Seanad debates

Friday, 26 February 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Local Authority Housing

10:30 am

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I want to raise an issue which resonates right across the country. It concerns income thresholds for social housing. I have a simple request for the Minister of State.The Government must urgently raise the income limits for social housing. I was concerned by the reply of the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to a parliamentary question last November in which he stated that the current income eligibility requirements provide for a fair and equitable system of identifying the households facing the greatest challenge in meeting their accommodation needs from their own resources. I respectfully say they do not. In the course of their local constituency duties Members meet families, week in, week out, who are just above the criteria and have no prospect of securing long-term housing solutions.

I met a couple this week who live in my village. They currently pay rent of €1,400 per month. They have three children and are working people. They have no prospect of putting a deposit together for a house. They are excluded from social housing because they earn in excess of €33,750, the income limit for Limerick. I could have chosen any county, but I wish to discuss Limerick because that is where I am from.

The Minister of State will be aware that rents rocketed under the previous Government, of which he was a member. He will be aware that, in Limerick, rents increased by 45% between 2016 and 2021. According to Daft.ie, the rent for a family renting a three-bedroom house went up from, on average, €799 per month to €1,160. We all know the impact of that big increase and additional cost on families. It means that not only can they not save for a deposit, but they have to go to community welfare officers just to get by, each week and each month. As matters stand, these people have no hope. They are trapped. They are locked out of the social housing system and are trapped with unscrupulous landlords. The couple I mentioned had their rent increased by €200 in December. When they pointed out that the landlord could not do that, as it is illegal under the pandemic rules, he said: "No problem, I will put the house up for sale and you will have to find somewhere else to live". That is the reality at the hard edge of living in rented accommodation.

The problem is that the market is skewed entirely in favour of landlords. Indeed, I would welcome a comment from the Minister of State on that increase in rent, because I have one word for it. An increase of 45% in rents in five years is greed, pure and simple. The Government must respond urgently to this issue. I have some simple requests. The Government must raise the limits, and do so without delay. It must ensure that the working family payment, formerly known as the family income supplement, is not included when calculating income. That is a massive punishment. It is bad enough that people are on low pay and that the Government has not addressed the issue of low pay in the economy, but the Government also punishes them by throwing in that calculation to exclude them from qualifying for social housing. We must also look at the adult income for adult children in households. We know what is happening. Adult children cannot move out of the household because the cost of rents is so high. It is like a perfect storm.

When this Government was formed there was an expectation that there would be a review of the income limits and that they would be urgently moved up, but it has not happened. Instead, the issue is part of a wider review. That wider review is absolutely no use to working families who are being thrown off the housing lists because they receive a small, moderate increase in their income. They are locked out of the housing assistance payment, HAP, and all supports. There are tens of thousands of families in this predicament of having no supports, and the Minister of State knows it. They are locked out of getting a mortgage and they are locked out of social housing. It is grossly unfair. I hope to receive a positive response from the Minister of State.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is unavailable this morning and he asked me to respond on his behalf.

Applications for social housing support are assessed by the relevant local authority in accordance with the eligibility and need criteria set down in section 20 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 and the associated Social Housing Assessment Regulations 2011, as amended. The 2011 regulations prescribe maximum net income levels for each local authority, in different bands according to the area concerned, with income being defined as assessed according to the standard household means policy. Under the household means policy, which applies in all local authorities, net income for social housing assessment is defined as gross household income less income tax, PRSI and the universal social charge. The policy provides for a range of income disregards, and local authorities also have discretion to decide to disregard income that is temporary, short-term or once-off in nature.

The income bands are expressed in terms of a maximum net income threshold for a single-person household, with an allowance of 5% for each additional adult household member, subject to a maximum allowance under this category of 10%, and 2.5% for each child, subject to a maximum allowance under this category of 10%.The income bands and the authority area assigned to each band are based on an assessment of the income needed to provide for a household's basic needs plus a comparative analysis of the local rental cost of housing accommodation throughout the country. It is important to note that these limits introduced at that time also reflected a blanket increase of €5,000 introduced prior to the new system coming into operation, in order to broaden the base from which social housing tenants are drawn, promoting sustainable communities and providing a degree of future proofing.

Given the cost to the State of providing social housing, it is considered prudent and fair to direct resources to those most in need of social housing support. The current income eligibility requirements generally achieve this, providing for a fair and equitable system of identifying those facing the greatest challenge in meeting their accommodation needs from their own resources. However, as part of a broader social housing review and reform agenda, a review of the income eligibility criteria for social housing supports in each local authority is under way. The review will not be completed until the impacts of parallel initiatives on affordability have been considered as these will inform where the thresholds should lie.

These initiatives include the €200 million local infrastructure housing activation fund and the €310 million serviced sites fund. From this sum, €50 million has been allocated in 2021 to deliver more affordable homes. In addition, eligibility conditions for other key affordability initiatives, such as the national cost rental policy and the new affordable purchase shared equity scheme, which are included in the forthcoming affordable housing Bill, together with the Rebuilding Ireland home loan and the help to buy scheme, will all be factored into the work to ensure supports are targeted and given to those who need them.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response. I have to say I am deeply disappointed with it. It is almost a carbon copy of a response given to my former colleague, Deputy Murnane O'Connor, in November. I say with all due respect that the response will mean absolutely nothing to those working families who are locked out of public housing and locked out of the mortgage market. As I said, and I do not think the Minister of State will be able to disagree with me, these are people who are struggling to provide for their children each week. They are low-income people who are excluded and locked out because of the ridiculously low thresholds.

The Minister of State did not address the issue of the 45% increase in rents over the past five years. There is only one way to address this, which is to raise the thresholds to include these people and give them some hope of a better future. I have to say, to be honest with the Minister of State, this speaks of a Government that has not changed housing policy. It speaks of a Government completely out of touch with tens of thousands of working people throughout the country who are looking for hope and inclusion from the Government. Unfortunately, the Minister of State is telling me once again this morning that they are excluded.

Photo of Peter BurkePeter Burke (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to comment on this matter. The Government is providing affordable homes for people. We have a Bill on this which will give an opportunity to families to get on the property ladder. We also have rent pressure zones, which refer directly to the issue raised by the Senator. They now cover almost three quarters of all tenancies in the country and they limit the scope for rental increases. A recent report has shown how rent increases have stabilised over recent quarters.

With regard to lower-paid workers, the Government and the previous Government collectively increased by 30% the minimum wage to target people and give them an opportunity to increase the money they take home. The review has to look at all of these aspects. It is very important that we get the review done and see that those most in need get the best possible resources and support. Through the affordable housing Bill and rent pressure zones, as well as the ban currently in place to protect people through Covid, we will ensure those in most need to get the key resources.

Sharon Keogan (Independent)
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I thank the Senator for bringing up such an important issue this morning and I am glad to hear a review is under way.