Wednesday, 23 June 2021
Residential Tenancies (No. 2) Bill 2021: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am grateful to the Ceann Comhairle and all Deputies for facilitating the debate on this urgent legislation in the Dáil before the summer recess. I thank the Chief Whip, the Minister of State, Deputy Jack Chambers, the members of the Business Committee and, in particular, the members of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage for enabling the Residential Tenancies (No.2) Bill to be read a Second Time here today.
The Bill is a further timely and proportionate response to the continuing threat and impact of the pandemic, particularly for the most vulnerable tenants. The need for additional legislation and the time-sensitive nature of the Bill are an inevitable consequence of balancing the constant reassessment of the pandemic and legal requirements. I thank Deputies for facilitating the Bill's passage in the same co-operative spirit that has enabled the swift passage of similar emergency Bills since Covid-19 erupted. This is the fifth Bill that the Government has introduced to protect tenants during the pandemic since coming to office last June. The virus has mutated and challenged us in different ways but we have responded to ensure the vulnerable are shielded from the unprecedented economic fallout.
Today's Bill is a further important action to safeguard tenants in the face of an enduring pandemic. In light of the prolonged challenges facing the most vulnerable tenants, I am asking Deputies to pass this Bill, enable its early enactment and provide technical amendments to the Planning and Development, and Residential Tendencies Act 2020, PDRTA, to extend the application of its enhanced, targeted and much-needed tenancy protections for a further six months, from 13 July 2021 to 12 January 2022.
The Bill will also provide for some permanent amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, some of which I flagged several weeks ago. The first is to restrict any upfront payment in respect of any deposit or advance rent required to secure a tenancy to a total value that does not exceed two months' rent and to restrict any ongoing advance rent payment to cover the forthcoming month only. Other objectives are to provide an opt-out regarding the upfront rent payment restrictions for students residing in student-specific accommodation, should they wish to avail of it, and to require a student residing in student-specific accommodation to provide a minimum termination notice of 28 days to the accommodation provider or provide notice of a longer period should he or she wish to do so. The last two requirements emerged specifically from our work and that of Opposition Members with the Union of Students in Ireland and other student representative groups. I wanted to introduce these measures sooner than we had originally planned so they could take effect in the new academic year.
Subject to the conditions of the procedural requirements, the PDRTA currently protects tenants in rent arrears due to Covid-19 and at risk of losing their tenancy from eviction and rent increases during the period 11 January 2021 to 12 July 2021. It is considered that the ongoing threats and impacts of Covid-19 and its emerging variants require this Bill to extend protections for a further six months, until 12 January 2022. This six-month extension is a proportionate response, balancing constitutional property rights and the common good and extending protections for those tenants who need it most. While the number directly invoking enhanced tenancy protections has been relatively small, with 475 tenants having made the necessary self-declaration between August 2020 and May 2021, the emergency rental measures have provided a strong safety net to vulnerable tenants and, importantly, send a clear signal to the rental system that the State is and will continue to protect tenants. In this context, and because of strong direct financial supports, we have prevented turmoil in the rental sector.
Approximately 1% of all tenants have been issued with rent arrears warnings since last August. This means that 99% of tenants are meeting their rent or, indeed, are benefiting from State supports.
Crucially, I reiterate that State supports are available for renters, including the pandemic unemployment payment and the rent supplement and supplementary welfare allowances, including the exceptional needs payments. I encourage anyone struggling with rent to avail of these protections which are available through this legal mechanism and, indeed, through the direct State supports.
It is important to note that these protections are separate and distinct from those under the Residential Tenancies Act 2020 which provides for a moratorium on all evictions taking place, with limited exceptions, during a period of a 5 km travel restriction in an area specified by the regulations made by the Minister for Health, and during the ten days following the lifting of such restrictions. Those important restrictions would again kick in for tenants in any area should the 5 km travel restriction be needed again which, I know, all of us hope will never be required again. I do not expect that this scenario will arise again but the safety net is indeed in place if it is needed.
In broad terms the protections under this Bill apply on foot of the economic fallout of the pandemic while the 2020 Act addresses the public health issues.
As was previously stated, significant and enhanced State income supports continue to be available from the Department of Social Protection. I encourage any tenant who needs assistance to reach out early to the Money Advice & Budgeting Service and to seek every available State income support.
Overall, the State through this Government has spent €12 billion in Covid-19 welfare supports, and rightly so. The Government has not been and will not be found wanting in supporting any tenant in difficulty. It is important that landlords continue to show forbearance and afford tenants the time to stabilise their income through State support if necessary. It is in the interests of both parties to sustain a viable tenancy. According to the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, 80% of tenants enjoy a good relationship with their landlord and the strong interaction has helped us to endure the challenges presented by Covid-19 over the past year.
The Government and I recognise that 70% of landlords own just one rental property and 86% of landlords own just one or two such properties. Covid-19 has also brought some financial difficulty, in particular, for individual landlords. This Bill again aims to strike a balance between the rights and obligations of tenants and landlords in a very carefully calibrated manner which recognises the legitimate interests of both. This achieves an equilibrium between the property rights and the common good in the midst of the pandemic.
We have to and will address the economic and social consequences of Covid-19, protect as many jobs as possible, and ensure that families and businesses can manage financially. The economic consequences of the pandemic are far-reaching but the hit for certain sectors and for some tenants has been immensely challenging. The emergency measures introduced by this Government have prevented systemic problems in the rental sector. The rental measures proposed under this Bill can once again help further.
On other permanent protections under this Bill, and as part of my continuing reform of tenancy and rental legislation, during the Second Stage debate on the Private Members’ Bill, the Residential Tenancies (Student Rents and Other Protections) (Covid-19) Bill 2021, which I did not oppose, I advised that impending rental reforms to restrict the level of upfront payments by tenants in respect of deposits and advance rent would equally apply to and benefit students residing in student-specific accommodation. The measures that I have brought forward in this Bill apply across the board and to all tenants, including students. These measures were originally intended to be included in the general scheme of the Residential Tenancies Bill but are now included in this Bill to benefit students and other tenants as soon as possible, and, in any event and in particular, before the commencement of the new academic year this autumn.
It is proposed to provide that students residing in student-specific accommodation may choose to pay larger upfront rent payments than are legally required under the Bill if it suits them better but there will be no obligation to do so. It also restricts the total amount that any tenant can be obliged to pay to a landlord by way of a deposit or advance rent payment to secure a tenancy to no more than the equivalent of two months’ rent. This has been put on a statutory legislative footing in this legislation. The measures in this Bill will greatly reduce any financial exposure of tenants, including students, on foot of paying much restricted upfront payments and this is a very significant change. I welcome the input of other Members in this House and, as I said earlier, the input of student groups in particular on this issue and commend them for their engagement.
I will outline briefly now the main provisions of this Bill. The Long Title and recitals of this Bill describe our policy aims and the context in which the targeted restrictions on landlords and constitutionally protected property rights will serve the social common good for six more months up to 12 January 2022.
I will briefly outline now the purposes of the provisions of the Bill. Sections 1 and 12 contain standard provisions dealing with definitions, Title and collective citation of the Bill. Section 2 provides for a number of amendments to the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act, PDRTA, by updating various dates to reflect the extension under the Bill of the emergency period out to 12 January 2022. The proposed amendments to the PDRTA provide, subject to conditions and procedural requirements under the Act, for its enhanced tenancy protections to continue to apply from 13 July 2021 to 12 July 2022, where tenants have been economic impacted by Covid-19 and are consequently unable to meet their obligations to pay rent and risk tenancy termination. Rent increases and tenancy terminations will be prohibited for tenants who are protected by the PDRTA until 12 January 2022, when this Bill is enacted.
Section 3 is intended to remove, in the context of student-specific accommodation, the legal possibility of tenancy agreements requiring a termination notice period of a greater length than those provided under Table 1 of section 66 of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, the 2004 Act, for landlords other than the minimum 28 days' notice required to be given by students. This is another significant change.
Section 4 amends section 16 of the 2004 Act to provide a new reference to a deposit that a tenant may be obliged to pay. Section 5 inserts a new section 19B into the into the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 to restrict the total amount that anyone can be obliged to pay to a landlord or by way of deposit or advance rent payment to secure a tenancy of no more than the equivalent of two months' rent. A restriction of the equivalent of one month's rent is also placed on the amount that a tenant is obliged to pay as a regular advance rent payment to a landlord during the course of that tenancy. Provision is made for a student residing in student accommodation to choose to pay a greater amount of advance rent if he or she wishes to do so. Section 5 will apply to tenancies created no earlier than one month after the passing of the Bill.
Sections 6 and 7 are technical amendments to reflect that student-specific accommodation falls within the remit of the Residential Tenancies Act. Section 8 provides that a student can provide more than a 28 days' termination period to a student-specific accommodation provider if they wish to do so.
Section 9 proposes to require a student residing in student-specific accommodation to provide a minimum of 28 days' termination notice to the accommodation provider or provide a longer period of notice only should he or she wish to do so. Section 10 is a technical amendment to provide that a dispute can be referred to the Residential Tenancies Board regarding a landlord’s compliance with the new restrictions on the total amount that anyone can be obliged to pay in respect of a deposit or an advance rent payment to secure tenancy.
Section 11 is, again, a technical amendment to extend the list of improper conduct by a landlord which can be sanctioned by the RTB to include the seeking by a landlord of a payment to her or him of an amount or amounts that contravene the provisions of section 19B in respect of the total amount that anyone can be obliged to pay a landlord in respect of a deposit or an advance rent payment.
In conclusion, this Bill, like the previous Acts, is being introduced against the backdrop of the worst public health crisis in the history of our State and an economic collapse without compare. The virus continues to cost us so much and to demand strong responses. We need to continue to adhere to the public health advice and to avail of the vaccines on offer to ensure that the variants of concern do not undo all of the sacrifices that our people have made to date. The Government and I will continue to do whatever it takes to protect our State and our citizens from the worst impact of the pandemic.
As legislators, we have shown how we can work together to react quickly to suppress the spread of Covid-19.
In that spirit, I again ask for Deputies' co-operation in regard to the Bill. I know they appreciate the negative impacts that Covid-19 has had and is having on many citizens. The Bill aims to help the most vulnerable tenants through to next year and to help all tenants in restricting the payments required of them into the future for deposits and advance rent to secure a tenancy. The Government and I are following through on commitments made to introduce further protections for tenants, including students, by restricting the scale of advance payments required of them. This is the fifth item of tenancy legislation I have introduced on behalf of the Government and there will be more to come in the autumn, as I mentioned when we debated the Sinn Féin Private Members' Bill a number of months ago.
The Bill before us is timely and urgent. I have included the provisions on student rents, in particular, to ensure these measures will be passed before the summer recess and can take effect in the new academic year.
I am sharing time with Deputies Quinlivan and Mitchell.
In some senses, this is a Bill of two parts. Part of it is very welcome, namely, that relating to the new protections for all tenants, as the Minister outlined. That is included as a result of the strong campaign by the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, and the cross-party Opposition Private Members' Bill on that matter, tabled during Sinn Féin's time, which I will return to in a moment. Nevertheless, as I said on the previous occasion the Minister brought forward an extension of the very limited and restrictive Covid-19 protections from the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act, it is disappointing he still does not accept that there is a larger group of tenants than those he has currently protected who need assistance, another matter I will expand on in a moment.
I will deal separately with the two parts of the Bill. The USI some months ago approached both the Minister and the Opposition party housing spokespersons and urged us to act. The situation whereby students can be often forced to pay three, six or nine months' rent in advance was exposed for its flaws when many of those students and their families were unable to recoup that money when they were unable to take up student accommodation because of Covid-19 restrictions last year. The fact that the Opposition united around that USI campaign, tabled the legislation we did and secured the full support of the House, and the Minister, to his credit, has fast-tracked key elements of that legislation in the Bill before us, shows the case the USI was making was not only eminently fair but needed to be acted on urgently. That the Minister is today introducing those key protections for all renters, as he outlined, is very welcome. No renter in future will be asked for more than one month's rent and one month's deposit in advance, and no student will be left unable to recoup more than 28 days' rent if the student-specific tenancy has to be terminated early. They are very welcome measures, and while the Minister and I have many disagreements, one of which we are about to have in the context of this debate, I give him credit where it is due that he is bringing them forward.
I have two concerns with the provisions before the House and ask the Minister to examine them urgently. With respect to the provision regarding one month's rent and one month's deposit, a tenant can make a complaint that the landlord is not complying with that new rule only if the tenant takes up the tenancy. If he or she does not or cannot do so, there will be no ability for the Residential Tenancies Board to investigate that independently because there will be no tenant's complaint. I ask the Minister to reconsider that matter when he comes forward with the residential tenancies amending Bill in the autumn.
I am even more concerned by the opt-out that, as presented by the Minister, would allow a student voluntarily to pay more than one month's rent and one month's deposit in advance. I understand from briefings his officials gave to members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage that there is a very specific reason for that, namely, that international students often pay for a comprehensive package of tuition, materials and accommodation from universities here. That is fully understandable and those students clearly should be exempt from these provisions. I also understand the Minister's officials are working on further amendments to the Bill they will bring forward in the autumn.
My worry is that between now and the introduction of those amendments, there could be some unscrupulous student-specific landlords, possibly in the private sector, who will try to apply informal pressure on students chasing much-needed student accommodation to "voluntarily" pay more than the required sum. I urge both the Minister and the Residential Tenancies Board to be vigilant on this matter. I have spoken to the USI and it is going to highlight the need for vigilance. If any student-specific accommodation provider tries to exert that type of pressure - I hope none will - I would like to think the full force of the Residential Tenancies Board, as well as condemnation from the Government and the Opposition, will be brought to bear in order that students will be fully protected until that matter is resolved when further amendments are tabled in the autumn.
With respect to the extension of the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act protections for what the Minister calls the most vulnerable of those affected by Covid-19, he will know from the most recent Residential Tenancies Board data that only 475 renters of 200,000 rental tenancies not accessing supports such as housing assistance payment, HAP, or the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, have availed of that protection. He will also know that since he ended the blanket protection on evictions and notices to quit in August last, almost 4,000 rent warning letters have been issued from landlords to tenants who have fallen into arrears. During that same period, accelerating particularly in the past three months, 1,122 notices to quit have been issued, not solely for rent arrears but also for other matters.
