Tuesday, 16 June 2015
Private Rented Accommodation Provision
I welcome the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Coffey.
I raise the issue of the future of the private housing rental sector in this country. I am doing so, in one sense, in the context of the immediate and current crisis but what we need is not simply a debate and a partial or short-term solution to the crisis, but a more long-term strategy about the future of the private rental sector in this country. While a Commencement debate here in the Seanad is a positive start, I will certainly be asking in the broader confines of Seanad time that we will have a more substantive debate where ideas and suggestions can be put forward.
If we are to plan for a proper housing market in this country in the future in a sustainable and affordable fashion and respond to different housing types and needs recognising that housing solutions of the 1970s and 1980s are not entirely appropriate to the Ireland of today, we must recognise that there must be a major place, as part of the national housing strategy solution, for the private rental market. It is fair to observe that the rental market and private tenancies up to now have been very much the second-rate cousins in policy in the housing Department. Perhaps it is part of the Irish mentality, shared, perhaps, in Britain and a few other countries worldwide, about the fixation with house ownership. I refer to the concept that unless one owns one's house one is somehow not a full participate in society. We need to radically overhaul that concept. We need to look across the continent of Europe and beyond. We need to look at dynamic societies where, not a minority, but a majority of citizens and families live in private rented accommodation long term and have an alternative use for the capital sums which otherwise would be invested in home ownership. Such sums or the leftovers can be used, for example, for education or setting up small enterprise. We have a society where people invest a considerable amount of their disposable income in the concept of homeownership and we must look beyond that as we plan a housing strategy for the future.
It is also fair to observe that, from the perspective of the equation between landlord and tenant, it has become much too easy to see the landlord as a type of Scrooge figure extracting the last euro or cent from an unfortunate tenant, and that is not always the case. There are many thousands of good landlords across the country just as there are many tens of thousands of good tenants. We need to set in place fair but firm legislation on the rights of landlords and tenants. Beyond that, we need to change the thinking about home ownership to ensure that the concept of long-term rental accommodation with secure tenancy and fair and balanced rents and rent reviews are part of the housing agenda. We must move away from previous housing policies of building to sell and of encouraging people to buy to very different solutions.
Threshold is holding a conference today. I heard some of the advance media presentations. It is putting forward some interesting ideas. We have to approach this issue from a blank canvas and attempt to change the thinking of Irish people on home ownership and where families live and how communities thrive and interact. The private rental sector and the rental market, whether private rental or social housing, should play a much more significant role. It requires planning but above all, it requires a change of attitude and a change of emphasis from the Department down through the planning sector to the construction industry. We need to engage with the public in order that it will see a different concept of living for communities and families into the future.
I look forward to the initial response of the Minister of State but it would not be fair of me to expect a comprehensive solution today. I am aware of the short-term issue he is attempting to address and that is necessary. I ask the Minister of State today and, I hope, in a full debate in the near future to look beyond the short term to the medium to long term to begin the process where our housing stock and home ownership will be looked on differently and where the rental sector can play not only an economic but a social role in building the country.
I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I reassure him there will be ample opportunity to debate the wider medium-term and long-term issues in terms of housing in the Seanad in the coming weeks.
The private rented sector is an important element of the housing market, with the proportion of households in the sector almost doubling in the period 2006-2011. The Residential Tenancies Act 2004 regulates the landlord-tenant relationship in the sector and sets out the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants. The Residential Tenancies (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012 is currently before the Oireachtas and will amend the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 to provide for the inclusion of the approved housing body, AHB, sector within the remit of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, the introduction of a new procedure to deal with non-payment of rent, and the introduction of a tenancy deposit protection scheme. The Bill is due to return to Seanad for Committee Stage in the coming weeks when I look forward to further debate.
I recognise that rent increases, especially in Dublin and the other major cities, are leading to difficulties for lower income households. A shortage of supply is at the heart of rising rents and the Government is addressing this on a number of fronts. Construction 2020: A Strategy for a Renewed Construction Sector, published last year, is aimed at addressing issues in the property and construction sectors and ensuring that any bottlenecks that might impede the sector in meeting residential and non-residential demand are addressed. This evening I will introduce the Urban Regeneration and Housing Bill 2015 in the Dáil. I look forward to debating this Bill also in this House in the coming weeks. It will be a further opportunity for more engaged debate.
