Wednesday, 1 December 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 19 to 24, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on housing has met eight times to date in 2021 and will meet again next week on Monday, 6 December. The committee works to ensure a co-ordinated approach to the delivery of programme for Government commitments regarding housing and related matters. The focus of recent meetings has been on progressing the Housing for All plan. It is the most ambitious housing plan in the history of our State and contains a range of actions and measures to ensure more than 300,000 new homes are built by 2030. This figure includes 90,000 social, 36,000 affordable purchase and 18,000 cost rental homes. The plan includes measures to support availability of the land, workforce, funding and capacity to enable both the public and private sectors to meet the targets. The actions outlined in the plan are backed by more than €4 billion in annual guaranteed State investment in housing over the coming years, including through Exchequer funding and Land Development Agency and Housing Finance Agency investment.
Through Housing for All, we will also continue to support our most vulnerable, including those experiencing homelessness and who have more complex housing needs. The plan will provide the basis for a long-term sustainable housing system for this and future generations and supports the ambitions of the climate action plan through measures on retrofitting and waste reduction. The committee supports a strong focus on delivery of the Housing for All plan. A delivery group of Secretaries General oversees implementation, and a unit in my Department oversees the cross-government implementation of the plan. The next quarterly report, due in the new year, will set out performance against the targets and actions in the plan for quarter 4.
The Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2021 went through the Seanad last week and is in the Dáil this week. It is the Government's latest effort to deal with this issue. We have been calling for a rent freeze of three years or more and I urge the Taoiseach to consider it. I do not buy any of the argument about it being unconstitutional. I know because I got the constitutional advice from the then Attorney General. Our housing spokesperson, Senator Moynihan, has highlighted a major flaw in the latest Bill. While the Minister is seeking to limit rent increases to 2% a year or in line with inflation, whichever is lower, landlords will be able to increase rents by multiples of that if they have not applied the previous increases in the previous years. The Labour Party tabled an amendment on this in the Seanad but it was defeated by the Government. If a landlord has not raised the rent in the preceding five years because he or she was being sound, it is then possible to raise it all in one go. This is farcical and completely unfair and wrong. I ask the Taoiseach, please, to accept amendments in the Dáil. If there is not a rent cap, we are, in essence, allowing landlords to increase rents by multiples of the allowable amount over a number of years. It is genuinely not fair and it is misleading. I ask that he please consider it. I believe it will be a big vote in here when it comes in.
The Minister has sought expressions of interest for nine appointments to the commission on housing. Will they be State board appointments, going through the normal appointments process, or will they be appointed directly by the Minister?
To follow up on the previous question, the issue around private emergency accommodation is that, taking Dublin as an example, approximately half of the accommodation is provided by tried and trusted not-for-profit partners of the local authorities, with the other half, in recent years, provided by privately run operators, some of which have no experience or qualifications whatsoever in this area. I raised a particular instance in respect of which complaints have gone in, but it is a systemic problem, with half of the provision not regulated or subject to proper inspections by HIQA, as called for by the Oireachtas housing committee, and staff not being Garda vetted. I am not tarring all private providers with the same brush here. There is a variance in standards but there is a problem in terms of the whole sector not being properly regulated. That has to be addressed.
The recommendations of the housing committee from earlier this year, which have not been implemented at all, must be implemented in full. In addition, the quality standards that were brought in for all homes providers need to be applied to privately run emergency accommodation. Providers cannot just be allowed to carry on as they are, with some appalling practices in place in some of them. I am asking the Taoiseach and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to address this. It is not fair that people who are vulnerable and trying to get out of homelessness, including some who are recovering from addiction or trying to get out of addiction, are in these situations.
Does the Taoiseach accept that rents are too high? If he does, and I think most objective people would accept the premise that rents in this State are far too high, then he will have to accept that his Government's record on controlling rent costs has been abysmal. I could go back through all the successive Ministers with responsibility for housing who have failed, including Deputy Kelly, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and Eoghan Murphy.
Let us deal with the current Minister.
We do not even need to go back that far. In May this year, the Minister brought forward proposals that would cap rent increases at 4%. There was a provision to allow landlords who had not previously increased rents to accumulate an increase in one go. An increase of 8% was permissible. When he realised that had failed, he brought forward a proposal that would link rent to the cost of inflation. Even though he was told by Deputy Ó Broin and others that inflation would surpass 4%, he proceeded anyway. We are now back for a third go with this. He has proposed a cap of 2%, but again it includes a crucial loophole that will allow landlords, according to some reports, to increase rents to by up to 5.9%. Will the Taoiseach accept that what is now required is a rent freeze and measures put in place to reduce rents for hard-working families and workers who are crippled by the failure of this Government and successive Governments to address the rental crisis we face?
