Seanad debates

Tuesday, 8 November 2022

2:30 pm

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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I welcome this opportunity to update Members of the House on the progress made in the time since the publication of Housing for All. It is 14 months since the plan was published and although the landscape and environment in which we are operating is ever-changing, real progress has been made. It is important to take stock of this progress and today is the perfect opportunity to do so.

We are seeing a combined level of commencements, completions and planning permissions that have not been seen in more than a decade. The construction sector is growing, affordability measures are beginning to take effect and the comprehensive review of the planning system is close to completion.

Housing for All is a comprehensive plan that covers all aspects of the housing system. However, the aforementioned ever-changing environment, means the Government must be both proactive and pragmatic when it comes to emerging issues. The greater range of settlements will further support the viability of developments and ensure the right houses are built in the right places.

Housing for All represents the most ambitious housing plan in the history of the State. This Government is committed to building an average of 33,000 homes a year over the lifetime of the plan. Achieving this ambitious target will require enormous effort, but as I said, the progress made is already evident only 14 months into a nine-year plan. Covid-19 and its associated lockdowns has understandably hampered the industry, but bounceback has been promising and the strong pipeline of home-building activity is encouraging.

New home completions over the past year to the end of September 2022 stood at more than 27,500 homes, which means the new-home completions in the first nine months of 2022 exceeds the total number of homes completed in all of 2021. In the past 12 months - October 2021 to September 2022 - commencement notices for the construction of almost 27,500 homes were received.

The delivery of social housing is being prioritised to address the problem. It is important to note that the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has made it clear to local authorities that if there is a risk of tenants being evicted into homelessness as a result of a landlord selling the home, the local authority will be supported by the Department to purchase the home.

We are focused on accelerating social housing supply and have a target to deliver 9,000 new-build social homes this year. The latest construction status report from the second quarter of 2022 shows 8,247 social homes on-site with an additional 12,327 homes at design and tender stage, and 118 new construction schemes, which gives a total of 1,647 homes being added to the pipeline. In total, the report provides details on more than 27,500 new-build social homes across 1,566 schemes. In addition, recent changes the Minister made to the housing assistance payment scheme will help secure more tenancies and prevent households slipping into homelessness.

Housing for All is a plan for everyone, and addresses social, affordable and private housing provision. The secured funding will support the delivery of new social homes, with the main focus on capital investment to deliver much-needed new-build homes. The Government is also committed to increasing home ownership, and numerous schemes have been introduced to help buyers realise their dream of owning their own home. The first home scheme, launched in July, will support up to 8,000 affordable home purchases over the lifetime of the scheme. Since its introduction, more than 800 applications have been received with 606 approvals issued. This shows that the Government's determination to increase home ownership is more than an empty slogan. We have also increased the affordable housing fund grant from a maximum of €100,000 per unit to up to €150,000 per unit for local authority affordable homes. This measure is aimed at tackling the viability gap and ensuring as many affordable homes are built as possible.

Earlier this year the Minister launched the enhanced local authority home loan scheme, which is aimed at supporting first-time buyers on low or moderate incomes who are unable to secure the mortgage they need from a financial lending institution. Budget 2023 guarantees €250 million for lending under the loan. Since February 2018, under the previous and current iteration of the loan, more than €471 million has been lent, which has helped some 2,860 households achieve their dream of home ownership. The help-to-buy scheme is also being extended, at current rates, until the end of 2024. The scheme has been a significant support for first-time buyers of new homes. Since the scheme's commencement in 2017, some 35,000 people have benefitted from it.

Addressing issues in the rental market is also vitally important. Having good quality, affordable and secure rental accommodation is crucial to many sectors of society, be it those workers and families who are spending too much on rent, for students who need somewhere to live to further their education or the employers who worry about the availability and affordability of housing for their employees. Housing for All is focused on tackling supply and affordability issues in the rental market. The plan contains targets, actions and guaranteed State investment of more than €4 billion a year in housing aimed at increasing supply, which in turn will help increase access to affordable rental housing.