The problem with this protection the Minister is extending, welcome and all as it is for those who can avail of it, is that many vulnerable tenants, including those affected by Covid, do not fit the criteria for this protection and will be excluded. The process is incredibly complex and cumbersome, which leads many of us, not just in the Opposition but also in organisations such as Threshold, to believe there are tenants who would qualify for this protection but, for a variety of reasons, cannot or will not avail of it.
My main concern, judging by the Residential Tenancies Board figures, is that now that the level 5 restriction on evictions relating to the 5 km travel limit has been lifted since 22 April, those 1,122 notices to quit will start working their way through the system, and there could be a slow, steady and deeply unfortunate increase in the number not only of evictions but also of presentations and entries into emergency accommodation. I urge the Minister to reconsider expanding those protections to ensure that anybody affected by Covid, irrespective of whether they are getting a Covid-19 payment or whether they have submitted a written declaration, will get Covid-19 protections, at a minimum, until the end of this year from both rent increases and notices to quit. I have spoken to many tenants throughout the country who have asked me to convey this to the Minister, and I urge him to examine it.
It is also disappointing that the Bill does not deal with the 8% rent increases that were always possible under the original rent pressure zone legislation but are particularly relevant now because many landlords will not have increased last year, for a variety of reasons. Moreover, tenants, particularly since the ban on evictions was lifted on 27 April, are being hit with two years' rent increases rolled into one. An increase of 4% a year is bad enough but 8% is unconscionable, and I thought this would have been the time to do that. Again, I urge the Minister to support, or at least consider, the amendments I have tabled to achieve that.
Sinn Féin will not oppose the Bill. We support all its provisions, although we are disappointed by the limited nature of the Covid-19 protections. The broader point has to be made that there remains a crisis in the private rented sector. Rents are still much too high for far too many renters. There have been very dramatic rent increases in recent months outside of Dublin and in areas that traditionally had lower levels of rent. Therefore, not only does Sinn Féin strongly believe that for Covid-19 reasons there should be a ban on evictions and notices to quit until the end of the year for all tenants other than those breaching contract and wilfully not paying rent when they are able to do so, we still believe there is a need for an emergency three-year ban on rent increases. Renters simply cannot take any more.
We also need to find a way of reducing rents. We have found that the simplest and quickest way to do that is through a refundable tax credit worth one month's rent.
This was something which was supported by Fianna Fáil, albeit in a more limited form, during last year's general election campaign. We urge the Minister to revisit that in the context of budget 2022 in October. We also need to see an urgent move to tenancies of indefinite duration. I appeal to the Minister, when he brings forward his legislation in the autumn, to introduce real tenancies of indefinite duration. That would mean ending the six-year cut-off point for Part 4 tenancies and, crucially, removing most grounds currently contained in section 34 of the Residential Tenancies Act, so that the only grounds upon which a tenant could be served a notice to quit would be for breach of contract, non-payment of rent, damage of property or anti-social behaviour, etc. All of the other section 34 grounds - sale of property, use by landlord, use by family member - have no place in a modern rental system and must be phased out.
I appeal to the Minister to do far more in terms of the level of investment in genuinely affordable cost-rental accommodation. A few hundred units per year will not cut it. We need to see thousands and thousands of genuinely affordable cost-rental units delivered annually by local authorities, approved housing bodies and others, each year starting from next year. While the cost-rental equity loan is welcome, it is far too small. The 390 units it will provide this year and next year are welcome, but the scheme is too limited. We need much more ambition. I look forward to what the Minister has to say on that come budget day.
There is no doubt that the lives of our student population have been upended because of the pandemic. I do not need to tell the Minister that. However, people in third level institutions have adapted to the changed environment and course work has been completed online. The third level experience is both an academic learning experience and a social development opportunity for our young people. Unfortunately, over the last three years they have been deprived of the social learning experiences which the campus site has to offer. For many students, it is their first time living away from home, having to pay bills and making individual choices on their future.
In Limerick, the city is not the same without the students and we look forward to welcoming them back as soon as we can. People come from far and wide to attend the third level institutions in Limerick, of which we have many. They are very good quality institutions. Students are mainly renters and to date they have been treated differently from other renters. They have been forced to pay deposits far higher than the amount a non-student renter pays. If such a student needs to leave the rental accommodation within the notice period, the penalties are restrictive. The Bill is welcome in so far as it sets out that the practices of charging excessive deposits and imposing long notice periods will end. The deposits and upfront payments applied to student renters were always excessive, but the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the economic challenges they and their parents face. Many of these students come from families who have been dependent on the PUP or temporary wage subsidy scheme for the last year. While State support was, and is, very welcome, it is not enough to allow for the running of a family home or to meet the demands of upfront rent payments and deposits on students and their families. Students deserve much more. They deserve to be treated similarly to other renters and this Bill goes some way towards addressing that issue. The inclusion of the proposed new section 19B is very welcome. It provides that renters will no longer be required to pay an advance payment that is in excess of the amount of rent payable for a period of one month under the tenancy agreement, with a similar provision for the payment of a deposit. The inclusion of this section will put all potential renters on a similar footing and will alleviate some of the economic challenges faced by parents in sending a son or daughter to third level education. This will go some way in alleviating some of the pressures renters face, but more needs to be done.
The simple fact of the matter is that rents, in general, are far too high. The rental system is broken and rents are far too high for many of those in need of accommodation. Earlier, I referred to the third level institutions in Limerick, one of which is the University of Limerick, located in the Castletroy area of the city. As we know now, during the third level off season, we have seen a decrease in rental prices in the area but they are still very high. A quick glance at daft.ieshows that a two-bedroom house in Cois Ghrúda, Castletroy, is €1,300 per month. This seems to be the standard cost of rent in Limerick with a two-bedroom house in Dooradoyle, on the other side of the city, costing the same amount. Having to pay this type of rent is extremely difficult for anyone, but particularly for a single person who is paying rent while saving for a house. While the amendment to the 2004 Act is welcome, more needs to be done to support people in rental accommodation. A plan is needed to reduce rent, to protect renters and to provide a pathway towards ending the crisis in the private rental sector. Without this, we will be perpetuating the rental crisis and condemning families to homelessness. Housing must be affordable, but for many renters and perspective buyers it is not. In Limerick, we see the cruel situation of many people who are caught in the middle and are shut out. They cannot avail of social housing because they earn just above the income threshold limit, and they cannot get a mortgage. Even if they can, it is for an amount that is far less than the actual cost of homes in the city.
In Limerick, we have more than 2,000 people on the housing waiting list. We have generations of the same family living in the same house, often small terrace houses, with few prospects of moving. The situation has to change. It is not fair on the younger generations who need independence of living outside the family home, and it is not fair on their parents. Rent is 44% higher than it was in 2016. In Limerick, there was a 6.3% increase in rent prices from the fourth quarter of 2019 to the same quarter of 2020. While I welcome and support this Bill, there remains much more to do. If we are to deliver for a generation of renters, we must deliver social and affordable housing - housing that is truly affordable. We must give this generation the hope that they can aspire to own their own home. We need the Minister to step up. We need further action in the area of the rental market and we must see the delivery of affordable and social housing.
In their efforts to obtain a home, the odds are stacked against generation rent. For many people, the challenge is even greater. A single person who wants to buy a house can forget about it. A single parent who wants to purchase a house sees hopeless ambition. Indeed, couples with two incomes and no dependants struggle to get a foothold on the property ladder. Today is a good step for some renters but so much more needs to be done if we are to rescue a generation from the pressures of the housing crisis.
I will share my time with Deputy Conway-Walsh. I will begin by saying that those of us in Sinn Féin will support this Bill. The latest Residential Tenancies Board report has shown that 1,100 notices to quit were issued despite a ban being in place. Sinn Féin has repeatedly called on the Minister to ban evictions and to halt rent increases. Rents are crippling people and they are robbing the majority of renters of their income. Rents in north Dublin city now average €2,000 per month. That is more than €450 per week, a shocking amount to place on anyone.
The first quarter of this year saw the largest increase in rents across the State since 2018. The Minister has stood over this rental crisis and has done very little to address it. Rents are out of control. Before I came into the Chamber, I looked on daft.ieand there were six properties to rent in Dublin 17, five of which were two-bedroom apartments seeking rent of between €1,500 and €1,800. I think the Minister will agree with me that they are eye-watering amounts. How are young families or workers expected to afford these rental prices while they are trying to save for a home of their own, or trying to put food on the table or clothes on their backs? Rents need to be going down, not up. I cannot stress enough that we need more action from the Minister. Rents need to be frozen and brought down, and we need to put a halt on evictions. I hope this Bill gives families, workers and students some sort of breathing space because God knows they need it.
The ever-increasing cost of rent creates an insurmountable financial barrier for many students. That is becoming increasingly obvious. In my constituency, there was a discussion on Midwest Radio today with students who are thinking about renting and doing up camper vans to allow them to go to the college of their choice. That is just plain wrong.
The Minister spoke about available payments and supports, such as the PUP, but the fact is that for the student population those supports will not be there from September. Will he ask the Minister, Deputy Harris, to intervene because he seems to be turning a deaf ear to this? Every time I ask him about fairness in regard to PUP payments for students, he pretends not to hear me. Many students are excluded from the Student Universal Support Ireland grant just because they availed of the PUP. That is having a knock-on effect on accommodation and what students can afford. I welcome the fact that the Government is acting on the Union of Students in Ireland Bill that was brought forward by Sinn Féin. I welcome it in terms of the 28-day notice and two months' rent provisions.
That will not do anything to retrospectively compensate the thousands of students across the country who were robbed last year. I share my colleague's concerns around the informal pressure that can be put on students and we need to be mindful of that. Will the Minister give consideration to that?
It is the Minister's responsibility to provide affordable accommodation and over a ten-year period where colleges were starved of funding, Fine Gael provided €87 million in public funds to private student accommodation in the form of tax breaks. Yet we see students forced out of colleges because they cannot afford the rent. Millions of euro in public money has been pumped into landlords, yet we do not have affordable accommodation.
Something has to be done about it and the Minister knows the solutions in terms of universities being able to access sustainable loans from the European Investment Bank, the Irish Strategic Investment Fund, the Council of Europe Development Bank and others. To avail of this finance and to cover repayments during the building phase, colleges need adequate core and capital funding budgets.
It is within the gift of the Government to sort out student accommodation. I plead with the Minister to do so. I welcome the Bill but much more needs to be done.
We in the Labour Party have through the course of the pandemic always said we will work constructively with the Government to do whatever we can to get our society across a number of sectors, including the rental sector, through it. The rental sector was in crisis before the pandemic and that has been in some ways suspended and in others compounded by the pandemic.
We will support the Bill, although we feel elements of it could have been improved. We ask the Minister to look at that on Report Stage, although I imagine that is unlikely. The protections required need to look beyond this summer and take a longer term view. Our legislation needs to be robust enough and take a sufficiently long view of the reality that the rental crisis will explode once this pandemic lifts. The protection of renters and banning of evictions are key to tackling the homeless crisis and everything we have experienced, cumulatively building up over the last decade. Maintaining the eviction ban when it worked at the beginning of the pandemic was a good thing. However, this Bill does not propose that. The original protections have been diminished and stripped away, which is difficult to stand over. While Government spin is that it is taking drastic action to safeguard renters during a pandemic, it has done the bare minimum every time. Each successive Bill it places before the Dáil further erodes the protections put in place.
The pandemic has not only affected the rental sector. It has impacted on many other sectors, including construction. Whatever building was in the works to provide housing, particularly the small amount of public and social housing that was due, has been further delayed. This lag will be extended into next year. People in private residential tenancies hoping to transition - and it is a small hope - to affordable housing, local authority housing or housing through an approved housing body need to be accounted for. For the sake of simplicity and the security of renters, they should be safeguarded until at least the end of 2022, to account for the construction sector lag.
Figures from the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, showed 1,100 households that were renting were given eviction notice over the last ten months, despite the Government ban being in place. This highlights that we need a comprehensive renter strategy. What was put in place certainly did not work for 1,100 households. I, like many in opposition and, I imagine, even the Minister, have dealt with households that have received tenancy eviction notice over the last year.
Rents in Ireland have significantly increased in recent years. The statistics around that are eye-watering. Despite this, no-fault evictions are still allowed. The figures from the RTB show it is back to business as usual for landlords who choose to treat their tenants poorly. We need greater security of tenure. The figures show that for 73% of people evicted from their home in a pandemic, it was through no fault of their own. It is unfair, inhumane and points to a systemic failure to treat renters as equal citizens in our housing system.
The patchwork effort by Government over the last year has not helped renters to the degree it should have and is symptomatic of an ongoing failure to address the core problems of soaring rents and lack of security of tenure. Limiting evictions has a direct impact on people entering homelessness and it is incredible that stronger measures were not put in place.
The Government’s latest Bill to protect renters will not stop the 8% rent rises a loophole in the law will allow. The system is inherently cumbersome and complex with people self-selecting as being financially impacted, rather than the Government carrying out a thorough assessment of the state of play for renters. The numbers registering as being financially impacted are ridiculously low at 475, as this is a self-declare process. The system is cumbersome and does not give protection to the vast majority of renters impacted by this pandemic. This means the vast majority of renters, approximately 200,000, face this 8% increase. In allowing the increase, the Government shows it ultimately has little regard for renters. To call this an oversight is an understatement; it is a dereliction of duty and responsibility to those people living in rented accommodation.
In areas of Dublin where people pay, on average, €2,000 per month, the increase will work out at approximately €160 per month or €1,920 per year. These are astronomical figures. We are in danger sometimes of becoming desensitised to them because they are repeated so often in debates in this Chamber but for people on low and middle incomes, these are huge amounts of money. It impacts on bills, school clothes and books, light, heat and, ultimately, people’s ability to keep that roof over their head. It is unfeasible and unfair.
The housing system is not working for renters and we need a comprehensive strategy. The Labour Party wants to see an approach that protects renters through greater security of tenure, a short-term rent freeze and a State-led approach to building more affordable homes to address the chronic supply issues that have beset the sector for far too long.