At the risk of blowing our own trumpet on this issue, we have always said that whether it was inflation, rent freezes or anything else proposed by Government or Opposition parties, it would not work because rents were already too high. We need to set rents. The obvious gap relates to any new property. The Government said we will solve the problem by increasing supply, but any cap or freeze is meaningless because landlords can set whatever rents they like for any new properties. We need to set rents at affordable levels. Unless we do that, rent will continue to climb, even if there is new supply.
I have to be honest. I will plague the Taoiseach on this issue. I have raised the income thresholds for eligibility for social housing with the Taoiseach last week and the week before. I have raised this with the Minister. There has been review after review and promise after promise but nothing has been done. I understand there are now four cases in my area alone of people in homeless accommodation who are being threatened with homelessness. In fairness, the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, intervened in one of the cases to stop the immediate threat of a family being put out onto the street, but the fundamental problem remains. The local authority has said the rules are such that it is required to put people out of homeless accommodation when they go above the income threshold. We need to raise the income threshold immediately.
The Government is operating at a snail's pace when it comes to retrofitting housing across the country to improve insulation and building energy ratings, BERs. A new element of the problem was highlighted to me last week. In Limerick, much of the council housing retrofitting is being done through the regeneration thermal upgrades programme but it is not being done to the level necessary to meet Government targets. While the climate action plan sets a target of 600,000 homes to be raised to a B grade, it turns out that Limerick City and County Council is planning on retrofitting homes in Southill and elsewhere next year to bring them up to only a C level. That seems ludicrous and could mean that the homes will need a further retrofit in a few years to bring them up to a B level. Does the Taoiseach agree that all retrofitting of council housing taking place now should be done to ensure that B rating, improve energy efficiency, tackle fuel property and help us to meet our climate targets? Will he intervene with Limerick City and County Council and urge it to adopt this improved standard?
Deputy Kelly was first into the fray in terms of the overall rent situation and the potential for multiple increases for those who did not increase rents over the past while. First, we should acknowledge there are landlords who did not increase rents. We will reflect on this, but the point is that we can incentivise increases very quickly by not accepting the bona fides of those who have not increased rents to date for existing tenants, something which has helped them. Ultimately, on the rental side supply is vital. I do not think we can simply set targets to the degree suggested by Deputy Boyd Barrett. There is no guarantee of supply after that if we are being honest.
In terms of Deputy Carthy's position, Sinn Féin is the establishment in Northern Ireland and has been in government there for a long time. The situation is even worse in many respects in the North. It has not managed to achieve anything in terms of rent reductions. I happen to think that Sinn Féin's policies-----
I have been in government for a year and a half. We have identified the housing crisis as a key priority. We have to build more houses. All I see in Sinn Féin's policies is policies to win votes and not policies to provide solutions.
What Sinn Féin is advocating would depress supply. We need more supply. We do not need measures that would depress supply. That is my view. Supply is key. The Minister has made efforts and has introduced legislation to deal with this. We have been hit with a current wave of inflation-----
We are going to respond to that. The Minister has been responsive and nimble in that particular issue.
On the social housing income thresholds, I have indicated they are under review. I have sympathy with the position of the Deputy on it and we will continue to bring the matter to a conclusion.
Deputy Murphy raised the issue of retrofitting houses. We also need to get on with it. I take his point that retrofitting should be at the standards laid out in Housing for All. I will check out what is happening in Limerick. We need to get on with it. Councils have been quite good. I have seen what has been done in Knocknaheeny, Hollyhill and other parts of my city where the city council has retrofitted houses.
If we give councils the resources, they will do more of it. We need to get on with it because it will help with energy costs, better quality housing and so forth for tenants.
I hope the case mentioned by Deputy O'Callaghan has been referred to the Garda, because it should. I take his point. Obviously over recent years, to be fair to everybody concerned, there was a need to ramp up emergency accommodation to deal with families, including families who come into the country at short notice and require emergency accommodation. There is no excuse for poor or low quality standards. The dignity of the human being must be uppermost at all times in terms of the provision of emergency accommodation and housing. I will speak to the Minister and alert him to the concerns and points the Deputy has raised, which concern me, in terms of how homeless people in one particular centre the Deputy has identified have been treated. These are serious allegations on which we need to follow up.
On Deputy Kelly's point, we will reflect on it but there will be a number of considerations. I will revert to him on the specifics of the housing commission in terms of appointments. There will be a public appointment element to that. We need to make sure it is a broadly representative group in terms of the various sectors of expertise around housing that would be reflected in the composition of the commission.
I have dealt with almost all of the questions.