As I already mentioned, Housing for All commits to building more than 9,000 social homes next year. Increasing our social housing stock will reduce the demand on the private rental market. As committed to under Housing for All, cost-rental homes are now beginning to come into the market at scale, some of which were advertised at rates that are at least 25% lower than market rent. Hundreds of cost-rental homes have been tenanted less than 12 months since the passing of the Affordable Housing Act last July, which has facilitated this form of rental tenure. We are also supporting the delivery of cost-rental homes by increasing the cost-rental equity loan from a maximum of 30% to a maximum of 45% per project.

Although these measures are vital for relieving the pressure on the rental market going forward and are a long-term solution to the problem, the Government recognises that for many this is an immediate issue which needs an immediate solution. For those paying rent on their principal private residence, the Government is introducing a new rent tax credit valued at €500 per year. This measure will apply for 2023 and subsequent tax years. However, the Government is providing that it may also be claimed in respect of rent paid in 2022. Approximately 400,000 people are expected to benefit from this credit.

The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage will also review the operation of the private rental sector. This review will take into account the significant regulatory changes in recent years and the Government will act on its recommendations. It will ensure that our housing system provides an efficient, affordable, safe and secure framework for both landlords and tenants.While homes are being built at record rates and the key indicators are all positive, it will take time for the measures set out in Housing for All and the additional supply we are seeing to make the difference needed. There is no overnight fix to the issues we face, but Housing for All addresses the root of these problems. The updated action plan shows the Government is constantly monitoring, that the situation progress is being made, and that the plan is agile and flexible enough for immediate action to be taken when and where it is needed.

Photo of John CumminsJohn Cummins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It is appropriate we are having statements on Housing for All at this juncture. I always welcome the opportunity to talk about the progress that has been made with the Housing for All plan, which is building on the strong foundations which were laid in previous years. The plan is working, despite what some say. Is it happening quick enough? Of course not, and of course everyone in the Government would like to see the delivery of more homes more quickly. There are constraints in the market in terms of the ability of developers, councils, approved housing bodies, AHBs, and the Land Development Agency, LDA, to be able to scale up the delivery of houses. However, in 2013, we were building fewer than 5,000 homes, and we are going to build nearly 25,000 homes this year. All the indicators are positive.

At the end of June, the numbers of home completions were up, commencements were up, permissions were up, house purchases and first-time buyers were all up and mortgage drawdowns were at a record level. There are positive indicators of what is happening, but of course none of us on this side of the House will rest on our laurels and say we are doing enough. We must continue to strive to deliver more homes for individuals and families throughout the country. That has to happen across all of the delivery streams, whether it is social housing, affordable purchase housing, cost rental housing, as the Minister of State cited, or private sector housing. No one delivery method is going to resolve the housing crisis we are in. We must maximise delivery across all of those methods.

Tackling the scourge of vacancy and dereliction is a passion of mine, as I know too it is a passion of the Minister of State. We have had a number of hearings recently of the Oireachtas joint committee with local authorities, which have been feeding to us what is working well and where improvements can be introduced. One of those is in the area of vacancy and dereliction. Today, two councils were before the committee, namely, Waterford City and County Council and Limerick City and County Council. Both of those are leading in certain areas. Limerick is leading in the area of compulsory purchase orders, CPOs, where more than 100 units have been placed under CPO in the past three years. What they have done that other local authorities have not is to put funding place to underwrite the purchase of those homes. This is something which is in the Housing for All plan, which the Government has committed to, and which we need to see rolled out so that other local authorities can take the risk in that space to be able to take on the CPO process.

My county of Waterford leads the way in terms of the repair and lease scheme, where in excess of 150 one- and two-bed properties in urban locations have been delivered, whereas there are nine local authorities in the country that have failed to deliver a single unit. Something is wrong there. What is working well in Waterford is they have used the carrot-and-stick approach. They have used the stick of the CPO and they have used the carrot of the repair and lease scheme. They have engaged extensively with the market, with the owners of these properties, with the estate agents, with the local builders and they have actively put a team together to deliver on that scheme. That needs to be replicated in every local authority. One of the impediments that some of the bigger local authorities in Dublin and Cork have cited is the figure of 60,000 and the need to increase that threshold to be able to bring in units in Dublin and Cork in particular.