The Government must immediately implement a rent freeze. Despite promises from the Taoiseach to close the 8% increase loophole, this Bill, as published, does not address the issue but instead extends protections for those who proactively register as financially impacted. The Government needs to intervene. There is much hand-wringing from the Minister about young people and the burden they have borne through this past year. Many young people currently pay hand over fist for box rooms or shared rooms. News they will face an 8% increase on top of these sometimes intolerable living conditions will surely make up their minds to leave this country when they can. That is what we are getting through our constituency offices and advice clinics. People are now starting to talk in greater numbers about emigration because the living costs they face are too onerous.
Dublin now accounts for almost half of all new graduate jobs but most of these graduates cannot afford to pay high Dublin rents. This is unsustainable and destroying the quality of life. It is not just graduates. What about the people going direct to work, entering through low paid roles and trying to build a career in another sector? They fall off the agenda and the map when it comes to renting and being able to afford to live.
In terms of a rent freeze, it is not the Attorney General who decides on the constitutionality of any measure; it is the Supreme Court. If there was ever a time for the Government to back renters and have someone test a Bill for the Supreme Court, it is with regard to the imposition of a rent freeze. There is no time to delay on this. We have seen the power of the State to intervene during this crisis in many ways we thought impossible. This is not impossible and has been done before. The Labour Party froze rents when we were last in government and it can be done again, if there is political will to do so. That political will is obviously absent. Rent caps need to be used until more homes are built and the housing crisis is at the point of being resolved or at least at the point where we can point to enough supply to get us where we want to be.
When I listen to Members of the Government parties talk about the balance between landlords and tenants, the market and the property rights, it is very clear they believe their responsibilities lie with the landlords. The Opposition tried twice to give the Minister the power to implement an eviction ban based on regulations and public health advice but not to have it tied to a 5 km limit. At the time, this was disregarded. There is such a significant difference in power between landlords and tenants that it is one of the key dividers in society.
The deposit protection scheme, as had been promised and legislated for previously by my colleague, Deputy Kelly, has made little or no progress in the past five years. Again, this is something the Minister could advance. According to Threshold, queries on deposits increased by 43% last year. People living in rental accommodation feel vulnerable and afraid. Deposits play a key role in terms of access and for people who are exiting in terms of having the protections of the deposit they paid a year, two years or five years previously. We need the Government to act to protect renters in a holistic fashion and not to focus solely on the costs, which is the reason we must examine deposits. We must ban the practice of landlords requesting more than a month's rent as a deposit. Agreeing a tenancy should not be a significant financial outgoing.
We must introduce minimum standards so that tenants know the place they are viewing meets a strong national standard on many elements, including fire safety and building standards. We must ensure rent and deposit savings are counted as part of credit ratings to help people, including renters, should they choose to become buyers in the housing market. We need a rent-to-buy scheme where a person with a tenancy for three years who successfully pays all his or her rent would see it turned into a deposit for the property when the time comes. We must offer something to renters and young people. At the moment we are offering them very little, expect for despair and a ticket out of this country, because that is the direction we are going.
We urged the Government to introduce a vacant home tax to bring empty housing stock into use for those who need it. People are rightly outraged at the degree to which the Government is prioritising investors over ordinary hard-working people in the midst of the housing crisis. We have so many vacant units that could be used either for first-time buyers or for renters. The situation is crippling people. The Labour Party housing spokesperson, Senator Moynihan, has called on the Government to take action to discourage the funds gobbling up the housing supply through a levy on vacant homes. These are all measures that are at the Minister's disposal.
I look forward to Report Stage when I hope we can get through some amendments in the short timeframe provided. We will support the Bill tonight, as it offers some protections, which we welcome, but overall the crisis still exists and people are still being evicted from their homes. When the pandemic ends, we believe the rug will be pulled out in such a dramatic way that what happened before the pandemic will pale in comparison to what happens after it.
This is the fifth Bill that has been introduced by the Government since it took office last summer to safeguard tenants during the pandemic. The Bill extends the protections to tenants affected by Covid-19 by a further six months until 12 January 2022. The number of people that have directly invoked this legal protection has remained small so far, but the legislation has also had a chilling effect on all landlords and, as a result, has protected tenants. The Government will continue to protect vulnerable tenants for the extent of the pandemic and those financially impacted by Covid-19 who have been protected in each of the Bills. The Bill introduces a further extension of the protections for those negatively impacted by Covid-19. The Minister has been consistently proven correct on this issue. He has listened, acted and protected tenants, despite the suggestions of those in Opposition that he would do otherwise.
The Bill also introduces rental protections for students, not just those impacted by Covid-19. This is another issue on which the Minister has listened. The Bill introduces new rental protections that will restrict the total value of upfront payments for rent, which will apply to all tenancies. I met with representatives of the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, who were very passionate and are genuinely concerned about the rental market for students. We recently saw progress on the Residential Tenancies (Student Rents and Other Protections) (Covid-19) Bill 2021, which the Government supported. I thank the USI for its engagement with all parties on this issue. We see some of its suggestions in the Bill. For example, any upfront payment upon the commencement of a tenancy will be restricted to a total value that does not exceed two months' rent, that is, a deposit and one month's rent in advance. This Bill provides that a notice period to be given by students in respect of student-specific accommodation will be limited to a maximum of 28 days. These new protections for students will be in place for the new academic year. When it comes to student tenancies, students and their families, Fianna Fáil has listened, acted and protected. That is no surprise from a Minister who stood with students from the USI and other universities on protests such as the Shanowen Shakedown.
The Programme for Government, Our Shared Future, commits to improve the security of tenure for tenants, through legislating for tenancies of indefinite duration, increasing enforcement by the Residential Tenancies Board and examining incentives for long-term leasing. This is only the start. I look forward to the additional rental protections the Minister has said he will introduce later in the year to further protect tenants.
I wish to respond to the Opposition speakers who spoke this morning. There are two areas where they are either deliberately attempting to mislead or are not communicating correctly. One is the notion that the Minister could do more, while at the same time they advocate for a change in the Constitution, which would balance property rights with the right to housing. It is one or the other: either we need a referendum for good reason or we do not need it and the Minister should be doing what he can now. It is disingenuous to criticise the Minister for not having further extensions and, by the same token, saying we need a change in the Constitution. I agree with amending the Constitution to include a right to housing, but we cannot pretend that need is not there when we are criticising the Minister.
I heard a number of Deputies with their pre-prepared Facebook scripts pretending that the one Minister has been in place for ten years and that he has done nothing for the past ten months. Of course the rental crisis is dire; it is one of the principal issues all of us heard on the doorsteps at the last general election. Rents in Dublin and many other places are unaffordable. It is the reason many parties sough to form a Government to try to ensure we could do something about it. It is the reason the Minister has introduced five Bills on this issue, two further Bills on the Land Development Agency and the Affordable Housing Bill. It is the reason that for the first time in the history of the State we have an affordable rental scheme. To say the Minister has done nothing and stood over what happened in the past ten years is blatant hypocrisy. It is a direct attempt to mislead people who might only tune in on one Facebook account for one contribution. There is a deliberate attempt by Fianna Fáil, the Green Party and Fine Gael to tackle the housing crisis, to change direction, to put in place protections for tenants and new forms of tenancies, such as the affordable rental scheme, to increase supply, to end the housing crisis. I agree with the Opposition that we should keep raising the problems that exist because that is what will keep motivating us, but we must recognise that a policy change has been made, that we have a Minister who is implementing that policy and that the majority of Deputies in the Dáil support the Government and support those changes.
Figures released to my colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, by the Residential Tenancies Board highlight how this Government is continuing to fail renters. Since August, more than 1,000 notices to quit have been issued with a significant increase in the numbers since March. The Government has failed to protect renters. The limited protections in place are just not working. The 2016 rent pressure zone legislation, which was supposed to limit rent increases to 4% per annum, has had the opposite effect.
Instead of being a deterrent to increasing rents, it is now an annual increase that is imposed on renters. I talk to renters in Clondalkin and Lucan, and right across Dublin Mid-West, who dread the annual 4% rent increase that drops in their door.
A quick look atdaft.iethis morning reaffirmed what I already knew. In my own area, for example, the average rent for a three-bed property in Lucan is €2,000 per month or higher. I will put this into the context of an annual 4% increase in rent. If a person is lucky enough to get a property for €2,000 a month in year one, in year two the rent increases to €2,080, in year three it increases to €2,163, in year four it increases to €2,250 and in year five the rent is €2,340. Therefore, in the space of five years, the rent has increased by €340 and a home that costs €2,000 per month to rent today will cost workers and families €2,340 in five years' time. That is a whopping 17% increase. It is not sustainable and is pushing workers and families who are already pinned to their collar into poverty and into homelessness. Some €340 in anyone’s language is a huge increase in a family’s outgoings.
When does this stop? When is enough enough? I have had several families contact me who are very worried about a potential 8% increase in rents this year. Inflated rents and lack of affordability is a failure not just of this Government but of successive Governments, and Deputy McAuliffe agreed his party propped up the Government in recent years. There needs to be a shift in Government policy that puts families and workers at the heart of housing policies, not sweetheart deals for vulture funds. The Minister needs to step up to the plate and put these measures in place. The Government needs to reintroduce the original ban on rent increases, notices to quit and evictions until the end of the year, which would address the potential 8% increase in rents this year.
I am the spokesperson on mental health for my party. I believe that if the Government tackled the housing situation, that would have the biggest impact on people's mental health right across this State.
The Social Democrats support this Bill. We would like to see much stronger legislation but we will, nonetheless, support it. I want to strongly welcome the measures in the Bill which will provide some protection for all tenants as a result of the campaign run by the Union of Students in Ireland - Aontas na Mac Léinn in Éirinn and following the Private Members’ Bill that was put forward by the Opposition, which the Minister has worked constructively on and acted on. I thank the Union of Students in Ireland - Aontas na Mac Léinn in Éirinn for its work on that and thank the Minister for his work in responding to that.
The Minister has listened and acted on that, and I hope he will listen and act on other measures that are needed as well, very specifically and pertinently the 8% rent increase that a number of tenants are facing now. We were told a few weeks ago that this would be dealt with shortly and I certainly had the impression it would be dealt with under this Bill, so it is disappointing it is not being brought forward at this point. While I know the Minister intends to address it in the autumn, I think it needs to be acted on urgently at this point.
On the Bill, I will be bringing forward amendments to ensure there is a legal definition of what a deposit is, which is missing from the Bill. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on that.
In terms of the limited protections, which involve making a self-declaration, they need to be extended further and they need to recognise there is a fall in income for many due to Covid. That fall in income will take time to recover in some sectors and will take longer, unfortunately, than 12 January for some. A number of people have gone into debt during the pandemic and it will take time for their incomes to recover, and that should be recognised in the Bill.
While I understand the rationale for the opt-out in the Bill in terms of bundles that are sold to international students for accommodation and college fees during the year, I have concerns that, because it is a general opt-out, this could be exploited. I appreciate there is an intention to correct that in the autumn. However, that opt-out is currently too broad and should be removed from the Bill at this stage. I will have amendments to that effect.
Blindboy recently commented on how striking it is that so many young adults in Ireland today are paying substantial mortgages each month, not their own mortgage, but that of their landlord. He noted that at the end of this process, they will not own any property and they are unable to obtain a mortgage of their own due to spending the bulk of their income on rent. We know that housing utility costs here are 78% higher than the EU average, that rents have almost doubled in the last decade and that more than 8,000 people are living in emergency accommodation, many of whom lost their home due to rents they cannot afford. We know that, since 2014, 38,000 people have become homeless and ended up living in emergency accommodation, most of whom had their last stable home in the private rented sector. During this time, the State has spent €1 billion on services for people experiencing homelessness.
Deputy McAuliffe is right to point out that that is not this Minister's sole responsibility, far from it, and it is not this Government's sole responsibility, far from it. Each Government and the entire political system has responsibility in this regard. Trying to pin responsibility onto particular individuals may make for point-scoring but it is not the approach that any of us should be taking. This is far too serious for that. What we all need to do is examine what needs to be done to fix this. If the Minister takes further action, I will fully support that.
What has happened on the Minister’s watch is that, in the last ten months, more than 1,100 households have been given eviction notices and only 475 people were able to avail of the complex and limited protections the Government brought in by making self-declarations. While they have had a value, it was not a sufficient value.
Research has just been conducted and published by Dr. Michael Byrne of UCD and Ms Juliana Sassi of Maynooth University on the experience of tenants in the private rented sector during the pandemic. One of the things they found is that the blanket eviction ban had only a limited impact on tenants’ perceptions of security within their home. The research found that overcrowding and poor quality housing conditions in the private rented sector were key issues for tenants during the pandemic, having impacts on their mental health and their physical well-being. A particularly good part of the research is that it gives voice to tenants and their experiences during the pandemic, when many of them were at home more, and when conditions in their rented accommodation had an increased bearing on them because they were not out and about as much, in work or in the other aspects of life.
I want to quote a few of the tenants in this research because it is particularly relevant to what we are discussing. Tenants were asked if they would describe their current property as feeling like home. One tenant replied:
Probably not, I can’t actually paint the wall and decorate, to make it more homely... Even though I have been here for 10 years, at this stage, there isn’t any decoration that I have put in there, if you know what I mean. At one stage we had to replace the carpet, I didn’t get to choose the colour or anything. It’s not my taste.
Another tenant said:
It doesn’t feel like a home, and in the back of my head I’d always like to have a home where, you know, you could paint your own walls and you can feel more relaxed in, and you can do things to. And I guess it’s always in the back of your head with rentals, especially if the landlord is very... Like [my current] landlord has a 20 page itinerary of things you can and cannot do. You can’t even hang pictures on the wall... It has affected more negatively the way I would feel about my home.
Another tenant said:
I don’t actually ever feel secure in a rental property because nine times out of ten they’ll be sold, or something will happen. So there’s no security of tenure in Ireland anyway for most renters, and that’s one of the really horrible things about it. You can’t make somewhere your home, when you know it’s never going to be. You know the lease here, there’s a stipulation in the lease that says you can’t even hang a picture, so it’s very hard to make somewhere home when you can’t even hang a ... picture.
