Thursday, 23 June 2022
Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
As the Minister is aware, the homeless figures released by the Minister’s Department for April saw yet another significant increase in adult and child homelessness in respect of emergency accommodation funded by the Minister’s Department. There were an extra 91 adults and 133 children, which is a month-on-month increase from March to April of 224 people. We are now back above the significant mark of 10,000 people being in this position. Based on the current trajectory, we could hit the figure of having 11,000 people in emergency accommodation funded by the Minister’s Department by the end of the summer. Will the Minister outline what additional measures he intends to take to halt and reverse this worrying trend?
The recent increase in homelessness is of great concern to me and to the Government, as it is to all Members of the House. I assure the House that we are doing everything in our power to tackle this problem. As the Deputy is aware, I established the national homeless action committee, which I chair and which is made up of representatives from my Department, all the State agencies and the NGOs, to ensure that we address prevention and exits from homelessness. In addition to the measures already in place, to get to the Deputy’s specific question, I am working with my Government colleagues and with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to provide for an increase in the housing assistance payment, HAP, discretionary rate to 35%. This has been agreed by the Government and will be implemented shortly. The couple’s rate will also be extended to single persons for new tenancies. This again is another significant change and it will secure more tenancies and prevent more entries into homelessness.
Furthermore, in the Seanad this week, I will bring forward some changes to the notice-to-quit period to alleviate some of these pressures. The Government also recently approved a pilot expansion that will open the repair and lease scheme to a wider range of owners. These properties will be available for social housing. My Department has also approved the reintroduction of the place finder fee incentive by the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive, DRHE. This will be payable where suitable properties are made available exclusively to homeless families through the DRHE place finders team and not advertised on websites or elsewhere. Targeted measures such as these, along with the provision of more homes, and the crucial point is that we must increase the supply of social homes, are key to meeting the challenge of eradicating homelessness. To this end, as the Deputy will know, we are investing significantly in social and affordable housing, with record funding allocated for current and capital expenditure this year.
Monday is the second anniversary of the formation of this Government and of the Minister being elevated to his portfolio. In these two years, homelessness has increased by 16%. Since the Covid-19 related ban on evictions was ended last April, we have seen a 24% increase in the official figures for homelessness. We are perilously close to having 5,000 single adults in emergency accommodation, which would be the highest figure since records began. We have also had an alarming increase, not under the auspices of the Minister’s Department, but that of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, of former asylum applicants who got their leave to remain here but who are now trapped in direct provision, which is essentially being used as emergency accommodation. Our hotel system is also enormously overstretched.
The modest changes the Minister has made to the HAP are welcome, but they can only work if there are HAP properties available to rent, which there are not. Likewise, the changes to the notice-to-quit period, while welcome, are not going to change the fundamental problem of an accelerating level of notices to quit and presentations in this regard. What I would like to hear from the Minister is something that gives an indication of the urgency of the crisis we are facing over the summer, and the minor measures the Minister has announced so far do not do that. Therefore, is anything else under consideration to help us reverse this trend in the coming months?
I share the Deputy's concerns and I am acutely aware of our responsibilities in this regard. We must accelerate the supply of social homes. We are going to build more social homes this year than in any year since the foundation of the State. This is welcome, but also badly needed. I am also targeting a new voids programme for each local authority that will be fully funded. I have asked the local authorities to be mindful of the allocation of those void properties and to look specifically at our homeless list. As the Deputy will know, I have also reinstituted the purchase of homes with tenants in situacross the country. This is not just in the context of the Dublin City Council, DCC, scheme, which previously operated. I have removed the cap in this regard. I want our councils to build more. We all do. In the current climate as well, when we can sustain a tenancy in a situation where a landlord is selling a property - how we can try to stem the flow of mom-and-pop landlords leaving the market is another matter we can have a debate on - I have also removed any restrictions on local authorities buying homes with tenants in situto prevent those tenants from becoming homeless. Approval is not needed from me or my Department for each case in this regard. I have devolved this power directly to the local authorities.
There is still some confusion and inconsistency among local authorities regarding tenants in situ. Following requests from many of us, I welcome that the Minister has amended this provision. The Minister could go one step further and issue a circular to say that, given the escalating level of presentations, the Minister is insisting that local authorities purchase properties where tenants receiving HAP or rental accommodation scheme, RAS, payments are in situ. I think some local authorities will apply criteria that are too restrictive, while others will apply criteria that are less restrictive. Given the crisis we have, this would be a mistake and addressing this is something useful the Minister could do.
Likewise, the Minister could also reconsider the Government's opposition to the Focus Ireland amendment to restrict vacant possession notices to quit in respect of landlords who availed of section 23 tax reliefs. The Minister could also revisit the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (Extension of Notice Periods) Bill 2021 devised in conjunction with the Simon Communities, which we passed on Second Stage in December 2021, and work it into his own legislation to accelerate the requirement for local authorities to have homeless prevention plans in place before a notice to quit expires. I would also like the Minister to confirm when he will publish the social housing output report. Halfway through this year, how close is the Minister to meeting half the figure of 9,500 new build social homes, which is the target in the plan?
Sorry, the target for this year is 9,000 new build homes, and this is just on the new build side of things. To speak directly to the issue of the purchase of properties with tenants in situ, I have also established our housing delivery team, which is made up of representatives of our local authorities. I have made it abundantly clear to all of them, and through the County and City Management Association, CCMA, and the Local Government Management Agency, LGMA, as well, that they are to purchase homes with tenants in situwhere there is a risk of homelessness. We have reiterated this point. On foot of the Deputy’s question today, I have no difficulty going back to do so again, but we are watching this situation on a weekly basis. Local authorities know this. There is no barrier to them undertaking such purchases.
Regarding the Simon Communities amendment, what we are doing this week in the Seanad is a response to the issue of the expansion of notice-to-quit periods for certain tenancies.
We work very closely with Wayne Stanley and others on that. That will be a significant change. Fundamentally, our response to homelessness has to be housing led. That is why I am accelerating the delivery of social housing by building and buying more and using every lever we have to provide more supply to be able to exit people from homelessness. The preventative measures we brought forward will have an effect.