been keen to ensure that all voices can be heard in a balanced way.
The commission will be asked to consider and evaluate all proposals and undertake research of relevance. Once it has reported on the most appropriate form of words for a constitutional amendment, we intend to consult Cabinet colleagues and seek advice from the Attorney General before putting a form of words to our citizens.
Covid-19 has highlighted to us all the importance of having a secure and safe home. The Government will continue its progress on a range of measures, as set out in the programme for Government. By supporting this Private Members' Bill, as well as the motion in the Seanad, we can inform the development of policy in terms of holding a referendum on housing. This will also inform the establishment of the commission on housing, which will be an important vehicle for the consideration of these related issues.
I thank the Deputies for their input in this debate and I reiterate that we are delivering on our commitment to hold a referendum on housing in a measured and balanced way and to consider the views of all in that process.
If the Minister of State wants to see what is wrong with the housing policies of successive Governments, he need only look at the recent media reports of vulture funds, cuckoo funds, financial institutions or whatever one wants to call them buying up tracts of housing. They come to Ireland for one purpose only, and that is to make profits at the expense of first-time buyers, renters and the citizens of this country who want to find a home. Mullen Park in Maynooth was just one incident. In Lucan in my constituency, 400 homes have been bought by a vulture fund. This denies people who want to buy a home and settle in a community.
To make matters worse, these vulture funds are paying no tax whatsoever. That concept was created by the Fine Gael Government. There is a perfect storm of policy and the ongoing homeless crisis. People will scratch their heads and ask how a Government that has been in power since 2011, and was in power previously, has got housing so wrong. There is plenty of money to throw at housing, but it is going to the wrong places, and thousands of people are still in emergency accommodation. These financial institutions, which is the posh name for the cuckoo funds, serve one purpose only, that being, to serve their shareholders rather than people who want to rent or buy.
I will take the Minister of State back to February 2020 when there was a general election and a political earthquake. One of the main reasons for that earthquake was housing. Some people had homes and so forth, but they had a considerable amount of empathy for those who could not find homes or were being rented out of the market. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were punished for that.
I will give the Minister of State some free advice. If the Government does not address the situation in the remaining four years of its tenure, it will fry politically because of it.
The people of this country will never forgive the Government. They will punish the Government at the ballot box if it does not sort this situation. It is completely unacceptable that so many people are homeless in this State, which is one of the richest states in the world and in which people cannot even rent a home. People who have good wages and are on good salaries cannot even buy a home. There is something fundamentally wrong with the policy of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. That policy is looking to the free market all the time. There is an answer to this. The answer is to build homes on public land and build them for people rather than for profits. As I said, these vulture funds are here for one reason and one reason only. They do not serve any other purpose. Their purpose stems from a policy the Government introduced. They are not wanted here. Nobody wants them and they should be gone forever. That is free advice for the Minister of State. He has four years to get it right.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. We all talk about housing and about it being a crisis. The spirit of this Bill is the right of a person to have a home, which we all agree with. The problem with it is, how do we get there? People keep talking about what is wrong and saying that we must find solutions. The Government is investing more money into getting more houses built, but sometimes we look a gift horse in the mouth. I have said this repeatedly, we have so many vacant properties in this county, in our towns and villages. Some 75% of the space over ground-floor retail units in Dublin city is empty. We must ask the following question. Why are we looking at this gift horse in the mouth and not doing something about it? What it requires is investment for a quick return in getting housing units back into use and at the same time rejuvenating our towns, villages and the city centre of Dublin.
I come from the constituency of Galway East and we have a housing crisis there. It is not confined to the cities or any particular place. Many of the telephone calls I get in my office are from people looking to rent a place and from people trying to find out where they can buy a house or where they can build a house. One of the reasons that is happening - Galway East is probably typical of many other constituencies - is that we have frozen the planning system. What I mean by that is that there are towns and villages where people cannot build houses, where the local authority cannot give planning permission and where An Bord Pleanála refuses planning permission for the simple reason that a waste water treatment plant is not in place. At the same time, we are asking about how we increase the number of houses. The Regional Group put down a Private Members' motion a number of weeks ago, which was calling on the Government to give some of the money for housing directly to Irish Water to get it to implement an infrastructure plan in these towns and villages.
People often talk about affordable housing and I wonder what they mean by it. It is not so much that we must provide affordable houses; we must provide houses full stop so that people can live in them. What is happening at the moment is that the supply of houses is not coming through. I hear people giving out about developers and builders, as if builders are the root of all evil. The building contractors in this country are trying to make a living like everybody else. They build houses; they are not speculators. They employ many people and we have to show them respect. If we do not have a building industry, we will not have any houses. Do not include builders in the blame game when we talk about what is wrong. We must look at what we can do to put things right.