We need security of tenure for people who are renting. We need to remove the constant worry and threat of eviction for people who are good tenants who are paying their rent. Tenants need to be able to hang a picture, paint their walls, and make themselves feel at home where they live without fear of eviction. In 2021, it is not too much for tenants to ask for measures to make them feel at home where they are working hard and paying their rent.
Another tenant stated:
I’ve learned not to think of anywhere as home... I tend not to get attached to places... it’s not worth the heartache. I don’t ever feel secure in a rental property... you can’t make somewhere your home...’.
It’s funny that. It’s my home, I’ve been there fifteen years, he’s a great landlord, but you’re never secure
Underneath it all I’d feel uncomfortable because I am renting, at any moment the landlord could turn around and sell... There’s no security renting in Ireland
It took me two years to put a flower pot outside because I had this weird thought in my head, if I start to make it look like a home then something bad would happen
‘no, “don’t improve it”, because you will be gone soon
It’s your home, but it’s not your home. Its where you live and you try and keep it nice, but at the same time you’re not going to invest a lot of money in it, like sometimes if you’re getting something for the garden you think, am I wasting my money here?
I don’t feel comfortable inviting people over, because I know the paint is coming off the walls, there’s mould in the bathroom.. It is embarrassing to invite people over to a place, when there are obvious maintenance issues.
They are all people living in our rented sector. They are all good tenants, paying their rent and contributing to society. Some have been in their rented properties for years, yet the underlying message from many is that they still do not feel that these are their homes despite all the contributions they are making. That is why we need the Government to urgently legislate for the private rented sector to improve security of tenure and indefinite tenancies. It is positive that the Government is indicating that will be done soon. It is regrettable, however, that it is not in this Bill at this point.
Since the eviction ban was lifted and widespread evictions have resumed, there has been a rise in the number of children and families living in emergency accommodation. That shows that the single most effective measure to protect against homelessness introduced in many years was the ban on evictions. It is crystal clear that the Government should seek to radically reduce the grounds for eviction, allowing evictions to happen only where there is failure to pay rent or anti-social behaviour, and that most other grounds should be removed urgently. We need to make sure there is a ban on rent increases for the next few years and that in the future, rent increases are strictly limited to increases in the consumer price index or a similar measure.
We support this Bill. I welcome that the Minister has acted on some of what students raised. We have much further to go and we need to do so urgently to ensure people who rent in Ireland feel secure in their homes and have the peace of mind that people who are renting in other countries have. When we achieve that, which must be done urgently, we will have taken significant measures to address the housing issues which face people in this country.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Government acted quickly to protect renters by introducing emergency legislation that froze rents and temporarily banned evictions. In March, we extended this temporary legislation to ensure those who had lost their income due to Covid-19 and who needed the protection and support of the legislation would continue to receive it. Three months ago, when I spoke in this House about the last extension to this legislation, I noted that unfortunately we were still in a difficult and delicate position with Covid-19. I am relieved that we now see light at the end of the tunnel. Thanks to the success of the vaccine roll-out and the admirable commitment of the public we are making progress that just three months ago felt out of our grasp.
Despite this progress, renters who have been negatively impacted by the pandemic still need our support. They still need the reassurance of these emergency measures. Young families and working professionals in their 20s and 30s make up a large proportion of our renting population. They have been hit hard by this pandemic and the uncertainty of being a renter adds to their hardship. I am keenly aware of the difficulties facing renters and I know it is one of the most significant areas of concern for my generation. That is why I firmly believe we must turn our attention to beyond the pandemic, to ensure that protections are in place to support renters in the future.
In the long term, a key commitment of the programme for Government is the provision of housing for all and part of this commitment includes the delivery of Ireland's first cost-rental homes. This initiative will provide Irish renters with the security of long-term, affordable and, most importantly, secure leases. This is an initiative I will continue to champion through my work on the Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, which I know is dear to the Minister's heart.
In the short term, we must continue to protect renters however we can to ensure those who have lost their jobs or incomes will not lose their homes too. This Bill extends the emergency period in the legislation to 12 January 2022. It will protect renters who have lost their incomes due to Covid-19 from being evicted from their homes until then. The Bill will introduce new measures to ensure the deposit or advance payment a tenant must pay to a landlord will be limited to two months' rent. I welcome that in extending the legislation, this Bill will provide for students who live in student-specific accommodation. They will be covered by the new deposit measure and will not have to give more than 28 days’ notice when terminating a tenancy.
The last year has been extremely challenging for renters, especially those who have lost their jobs or incomes. I am proud this Government continues to act to protect vulnerable renters and it is right that we continue to do this until the pandemic is behind us. It is my sincere hope and expectation that we will continue to support renters long after this pandemic is over and work to create a stable rental market with conditions that make long-term rental a viable, affordable, and attractive option for families and young people who feel trapped in the rental market.
The Government is committed to fixing the housing crisis and to ending the rip-off rental market. If that is the shared ambition of politicians across this Chamber, let us work together to achieve that. We should not have opposition for opposition's sake. We should have meaningful collaboration because that is what the people who elected us deserve.
The first issue I want to raise related to tenancies and tenants relates specifically to the pandemic. I found this out in the past few minutes and would like the Minister to do something about it urgently. Somebody who I know personally has just found himself homeless. He lives in Dún Laoghaire. He has been told that the only accommodation available is to share with five other people in Frederick Street North. This person has a chronic respiratory condition, very bad asthma, and is extremely vulnerable. I will not mention his name. We rang the council and said that it is unacceptable for somebody who is medically vulnerable to be put with five other people. I was informed by the council that the cocooning regime put in place during the height of the pandemic has been phased out. If the Minister is saying that is not the case-----
I would really appreciate it that the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council or whoever needs to be contacted, is contacted as a matter of urgency and told that a cocooning place must be made available for such people. They cannot be put somewhere where their health will be put at risk. They are not vaccinated yet and so on. They got a doctor's letter today confirming all of this. It really would be unacceptable if that were the case. That is my first point.
We will, of course, support the Residential Tenancies (No. 2) Bill 2021. Insofar as it extends a small amount of protection to a very small cohort of people who self-declared that their income loss as a result of the pandemic has affected their ability to pay rent and that the protection against eviction and rent increases has been extended, of course we will support that. Similarly, we support the measures the Government has taken to put into legislation what USI has campaigned for on students having to pay only one month's deposit and so on. I welcome those developments and therefore we support the Bill. We are more than willing to say that, when the Government is doing something progressive.
However, it is not opposition for the sake of opposition to say this. I will not use one of the most tired clichés that we hear in this place about missed opportunities. It is almost criminal neglect that Residential Tenancies (No. 2) Bill 2021 is not doing more to protect all tenants - not just a tiny cohort of a few hundred - against unfair evictions or no-fault evictions.
Figures from TCD and Focus Point in the last week or two indicated that 38,000 people in this country have been through homeless services since 2014, which is estimated to be 1% of the adult population. I have a personal friend in that situation. I have repeatedly raised with the Minister an entire block of tenants in St. Helen's Court in Dún Laoghaire who are facing that. These are working people who have done nothing wrong. They pay their rent and are good tenants. It is a lovely community with elderly people, new communities and working people like taxi drivers who have had their income affected but will not qualify for the protection of this Bill. They pay their rent anyway because they do not like being in arrears of their rent. They are going to be put out on the street. I have been pleading with the Minister and with officials in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council to prevent this from happening. I repeatedly hear the Taoiseach say that the Government wants to prevent people from going into homelessness. Most of the people who are faced with homelessness are being evicted from the private rental sector and most of them have done absolutely nothing wrong, but there is no protection for them.
We have pleaded with the Minister and I plead with him again. We have proposed amendments to the Bill to this effect. We should extend the protection for all tenants against no-fault evictions at least until the pandemic has fully passed. We also need to use the interim to stop no-fault evictions altogether. Why should people who pay their rent be evicted? The Minister frequently mentions the "mom and pop" landlords and that they can be treated as an exception, but not the default position. We have legislation where the default position is that it is acceptable to evict people who have done nothing wrong.
The default position should be that they should not be evicted unless there are exceptional circumstances which justify the kind of individual landlord the Minister is talking about having an urgent financial or other need to sell. Other than that, landlords should not be allowed to evict tenants when they have nowhere else to go. It is just not fair for 1% of the adult population to be going through homeless services with all that entails. We cannot allow this situation to persist. It is brutal and inhumane.
It is equally unacceptable for the tenants who in my area are paying €2,000, €2,500 or €3,000 for two-bedroom apartments. Those who are single can forget it. Many of the people in St. Helen's Court are single. They are paying €800 or €900 in rent which is a lot for people on a moderate income. When they go looking for somewhere else in Dún Laoghaire, they will not get anything for less than €2,000 for a one-bedroom apartment. They will end up on the street. The local authority says, "Sorry, we have nothing for them." Will they be sent into North Frederick Street in a few weeks' time? These are ordinary decent working people. It is not right. These people are vulnerable with health conditions and other things.
I plead with the Minister to do something now - not carry out a review, but do something now - to protect tenants from an 8% increase in rent on top of the €2,000 or more they are already paying. These people have a real terror that they might be made homeless and they need to be protected. The wheeled-out justification of saying, "What about the mom and pop landlord?" pales into insignificance compared with people being put on the street. That is not opposition for opposition's sake. I am saying those things because I meet those people who are crying and shivering with fear wondering what on earth they are going to do. It is just not right.
We have tabled amendments to the Bill. We will support the Bill. Given that the Bill is to be guillotined in any event, I do not expect that the Minister will accept them, although he should. However, when is he going to protect these tenants? We are talking about tens of thousands of people who are in constant fear. These people have been working all their lives but their income is insufficient to pay the unaffordable house prices and they have been on a local authority housing list for 15 or 20 years. The average waiting time in my area for council housing is now in excess of 20 years which is unbelievable. They have nowhere to go if they are evicted.
I know the Minister will say this is not all his fault, which fair enough as he is a new Minister. However, in my view it is his fault if he does not do this. While this unacceptable situation, which is the legacy of successive governments, pertains, if we want to stem the flow of people into homelessness, the first thing is to say that we must not put people out on the street. We must not allow a further increase in rents on top of already unsustainable rents. The Government should immediately bring in long-term protections for people against no-fault evictions and introduce real rent controls.
In other jurisdictions across Europe people regularly control rents; they do not just stop rent increases. A rents board or a local authority determines a maximum rent for a particular property. Will the Minister not introduce those kinds of rent controls? He may say he cannot because of the Constitution. Even though I am not sure that is true, we have introduced a right-to-housing Bill that seeks to address that and the Government could fast-track that Bill so that we can have the real rent controls we urgently need.
I start by quoting from James Geoghegan, the Fine Gael by-election candidate in Dublin Bay South. On 28 May he released a press statement which stated, "I am alarmed by the revelation today that tenants in the rental accommodation sector could potentially face a double rent increase of 8% when measures providing for a temporary ban on evictions and a rent freeze that were implemented during Covid-19 are due to end in July." Of course, he did not mention that his Government is responsible for the legal situation where the 8% increase is proposed. He also did not mention that the revelation came from People Before Profit.
He said: "However, the Minister must resolve this loophole as a matter of urgency and ensure that renters do not face a double increase when the emergency legislation is lifted in July,". The Minister has not resolved this situation. He has resolved the situation for 500 of the hundreds of thousands of private rented tenants in this country. Those 500 renters will be able to avoid the 8% increase now, but they face a rent increase of up to 12% next January. The remaining hundreds of thousands of people may continue to face an 8% rent increase and the Government and the Minister are doing nothing about it. One month ago, I raised this matter with the Taoiseach on Leaders' Question, when I gave a number of real world examples, including Jane who lives in an ordinary house in Tallaght whose rent is set to increase by €160, an almost 8% increase, to more than €2,000 per month, Philip in Islandbridge who faces an more than €100 increase per month, an increase of 7.7% and Samantha in Dún Laoghaire who is facing a 10% increase. In response, during Leaders' Questions, the Taoiseach said:
He [referring to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, who has not left the House] is going to bring in legislation quickly to deal with the 8% increase with regard to those who are most vulnerable and most at risk. He will respond in that manner.
Again, the Taoiseach and the Government have not delivered on what they committed to do. Under pressure, they accepted that there is a crisis and we had a Fine Gael by-election candidate all of a sudden expressing concern about the treatment of renters. We then had the Government saying it will do something about it, but what it has done is a pretence in that it affects only 500 people. The Government is leaving renters at the mercy of landlords who are only interested in maximising their returns. The result will be an increasing tsunami of homelessness from now until the end of the year. That is very much definitely on the Government.
Why does the Government act in such a way? It is no accident. It is because in this State we have government by landlord for landlords. One in three Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil Deputies are landlords and those who are not landlords nonetheless represent the landlord class in this country effectively. The policies are always designed to incentivise their investment in the sector, to maximise their return and to provide for landlords to impose an 8% increase in rent, or 12% next year, guaranteeing them increases of 4% year-on-year. If an increase is deferred in any particular year, it can be added to the increase for the following year. We have pro-landlord policies consistently. When the Opposition calls for a rent freeze, or better than a rent freeze, rent controls, to bring rents down to affordable levels, the Government says it cannot do that because it is unconstitutional. We need to kick this Government out. Those who are lucky enough to be in the Dublin Bay South constituency should take the opportunity to vote for the renters' candidate, the People Before Profit candidate, Brigid Purcell, and in so doing send a signal to Sinn Féin and others that we do not want any parties that are going to bring Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael into power through the back door in a coalition. We need a left wing government that will stand up to the big corporate landlords and the developers and take the side of ordinary working-class people and renters.
I first want to congratulate all of the students across the country who challenged the refusal of landlords, in the main corporate landlords, to refund the large rents paid by them last year before Covid hit and they had to up sticks and go home. This includes students from University College Cork who highlighted the particularly scandalous situation at Amnis House on the Western Road where a corporate landlord was refusing to return four-figure sums that students had paid for their year's accommodation. If it were not for the campaigning efforts of those students, the student unions and the Union of Students in Ireland, we would not be discussing the legislative change about to be passed by this House, which provides that two months is the maximum amount a renter can be asked to pay upfront. I welcome that change and I again congratulate the students who campaigned for it.
