Seanad debates

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Local Authority Housing Rents

10:30 am

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Fianna Fail)
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I, too, am disappointed that neither the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, nor the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy English, is present today. I understand the frustration of Senators, and again the Minister of State who is present is taking the rap for something that is not in his Department, but I see the frustration. I, too, live in an area where we do not get answers from the Department. I am not giving out, but I totally understand the frustration.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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The Senator should stick to her own matter.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Fianna Fail)
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This is about the discrepancies between rent caps in neighbouring counties, which mean one family pay twice as much as another living next door to them. I and other elected representatives have written to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government on this matter in the recent and historic past. I am sure this issue has arisen in many counties and townlands.

I will target my area of Carlow and its neighbour, Laois. In the townland of Graiguecullen, both local authorities share an estate. It is at the end of Carlow and borders Laois. This has been a very good arrangement and proof that working together achieves great results. This estate is one to be proud of. The issue I want to discuss is the difference between what some families are paying in local authority rents and what their neighbours are paying. Included in this discussion will be references to the housing assistance payment, HAP, and the system surrounding HAP regarding local authority housing. Residents in this shared estate under the Laois authority have their rent capped at €93 per week, but if they are a resident under the Carlow authority the cap is €180.

Added into this estate there are also a number of private houses for rent, and these households, which are in co-operative housing, should be able to apply for HAP but they are not allowed. Some of the private homes are actually co-operative homes and tenants in these cannot receive HAP. Co-operative Housing Ireland is a Government body, so why can a tenant in a Co-operative Housing Ireland house not qualify for HAP? Why are they removed from a council housing list because they are in co-operative housing? It just does not make sense that, in the midst of a housing crisis and when we have mechanisms in place to help people, that we are not helping them but pushing them into poverty. These people do not qualify for the local authority housing list so they pay €1,200 a month in rent. They cannot afford a mortgage because they do not have enough savings. I have raised the massive issue of local authority thresholds being too low to allow people to go on the housing list, but it has not been addressed, which is staggering. There are well over 1,000 people on Carlow's local authority housing list, but a review is under way so I expect the figure to be much higher.

Almost eight years ago the Department carried out a review of the social housing income threshold.For nearly a year and a half the Minister, Deputy Murphy, and the Minister of State, Deputy English, have promised that it would be reviewed. Last September, they told me that it would be ready and it has not happened. I understand the frustration and do not want to give out to the Minister of State, Deputy D'Arcy. The thresholds to qualify are unwittingly excluding people who should qualify for the social housing lists. It is unacceptable that people who are working and doing their best are caught in the net. They do not qualify to go on the local authority housing list and they do not get a mortgage. The biggest issue here is that we have one of the lowest caps for local authority housing, at €27,500, while our neighbouring counties Laois and Kilkenny are over €30,000. It is unfair. We now have a situation where if a person pays rent as a Carlow local authority tenant, that person is capped at €180 a week, compared with Laois at €93.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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The Senator has made her point and is out of time.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Fianna Fail)
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I do not know if this is getting through to the Department. When houses are next door to each other and the residents of one are paying nearly double the amount of the other, it causes aggro in an estate. People then go back to Carlow County Council and ask why they are paying so much. I ask the Minister of State to address these issues.

Photo of Michael D'ArcyMichael D'Arcy (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator. The right of local authorities to set and collect rents on their dwellings is laid down in section 58 of the Housing Act 1966. The making or amending of rent schemes under section 58 is an executive function and is subject to broad principles laid down by the Department, including that the rent payable should be related to income and a smaller proportion of income should be required from low-income households; that provision should be included for the acceptance of a lower rent than that required under the terms of the scheme in exceptional cases where payment of the normal rent would give rise to hardship; and that appropriate local factors should be taken into account, including the costs of the maintenance and management of the stock of rented dwellings and the adequacy of the rental income to meet such costs.

Since 1986, when rent setting was devolved to individual local authorities, different approaches have been taken to rent charging and setting throughout the country. There are 36 separate differential rents schemes in operation nationwide. While local authorities generally follow the household means policy, there is variation in the extent to which they apply the income disregards set out in that policy in that differential rent schemes and differing approaches are taken to certain forms of income, such as the working family payment and the carer's allowance. With regard to caps on rent, a majority of local authorities impose a maximum amount of rent payable under this scheme for different property types, while a significant minority do not impose any such maximum rents.

Considerable work has been carried out by the Department in developing a draft national differential rents framework for the purposes of section 31 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009. Such a framework has as its main aim the harmonisation of local authority rents, including a set of standardised income disregards, while retaining the general principle of rents related to household income. This work is being examined further in the light of the broader commitment given in Rebuilding Ireland - Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness to review the disparate systems of differential rent for social housing in place across local authorities. The overall objective is to ensure that housing supports are fair and sustainable and prioritise those on low incomes. It is expected that the review will be completed in the near future. At that point, any proposed changes to existing rent arrangements will be brought to Government as part of a wider social housing reform package of measures that it is hoped will be finalised in the coming months.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Fianna Fail)
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I will wait for the review because it is important. We will pass legislation today on the Residential Tenancies Board. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and all other parties are working together on that to help people. A smaller county such as Carlow has fallen down because our central government funding is so low, our business rates are higher, and the cap on housing is €180, which is very high for local authority housing. Services have to be provided. The Minister of State knows that local authorities have to provide services to each area. Since Carlow is so small, unless the cap and threshold for local authorities are right, the housing crisis will be made worse. I thank the Minister of State for coming in. I know it is not his remit. He got a bit of an earful today. I will be waiting for the review.

Photo of Michael D'ArcyMichael D'Arcy (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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While it is not my Department, I spent time on Wexford County Council and I know the area that the Senator is talking about well. I know that there are areas throughout the country with towns which are in two counties. Bunclody and Carrickduff are the best example between Carlow and Wexford. I was not aware that there were joint estates such as the estate the Senator is talking about. That is a specific example of where there is unfairness. It seems from the response I read out that flexibility is available to the executive of Laois County Council to vary that. If flexibility is there, I am very strong on it being applied in a fair manner. On too many occasions, we as politicians are told by civil servants that we cannot do that. The flexibility is there and it should be applied. It is grossly wrong that if there is an estate between two local authorities, if there are similar houses of the same value, and people potentially working in the same venue in the town, that they are paying different rents out of their own pocket. That is not fair. There is no version of justice where that is right. This suggests that there is flexibility for senior executives, the housing director in Carlow and the housing director in Laois. If that cannot be concluded between them, then the managers or chief executive officers of both should be brought in because that is patently wrong.

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State. That is a great answer.

Sitting suspended at 11.10 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.