When one looks at the situation, we must make sure that young people who are brave enough to buy a site on which to build a house are given the support to do that. If they want to build a house in their rural area, beside their family for family support in the future, we should actually support that. If the son or daughter, niece or nephew, of a family farmer wants to build a house on the family farm, we should support that. We should not be dithering on that.
There is another issue in relation to social housing. I know a bit about all of this because I worked in construction for a long time before I came to the House. Local authorities can build social housing to a top-class standard when they are given the resources to do so. They have proven it time and again. Even in the last two or three years, Galway County Council has completed some fine social housing projects in Galway, but the problem is that it needs to build more of them and it needs more resources. More expertise is required in local authorities so that it can drive it on.
I am not so sure about the Land Development Agency; I am fearful of it. When I look at Irish Water, it has concentrated its efforts, with limited resources, in certain areas. That is why people in Corofin, Craughwell, Athenry and Abbeyknockmoy are now frozen out of the planning system and cannot build because the infrastructure is not there. The reason is that Irish Water has concentrated its resources in places where the biggest pressures are. When resources are limited, decisions have to be made. For instance, Athenry has received an investment of about €5 million to upgrade its waste water treatment plant. The work has been done. The plant has been in commission for over three years, yet it is of little use to the town because the network cannot be put in place because the funding is not in place to do it. It has left that town, which at the crossroads of two motorways, railways and within shouting distance of Galway, without any housing developments. It makes no sense.
When we look at all of this we must say to the local authorities that we will make it easier for them. This is something which the Department must do. It must let go of some of the controls. At the moment, if a local authority wants to build a housing scheme, it must go through four gateways of approvals before it will receive any money. We must look at our planning system and how we can fast-track housing. The way we are doing it now is so cumbersome that people are just walking away from it. They do not have the appetite for it. People who are brave enough to build their house and to take out a mortgage need to receive better support from the Government. We must ensure those people have the right to own their own houses. This Bill, which is about a constitutional issue, is all well and fine, but what we must do as legislators is to make sure we do not bring in anymore strategies, think tanks or working groups. We must do the simple things and do them right - make available vacant houses and vacant sites and invest in Irish Water in the places where houses can be built. There are situations where land is zoned as R1 development in towns and it cannot be built on. That is why our supply is not coming through and prices are so high. The reason rent is so high is that the supply is not there. We can release some of the pressures if we do some practical things in a quick way. We should not take years to change it. The money is coming into the system, but let us put it in the right place to get the best result as quickly as possible.
I am happy to take five minutes to ensure that others get to speak. I thank People Before Profit, Solidarity and Rise for re-tabling this legislation. Sinn Féin was happy to support it in the previous Dáil and we will be enthusiastically supporting it this evening. We tabled a similar Bill in the previous Dáil and have introduced one on First Stage this year as part of our commitment to enshrine a right to housing in the Constitution. We are active supporters of the Home for Good coalition, which has produced the most superior wording for a referendum that I have seen to date. I look forward to that legislation being brought forward to ensure we get a referendum, preferably by the Government but if not, by the Opposition.
I listened very carefully to the Minister of State. He rightly said that changing the Constitution is a significant thing to do. We have to take our time, do it right and ensure there are no negative impacts or unintended consequences for other aspects of the Constitution. My problem with that argument is that the Government has been taking a very long time. It was 2014 when 85% of people participating in a constitutional convention supported the proposition to enshrine the right to housing in the Constitution. It was 2016 when the previous Government promised in its programme for Government that it would allow the Oireachtas housing committee to consider this matter. By way of a deal between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, it snatched that away and inappropriately gave it to the finance committee to consider, then ensured the committee never actually did so.
The fact that there is a very ambiguous commitment to a referendum on housing in the programme for Government shows that there is no agreement between the coalition partners on this issue. Recently, there was a very significant development at the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage when Home for Good presented its wording for a referendum to us. That wording was produced in consultation with some of the country's leading constitutional experts on property rights, land and housing. For the first time, Fianna Fáil fully expressed its support for that wording and a referendum, which I welcome. Unfortunately, Fine Gael was unable to do the same but it was at that point that the committee wrote to the Minster to urge him to meet Home for Good. I welcome the fact that he has done so. He also has said that he supports the constitutional right to housing. However, the point I am making is that from 2014 to 2021 is a very long time for Fine Gael to be trying to make up its mind on this matter. I do not believe it will take a housing commission or any considerable length of time for us to decide if we need to move forward. I recommend that the Government bring Home for Good's wording to the Attorney General to get his view and then decide on whether that wording or some other version of it is to be brought forward.