We need to reinstate the ban on all rent increases and evictions. The limited protections being proposed by Government will not work. There were 448 rent arrears warnings issued to tenants across the State, of which the RTB is aware. Twenty of those tenants availed of the protections offered by the Government. When one steps back and looks at the position for the past ten months, during that time 3,800 rent warnings were issued and 475 tenants were able to avail of the protections. Within that 3,800, there were 1,100 eviction notices - notices to quit - and 475 tenants, less than half, were able to avail of the protections.
I want to talk briefly about the situation that pertains in Cork city. My office is receiving reports of landlords in Cork city who are trying to impose the 8% rent increase on tenants this year. They were not able to impose the maximum 4% rent increase last year because of the ban on rent increases, but now that the Government is lifting that ban in respect of some renters, landlords are trying to impose the double-whammy increase of 8%. For example, this morning I was made aware of a landlord in the Blackpool area who is trying to impose the 8% rent increase on tenants there. I would like to make three points about this. First, landlords trying to get away with an 8% increase before we are fully out of a pandemic speaks to unbelievable greed. Second, I appeal to all tenants in such a situation to make a declaration to try to avoid the rent increases that are being piled on them. Third, the Government has to take responsibility for having allowed this situation to develop. It needs to take heed of the points that I and other Deputies have raised and strengthen this legislation such that it provides not for a limited ban but a 100% ban on all rent increases and evictions. That is what is needed. It is what this situation calls for and it is what should be done.
We are discussing relevant and potential legislation. The housing crisis is an area of particular concern for Sinn Féin and so we are happy to see motions and Bills proposing solutions before this Chamber.
The average rent across this country is €1,256 per month. Rent in Dublin is, on average, €1,745 per month, but in many parts of Dublin rents are more than €2,000 per month. Across the country rents have risen by 2.7% over the past year. In the commuter belt, there has been an increase of 5%. In my constituency of Clare, those figures are above the average. There has been a year-on-year increase of 2.9%, but more concerning an increase of 5.9% between the third and fourth quarter of 2020. With more people relocating to County Clare through remote working initiatives, the area has seen a sharp spike in rents. This inflation is unsustainable and will ultimately lead to locals not being able to afford to live in their locality. In Clare, approximately 70 people are registered as homeless, but beyond first glance one realises that the figure is much higher. For example, there are young disabled people living in nursing homes who do not feature in the homeless statistics and Travellers who have been consistently refused transfers to more adequate accommodation who also do not feature in the official numbers.
The National Homelessness and Housing Coalition estimates that more than 50% of homeless people in Clare are Travellers. While Travellers represent only 1% of the overall population, their representation in these figures is disproportionate, which is unjust. According to the programme for Government, asylum seekers living in direct provision deserve accommodation that aligns with an own-door policy. These too do not appear in homelessness figures. The total number of hidden homeless is far greater than we are told and, by and large, comprises people from marginalised communities. This means that the housing crisis to which we refer is only the tip of the iceberg. The scale of the crisis is far greater than is depicted in the mainstream narrative.
My party has been raising issues and, more importantly, solutions in these Chambers for a very long time. Just last month, we tabled a motion proposing legislation that would implement an emergency three-year ban on rent increases and that would allow for tenancies of indefinite duration. We would also introduce a refundable tax credit for tenants in the private rented sector to put a month's rent back in every renter's pocket and ensure that all rental properties are compliant with minimum standards by introducing a national car test-style certification system. However, the political will needed to take concrete affirmative action to address the rental crisis simply is not there. This Government has no plans to reduce rents, to protect renters from further rent hikes or to prioritise the supply of affordable rental properties. This Bill is a movement in the right direction but falls short of the radical change needed to genuinely improve the system. Although I will support it, I call for all tenants to be included in the emergency period for the rest of this year. The provisions of this Bill are generally totally sensible. They include prohibiting upfront payments for student accommodation and the introducing a standard of one month's notice for termination of residency for students.
I am glad to speak on this Bill. It has many good elements but we all know what the real issue is with rental properties. For the first time in the history of the State, 80% of serviced zoned lands in Wexford and many other rural constituencies are to be effectively dezoned. It makes no sense. It will drive up the price of land, increase the cost of housing and magnify the current housing crisis in rural towns.
Extraordinarily, the first thing planners will say is that commercial considerations are not planning considerations. The inability of our directors of planning and planners to comprehend the most basic first principle of planning law and planning policy means that they, in turn, are unable to properly advise council members as to the best approach for their counties. This was my experience in Wexford. I recently listened to the director of services for planning in Wexford being interviewed on local radio and he confirmed that he is bound by the recommendations of the Planning Regulator. He believes that the regulator is best placed to advise on policy for Wexford. As we all know, the regulator has no such power nor is this his role. In another radio interview, one Fianna Fáil councillor said that he would have to seek permission from the regulator to make amendments to the draft development plan. Directors of services for planning are paid a six-figure salary that is commensurate with that of a specialist in the area. Occupiers of that position should be possessed of knowledge sufficient to properly advise councillors. Regrettably, this is not the case in Wexford.
It is extremely worrying that councillors genuinely believe that the Planning Regulator has the power to countermand any decision of the local authority. To be clear, eminent planning counsel, speaking on the respective roles of the local authority and the regulator, have said that the Office of the Planning Regulator, OPR, is not given statutory authority to make or give binding interpretations of statutes, guidelines, regulations or specific planning policy requirements, SPPRs. While the OPR may have its own view on the meaning of such measures, individual planning authorities retain the right and duty to form their own bona fide views on the proper interpretation of such measures and to act accordingly, within the law.
There is a serious problem in the system. After a number of sustained exchanges between myself and others in the Dáil and elsewhere and the Minister on this matter, the Minister, in fairness, did write to the local authorities on 23 April 2021 amending his guidelines with respect to densities. Despite this correspondence, local authorities have failed, and are failing, to advise members that they can adopt any density they want. What is the point of having a director of services for planning who apparently does not understand the import of such communication and if this director is simply going to ignore such correspondence and slavishly adopt the recommendations of the Planning Regulator? It is the members and the council who have an obligation under section 15 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, not the Planning Regulator. Local authorities, which have local knowledge of their communities, are best placed to ensure that housing needs are met and to know what policies to adopt, taking account of local considerations to ensure their plans are achievable. This has been ignored by officials in advising members.
It is clear that the director of planning in Wexford has abdicated his responsibility to the Planning Regulator. There needs to be specialist legal planning training for the directors of services and senior planners. They should be forced to attend continuing professional development courses to ensure they understand their roles and responsibilities along with changing legislation and amendments to guidelines. The provision of incorrect advice to members and the public will come at a great cost to the State arising from judicial review proceedings and other legal actions. Certainty in the planning system is essential if we are to provide much-needed housing. If our senior people in planning do not know the law, how can there be any such certainty?
It is a disgrace that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage leaves when Opposition Deputies are speaking. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin changed the rules of the Dáil so that their speakers would come first in these debates. They pushed Opposition voices further towards the end of the debates. That means that the Minister typically leaves before Opposition Deputies get to speak, despite having listened to his own Deputies in his parliamentary party meetings.
Before Christmas, I raised the fact that, in Dublin, people who are homeless but not from Dublin were being refused homelessness services by Dublin City Council. I raised this issue with the Minister, but he was not here. He learned about the matter a couple of weeks later when "Prime Time" carried out an investigation into the issue. Had he remained in the Chamber, the Minister could have learned a little bit about the homelessness crisis in the city. The fact that he only listens to his own Deputies and not elected representatives from across the State who each were given tens of thousands of votes is absolutely wrong.
Housing is everything. It determines whether people can get work, a decent education and decent nutrition. It determines whether young people can socialise and people's physical and mental health. If a person does not have a home, nearly everything else falls down around him or her, including physical and mental health. The level of human misery brought about as a result of the housing crisis is incredible. Right now, up to 1 million people in this State are in some level of housing crisis whether through mortgage distress, homelessness, spending years on housing waiting lists or paying grossly unaffordable rents and mortgages. Of course, by the very definition of the term, it is the people who are most vulnerable who are hit hardest. In my own constituency, I know it is people who have disabilities who are often left on the housing list the longest. People who are single are also often on the housing list for far longer.
I listened to Fine Gael stating at its recent online Ard-Fheis that it is going to build 40,000 houses. Fine Gael has been in government for the past ten years. Not once in those ten years did it meet the demand for housing. It is always about the future with Fine Gael. If one takes phrases in the future tense away from Fine Gael's statements on housing, it is left speechless. This is a party that has been in government for ten years.
It is also interesting that in mid-May we heard the political establishment state that there is a housing crisis right across this State. For the previous four months, it had mentioned nothing about housing. For those four months, the building sites in this State were closed. Ireland was alone among European countries in stopping all construction of homes during that period. It is absolutely true that we had a Covid crisis.
It absolutely was necessary to make sure that certain construction sites, especially the big industrial ones, were closed, but the fact that no other European country thought it was good enough to close every single type of home-building at the time shows this country's real attitude towards housing. Last year, only 5,073 new social houses were built. Even if one includes the 1,314 targeted acquisitions by local authorities and approved housing bodies, the number of homes that were provided through social provision was less than the number of people who are homeless in this State. That is incredible. There are 70,000 people on HAP or RAS tenancies across the country. That is proof, if proof were needed, that the strategy of Governments for the past ten years has been to outsource the issue of housing to the private sector.
There were 79 homeless deaths on the streets of Dublin last year but the Minister failed to respond on a human level to those deaths. His predominant concern was arguing about whether the deaths were caused by homelessness but the truth of the matter is that the number of deaths in 2020 is significantly higher than the numbers in 2018 and 2019. The peak of homeless deaths last year in this city occurred at the same time that the political establishment was increasing the level of pensions to former Ministers. It is ironic that the political establishment was feathering its own nest at a time when there were peak numbers of deaths on the streets of Dublin.
Right now, no local authority other than those in Dublin records the number of homeless deaths. If one tries to find out what is happening in the west of Ireland, one gets anecdotal information and estimates. The fact that the political establishment and the Departments are not measuring the number of people who are dying in homelessness outside of Dublin is absolutely shocking because if one does not know the size of the problem or the reality of the problem, the chances are that one will not be likely to push resources in the direction of resolving the problem. I know of cases in Cork, for example, where homeless individuals have died. In January 2021, a 69-year-old homeless man was found dead in a laneway in Limerick. The list goes on. We need to make sure that we know what is going on around the country so that it cannot be covered up or swept under the carpet and so that we focus investment in that direction.
We need to collect information but, more than that, we need to stop people becoming homeless. If one asks Fr. Peter McVerry or any of the other individuals who work in those sectors what is driving homelessness, they will say it is evictions and the price of rents. It is as simple as that. It is not complex. The fact that people who are already paying €1,700 every month for rent are being told they are about to receive an 8% rent increase is bonkers. There is no economic reason rents of €1,700 need to be increased by 8%. There are no drivers for that. There is no landlord in this State who has an economic justification for that but it is going to happen. The Bill does not resolve that issue and the Government will not resolve it either.
The crisis that is engulfing many families has come about because Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been allergic to the building of social housing. A couple of years ago, I asked Meath County Council how many social housing units it was building. It told me it was building three of them in a county of 200,000 people and with a waiting list of approximately 4,000 people. The situation has improved since then and, in fairness, the staff of Meath County Council who are involved in housing are doing their best to resolve that. On the other hand, Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats, People Before Profit and the Labour Party have also prevented the building of thousands of homes. They have an ideological straitjacket with regard to preventing the construction private houses. In the jaws of a crisis, we need to make sure that public housing and private housing are at full tilt. We need to make sure that people in rural areas are able to build homes for their families. Particularly since the Covid crisis, many people want to move out of Dublin and there has been a spike in house prices in rural areas.
Aontú believes several things need to be done to fix this housing crisis. First, we are seeking a relaxation of the European rules in terms of State spending on housing, in line with the €7 billion suggested by the Economic and Social Research Institute. Many people often forget that the European Union has placed a straitjacket on our investment priorities in this country and that is wrong. We need to ensure that builders have access to funds in order to build homes. When we speak to builders, they tell us they cannot get the necessary credit structures to help them to build those homes. The Government tells us the reason it has allowed international investment funds into the country is that they have the capital necessary to be able to build homes and that Irish builders cannot do that. Let us fix that. Let us make sure that builders have the necessary capital to build homes. We need to delete the competitive tax advantages that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have given to international investment vehicles which puts them at a competitive advantage against families who are currently seeking a home. We in Aontú will launch a Bill tomorrow at the launch of Mairéad Tóibín's Dublin Bay South election campaign. That Bill will walk significantly towards deleting the competitive advantages that international investment funds and REITs have in respect of competing for Irish homes. It is an absolute scandal that Fine Gael rolled out the red carpet to these international funds ten years ago. It may have had an argument at the time that there may have been a need to put a floor underneath the housing market and that it needed to strengthen the balance sheets of the bank but that argument has disappeared. I laughed when the political establishment woke up in shock a couple of months ago and realised this is happening. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, had investments in these international investment funds. The State had investments in them.
I spoke to former Deputy Michael Noonan many years ago at the finance committee and he told me that the price of houses was not high enough; that they had to go higher if we wanted people to build them. There were echoes of that from the Tánaiste just a couple of days ago when he stated that the price of houses is lower than it was at the Celtic tiger peaks. That shows the kernel at the heart of the Fine Gael housing strategy - to raise prices in some vain attempt to introduce more supply into the market. Aontú wants to see a three-year rent cap in the housing market. That is needed to make sure people are not pushed out of their homes.
We want to see a proper tax on vacant sites to stop speculation. The Government created a vacant site tax a couple of years ago. Not every local authority currently has a register. There are only a handful of houses on the registers that exist. Indeed, construction companies are bringing the Government to court to stop their sites going on the register and being subject to the vacant site tax. It is not good enough for developers to sit on parcels of land to see their speculation increase in value. The land may increases in value by an amount higher than the tax on the vacant site, so the developer can absorb the tax and still make money by doing nothing on the land.
We in Aontú want to provide a carrot in terms of grant funding to get the one in 33 homes that is lying empty back into use. It is incredible that in counties such as County Meath there is approximately the same number of vacant building as there are people on the housing waiting list. It is an illogical conundrum that this Government has not yet got its head around. We wish to see a significant grant fund made available so that the families that own those houses can get them back into use. However, we need a stick to go with the carrot. If families, investors or individuals are purposely not using those homes or are looking for speculative reasons to keep them empty, there needs to be a tax on those empty homes.
