Tuesday, 14 May 2019
Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2018: Second Stage
I welcome the Minister and his officials to the House. This is one of the most important pieces of legislation, and I am glad to see it here today. I know I have been very strongly critical of the Government's response to the housing crisis and rising homelessness, but I acknowledge that this Bill is a necessary, positive step in the right direction. It moves the balance slightly away from landlords and towards tenants, ensuring greater protection in renting. This is vital if we want to stop the number of people being evicted into homelessness and tackle the precarious situation so many families are facing.
I am happy to see an increase in the sanctioning powers of the RTB and the penalties available, in particular the extension of criminal liability to landlords who break the rules. If the RTB is to do its work, it has to have teeth and be able to enforce the rules set by the Oireachtas. Yesterday's daft.ie report, along with the stories we all hear from people throughout the country, show that this has not been the case.The Residential Tenancies Board could be stronger and better resourced but this is a welcome step. The extension to cover student accommodation and the increased notice rights for tenants are also important. We all know that a key function of this House is to review legislation passed by the Dáil and to see where it can be improved. In that spirit, I will not speak at length about the welcome measures included in the Bill, which I recognise and acknowledge. Instead, I want to focus on issues that still need attention. I will address some of these areas on Committee Stage and Report Stage and will table amendments along with my colleagues in the Civil Engagement group.
We have been speaking to Threshold about the legislation as it stands. I share its view on section 34(b) and the problem with the ongoing issue of no-reason evictions. A landlord is able currently to terminate a Part 4 tenancy after four or six years with no reason given. There are situations where a family with young children have been living in a property for almost a decade, paying their rent, and they are removed through no fault of their own. This is a horrendous situation to be in and the stress that it causes is beyond terrible. We will not have a healthy, secure rental sector unless people are able to plan and look forward. Rebuilding Ireland has committed to moving towards indefinite tenure but that is not reflected here. Landlords need to understand that they are not selling a normal, everyday product. It is not a packet of crisps. It is an essential social good that people need to survive. It is the difference between a child having a normal, decent life where he or she can grow and develop, or sleeping in a car. It is right that there are restrictions and protections in place because this is not a market like any other. We are dealing with an essential social good and we must not forget that.
We need to address the issue of deposits. My colleague, Senator Kelleher, has worked very hard on this. Very sensible amendments were tabled in the Dáil by Deputy Jan O'Sullivan. The Minister should reconsider and accept them. Like other European countries, we need to address the situation whereby landlords demand two or three months' rent upfront as a deposit, which is unacceptable. The Minister said he agrees in principle that deposits should be capped at one month and that this will be addressed in legislation coming later in the year. I do not see any good reason it cannot be included here.
We can do more on rent transparency. If we want the rent pressure zones to be effective, tenants need to be able to access a proper register and see the rent increase for properties relative to the previous rent. I know the Minister is committed to this in principle but apparently there are legal issues. Could more detail be provided on what the Attorney General has said? What constitutional or statutory rights would be impacted, especially if efforts were made to make it anonymous? Does Ireland have stronger rights in this area compared with other countries that stop us from publishing these data? I am worried that legal advice will take the path of least resistance and tend to be more conservative. It would be good to get more detail on this point. These issues could be addressed through amendments. If the political will is there, we should look for cross-party consensus on common-sense changes that could improve an already strong Bill.
I hope to work with the Minister on this. In general, I welcome the legislation and the protection that it brings. However, we have to acknowledge that this will not address the root cause of the current crisis. We read the reports from daft.ieand we see how fast rents are rising despite pressure zones. The fundamental problem is a lack of supply of housing. Dublin alone needs approximately 80,000 new homes, and reliance on the private sector for construction just will not provide it. We urgently need the State to invest in social and affordable housing. The reality is that it is often cheaper to buy a house and pay off the mortgage than it is to rent. This compounds inequality throughout the country.
If one considers two couples at the same stages in their lives with roughly similar but modest incomes, both of them can just about afford to pay the rent each month and then cover other essential expenses such as childcare, healthcare and food. They are just getting by. The first couple, however, is lucky enough to have access to cash, whether a loan from their parents or an inheritance. It means that they can cover a deposit and take out a mortgage. At this point, the situation starts to change radically. They now pay €300 or €400 less per month than they would if they were renting, meaning more disposable income every week and the capacity to save. This money is also going straight into the solid asset that they can keep as opposed to going into the black hole of a landlord's pocket. It can be recouped to an extent. Meanwhile, the second couple is stuck despite a similar income and capacity to pay. The terrible state of the rental market means that they just cannot save because they do not have family wealth. Getting a deposit is impossible. They are stuck renting with no real way out of it. They are left in a precarious position with all the worry and stress that comes with it. How can a couple raise a young family in that situation? This is how inequality is compounded in this country and it builds over time. Our broken housing system makes it worse. It shuts out those without wealth.
If we are serious about fixing this, we need a proper supply of social and affordable housing. It is not just about scoring political points. I fully recognise the positive steps taken here but we need to address the root cause. We need an ambitious programme of investment in social and affordable housing and an end to the reliance on the private sector and the motive of profit to provide. It is not working and we have to change our thinking about housing. It is an essential social good, such as education or healthcare. It is time for the State to step up and ensure that it is provided.