People should understand why a right to housing in the Constitution is important. Such a right would not guarantee everybody the right to a home the day after such a referendum hopefully passed. It would, however, place a legal obligation on any government to progressively vindicate that right over time and ensure we do not have the same situation in the future that we have today, where thousands of adults and children are living in emergency accommodation, in many cases for three or four years, and thousands of people in both the public and private sectors are unable to put a secure and affordable roof over their heads. Just like all the other rights in the Constitution, it would ensure that the Government complies with those obligations. How a government does that is a matter for the democratic process. It is a matter for parties and voters to decide which combination of political parties and policies are used in a future government to ensure that right is secured. The obligation itself is crucial. It is one of the many tools we need to ensure future governments do not repeat the mistakes of the current Government and previous ones, which have consistently failed to ensure people have that right to secure and affordable accommodation, particularly for the most vulnerable in our society.
A constitutional right to housing, combined with the kind of investment and policy proposals that the Economic and Social Research Institute outlined today, is where we need to go. We have had ten years of Fine Gael led housing policy, including under a Government with a Fianna Fáil housing Minister, and those policies are patently failing. That is why the ESRI stated today that the Government needs to double direct capital investment in the delivery of social and affordable homes to produce 18,000 public homes a year, though many of us would prefer something in the order of 20,000 genuinely affordable homes. Let us pass Second Stage of this Bill tonight and move forward to the referendum that many of us want, but let the Government also start putting its money where its mouth is. There is no point talking about affordable housing. We need to double capital investment and produce 20,000 genuinely affordable, social, cost rental and affordable purchase homes a year, starting next year. That is what it is going to take to tackle this crisis.
I agree with Deputy Canney's comments about the importance of local authorities and that it is nearly impossible for them to get approval for housing. If the Government is serious about building social housing, the very long process the authorities have to go through, which makes it very difficult, needs to be tackled.
Anyone watching this debate who is in a housing crisis, and there are thousands of people in that situation, will be very worried that the Government is clearly saying it will not deal with this urgently at all. It is going to take its time, in the middle of a housing catastrophe with more than 8,000 people living in emergency accommodation and more than 125 people sleeping rough in Dublin on the last count. There are more than 100,000 people on housing waiting lists and in insecure HAP tenancies and the Government is saying it is going to take its time on this. It is simply not the case that work has not been done on wording, as has been implied. Legal experts and the Home for Good coalition have done substantial work on that and there has been a very slow response from the Government. I asked the Tánaiste last year in the Dáil about the referendum on housing and he confirmed at that point that there would be a referendum on the right to housing. However, the Government has said tonight that the referendum might not be on the right to housing and might be something else. What is the Government going to put in the Constitution about housing if not a right to it? How could it possibly think, with the situation we are in, that it can fall short of inserting a right to housing? What does that say to all the people living in emergency accommodation, including more than 2,000 children? Is it the Government's position that it is not sure whether they should have a right to housing? What does that say to the people who are homeless? Last year there was an 80% increase in homeless individuals dying either in emergency accommodation or on our streets. That is a huge increase, but the Government is not going to act fast on this issue.
The Government has to get its story straight when it comes to housing and stop contradicting itself. During the last election, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, told us that he was going to deliver 10,000 social homes and 10,000 direct build affordable homes each year. He has spent most of the time since the election telling us that is a load of rubbish, that it cannot be done and is pie in the sky thinking. Today, the ESRI stated that not only is it fiscally possible to do that but that it would be the fiscally prudent thing to do. If we do not put in that capital investment, we will continue to pump more and more money into current spending and into housing supports at very expensive rates. The ESRI is, correctly, making the case that the fiscally responsible thing for the Government to do would be to build around 18,000 social and affordable homes each year. That is coming from the ESRI, which is not a group of left-wing radicals. It is a mainstream think tank and the Government is usually very happy to accept its research and recommendations but it seems that on this occasion the Government has been left scrambling about how to respond.