We want to see a situation where the regulations on spaces above shops in our towns and cities are changed to allow for families to move into those spaces and make them into homes. I was raised in a house above a garage in the town of Navan. Many people lived above their shops or garages throughout the country. We need to make sure towns and cities are welcoming places for families to go back to, even more so after Covid. The pandemic has shown us that the social and economic health of a town or city can be wiped out at the drop of a hat if there are no people living in it. We must ensure action is taken in this regard in the future.
Key to all of this is having a government that will take action. I have no confidence that Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael means business in this area. I believe both parties have an ideological reluctance to do what is necessary to fix the housing crisis. They may paint over that ideological reluctance with words and try to ameliorate the problems but they do not want to do what needs to be done. This is especially true of Fine Gael, a laissez-fairepolitical party that wants to sit on its hands on this issue. Its instinct is to let the market solve the problems, but the market is in dysfunction and will not solve them. The truth of the matter is that much of this dysfunction was introduced by Fine Gael in government.
The first question we must ask is what is causing the increase in rents in this country. The answer is problems with supply and demand. Covid had a massive impact on supply and demand but we also have a huge issue with the cost of the materials to build houses, which is causing a problem. Rents are going up in Limerick. Ordinary people who were paying €800 a month are now being charged €1,200 and rising. The Limerick Twenty Thirty group was set up to help ease the housing crisis and is currently progressing 250 applications for planning permission in the city. It has plans to move out to addressing the situation in the county, which the Land Development Agency will not do. The latter has been set up and structured in such a way that the investment only goes to areas with a population of 30,000 or more, which only covers Limerick city. It does not help me to build houses in towns, villages and rural areas. I have to depend on the local authority for that and thank God Limerick Twenty Thirty has been set up to help. Its membership includes a former council chief executive and local councillors who were elected by the people of Limerick to help ease the crisis.
What can we do to help the situation? I have listened to all the other speakers' views in this regard. As I said, there is a problem with the cost of building materials in this country. People have to rent for longer because they cannot afford to build a house. There has been a 40% increase in the cost of materials and a similar increase in labour costs because of the shortage of skilled workers. The shortage of labour is a huge problem but apprenticeship programmes have not taken off because there has not been investment in them. We lost ten years in this regard following the crash in 2008. The infrastructure is not there to address the problems that are arising. It is next to impossible to get anything through the ports and into the country, which is leading to an add-on cost for the building and renovation of housing in the case of materials such as steel, insulation and timber. The knock-on effect of this is having a large impact across the country.
Another issue is forestry licences for tree felling. Again, the problems in this area are leading to a supply and demand issue for the housing market. The Government has not got this right yet. People cannot get the felling licences to produce the timber needed to roof, renovate and build houses. All of this is common sense but the Government is not addressing the issues. We need infrastructure, investment and the workers to provide the labour. We have none of those because the Government has failed in every respect to get the changes through that would help people. If we are to reduce rents, we need to address the supply and demand issues. To do that, we must get building materials into the country at a reasonable price.
I welcome the provision in the Bill that sorts out the situation whereby students were being asked for all kinds of bingo numbers for deposits. That is being outlawed in the Bill and it is the one good thing about it. I am worried that the rest of the measures are futile. I admire the Leas-Cheann Comhairle every time she speaks from her knowledge and experience. I agree with her that we get only futile efforts in this country that involve talk and more talk. I was on the housing committee for four and a half years and I became pure disillusioned with it. If talk could build houses, we would be building millions of them. Deputy O'Donoghue is speaking as a builder of some renown. He understands the industry.
I am not here to bash public servants but they are not fit for purpose in any Department. I spoke this morning about the situation with the maternity hospital, where the cost has gone up from €150 million to €800 million. The cost of the children's hospital has increased from €400 million to €2 billion and growing. We also have the broadband fiasco. It is one fiasco after another. Deputy O'Donoghue referred to problems with the importation of materials through the ports as a result of Brexit. I do not know whether the staff there are not working, are working from home or something else. I apologise for diverging a bit but I spoke to a fellow recently who bought a bailer. He got it into the country from Germany no problem. However, when he needed a mechanical part for it to allow him to continue his work in the hay season, it took six weeks to get it from England. The blackguarding of people that is going on is crazy.
Regarding housing, the cost of building has gone through the roof. Deputy O'Donoghue told me last night that to build a 2,500 sq. ft house now costs more than €400,000. We have had the Taoiseach, or it may have been the Tánaiste, saying that an affordable house in Dublin is one that costs €400,000. This is crazy stuff. How are we going to deal with the issues? Deputy Tóibín touched on one aspect. I have been like a broken record for years talking about using the spaces where shops have closed and the spaces above shops in our towns. This would do two things. It would create living towns and it would make an impact on the housing list. Instead, the Government is putting billions of euro into the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme. That is dead money and it is going down a black hole. While people are getting roofs over their heads, it is not solving the situation. For God's sake, we built houses from the 1940s through to the 2000s but now we cannot build them because we are tying ourselves up in red tape.
The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, will not deal with the issues regarding tree felling licences for timber. The Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is adding cost increases to insulation. Every move the Government makes is about regulation. Deputy Verona Murphy is spot on that the new Office of the Planning Regulator is another quango. We have another jumped-up, powerful man who got into a powerful position and is destroying areas. In the town of Cathair Dhún Iascaigh on the River Suir, 50 ha of land around Cahir Castle were zoned. That was probably too much but the new plan that was done recently, which my daughter, Councillor Máirín McGrath, has railed against, will see 40 ha dezoned. Where are people going to go? I do not blame people for thinking there are conspiracies going on. We are being herded into the cities and it is all about control. Everything is about regulation and more regulation and it is adding costs, inefficiencies and bureaucracy. It is creating more problems with homelessness. We cannot get the figures for homeless people and homeless deaths or anything else.
Deputy Verona Murphy is right that directors of services in many councils are not up to the job because they do not understand planning law. If the Planning Regulator says "Jump", they go through the roof. This is nonsense. The democratic right of elected councils to draw up their county and town development plans is being diminished. Every legislative provision we bring in here diminishes the rights of the people and the rights of their duly elected representatives. It is diminishing progress in our country. We will be starved with the hunger in this country before we are finished. This week we banned fur farming and next week we will ban something else. It will be horse racing and sheep farming eventually. Where are we going in all of this? Who will take a rain check and say "Wake up and smell the coffee"? We are going down the Swannee very fast.
The purpose of this Bill is to extend the emergency period specified in the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 until 12 January 2022. The aim is to further assist tenants who are being financially impacted by Covid-19, while recognising and balancing the rights of the landlord. Under the new regulations, which the Government plans to have passed into law by the summer, renters will only be required to supply a deposit and a month's rent in advance. The total value of that will not be allowed to exceed the value of two months' rent. The measures also apply to those who are living in student-specific accommodation.
I wish to spend some of my time speaking to the issue of students and the difficulties that they are having in getting accommodation and those they have experienced over the last number of months in paying rent for accommodation that they have not accessed, and the difficulties they have faced in trying to get back the moneys that they paid. It has been a nightmare for many students. Our offices deal with these issues on a regular basis. It is most unfair that so few safeguards are put in place for the students of this country. The deserve respect. They are trying to start out in their lives and are working really hard. In respect of trying to access a SUSI grant, if they are just 10 cent over the threshold with the small amount of earnings that they may have got from working over the summer, they are disqualified from getting a SUSI grant. The odds are stacked against the young people in this country in relation to student accommodation.
The overall lack of housing in this country is an absolute scandal. During the week, I heard the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar's promises on housing. He must have woken up on some side of the bed one morning and thought that the had dreamed that he could build 40,000 houses. He was long enough in government and he built nothing. I cannot understand how he can dream that up and try to sell that whole story to the public. Of course, RTÉ and the media give him lots of air time to talk about the nonsensical dreams he has, whereas other people who have realistic thoughts and views on people getting housing do not get the same air time.
That leads me onto the issue of the crisis that we face in relation to rural planning. I can assure the Minister of State that we are looking at the very same situation as we have seen today with the protest on fishing rights. There was a fine, peaceful protest, and thousands of fishermen from west Cork, Kerry, Donegal, Wexford and Galway came to Dublin to fight their case. The Government faces the same situation with rural planning. Young people genuinely want to work and live in their communities and do not want to be a burden on the State. They want to get a loan to get out there and build a happy home for themselves. They are being denied this opportunity. In west Cork, every planning application has been refused. That is a Green Party policy anyway. Its policy is to make sure that it ruins people's lives going forward. It is scandalous beyond belief that every planning application is met with an excuse or a hurdle. I would not mind if there was an architectural issue, because such issues can be addressed. If there was an issue in respect of a genuine entrance, changes could be made. However, it is all just scenic nonsense. There is a planning application in respect of a site that cannot be seen anywhere. An Bord Pleanála has decided that there is a scenic landscape issue with the application. We are dealing with an awful crisis in relation to planning in this country. It is going to lead to an outcry.
That is not to mention the sewerage issues that have not been dealt with in west Cork, such as in Castletownshend and Goleen. I have been mentioning these places forever. Looking at the county development plans, they are telling us that towns can grow. Towns are going nowhere. In rural towns and villages people living over the shop. There is no encouragement for grants to be awarded to people to turn around their lives and try to live in rural communities. Rural communities can offer so much to young people out there and to young couples who want to start off in their lives.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak to this very important Bill. One of the biggest elephants in the room, and one of the biggest issues facing students who are seeking accommodation, is the need to increase the availability of affordable accommodation for students.
Increasing accommodation is the most effective way to provide real choice and options. The lack of student accommodation is very much linked to the lack of supply of housing in university and third level education towns throughout the country. It is also worth noting and offering congratulations to the Union of Students in Ireland, which has campaigned for the new measures contained in this Bill. It has been its campaign for this change that has brought it about.
While the new regulations have been designed primarily to help students who are seeking college accommodation in advance of the new academic year, the measures will also apply to all renters who are moving into new homes. As far back as 2017, the Government was urged to tackle rules around deposits and upfront payments, with some examples being highlighted over the years of private landlords asking prospective tenants for two months' rent as a deposit, as well as the first month's rent. That is, of course, mainly a practice that is used here in Dublin. It is only reasonable, right and proper that any property owner be entitled to ask for a deposit and for up to a month's rent in advance. Asking for more than that puts the person who needs the accommodation in the awful position of being priced out of the market for that property. That is wrong.
When we are having a debate such as this one, I hear some people professing that they represent the working man. We all know who those people are. They are the people who would not do a day's work to save their own lives. We are getting sick of hearing them speak about this working man that they are always talking about. Those people would have us believe that there is something wrong with the group of people who provide student accommodation and accommodation in the private sector. I wish to highlight that every one of those people pays tax of more than 50% on the money they earn and they are providing accommodation that the State is unable or unwilling to provide.
I wish to highlight that we need balance, but we definitely need more accommodation to be provided. There are a number of amazing factors at play in Ireland at the moment, including, for example, the fact that it is now impossible to build an apartment because it is not financially viable. One cannot come to a place like Dublin, Cork, Galway or Limerick and build an apartment and rent it out, because it quite simply does not make sense to do so. For a normal person wishing to buy such an apartment, he or she cannot afford it because the cost is so high due to the fact that the cost of building has risen steeply. It is an awful situation. In many cases, the price of timber and steel has gone up by 60% and 70% in the last year and a half. That is absolutely frightening. We desperately need to do more for people. However, knocking the very people who provide accommodation is not the way to do it. If we are going to rely on the State, we will be waiting a long time.
I, too, want to take particular issue with what went on at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis over the weekend. I refer to the Tánaiste-Taoiseach or Taoiseach-Tánaiste - it makes no difference what we call him. We can call him Taoiseach or Tánaiste. He is both of them any day of the week. He said that Fine Gael wants to build 40,000 homes and will do so. For God's sake, he was the Taoiseach already. They were in power for long enough. Why, in the name of God, did they not build the houses then? If they are going to be able to do it in the future, whey did they not do it in the past?
I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this very important Bill. I appreciate the attempts that have been made to reduce the cost of renting for students and, indeed, for all renters. There are many of them out there. Something needed to be done because some landlords were looking for two months' rent as a deposit and a month's rent upfront. For many people, that is not attainable. They cannot pay that amount and have not been able to do so.
One of the biggest hurdles that a family has to overcome is to provide the necessary funds for accommodation when their son or daughter comes of age and needs to go to university. Many people are lucky enough to get the SUSI grant, but many other members of hardworking families do not qualify for the grant. Whatever happens with Covid-19 pandemic, I appeal to the Minister of State not to let happen what happened last August, when the Government advised that colleges were opening. Families from all over, including Kerry and west Cork, drove to places such as Cork, Limerick and Galway cities, and indeed to Dublin, to look for accommodation for their sons and daughters. They paid deposits and rent for accommodation that was not used and had great difficulty in getting their money back. Surely, the Government knew in the days leading up to the start of September and the start of term that the colleges were not going to open.
I do not believe the Government is going to allow the pubs to open for indoor dining and drinking given the way it is talking. I would say it is after changing its tune. I hope it does not change its tune on the students like it did last year. Many of them did not get their money back. That was very unfair and wrong. Of course, the way to sort it out is to build more accommodation. The Minister has stood up on various days and said money is not an obstacle. If money is not an obstacle, put the bloody money on the table and build apartments in places such as Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway for the students. It is an awful problem and issue. There is a big event in every family's life when one, two, three or four children go to university. They are entitled to do so. They are entitled to be educated to the highest degree. I am glad that, back over the years, Irish students have graduated and become professors, engineers, teachers, doctors and surgeons. We are proud of them but we need that to continue. We need to ensure accommodation is available.
