Seanad debates

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

2:30 pm

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Renua Ireland)
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I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for allowing me to raise the matter concerning the vacancies in public housing stock across the country, as well as the many vacancies in the private housing sector. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan, to the House.

The Government seems transfixed with rent certainty as it seems to be a cause of ongoing internal debate around the Cabinet table. However, the certainty we require concerns the supply of local authority housing and the allocation of vacant properties. Figures presented in the other House several weeks ago indicated almost 3,000 vacant local authority houses are available for repair and, hopefully, allocation. In County Cork alone, between the city and the county, there are approximately 700 such houses. It is very difficult for the tens of thousands of people on housing waiting lists to see these statistics and how 3,000 local authority houses have not yet been allocated.

Obviously, some of these houses require some degree of refurbishment. All of us as individual public representatives, however, have come across cases where houses which have become vacant are in excellent condition, almost turn key, but there is still a lengthy delay in their allocation. Recently, I inquired about a house in the Cork area which, to the very best of my knowledge, was in a condition that would make it available for letting immediately. When I asked in September whether it would be made available in October or November, I was told it would probably be next February or March. That is unacceptable. We must ensure that once a house is vacant and is in a fit condition for letting, it should be let in the immediate future. At a time when tens of thousands of people are on housing waiting lists, it is unforgivable that such vacancies occur. Will the Minister of State let me know what the Government is doing to ensure these 3,000 vacant houses will be made available to people on social housing lists as soon as possible?

There are also tens of thousands of vacant private dwellings across the country. Many of these were previously not available for letting. At a time of an acknowledged housing crisis and when rural, as well as small town and village, depopulation is a critical social problem, we have to examine all solutions. Does the Minister of State have statistics from her Department or the CSO on the number of vacant private dwellings? We have to devise some scheme to encourage the letting of these properties. While I am not a major fan of tax breaks or incentives, mainly because they have left a long disastrous legacy, we may have to look at putting schemes in place to encourage the repair and refurbishment of some of these properties for letting. There have been schemes, such as rural resettlement, which have been tremendously successful.One size does not fit all and that must be at the core of our thinking with respect to our housing problems. The Cabinet might be having internal debates about rent certainty but there is the issue of vacant local authority houses and the issue of there being probably thousands upon thousands of vacant private houses across the country. Our towns and villages are dying off. A significant number of people - although, admittedly, not the majority - on housing lists in our larger cities would be willing to take up the offer of a tenancy of a good house in a rural area if the proper procedures were put in place. We must be more joined up in our thinking in regard to the housing crisis. Tens upon tens of thousands of people are looking for houses, there are tens upon tens of thousands of vacant houses across the country and it is not good enough that we cannot marry those two statistics into a solution.

I ask the Minister of State for an update on the number of local authority and private houses that are not occupied and to indicate the Government's intentions and plans in that respect. The Government's debate on housing must stretch far beyond rent certainty and into the territory of making those houses available and getting them filled as soon as possible.

Photo of Ann PhelanAnn Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Labour)
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I thank Senator Bradford for raising this very important issue. I know that the issue of vacant local authority housing, or voids as they are called, has been a topical one, given the need to address the waiting lists and to make best use of the existing stock, while the extensive programme of new build that the Minister, Deputy Kelly, has put in place with the local authorities is advanced. The issue of voids and the reletting of them has always been an issue with elected public representatives on local authorities. The time it takes to redo a house and relet it has always been a bone of contention.

An important point to make is that there is no fixed number of vacant local authority houses. The numbers change constantly across all the 31 authorities, as tenants move in and out of social housing. General statistics on local authority housing stock, including vacant units, are published annually by the Local Government Management Agency as part of its service indicators for local authorities and are available on its website.

Recognising that there had been a build-up of vacant social houses for a number of years, in 2014 my Department introduced a new programme to support local authorities in returning voids to productive use. More than 2,333 units were remediated under that programme, which is targeted at lettable units and making them energy efficient.

For 2015, given the continuing need to make social housing available as early as possible, we are supporting local authorities to tackle another 2,500 vacant units. In addition, I should point out that local authorities also do their own work on the more routine relettings, where a lower level of expenditure is involved.

The key focus of the Minister is on ensuring that Exchequer support is made available where it is needed to complement the work that local authorities do under their own resources. The allocation of targets for a further 2,500 units this year is in response to the number of vacant, lettable units that local authorities have identified to my Department. Exchequer funding to the authorities is on condition that the accommodation will be occupied immediately following the works, with priority given to homeless families to the greatest extent possible.

In regard to privately-owned properties, there are currently in excess of 323,000 tenancies registered with the Private Residential Tenancies Board. The private rented sector has more than doubled in size in recent years with one in five households now accommodated there. My Department does not have the power to direct private property owners to let their properties.However, under the Department's housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme, eligible households can source their own accommodation in the private rented sector and rental payments are then made electronically, directly to the landlord, on behalf of the tenant. More than 4,300 households are being supported by HAP across the pilot local authority areas operating the scheme, with more than 2,000 unique HAP landlords involved in those tenancies.

In summary, therefore, the Government is responding comprehensively to the social housing challenge through the Social Housing Strategy 2020 and in respect of vacant social houses, the necessary support is being given to the local authorities to get units back into use for those on the waiting list. As for private rented accommodation, the roll-out of the HAP scheme, which is now progressing well, provides an important vehicle for ensuring that this type of accommodation can also be brought into play to assist in meeting social housing needs.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Renua Ireland)
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I thank the Minister of State for her response. I acknowledge she is concerned; the Government is concerned as is everybody else. However, we require action rather than concern. Will the Minister of State simply reflect on the fact that it is unacceptable that houses should be vacant for so long? This might require a change in the law. Certain housing applicants would be willing to move into a house and carry out minor repairs. However, houses are not being let because a lock or a pane of glass is broken or there is a minor internal difficulty. I ask the Minister of State to reflect on that.

Will her officials also examine the current housing application form? Many people apply for a council house, as they are entitled to do, to qualify for the HAP scheme but the council housing application form is detailed. It is 20 pages long and one would need a PhD. The fact that people who have lived outside the country for one month or six months or 12 months have to obtain certification from authorities abroad that they do not have properties in those countries adds greatly to delays. These blockages could be waived. The Minister of State will be aware from her time on the council that every applicant for a council house has his or her application checked by a housing officer who physically calls to him or her. I cannot understand why a 20-page form is required. When the Leas-Chathaoirleach and I were members of Cork County Council, a one-page form did the job every bit as well and it was a much quicker process. There is a great deal of daft bureaucratic red tape which should be waived and written out of the script. If we want to make progress in filling vacant houses, we have to use a little cop-on and common sense. I ask the Minister of State to examine these minor issues. A housing applicant almost requires a PhD in form filling before he or she can even submit a form to the local authority, which is unnecessary.

Photo of Ann PhelanAnn Phelan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Labour)
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I take the Senator's points. We have had discussions about using common sense and joined-up thinking. We are also considering a rural repopulation programme within rural economic development, RED, zones but that would not be on a statutory footing. It would be a voluntary repopulation programme. We are in the process of developing that.

Sitting suspended at 3.25 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.