We are having a debate in the housing committee now on Committee Stage of the Land Development Agency Bill 2021. The Government cannot even get its story straight in that regard. We have been told, intermittently, that in Dublin city the Government will provide 100% affordable and social homes on public lands, while at other times we are told that this will happen in all of Dublin. On other occasions, we are told that it is going to happen in all cities around the country or that it will happen in all urban areas on public lands. When the Government is giving these types of commitments, it cannot even decide in which areas they will apply. At the same time, the Government is introducing a Bill that will only allow, as a baseline, 50% of homes on public lands to be affordable. We need urgency on this issue. We need the Government to get its story straight on housing and act on it. We also need the Government to accept mainstream advice, such as that offered by the ESRI.
Deputy Cian O'Callaghan has just given a fantastic speech and described in five minutes exactly what is wrong with the Government's approach. It is mixed up and contradicting itself and it makes no sense. It is all over the place. I commend this Bill and we will support it. Deputy O'Callaghan also said that this concept is now mainstream thought. This is not fringe or radical thought - it has reached the political and economic mainstream. As usual, the last to get on board with any kind of progressive move across any issue, be that social or economic policy, or, in this case, housing policy, are the two biggest Government parties. There is an opportunity here, in the context of a referendum to enshrine a right to housing in the Constitution, for a unified and positive cross-party approach, if it is just looked at from a different perspective from those held by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael
This is what people want. We were here a few hours ago in the context of statements on Traveller accommodation. The motivation to have that debate on the schedule this week arose from recent reports regarding the destitution and absolute squalor that people, families and children in this State are living in. They have been denied any kind of basic rights, basic human dignity and the basic right to housing. The Constitution has for too long been used as an artificial barrier blocking people from accessing these basic rights. It has allowed the interests of the right and private interests to leverage the Constitution in their favour. Where are we now? We are in this housing crisis, which has now lasted for more than a decade. According to the ESRI, unless investment is put into housing now, this crisis will last another decade.
We are losing not just one generation. We have lost two so far, and there will be two more unless something is done. When we peel back all the complex reasons, this issue comes down to some very simple things. It comes down, in many ways, to the price of land. If we look at the Kenny report, which has been gathering dust now for 50 years, what has stopped that from being implemented? It is the threat that it would be shot down in the courts and might be unconstitutional. Let us tackle that issue. We can do that by testing the report in the courts, by amending our Constitution or by doing both. However, we must do something and we have to do it quickly. What is being done is too slow.
I hope we will be able to get to a stage where we can look back from a position where the housing crisis has been resolved. It seems so far away now that people cannot even imagine such a situation. I hope we do reach that stage though, and people will look back, wonder and scratch their heads in incredulity regarding how long politicians and Governments in this country did not do the right thing. The last election might seem to have been a long time ago, but it was not. It was just over a year ago. In the lead-in to that election, many parties, including mine and those of the proposers of this Bill, and the parties of the previous two speakers as well, had this commitment in their manifestos and in their campaigns.
This is now a mainstream approach and it has broad public support. We do not want to give campaign advice to the Government parties going into the next election, but if those parties were to bring in a right to housing, they would benefit electorally from it because it is the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do economically and ethically to solve this housing crisis and it must be done. We ask the Government to completely orient its thought regarding and position on the right to housing.
I took a walk around Gurranabraher the Saturday before last and took the opportunity to give out some leaflets. When I was walking down the road, three young fellas were standing around a car. One of them said, "Good morning, Deputy". I kicked myself for not having given him a leaflet. I should of course have done that. I gave a leaflet to him and to his friends as well. One of them then told me that I had picked the right issue in housing. I asked them if they were affected personally. They laughed. They were all living at home. I asked them how old they were. They told me they were, respectively, 30 years old, 28 years old and 28 years old. The third fella, though, told me he had a plan to get a house. I asked him how he was going to manage it. He said it had taken him a few weeks to put his plan together and it was very detailed at that stage, but he was going to murder his parents. His friends laughed. The same chap then said to me, "Mick, with this bloody Government, that is the only way that I am going to get a house."
A big question for Irish society and for this Government concerns whether those young people are going to go out on the streets. Are their generation going to go out on the streets because of the housing issue? We saw massive public support for the occupation of Apollo House that began in December 2016, and then we saw the Take Back the City occupations in September 2018, sizeable Raise the Roof demonstrations in the spring of 2019 and then this issue hit like a thunderbolt in the general election of February 2020, as young voters flocked to the polls. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were hit hard, recording a historically low vote.
