Seanad debates

Wednesday, 19 January 2022

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Housing Provision

2:30 pm

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. As he knows, there is an ongoing housing emergency throughout the State. I want to focus in particular on Limerick city and county. I will set the scene with a few factual statistics. We currently have 2,342 approved applications for housing. In addition, we have 335 transfer applications, 2,479 people on housing assistance payments and 735 on the rental assistance scheme. That gives us a total of 5,891 people on the housing list as of last September, a truly shocking total that does not fully demonstrate the extent of the housing crisis in Limerick because, as I hope the Minister of State will acknowledge, thousands more are excluded from qualifying for public housing because of the ridiculously low income threshold still in place under this Government.

As of November last, there were 246 homeless people in Limerick and 46 families homeless in the mid-west, comprising 56 adults and 77 children. The Minister of State will know that hubs in Limerick have been full for the majority of the past 12 months. There were no temporary emergency provision beds available in Limerick in November and, as far as I am aware, none have come online since. There has been no major turnaround in the number of people using temporary emergency provision services, which is contrary to the meaning of the word "temporary". The majority of those who are homeless are aged between 25 and 44 years. There are two issues. In most cases, they are not seen as a priority because they do not have children. Second, they are being priced out of the market by excessive rents. The average price for a one-bedroom apartment in Limerick city is now €999 per month. The average price for a three-bedroom house is now €1,277, an increase of 8% over the past year. The average cost of renting a single room in Limerick city centre is now €464, up a shocking 21% on a year ago.

It is against the backdrop of this crisis, insecurity and desperation that I have to ask the Minister of State how, according to the figures available which were highlighted by a Sunday newspaper at the weekend, there are 207 vacant council properties in Limerick? Is that the correct figure? I would appreciate clarification, because the last official figures I have state that there were 297 vacant properties in April this year. According to Limerick City and County Council, of those 73 required minor fixes, 102 required major fixes and 72 were considered derelict. How can the Government's priorities be so skewed as to have this many empty council properties at a time when we have an emergency crisis of the most unprecedented kind?

I understand that Limerick City and County Council is currently leasing 164 properties from vulture funds that, thanks to this Government, will collect rent tax free for the next 25 years. At the end of that period, not one single property will transfer into local authority ownership. Again, I have to ask the Minister of State about the Government's priorities. Why is it choosing to fund the leasing of homes from vulture funds rather than repairing and restoring council-owned houses?This means that right now more money is being pumped into an overheated private sector housing market rather than pumping it into council-owned properties that could provide rental income for Limerick City and County Council. The people of Limerick are genuinely wondering why we have so many vacant council properties in the midst of the worst housing crisis in the record of the State. I hope the Minister of State will be able to provide some answers.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach agus leis an Seanadóir, agus athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh go léir. I might not be able to answer all of the questions the Senator has put to me. I have taken a note of them and I will try to get to him with some of the responses. I will address the overall issue of vacancy in Limerick, which is the core issue. Addressing vacancy and maximising the use of existing housing stock is a primary objective of the Government, as demonstrated by one of the four pathways dedicated solely to this priority area in the new Housing for All strategy.

Housing for All outlines a suite of measures aimed at addressing vacancy in a co-ordinated and robust manner. These include a new local authority-led programme to help local authorities buy or compulsory purchase 2,500 vacant homes in their areas. The Croí Cónaithe towns initiative will attract people to build their own homes and to support the refurbishment of vacant properties in small towns and villages. A new town centre first policy, which will be launched in a number of weeks, will include approaches to utilising existing stock. These measures are in addition to the vacant property tax consideration being pursued by the Department of Finance as a replacement for the vacant site levy.