Costs are spiralling in the building industry. We see ridiculous things happening. Despite what the Green Party is saying, the cost of insulation is going up. It is applying the highest rate of VAT to it. What do the Greens stand for if they do not back up what they have been talking about? What have they been doing? They should not think they can cod the people because that will not happen. They might cod some of the people some of the time and all of the people some of the time but they will not cod all of the people all of the time. The time is drawing in on them now-----
It seems all of us sound like a broken record regarding housing at this stage. On some level, if it were not so serious, I would say I absolutely bore myself but we all know the realities. Anybody engaging with constituents in the town of Dundalk will know the realities. I am fed up talking about the levels of rents people are dealing with. We are all aware that the rent pressure zone protections are not providing the protection required.
We all support the restriction on the deposits that can be sought from students because deposits put them under extreme pressure. This measure is necessary and needs to be implemented but, in the town of Dundalk and throughout County Louth, people are very lucky if they are paying only €1,000 per month for a regular house. Usually, it is €1,200, €1,400, €1,600 or more. Such sums are completely beyond the means of an awful lot of families. They are competing against people who come to the area to work in some of the foreign direct investment factories in Dundalk. These are all to be welcomed but the fact is that there is just not a sufficient supply. That is the problem. A large part of the Government's report card will be based on whether it addresses this.
There has been an abject failure over many years on the part of many Governments in that they moved away from building social housing and, to a degree, half expected the market would kick into place and solve all the problems. It will not come as any shock that Sinn Féin says of rentals that we need a cap across the board for three years until we return to more normal circumstances. Beyond that, we are talking about a rent rebate of around one month's rent to be paid back to renters, who are being absolutely crippled. What is happening is just not sustainable.
We all know what we need. We need council houses to be built. We need affordable mortgages and we need affordable cost rental. We probably need less conversation and more delivery. Delivery means building on public land and getting the best bang for our buck possible. It is not a case of the LDA selling to a developer and a developer making a huge profit. We all accept developers develop and build but we need to ensure we deliver for people. Everyone has mentioned the REITs and investment funds but none of these is working. We need delivery. People are being absolutely crippled. Caithfimid é seo a réitiú.
I welcome the Bill. I commend the Minister as this Bill will give some assurance to renters whose income has been affected by Covid. It is critical that we give vulnerable tenants time to recover their financial stability. While the number of people who have directly invoked this legal protection has remained small, the protection has provided a safety net to vulnerable renters. It is important that the mechanism has been put in place.
Throughout Covid, the Government has stood resolutely behind renters. This is its fifth Bill since it took office to safeguard renters throughout the pandemic. We saw many instances of greed and avarice at its worst throughout this pandemic as large-scale landlords sought to penalise students and their families. I am pleased that this Bill will restrict upfront payments upon the commencement of a tenancy to a maximum of two months' rent, or a month's deposit and a month's rent in advance. Equally welcome are safeguards to ensure students will not be required to give notice of a period longer than 28 days before terminating their lease. We have heard far too many tales of students being asked to pay up to a year's rent in advance and having to provide lengthy termination notices before they can vacate their property. I am aware that the Minister and his team have been deeply committed to this legislation. He is determined to bring forward additional protections for tenants in the autumn.
Today's legislation follows through on our programme for Government and a commitment to provide and improve security of tenure for tenants through legislating for tenancies of indefinite duration, increasing RTB enforcement and examining incentives for long-term leasing. Today is an important day for the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and his Department as the Bill represents one of a series of critical Bills that will safeguard tenants' rights and, over a period, make housing more accessible and affordable for all.
The Bill before us is important and has some welcome measures but rents continue to rise. Figures released recently by Daft.ie highlight that rents continue to escalate massively in Laois-Offaly. Despite Covid, rents in Laois went up by 3.4% in the past 12 months while in Offaly they shot up by 6.6%. This comes on top of skyrocketing increases during the previous five years.
Sinn Féin welcomes the decision by the Government today to extend the emergency eviction ban until 2022, but this ban should be extended to all renters, not just those who fall within the limited definition put forward by the Minister. Just 475 renters have been able to avail of the Government's Covid-19 rent protections, despite 3,800 being in rent arrears. The current legislation is simply not working.
It is important that we recognise that we are all facing a period of economic uncertainty before the economy recovers and people are fully back to work. Renters who work in the hospitality sector, for example, face a very uncertain period. Many of them face reduced hours and precarious circumstances owing to the amount of work available to them. Until the recovery, we need to provide protection across the board for renters who have been put in this precarious position through no fault of their own.
Sinn Féin has submitted an amendment to the Bill to deal with the issue of tenants who face an increase in rent in the region of 8% due to a loophole in the legislation. This concern has been raised with me by constituents, even those in rent pressure zones, who expect many landlords to take advantage of the loophole in the legislation that currently allows them to increase rent by 8% following the rent freeze during the Covid period. Only three municipal districts in Laois–Offaly are designated as rent pressure zones, namely the Portlaoise–Abbeyleix district, the Portarlington–Graiguecullen district, and the Tullamore municipal district in Offaly. The Mountmellick–Borris-in-Ossory district in Laois and the Edenderry and Birr municipal districts in Offaly are not covered. In these areas, it is the Wild West. Landlords are free to raise rents any way they wish. That is no way to provide housing.
An emergency three-year rent freeze is required to stop rents from escalating further and to ease the significant pressure on low paid workers who are renting. Many families, particularly those in precarious employment situations, will simply not be able to meet significant increases and this can and should be dealt with as part of this legislation. I appeal to the Government parties to accept our amendment.
On a final note, we need more supply and everybody knows that. This is not said in support of the nonsense that the Tánaiste came out with last weekend where he was going to magic up 40,000 houses, but we do need increased supply. Increased supply does not automatically translate into reduced rents or house prices. The House does not need to believe me but it can look back at 2006 when we built more than 90,000 houses and rents and the price of houses shot up. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute on the debate on this welcome Bill - a piecemeal and belated Bill, as usual, but welcome, nonetheless. The Bill will extend the emergency period as set out in the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 from July 2021 to January 2022 because, unsurprisingly, Covid-19 is still having a devastating impact on our economy and livelihoods. The Bill will finally make provisions for a maximum of two months’ rent to be requested as upfront payment, one month in advance and one month as deposit. The Bill also sets out provisions around student accommodation and notice periods.
Even though evictions were banned during Covid-19 when the 5 km restriction was in place, more still 1,100 households were still served with eviction notices over the past ten months. In an article in theIrish Examiner, by Aoife Moore, it is reported that the RTB has figures showing that 3,800 households were served with warning notices on rent arrears since last August and that 1,122 notices of termination of tenancy were issued.
Since 23 April, landlords have been legally allowed to evict people and of the 79 families presenting to the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive in April of this year, 14 were made homeless by the private rented sector. In May 2021, notices of termination were served on 170 households, with the intention of selling the property cited as the most common reason.
The written declaration for renters to access limited protection due to Covid-19 has only been accessed by 475 renters, despite nearly 4,000 renters being in financial difficulty. Why is this number so small? Do renters not know about this declaration and option? Has this information been provided in a variety of languages? How are renters being informed of this protection as it is vitally important to know that?
Apparently in the previous Dáil, one third of Deputies were landlords. This information was ascertained from the Register of Members’ Interests where some of us list our occupation as landlord. This Dáil, thankfully, saw a slight decrease from 33.5% to 25% of Deputies with investment properties. Therefore, one quarter of lawmakers also accumulate money from renting properties. How many of us then are paying mortgages? How many are living mortgage free? How many are renting and how many have helped wains out with deposits for homes? How many Deputies really know and understand the rental market from a tenant’s point of view? How many of us have experienced the insecurity and the fear of reporting breakages or problems in case one is hit with an eviction notice? These are real fears that tenants have.
During the Celtic tiger years, our housing market was described as a property bubble. It was a bubble that burst and left people in negative equity, homeless and, in some cases, taking their own lives. However, the bubble lives on. The property bubble is home to Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Green Party, developers, real estate investment trusts: REITs, vulture funds, NAMA and Government policymakers. I refuse to believe that any of them are living in the real world. If they were, they would see how damaging our private rented sector is. The only reason there has been reducing numbers of families and individuals evicted into homelessness has been the emergency measures introduced as a result of Covid-19. The measures that we in opposition have been pleading for for years now, including a moratorium on rent increases and on evictions and longer notice periods, were all magically introduced in what were described as “unprecedented times”.
In the Nevin Economic Research Institute, NERI’s blog, Time to tackle the private rental sector, published in April 2020, Paul Goldrick-Kelly wrote that despite the protection measures introduced to protect renters during Covid-19:
Threshold reports a surge in calls from private renters since the onset of the pandemic who fear they will not have a place to stay and warns that we may see a surge of homelessness as the emergency measures expire. This is all the more likely given the disproportionate job losses among young and precarious workers, cohorts likely to have been forced into the private rental sector in the first place.
More than a year on from this report and the issues remain. We used to have a really high rate of homeownership in Ireland. In the 1990s and early 2000s, nearly four out of five households owned their homes but census 2016 showed that almost 500,0000 households were renting, an increase of 4.7 % on 2011, so for almost 30% of all occupied dwellings in the latest census, renting was the identified tenure status.
The NERI blog also stated:
Developments prior to the current Covid-19 crisis coincided with substantial growth in asking prices for houses. Between 2012 and 2019, the average price of a new home in Dublin nearly doubled to €380,400 from €200,000. Under Central Bank rules, household income would need to be €100,000 to qualify for a first-time mortgage for an average Dublin property. This would place homeownership out of reach of over 85% of Irish households.
We know that these prices have continued to increase alongside a Fine Gael narrative around “generation rent”. Threshold reported that, in 2018, fewer than one in three private tenants was renting by choice. The NERI blog speaks of “inhospitable conditions on the market” and that "96% of private renters recently surveyed said it was difficult or extremely difficult to find accommodation." Rents surpassed Celtic tiger levels. The blog continues:
The RTB rent index shows that adjusted national private rents in the third quarter of 2019 were 25% above pre-crash levels and 67% above 2012 lows. This rental inflation was particularly severe around Dublin, where adjusted rents were up by more than a third relative to the end of 200...
Insecurity in the private rental sector represented a leading contributor to homelessness. 58% of surveyed homeless families left their last stable home because of tenancy issues.
Other civil society organisations have also presented evidence over the past number of years regarding the high numbers being evicted into homelessness from the private rental market.
In February of this year, Michael Byrne, school of social policy, social work and social justice, UCD, published a paper entitled, The impact of COVID-19 on the private rental sector: emerging international evidence. The introduction states:
The COVID-19 pandemic emerged at a time in which the private rental sector (PRS) in many countries was already undergoing change and facing a variety of issues and challenges. PRS tenants are often most exposed to some of the major issues in housing systems, for example lack of affordability, insecurity, poor quality dwellings and overcrowding. In addition, PRS households typically disproportionately face challenges associated with precarious employment, and are often concentrated in the service sector and indeed in frontline sectors, such as healthcare. From the outset of the pandemic, many researchers highlighted the potential for these four sets of factors to interact in ways which were, and indeed are, extremely concerning with regard to PRS tenants. The four sets of factors are: the COVID-19 pandemic, housing insecurity, economic implications of public health measures, and labour market issues.
It is quite a depressing paper. The financialisation of housing globally has led to insecure housing situations in many countries. The four main issues affecting those in the private rental sector are listed in the paper as "lack of affordability, insecurity, poor quality dwellings and overcrowding". The fact that many workers in precarious industries are more likely to have been impacted by Covid-19 closures is highlighted in the paper. Michael Byrne also states, "The intersection of precarious employment and insecure housing is central to understanding the experience of renters during the pandemic, and likely shape their experience of its aftermath."
The paper usefully outlines some of the international policy responses to the pandemic:
The pandemic has seen widespread emergency measures introduced in relation to the PRS across many jurisdictions. Across many countries a similar suite of measures has been introduced in response to the pandemic. These measures can be categorised in three key policy areas: eviction bans; rent regulation; and financial support for tenants.
It is always useful to look outside of Ireland because sometimes the Government can try to paint a picture that it is going above and beyond with its protection measures.
My final comment relating to Michael Byrne’s paper concerns the idea of "double precarity" for households in the rental sector, namely labour market precarity and housing precarity. In Ireland, it is more likely to be vulnerable cohorts living in the private rental sector. For example, according to the paper:
...just under half of lone parent households are renting (compared to 36% of households made-up of a couple and children). Renters are also disproportionately non-Irish born. The proportion of non-Irish born households who are renting privately is 56% for EU-28 and 66% for non-EU 28 households. This is dramatically higher than the figure for Irish-born households, at just under 13%. Annual mean income of private renters is significantly below that of mortgaged homeowners. Similarly, almost a quarter of private renting households are at risk of poverty, while just 7% of homeowners are.
In the meantime, students are being asked to pay for between six and nine months' rent upfront, prospective tenants have reportedly been asked for three months’ rent in advance and, despite it being illegal, some landlords continue to discriminate against tenants in receipt of the housing assistance payment. The Government does nothing about that and the authorities do not either.
We cannot discuss the private rented sector and how dysfunctional it is without mentioning how lucrative it is for private equity investors and institutional investors. In quarter 4 of 2020, Savills Ireland reported deals worth €533 million. In 2020, a total of €3 billion was invested in Irish property, with €1.2 billion of that in the private rented sector. Article 43 of Bunreacht na hÉireann relates to private property. It states:
The State recognises ... that the exercise of the rights mentioned in the foregoing provisions of this Article ought, in civil society, to be regulated by the principles of social justice.
The State, accordingly, may as occasion requires delimit by law the exercise of the said rights with a view to reconciling their exercise with the exigencies of the common good.
Imagine a government using the Constitution for the good of the people, rather than continuing to misinterpret Article 43.
Fáiltím roimh an deis páirt a ghlacadh sa díospóireacht seo. Tá mo thacaíocht go huile is go hiomlán taobh thiar den reachtaíocht seo mar go dtugann sí síneadh ama do na cosaintí atá ar fáil do thionóntaí.
I welcome the Bill and am fully behind it in the context of the extension of protections to a small group of tenants. It will extend the emergency period for a further six months to 12 January for relevant persons. That qualifier is important. The definition of "relevant persons" means the Bill is very limited. It is limited to those who are unable to pay rent for two reasons, namely, being unable to work due to having contracted Covid or being in receipt of a State-funded payment introduced to alleviate financial hardship brought about as a result of the pandemic. That is welcome, but very restrictive.