We have also introduced planning exemptions for the likes of former public houses to be transformed into residential units without the need to go through the planning process. There are examples of that in my county of Waterford. This is a common-sense proposal which was brought forward within committee and implemented by the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, as well as the Minister of State, Deputy Burke. That goes to show the collaborative approach there is in delivering on schemes.

In the time I have left I want to focus on the two issues of home ownership and capitalising on the expected underdelivery in the private rental build market over the coming years. There is an opportunity for the State to step in as a result of the reduction in the PRS sector. We need to instruct councils, the LDA and approved housing bodies to engage actively with the owners of sites that have planning permission. There are a significant number of those in Dublin in particular and we as a State need to activate those sites. We need to forward purchase those developments, or a significant percentage of them, for example 50% or 60%, to underwrite the developments and take them into ownership for cost rental homes through the Land Development Agency. The ability to do that is there because of a slight reduction in terms of the market space.

Another measure that can be introduced in tandem with that, which local authorities have cited at the joint committee, is the reintroduction of the enhanced leasing scheme. I know there are some in opposition who are opposed to that on ideological grounds, but nobody can tell me it is not better to have an individual or a family in a secure, 25-year, long-term lease than it is to have them in a hotel, in emergency accommodation or in unsecured housing assistance payment, HAP, property. Nobody can say it is not better. Yes, there is the issue of value for money and all of the rest of it, but my priority is getting people in secure homes. That is another way we can reactivate some of that, which the Minister of State and his Department should take on board.

On home ownership, this Government is steadfast and my party is steadfast in our commitment to home ownership. We introduced the help to buy scheme. There are many who are opposed to the help to buy scheme. In fact, I would say it is one of the main distinguishing factors between the Government and the Opposition. We want to support young people to get their foot on the property ladder. We have a scheme in place that provides up to €30,000 to allow them to get their foot in the housing market. The Opposition wants to abolish that scheme. It has helped more than 860 people in my county. It has helped in excess of 36,000 people nationally to get their foot on the ladder. We have introduced the first home shared equity scheme. As the Minister of State said in his statement, there have been more than 600 approvals thus far. We are delivering on the local authority affordable purchase scheme, including in my county, where 117 units are open for application today. Families moving into those homes will have an equity stake taken in the property by the State, which will reduce the mortgage amount they have to get to get their foot on the property ladder.

We are therefore doing a lot. Are we doing enough? Of course we can do more, we want to do more and we will do more as a Government because this crisis and putting an end to it is the top priority of this Government. It is something all my colleagues on this side of the House are passionate about. Yet, we do not want to talk down the good work that is being done. We can work collectively and collaboratively to bring forward other proposals, but let us not talk down the good work that is being done in the area of housing.

Photo of Sharon KeoganSharon Keogan (Independent)
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The Minister of State is very welcome to the Chamber today. The Government's Housing for All plan was published on 2 September 2021. It is a proposed roadmap for housing in the State up to the year 2030 and it sets out to make renting and purchasing affordable, eradicate homelessness, increase housing supply and ensure efficient use of existing housing stock. It is the most recent instalment in a series of plans, strategies and roadmaps since 2011 which have sought to fix the Irish housing market in the wake of the 2008 recession and the austerity that followed.While the issue of housing is often described as complex, the Government wastes no opportunity to remind us that so many of the market's problems cannot be fixed overnight. The genesis of so many of these problems is simple enough - the country went bust and everyone stopped building houses. Indeed, the idea of Ireland being in a housing crisis is so familiar to us now, there are some young adults who do not remember a time when this was not the case.

As we reel in the years of Irish housing policy, some of the figures are shocking. From 2004 to 2014, the number of houses built by the private sector declined by 85%. In 2015, all of the combined local authorities in the country built 75 houses. In 1975, 37 years ago, that figure was 8,794. According to councillors countrywide, an unofficial moratorium on building was in place across the country, with the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications giving no funding for housing construction to local authorities.

