Thursday, 24 June 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
1. To ask the Minister for Housing, Planning, and Local Government his views on the latest data from the Residential Tenancies Board that indicated almost 4,000 rent warning letters and 1,100 notices to quit have been issued to tenants since the introduction of the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020. [34152/21]
Figures from the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, show within the last ten months 3,810 rent arrears warning notices have been issued and 1,122 notices to quit. Given that the general ban on evictions ended on 22 April 2021, there is a genuine concern that many of these tenants could end up losing their homes and becoming homeless. I ask the Minister to outline what he is going to do to ensure that this very specific group of tenants is protected in order that we do not see a rise in homelessness, and particularly family homelessness, in the coming months.
I thank Deputy Ó Broin for his question. Since 1 August 2020, the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Act 2020, and its successor, the Planning and Development, and Residential Tenancies, Act 2020, enhance tenancy protections where a tenant is in rent arrears due to Covid-19 and at risk of losing his or her home and make the necessary declaration. Indeed, coincidentally, we were debating the extension of the protections in this very Chamber yesterday evening.
Since August last, a landlord is also legally required to serve both the RTB and the tenant with both a 28-day warning notice - a notice period that has been increased from 14 days - seeking payment of rent arrears and also any related notice of termination that might ensue. Otherwise, the notice of termination is unlawful. I am stating that because it was a permanent change that we made last year in the legislation, with effect from 1 August. That Bill did not have unanimous support at the time. It was opposed by some in the Opposition, which, in fairness, was their right. It is a permanent change. It is most important that we are flagging rent arrears from the earliest opportunity as it arises.
On receipt of the warning notice, the RTB will acknowledge receipt to the landlord and the tenant and will provide information to the tenant to enable her or him to get advice from Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, on State income support, and will offer assistance to the tenant in obtaining this advice. The aim is to ensure that early action is taken to address rent arrears, to the benefit of both the tenant and the landlord.
As the Deputy correctly stated, the RTB received copies of 3,810 warning notices that landlords had issued to tenants in rent arrears. That is something that would not have happened but for the passing of the Acts last year that I brought forward. It also received copies of just over 1,120 notices of termination grounded on rent arrears. To put that in context, it relates to almost 300,000 tenancies. Perhaps I will expand on that and provide more detail on it, following the Deputy's supplementary question. It is an important issue and one which we must keep an eye on. I will speak more on it following the supplementary.
My question was very specific. While the information that the Minister has provided is very interesting, it does not actually address the question. I look forward to him addressing the question in his response.
The problem is as follows. The homeless figures for April 2021 show, for the first time in a long time, an increase the number of families with children in emergency accommodation. We know that the single largest cause of family homelessness is landlords issuing vacant possession notices to quit. In fact, looking at the most recent data from the RTB, they tell us that 49% of notices to quit are on grounds of sale and 24% are in cases of the landlord or landlord's family using the property. There is a real concern among front-line homeless service providers that now that the general ban on evictions has ended, we are going to see a return to the pre-Covid monthly increases in homelessness.
Specifically, I am asking the Minister that for those people who have notices to quit today, whether for rent arrears, sale of property or use of property by landlords, what is the Minister going to do to ensure that we do not see a month-on-month rise in homelessness, and in particular, family homelessness with children involved?
Homelessness is an absolute priority issue for me and the Government. Thankfully, in the last year, year-on-year, we have seen a significant reduction in homelessness, both in child and family homelessness and overall. There are issues with single person homelessness, rates of which remain stubbornly high. The overall number of people who are homeless is still far too high. All of us would agree with that assertion. The monthly figures will be published tomorrow. I have seen the preliminary figures and the trend within them is good. Having said that, it shows the challenge of the work that remains to be done in this space, particularly around the provision of permanent homes, and specifically for those to whom the Deputy has referred.
Of those who received notices of termination, 475 tenants sought protection under the self-declaration. I would ask any of those who have received a notice of termination to engage with the RTB and to look, in particular, at the protections that are there and the emergency rent supplement payments that are available.
However, it is an area that we are going to watch. Almost 300,000 tenancies were registered with the RTB by the end of 2020, and there were just over 1,120 notices of termination. Therefore, it needs to be put into context.
Again, the Minister did not answer the very specific question. The single biggest cause of the dramatic drop in family homelessness in the last year was the blanket ban on evictions. One of the first acts of Deputy O'Brien as Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage was to end that blanket ban. It was reintroduced when level 5 restrictions returned, but it ended again on 22 April 2021. That means that if landlords continue to issue vacant possession notices to quit and others, we could see a month-on-month increase in homelessness.
I am asking the Minister a very simple question. What is he going to do for those people who today have received notices to quit and who are not eligible for the very restrictive Covid-19 renters protections? What is the Minister going to do for those who have received notices to quit and are at imminent risk of eviction and, therefore, at risk of homelessness? What additional measures and interventions will be taken? Otherwise, the fear of many - not just in the Opposition but also in the homeless services sector - is that the progress made over the last 12 months, to which the Minister rightly referred, will start to be undone and homeless numbers will begin to rise.
Yesterday evening we brought forward the fifth piece of tenancy and rental legislation since I was appointed Minister. We have been to the fore in the areas of rent and protection for tenants. Last August, when exited out of the blanket ban on evictions that was in place, we did so on the basis of very strong legal advice that we had received, that any measures that we take must be proportionate. Whether Deputies want to acknowledge it or not, we must balance the rights of the property owner and, indeed, the tenant.
I said yesterday evening that I intend to bring forward substantial reforms relating to rent and tenancy reforms in the autumn but specifically for the people referred to by the Deputy. I remind him and others that when we exited the blanket eviction ban last August, there were many who predicted "a tsunami of evictions". This did not happen because the protections this Government and I brought in are targeted and proportionate, and are working. Even though only 475 people have sought that protection, the fact that they are there shows that we are serious about protecting tenants.