Addressing the supply shortfall in housing will take time but in the period since the publication of Construction 2020, some welcome signs of recovery in the sector have become evident. Particularly notable in this regard is the increase in the number of house completions in 2014 to more than 11,000 units nationally - an increase of 33% on the 2013 figure. The latest figures for new house completions show that 2,629 units were completed in the first three months of 2015, up 26% on the corresponding figure for the first quarter of 2014.
In respect of planning applications and projects in the system, there was a 29% increase in the first five months of this year in comparison with the same period last year. Also, there are 3,500 commencement notices for projects submitted nationally. Social housing is a key priority for the Government, as evidenced by the additional €2.2 billion in funding announced for social housing in budget 2015 and the publication of the social housing strategy 2020. The strategy provides the basis for a concerted and co-ordinated approach to social housing provision and contains an action plan with detailed objectives and timelines. It also includes a commitment to developing a national policy on the private rented sector aimed at increasing investment in and supporting the supply of good quality, secure and affordable accommodation in the sector.
The National Economic and Social Council report, Ireland's Rental Sector: Pathways to Secure Occupancy and Affordable Supply, which was published last month, is a welcome and timely contribution to the debate around the rental sector. The report calls for more secure occupancy for tenants, including greater rent certainty as well as measures to increase the supply of rental housing. The recommendations put forward in this report will be considered carefully in the context of framing any measures in respect of the rental market. My overriding objective is to achieve stability and sustainability in the market for the benefit of tenants, landlords and society as a whole.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. This is the beginning of a much more substantive debate on housing policy. I read with satisfaction his closing comment that his objective is to work on behalf of tenants, landlords and society as a whole. My concern is that sometimes the person who holds the Minister of State's position, which is very important, sees himself or herself not as the Minister for housing, but as the Minister for the construction industry. As a society, we urgently need to draw a firm line between what some people see as a very straightforward black and white construction industry and what I see as the need for an industry to provide housing for families and societies. I am not being critical, but in the Minister of State's first days and weeks in his current role the Construction Industry Federation held a function that he, rightly, attended. I read remarks afterwards from one of the speakers introducing him, who noted that the construction industry had its Minister again. I do not want to see him as the construction industry Minister but as the person responsible for ensuring that families across the country can be provided with social, affordable, or private housing, or whatever is the appropriate mix.
We need to be careful where we go in the future and that a step into the future is not a repeat of the past. Government policy and Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government policy were set very strongly and negatively for too long by some of the bigger players and the louder voices in the construction sector. The voices the Minister of State needs to listen to now are the voices of the hundreds of thousands of people across the country who are looking for a housing solution and who want to see a proper balance of social, private and affordable rental accommodation. His ears are open in that regard, from what I know of him, but I want to hear about him as the housing Minister, not as a quasi-spokesperson for the construction industry. I thank him for his response. He will be back in the Seanad debating other housing Bills and we will continue what I think will be a positive engagement.
I welcome the opportunity to respond to some of the points raised by Senator Bradford and to reassure him regarding the perception he might have that I am a Minister for the construction industry. That is not true. I am the Minister of State with special responsibility for the co-ordination of the Construction 2020 strategy, which is a Government strategy, adopted in the best interests of society, on how best to provide houses. I further reassure the Senator that we now have the Housing Agency, which is an independent organisation with professional expertise available to it in terms of planning, analysing demographics, and making recommendations to Government to inform policy and infrastructure investments. The Housing Agency is working with my Department to identify where demand is real, the types of units that are needed. The local authorities, the approved housing bodies, and many other stakeholders, including the construction sector, are required to develop and deliver that infrastructure.
Second Stage of the Urban Regeneration and Housing Bill, to which I briefly referred, will be taken in the Dáil this evening. The Senator will welcome the debate when the Bill is before this House and will find there are measures in it that the construction sector is not happy about. The Part V element remains because we want to see social housing units being developed and we are removing the flexibility which the construction sector previously had whereby they could give cash payments to local authorities in lieu of housing units. That was opposed by the construction sector but we need housing units. There are also concerns in the construction sector about the vacant site levy but the Government feels we must regenerate sites of high potential in our cities and towns which already have public infrastructure lying at the footpath in order to maximise the investment that has already been made by the taxpayer.
These are measures that I and the Government are taking to generally improve the availability of houses and not necessarily to improve the lot of developers and the construction sector. They will, however, generally improve construction jobs and the delivery of affordable, quality houses which is what we want for all our citizens.