I welcome the fact that for the first time, we are setting out what a deposit actually is, and that the Bill will restrict security deposits to a total of two months' rent, that is, one month's rent plus one month's deposit. While it is welcome that that includes student-specific accommodation, I worry about the opt-out that will be available to students. I ask myself why it is there and how it will be misused. One of the Sinn Féin Deputies stated that the explanation given to Opposition spokespersons in the briefing from the Department was that the opt-out provision was intended to facilitate foreign students who pay more than a few months in advance. That may well be, but I could see it being greatly misused in regard to richer students with richer families who can come up with more than one month's rent and one month's deposit and ensure their place in accommodation already priced out of the affordability of most students. Perhaps the Minister of State will clarify that in his closing remarks. I welcome also the inclusion of what the Union of Students in Ireland canvassed for, namely, the 28-day termination notice. That provision and the rent freeze extension are very positive and I expect the Bill to have the unanimous support of Deputies.
Nevertheless, we must put the Bill in perspective and outline the background to it. From August 2020 to June 2021, almost a year, just 475 tenants had availed of the protection. I had expected that we would hear some analysis during the debate of why that figure is so low. It is marvellous that 475 tenants availed of it but we must bear in mind the number of households renting in Ireland. It is difficult to find precise figures but the CSO stated in 2016 that 326,493 households were renting from either a private landlord or a voluntary body, although my experience tells me that the true figures are higher than that. The figure of 475, therefore, is very low. In addition, the private rented sector increased from accounting for 8% of households in 2004 to almost 20% in 2009, and it continues to grow.
This legislation will put an end to the growing practice of requiring multiple months' rent upfront, a permanent change to the legislation in contrast to the extension to just January, and I welcome that. It does little, however, to address the issues of affordability and indebtedness in the private rented sector. The Minister spoke about how this is the fifth Bill related to tenancies that the Government has introduced, and he is correct. We all agreed with him in regard to the previous Bills that sought to protect tenants. He went on to state that only the Government recognises that 70% of landlords own just one rental property - including, as my colleague pointed out, a substantial number of Deputies - and that 86% of landlords own just one or two rental properties. I fully appreciate that and understand that many landlords enter the market by accident, inheritance or a variety of events that might happen in their lives. We must, however, take into account what has happened in the rental market.
The Oireachtas Library and Research Service, in the research it prepared on our behalf before this debate, stated that while the private rented sector still comprises predominantly smaller landlords, as the Minister set out, REITs and other institutional investors have invested heavily in the Irish property market since 2014, although I might add that that is a result of Government policy that encouraged them to come in. It stated that in a letter to the Government dated March 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing noted that 93% of all assets sold by the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, went to foreign investors, and that by 2016, one third of all the properties sold were purchased by investors. There is a strong trend here, all based on Government policy. The research goes on to state that by the end of 2020, to bring us up to date, there were 15,500 residential units under the ownership of institutional landlords. I could go on but I will not, given the limited time.
Pre-legislative scrutiny was waived in respect of the Bill - I understand why, in light of the urgency - but if we keep waiving pre-legislative scrutiny on the important legislation that comes before the House, we will be tackling a jigsaw with each piece individually and not the overall picture. There is a major housing crisis but it did not arise from the pandemic. The pandemic shone a spotlight on, and brought into focus, what has happened with our housing system. Another Sinn Féin Deputy stated that one gets bored talking about this. I know exactly what he meant by that and what he feels, but we have a duty to articulate a different vision than that which the Government is putting forth. Even though it has gone a long way to protecting some tenants, the number is extremely small.
The Government accuses us on this side of the House of ideology, when all the time its own ideology is that which has led to the housing crisis, not overnight but deliberately as a result of Government policy. The worst step taken was that by Fine Gael and the Labour Party in 2014 and 2015 when they introduced HAP. They did so as a permanent solution to the housing crisis and that filtered down to all the local authorities, which were told there was no other game in town. That was the sort of language I listened to as a city councillor in Galway when we attempted to bring the housing crisis to the attention of a number of governments and were utterly ignored. When we got our quarterly reports, as I have said numerous times but cannot say often enough, from 2009 the column in respect of housing construction stated that it should be suspended. From 2009, therefore, up to a year ago, we built no social or affordable houses in Galway, and that is a city where there is a substantial land bank if all the land is taken into account.
Instead of that, we are proceeding piecemeal in the manner in which the Government is dealing with the housing crisis, as is reflected in the local authorities' approach on the ground. We do not have a master plan in Galway. More than 14 acres at Ceannt Station in the centre of town is being developed by one developer, the docklands are being developed by the Galway Harbour Company, while the Dyke Road site is being developed in conjunction with the Land Development Agency and the city council.
There is also the Sandy Road site and 115 acres of land owned by the city council and county council just sitting there. While we have a major housing crisis, we have a task force that has been sitting for more than two and a half years and has never produced a substantial report to tell us its opinion on the housing crisis in Galway or, more importantly, what the solutions are. Letters are going to the Department. We have an echo chamber in relation to a housing crisis and it is utterly frustrating. I can say that from a privileged position where I have a job and a house. How despairing is it for people on a housing waiting list, who are 15 solids years waiting for a house with Galway City Council, only to be told they will get HAP or RAS, or something else, but with no security of tenure? That is the background to this Bill, which is positive and necessary, but it is simply a tiny piece of the overall picture. I look forward to the day when we look at the overall picture and come up with proper solutions. The Minister of State might do us the courtesy, I do not mean now but generally, of listening to us. We generally come up with good ideas.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to speak today. No one should be made homeless, especially in the middle of a pandemic. This is common sense. In years to come, people will find it difficult to believe that our housing Minister stood by and allowed evictions to happen in the middle of a global pandemic. Without proper protection for renters, there is a real chance that this will be the Minister's legacy.
I have been contacted by people who have received notices to quit - in other words, families and individuals who are being evicted. A lady who has been renting for 11 years contacted me. The house she is renting is the only home her children have known. Last week, her landlord told her to start looking for a new place to live. Where is the protection for families like this one who have been paying their way for 11 years? This goes to the heart of the problem. The Minister, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Green Party have never understood what it feels like for parents to look at their young children and families, knowing they are facing eviction from their homes and perhaps even homelessness. With all the Government's promises and commitments to solve the rental crisis in this country, what is it doing to protect families like this? Sinn Féin wants to introduce secure tenure for families and renters. We are calling for a ban on eviction until at least the end of the year, at a minimum, to give people some kind of security and peace of mind for the coming months.
The measures in this Bill will do nothing to combat the scandalous conditions of rental properties in Cork city and nationally. What is even worse is that through the HAP scheme, State money is paid to unscrupulous landlords for houses that are unsuitable and unfit for families and individuals to live in. How is this Government allowing people to live in these conditions with mould, dampness, broken showers, broken heating and freezing cold cramped conditions? All of these issues are being raised with me in my office weekly. The Government is doing nothing and is allowing landlords to get away with this. In fact, it is worse than this. It is paying landlords to get away with this. This is shocking and disgraceful, and it is no wonder that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are called the parties of the landlords. Why is the Green Party abandoning renters and allowing Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to get away with this?
I assure the Deputies that I am keen to listen to their views and to take as many of them on board as is possible. It is about coming up with good ideas, unlike the last contribution which sought to categorised individuals. Whichever political party Deputies are members of, I know most of them try to do their best. I am certainly not a landlord. I have a small three-bedroom semi-detached house in Mullingar with my family. Contributions like that are unhelpful to this debate and are most frustrating. We meet these very vulnerable people every day of the week in our clinics and try to assist them. We should have a more constructive argument rather than using bland old one-liners that keep coming out.
I thank all the Deputies for their contributions and I will do my best to respond to each issue that has been raised. Having listened to colleagues, it is clear that we share a common purpose in seeking to secure tenancies for people impacted by Covid-19 and enhance their tenancy protections. In my conclusion, I again thank members of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage for enabling the Residential Tenancies (No. 2) Bill 2021 to be read a Second Time here today. I understand and appreciate that the committee is diligent in carrying out its pre-legislative scrutiny of Bills and that it had wished to scrutinise this Bill in the usual manner. Unfortunately, the urgency that applied to the publication of this Bill did not afford the time required for the committee to formally scrutinise the text of the Bill prior to its publication. I hope that the briefing provided to the committee by my officials in advance of the Bill's publication served to mitigate the waiving of the formal pre-legislative process.
I am very grateful to the committee for approving the waiving of the pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill. It was the correct decision. Without the waiver, it would not be possible to ensure the enhanced tenancy protections would continue to be in operation without interruption beyond 12 July 2021. In addition to this, the permanent amendments proposed relating to advanced rent payments and deposits can now be introduced in advance of the forthcoming academic term and, consequentially, will make things easier for students returning to on-campus education. Students will have the certainty under restrictions on amounts that they can legally be required to pay their student accommodation provider to secure a tenancy or licence. This will be important particularly during the pandemic and in light of the difficulty some students have endured in seeking refunds of large advance rental payments. Generally, these measures will help all tenants into the future. The measures aim to help tenants with affordability constraints.
We will debate this in detail on Committee Stage, but I note some amendments have been tabled proposing that a deposit be defined. I appreciate the concern in this regard but providing a legal definition for a deposit might actually give rise to unintended consequences. It is considers safer for the current understanding of a deposit in the market to prevail and to provide the RTB with discretion in determining any related disputes in this regard. The RTB will also be empowered to sanction any improper conduct by a landlord, in this regard, at the potential cost of €30,000 to the landlord.
The early publication of the Bill has afforded Deputies the time to submit amendments for debate on Committee Stage. The issues in question are very familiar to us. When the Government extended protections under the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020 in March, for tenants with rent arrears on foot of Covid-19 and at risk of losing their tenancy, we expected those protections would not be needed beyond 12 July. However, circumstances have changed. The unpredictable manner of Covid-19, coupled with the risks associated with variants of concern, have proven that we, as legislators, must be flexible and quick to react to ensure tenancies are secured, while respecting the constitutionally protected property rights of landlords.
The Government is acting in unison to suppress the spread of Covid-19 and to mitigate its impacts on people. The success of the vaccination programme and of the sustained adherence to public health advice in combating Covid-19 will inform any future decisions taken in the context of the rental sector. The protections contained in the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act safeguard the most vulnerable tenants from eviction and rent increases during the emergency period, ending on 12 July 2021. This Bill pushes that expiry date out until 12 January 2022. That is one of the key purposes of the Bill. Our goal is to protect tenants during Covid-19. Our goal since last March has been that every tenant, and his or her landlord, is afforded the right to be protected as well. As this is a six-month extension of the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act, I ask the House to support this protection.
The Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act introduced similar temporary tenancy protections to those protection under the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020.
The Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act covers the period from 11 January 2021 to 12 July 2021, while recognising the constitutionally protected property rights of landlords. The ongoing threat from Covid-19 necessitated the enactment of the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act on 19 December 2020. We need to recognise through this Bill that Covid-19 continues to present serious public health risks and related economic risks. Extending the enhanced protections for our most vulnerable tenants for a further six months, until 12 January 2022, will provide certainty for tenants and landlords.
When we introduced the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020, a number of Opposition Deputies declared there would be a deluge of evictions and tenants would be put out of their homes and on to the street. This has not been borne out. There were 475 declarations served by tenants and 44 by landlords between last August and the end of May of this year to gain enhanced tenancy protection. During the same period, 3,810 warning letters were issued for rent arrears. While 1,122 notices of terminations were served grounded in rent arrears, in the context of approximately 300,000 private tenancies, that number is relatively low. It is worth noting that a notice of termination does not always result in an eviction. For example, a landlord could serve the notice as a warning mechanism to get a tenant to meet his or her obligations.
I reiterate and underline that while the numbers directly invoking this protection have been small, it has provided a strong safety net to vulnerable renters and sends a clear signal to the rental system that the State will protect tenants. In this context, and because of strong direct financial support, we have prevented turmoil in the rental system. Sustaining a secure tenancy is important. Rent needs to be paid to secure accommodation and can be paid with State support, if needed. The State will help people in their homes and I encourage tenants to reach out if they need such help. A range of State supports are available to help tenants to sustain their tenancy and fulfil their legal obligation to pay rent. The Department of Social Protection, the Money Advice and Budgeting Service and the Residential Tenancies Board are doing their utmost to support citizens. Rent supplement is a key short-term income support to eligible persons living in private rental accommodation whose means are insufficient to meet their accommodation costs and who do not have accommodation available to them from any other source. My colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, recently provided a detailed account of the range of income and other supports extended to hundreds of thousands of people since the start of the pandemic. During an unprecedented 12 months, the Department provided €11.5 billion in weekly payments and other supports introduced to assist people impacted by Covid-19.
Research by the ESRI and, more recently, the Central Statistics Office and the Central Bank indicates the gross median income of Irish households would have fallen by almost 20% in the second quarter of 2020 without the intervention of Government supports such as the pandemic unemployment payment, the temporary wage subsidy scheme and the enhanced wage subsidy scheme. In practice, income supports cushioned the income effect and were particularly effective for low-income households. The Department of Social Protection's analysis late last year, similarly to that of the ESRI, indicates that for most households in the lower 40% of income distribution, the income supports came close to fully cushioning the income losses due to Covid-19 and related employment lay-offs.
I thank the Union of Students in Ireland for its engagement over recent months on student accommodation. It is particularly concerned about students being asked to pay up to a year's rent in advance and having to provide lengthy termination notices. The measures included in this Bill will go some way to alleviating its concerns. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, continues to work with our colleague, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, to deliver more accommodation for students through the national student accommodation strategy. At the end of 2020, 10,742 bed spaces had been completed in student-specific accommodation since July 2016, with a further 3,337 bed spaces in development on-site.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle and all Deputies for facilitating the swift passage of this Bill and ensuring these protections are in place for tenants in financial difficulty directly due to Covid-19. I assure Deputies that no tenant who needs help and enhanced protection from the State during Covid-19 will go without it. The protections of the Planning and Development, and Residential Tendencies, Act will help any tenant in financial difficulty while seeking financial support from the State to pay the rent. Tenants need to act as early as possible to avoid a build-up of rent arrears but can be assured of the State's support at this time. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, looks forward to debating with Deputies the proposed amendments on Committee Stage shortly.