Seanad debates

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2018: Second Stage

 

2:30 pm

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Fianna Fail)

It is good to have the Minister in the House. I have great concerns about particular issues he raised. On rent pressure zones, it worries me that County Carlow which has two of the best third level colleges in the country is not included among them. The issue has been raised with me on numerous occasions and I am weary asking the Minister why it is the case. I will return to the issue, about which I have massive concerns. It is one of the biggest in the context of the Bill.

It now costs more to service a rental bill than a mortgage. This situation where massive portions of take-home pay are being devoured by skyrocketing rents must not continue or it will cost far more in the future. According to today's edition of The Irish Times, the number of landlords increased by almost 350 in the past year, in spite of warnings that many landlords were afraid to re-enter the market owing to new regulations and that we had to exercise caution in that regard. The article referred to figures compiled by the Residential Tenancies Board which revealed an average monthly rent payment of €1,366 in January 2019. It also referred to data from daft.iewhich indicated that only 2,700 homes were available to rent on 1 May, the lowest figure recorded in 13 years.

There are massive issues in the rental sector and we need legislation to respond to them. Fianna Fáil supports the legislation which draws on the Bill published by it which aims to strengthen the RTB to hold landlords to account and expand the rent pressure zones designated period for a further three years, particularly in the case of student accommodation, which is very important.It is not enough. This Bill does not go far enough at all. I have massive concerns. Much more needs to be done to get to grips with the rent crisis. We need to move to a system of building more homes. We are talking about local authorities, rent pressure zones and various agencies, including the RTB, but unless there is supply, it does not matter how much legislation we bring in, it will not work. We have to try this in the short term, but we need to do it. With regard to allowing for long leases, we need to support landlords but also tenants. We seem to be borrowing pieces from the rental systems of every other country, but we have our own system here and we need to find solutions for our own country. I welcome the move to apply the rent pressure zone regulations to student accommodation and plans to roll out rent transparency. I see the Minister is rolling this out in Dublin and in other areas, but he needs to confirm whether it will cover my own area, about which I have massive concerns.

Much more is needed if the national scandal of homelessness is to be addressed. We need additional investment in a cost rental system that will offer accommodation to workers on ordinary incomes who fall above the threshold for social housing but who are crippled by spiralling rents. Further practical steps such as a national rent deposit scheme, local authority quality certificates for accommodation and incentives to provide accommodation above shops are also required. That is so important. There are vacant units over shops in our towns and villages that could be used as rental accommodation, but the incentive is not there and no proper scheme was put in place so landlords did not take the opportunity.

Dublin remains the most expensive place to rent with average monthly costs now at €1,620, representing an increase of €141 on the same period last year. According to thedaft.iereport, Dublin rent levels are now 36% higher than they were during the previous boom more than ten years ago. Rent pressure zones have not been effective because the underlying problem of lack of supply remains and because these zones were self-policed. It was unrealistic to expect tenants to argue with a landlord over prices they were quoted. We need a radical overhaul.

I welcome this Bill as it strengthens tenants' rights by empowering the RTB and making rent levels more transparent. Again, however, supply is the key and addressing this issue is the only way forward. We cannot operate on the basis of catching up. Our rental sector is relatively young and we are learning as we go, but we need to step up the pace. This Bill will not, by itself, solve the rental crisis. Ultimately, boosting supply will be critical to meet the growing demand, particularly in areas hit by the housing crisis but also throughout the country.

Budget 2019 was not a landlord's budget. Our rental market needs landlords if it is to work. It does not incentivise landlords to stay in the system. Some 40,000 landlords left the system from 2012 to 2018, 4,000 of whom left in the past 12 months. We need to keep these in the system or there will be fewer units available to rent and rents will rise. Mortgage interest relief is targeted at small landlords with two units or fewer to keep them in the system. We need additional tax measures such as local property tax relief and commercial rates relief for accommodation above shops to keep them in the system. The Minister needs to give some incentive in this area and he is not doing so.

The Government has been playing around with a cost rental pilot project since 2015 but has not put a single brick in place yet. This needs to be escalated and expanded to allow workers on ordinary incomes to access quality and affordable accommodation. A national deposit scheme would help avoid disagreements with landlords over deposits while a quality accommodation certificate would boost the quality of the rental stock.

I am happy to support some of this Bill. More needs to be done. There are so many questions. Why are some areas in rent pressure zones and others are not? I have asked several times why accommodation in some counties qualifies when neighbouring accommodation across the road in another county does not. The RTB has been very helpful but it needs more powers. How many staff has the Minister given it? Who is going to enforce this legislation? When we introduce Bills, we need to make sure they are enforced. It has always been the same. People who had spent longer than three or four years in a rented accommodation were always entitled to six or seven months' notice if they were to be evicted. This notice could not be given on a normal piece of paper. It had to be given through a solicitor or the courts. That has always been part of the legislation, but it has never been enforced. We need to start enforcing tenants' rights. We have good tenants and good landlords but we have to solve our housing crisis.

We have a massive housing crisis. The Minister is trying his best to solve some of it, but if he does not put rent pressure zones in every local authority and if he does not give more staffing to the RTB, this will fail. One of the biggest issues that the Minister is not addressing, and I have said this on several occasions, is the need for local authorities to have more power. Most local authorities have no power anymore. The Minister needs to give them power and to make sure they have enough staff to check accommodations. There is not enough. The Minister should put more money into the issue and should be able to come back in six months with figures for how many houses the 31 local authorities have inspected. That is not happening. In fairness to the local authorities, they are doing their best but the Minister needs to step in. We can bring in all the rules and regulations we like, but unless the Minister sorts out rent pressure zones in every local authority area, gives more power to the RTB, makes sure these provisions are enforced by tenants and landlords, and allows local authorities to play a bigger part, we will have an issue.

I do not want to be negative. There are good parts to this Bill. We in Fianna Fáil will be tabling some amendments tomorrow, for which we will be seeking the Minister's support.

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