A response to requests made in 2012 for additional funding to meet local need gives great insight into the attitude of the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, as it was then called, at the time. The Department stated: "the Government has radically reformed housing policy, with a shift in focus towards leasing options, and greater involvement by the voluntary and community sector." With no new builds, no future-proofing or planning and letting NGOs pick up the slack, is it any wonder that we now have 500 separate housing bodies competing with local authorities on bids for existing stock? What has the fruit of all that been? Certainly not the eradication of homelessness.

We still have more than 10,000 people homeless in this country now competing with 54,000 Ukrainians for Government-provided housing. What changes have been made to Housing for All in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the influx of persons into this country fleeing that war? I pointed out in March, as did many others, that we saw the writing on the wall, which this Government seems chronically incapable of doing. It was logistically unfeasible in the extreme to commit to an uncapped number of wartime refugees. I stated then that this policy would not serve anyone, least of all the Ukrainian people in Ireland who would be forced to endure substandard conditions due to lack of Government resources. Once again, as with our warnings on cancer screening, these concerns were at best poo-pooed by the Government. At worst, those voicing them were denigrated to xenophobes. Once again, in the space of mere months, those concerns were seen to be entirely correct.

How many homes have been built this year? I understand the goal figure was 24,000. I got the Minister of State's breakdown today. There were 4,100 affordable and cost-rental homes included in that figure. How many of those has the Government built? Yesterday, the Minister visited County Meath and opened three housing estates. The first was for elder living. That was bought out by a housing agency. In the second, a private developer was building 22 homes. That was bought out by the county council. The third was county council land on which the council had built houses. No affordable homes were built in our town this year. I also understand that the commencement of constructions of units has entered its sixth consecutive month of decline. What will the impact of this be? How can this be reconciled with the Housing for All goals? Those figures are in the housing audit that came out last week.

Speaking of goals, it seems like every month, a new scheme is being rolled out to play its part in tackling the housing crisis. This is all very well and good. Government schemes have certainly been the drivers of positive change in this country, but they must be closely monitored for their performance and adjusted where necessary. Two housing schemes, which others and I feel are indeed an improvement, are the Croí Cónaithe or towns fund scheme and the repair-and-leasing scheme. The latter scheme is targeted at owners of vacant properties who cannot afford or access the funding needed to bring their properties up to the required standard for rental properties. In return for funding, the property owner agrees to lease the dwelling to the local authority for use as social housing. Take-up on this scheme has been dismally low. The Minister of State informed me last year that from 2017 to the end of 2020, the owners of a mere 234 dwellings had availed of the scheme. I am highly surprised that 190 came from County Waterford. An increase of the funding cap from €40,000 to €60,000 in November 2020 has served to increase interest but bigger loans need to be made available in the context of that scheme. What would people get for €40,000 or €60,000 these days? They would not get a new roof.

The Croí Cónaithe or towns fund scheme offers €30,000 for the refurbishment of vacant properties for occupation as a principal private resident. Anyone who refurbishes a property will tell you that €30,000 is a drop in the ocean. Where the property is confirmed by the applicant to be derelict, that is, structurally unsound and dangerous, the Department will helpfully grant another €20,000. The problem is that a person cannot get a mortgage for a house in that state. As a result, the €20,000 is null and void. There are amendments the Minister of State could take on board with regard to that scheme. Perhaps that is something Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can look at. People cannot get the mortgages for those properties if they are in a poor state.

Housing for All states that the Government is committed to supporting homeownership. This makes me glad, but how will this work alongside a national right to housing? Will a right to housing entail persons being forcibly downsized in their homes, or ordered to move out so that another larger family can take their place? It may seem like an out-there suggestion, but these are fears some people have today. Does this Government plan for a move forward to move towards rent-for-life housing as a solution? I attended the Respond briefing in Buswells Hotel approximately one month ago, and the Government's model was very clear. It is going for build-to-rent housing only. That is the only gig in town as regards providing houses. It was very clear that this is the model of housing that will be built in this country in the future. Does the Government plan to move toward rent-for-life housing as a solution? Will the dilution of constitutionally protected property rights be used as a drastic measure by the Government to try to solve this crisis? These are the questions I would like answered today.