That process has been cut across by the pandemic, which has dominated everything for more than a year now. We are not out of the woods on that front yet but, hopefully, it is now beginning to recede. We are seeing the beginnings of the re-emergence of the housing issue. It has dominated Leaders' Questions here for the last few weeks. I think it is only a matter of time before the issue causes people to return to the streets. I am not the only person who thinks that. Una Mullally, a columnist in The Irish Times, wrote recently that "When people can gather safely, a movement akin to the anti-water charges protests will begin". She continued that:
A new housing movement will be the dominant force in Irish politics and culture. It will define the next stage of Ireland’s social revolution, which is ongoing, and rooted in the demands and standards of a population miles ahead of the panicking inept Coalition and regressive mentalities of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, which created both the property crash and the contemporary housing crisis.
I think the housing issue will re-emerge onto the streets. The only question is to what degree that will happen. The Government does not have four years to deal with this issue, because it is not a situation that is going to wait until the general election. It is an issue very much in the pipeline now.
What ideas can such a movement be built around? The ESRI stated this morning that the State needs to double investment to tackle the housing crisis, and that is at a minimum. It is a real sign of the scale of this crisis that an establishment organ like the ESRI is now agreeing with the views which have been put forward by the socialist left in recent years. It is, of course, important where increased expenditure should go. It should not go into the pockets of the landlords, like the €1 billion that this Government gives to the landlords every year now in housing assistance payment, HAP, and similar supports. Such expenditure should also not go towards the privatisation of housing.
The Land Development Agency, LDA, is the biggest privatisation operation in the history of this State. It is a giveaway of public land to private developers. The Government states it is necessary to create housing, but what kind of housing? It has been suggested that €450,000 is affordable for Dublin and €400,000 for Cork. That is a joke. That is housing for profit and not housing for people.
We need affordable housing at cost price. We can build houses in this country for approximately €200,000 and that is the kind of social and affordable housing we need. If the Government does not deliver, and I have no faith it will, we must have a mass movement to force change like we did on the water charges.
I thank all of the speakers who contributed to this debate. In my opening remarks I set out clearly the direction of travel for the Government and outlined how seriously we are taking this. An interim chairperson has been appointed. I have made it clear what we are doing in that regard. The Constitution affects us all and we must balance any proposal with other rights in our Constitution and protect against any unintended consequences, being mindful of the interdependencies between different rights. That is why we have set up a commission to tease out these issues under an interim chairman.
We must be very mindful of the need to deliver homes on the ground. As Deputy Canney said, changing the Constitution will not deliver homes on the ground. That is why the Government will continue to advance a range of commitments set out in the programme for Government to deliver more homes and prevent homelessness, supported by unprecedented levels of funding. We will also deliver affordable, quality housing solutions that are available to all in society. The review of the national development plan and the upcoming housing for all plan which will be published this summer will set out an ambitious range of affordable housing targets throughout the country over the coming years. Our housing plan will also set out the roadmap for how and when these targets will be met.
As I outlined earlier, the establishment of the housing commission will be a key part in delivering on the commitment to hold a referendum on housing which will be thought out through it. The terms of reference of the commission should be finalised this September, and as we have now appointed a chairman-designate, this should allow for a clear timeline for the commission to go about its work.
Debates such as this one have a crucial role to play in identifying the range of issues that must be considered by the commission as well as highlighting the views of all parties. I am glad to participate in and support this debate. I thank Deputies for raising key issues. It is important we allow the commission to do its work. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien, has met a number of stakeholders already and it is very important to get a clear direction forward.
A number of Deputies have raised very valid points on housing and how to deliver it on the ground. Deputy Canney referred to the towns first programme which will deliver units that are currently vacant or derelict, which will make a big difference to towns and villages all over Ireland. Reference was also made to the review of the national development plan and to Irish Water. A lot of development is blocked because key infrastructure is not in place and a lot of work will be done in that regard.
Reference was also made to the LDA and a 50% cap on affordable units on its sites, but that is absolutely incorrect. The figure of 50% is the minimum, and when this is coupled with our new part 5 provisions of up to 20%, that will bring it up to a minimum of 70%. The Minister has said that in Dublin and in other cities throughout the country he is aiming for 100%. We have a minimum of 70% that is going to be set out in legislation. That will be a key delivery mechanism for the State and will enable us to deliver housing in a countercyclical manner when our economy is under stress.