With regard to voids, the management and maintenance of local authority housing stock, including pre-letting repairs to vacant properties, the implementation of a planned maintenance programme and carrying out responsive repairs, are matters for each individual local authority under section 28 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provision) Act 2009. Since 2014, Exchequer funding has been provided through the Department's voids programme to support local authorities in preparing vacant units for re-letting. This funding was introduced to tackle long-term vacant units and is now targeting local authorities to ensure minimal turnaround and re-let times for vacant stock. Limerick City and County Council received €7.6 million in funding from 2014 to 2021, supporting the return of 505 properties to use. This might explain the disparity in figures the Senator provided. Local authorities will always have a level of vacancy in their housing stock. This will fluctuate over time, as tenancy surrender and re-letting of stock is an ongoing process.

The Department has been providing support for an ambitious regeneration project in Limerick city since 2007, with a cumulative investment of more than €417 million to date. The Limerick regeneration framework implementation plan adopted by the council in 2014 provided a roadmap for the physical, social and economic regeneration of the target areas. It proposed the refurbishment of more than 1,400 existing social and private houses. More than 1,100 refurbishments have been completed to date under the thermal upgrade programme. These actions, along with investment in social, economic and physical regeneration being implemented under the Limerick regeneration framework implementation plan are making a real difference to the communities in the regeneration area. The buy and renew scheme along with the repair and leasing scheme are also valuable tools available to local authorities to tackle vacancy and provide social housing.

With regard to leasing, as the Senator will be aware, Housing for All sets out the Government’s plan to increase the supply of housing to an average of 33,000 per year over the next decade. The annual targets include the delivery of 88,400 new social homes and 53,800 new affordable homes between 2022 and 2030. Thankfully, we have seen construction activity ramping up over the course of 2021 and this will continue this year. The strategy will focus strongly on new builds, and in particular local authority-led new build activity. It will see a managed phasing out of long-term leasing by 2025. The Senator addressed this issue. Limerick has no long-term leasing target under Housing for All but it was recently allocated a 2022 target of 21 short-term rental availability agreements.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response. Again, I have to be direct with him. I did not receive a clear answer from him. I am very concerned because what he has shared with us tells me that over eight years Limerick City and County Council returned 505 properties to use. This is just over 60 properties a year. In the midst of the worst housing crisis in the history of the State, with shocking figures of almost 6,000 people waiting for public housing and 246 people homeless, how is this anywhere near good enough? Who will take responsibility for this?The Minister of State seems to be blaming the Limerick local authority, which, I hasten to add, has been a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael led local authority for the past ten years. That seems to be like an abandonment of Government responsibility because the fact of the matter is that the figures just are not good enough.

The Minister of State mentioned regeneration. The facts of regeneration are that more than 1,100 houses have been demolished and only 279 new houses have been built. That is a huge deficit and, again, shows a failure to deliver housing in Limerick.

Finally, the Minister of State did not give me any answers about leasing, yet he will acknowledge that 2,600 of the planned social houses next year are actually leasing houses. Again, I cannot understand why the Limerick City and County Council seems to prioritise leasing over restoring its own council houses. It is not good enough.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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As I have said, I am unable to give a response to all of the supplementary questions that the Senator has asked during this Commencement debate.

In terms of regeneration, I visited the project in Limerick and it is one of the most ambitious projects in the country. The Senator has made an important point about young single people aged 25 to 45, and trying to get them into sustainable housing is critically important. There are solutions, and we can look at Limerick city centre as we are looking throughout the country, around above shop premises and bringing some shop premises back to full occupancy. These premises offer great opportunities to young people in that category. We can advance that through the town centres first initiative and the Limerick regeneration project.

In terms of 60 properties per year, it does take a considerable amount of time to bring voids back into productive use if you specifically consider the requirements under building regulations and trying to bring houses up to a B2 rating, which is soon to be a much higher energy efficiency standard. I think that is critically important because it addresses fuel poverty as well.

Our Department has provided record funding. We certainly are not putting the blame on Limerick City and County Council. We are giving increased responsibility and financial supports. What the Minister has done consistently since taking up office is providing the financial resources but also the responsibility to local authorities to deliver on housing and a targeted delivery of housing. Another critical point I will leave on is the fact we have put in additional staff in housing sections in every local authority to deliver on the design and delivery of housing throughout the country.