I will bring many of points that were raised to the attention of the Minister. Class was referenced a lot during this debate. I am not a landlord but am from a very modest background. I live in a three-bed semi detached house. I and my counterparts have experienced the pressure of trying to get our first home. Some of the contributions tonight contained very colourful language but people should be realistic. We are all trying to do our best. We should all try to support the Government, of which I am a member, which is trying to deliver for our citizens. We are doing our very best and there is enormous will on the part of the Government to deliver. The Taoiseach has been very clear that housing is our number one priority. Deputies can come in here and talk about parties being "politically fried" or other colourful terms but that will not deliver houses. We are in the business of trying to deliver houses as quickly as possible. I come from a modest background. I was lucky to get an apprenticeship when I left college. I served my time and tried to do my best. I got opportunities in society. I am from a working-class background and I want to ensure others have the same opportunities I had. I want everyone to have the opportunity to get a set of keys for that all important home.
It is not that we want to personalise things in any way or comment on the Minister of State's background or anyone else's but there is absolutely no doubt that the policies that have been pursued are the problem. I first entered the Dáil in 2011, the year Fine Gael and the Labour Party went into government. I have been in the Dáil for ten years now. That Government, under Enda Kenny, in its programme for Government promised to end homelessness in its lifetime, but what followed was not the ending of homelessness but a spiralling out of all control of both homelessness and the housing crisis. Ten years on, the situation is as bad if not worse than ever. In fact, it is very considerably worse.
I feel immense frustration on a personal level because from day one when I came into Dáil Éireann, I could see the writing on the wall in terms of the housing crisis that was going to come because of policy decisions that were made in those first couple of years. Problematic policy number one was the decision made in June 2011. I remember the circular so well and I highlighted it in the Dáil but nobody took a blind bit of notice at the time. When I pointed it out, most of the journalists did not even know what RAS meant. The Government had not yet come up with the term HAP. Essentially, the document said that the State was not going to build council houses any more but would provide social housing through RAS. I tried to point out to journalists, who did not know at that point what RAS was, that this would be a disaster. It was a conscious policy because it was linked to the policy of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, of inviting in the vulture funds to refloat the property market. Undoubtedly, the deal with them was that they would be getting money through RAS, which later became HAP, from local authorities because the State would not be building council houses anymore.
It was a plan but in whose interests did that plan operate? It self-evidently did not operate in the interests of the 100,000 families who are still on the housing list or of the HAP recipients who are in completely insecure tenancies. It did not operate in the interests of the working people trying to buy an affordable home or the renters who are now paying €2,000 or €2,500 per month. In whose interests did it operate? Who benefited? It is a famous adage - who benefits? It is obvious the people who owned property benefited. The developers, vulture funds and cuckoo funds benefited enormously and it was all set up for them. What was driving them? Was it ideology, belief in the market or was it the fact there are a disproportionate number of landlords in the Dáil? It was a combination of all of these things and it was a disaster, an absolute disaster.
The Minister of State used the term "fantasy economics" earlier. When we said at that time, and it was in every budget document we produced from 2012, that we needed to build about 20,000 public and affordable homes every year, we were accused of engaging in fantasy economics. Year in, year out, we were told, "What a load of nonsense." I remember during one of the first Leader's Questions debate I ever did in 2012 I warned we were heading back towards the tenement conditions that Seán O'Casey described in his plays at the turn of the last century. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Deputies were rolling in the aisles with laughter. There were hoots of derision that I would even suggest such a thing. I was met with absolute contempt.
What was driving me was the housing misery of the people who were coming into my office. It is still driving me and they were out there with me today. The tenants of St. Helen's Court are four years and two vulture funds on. Decent working people are being told by the council that there is nothing for them and they are going into a homeless hostel. I have been citing this example for four years. This is an apartment complex where there are 13 perfectly refurbished apartments sitting empty. The representatives of that vulture fund went into the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, to secure the eviction and the barrister representing it said that it was not very pleasant but that his or her client had to maximise the value of the property. The Government allows that.
That is the point of this Bill. It is to say that such ruthless greed for profit is not more important than the right of those people not to be put out on the street next week. This Bill will not sort it all out but it will dramatically shift the legal balance in favour of the right to secure affordable housing and it will clear away the excuses the Government has consistently used to say that we cannot have rent controls, stop unjust evictions or take action against all the empty properties that are being sat on by these property owners that one of the other Deputies spoke about when it could be used to house people. We could take aggressive action.
Every time we say we need rent controls, we need to stop unfair evictions and we need to take action against the speculators, we are told the Constitution is a blockage. We are proposing therefore to remove that blockage. In addition, the Government needs to accept that the policy approach it has taken has been a disaster, that maybe the left was right and that maybe we need to start to invest in public and affordable housing on our own land and push the vultures, cuckoos and people who see housing as an opportunity to make profit out of the picture.