Thursday, 26 March 2009
Dáil Eireann Debate
Deputy Michael Fitzpatrick: In my contribution to Second Stage of the debate on 5 March, I spoke about the background to the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, homelessness and the quality of new local authority estates. Today, I wish discuss the issue of housing for the Traveller community. The legislative framework for Traveller accommodation is set out in the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998. Section 7 of that Act requires housing authorities to adopt Traveller accommodation programmes in their functional areas to accommodate the needs of Travellers. The culture of the Traveller community must be recognised and local authorities must be committed to promoting equality and inclusion for travellers. Living accommodation based on needs and family circumstances of Travellers is essential and should cater for the expression of their culture. It is important for all of us that the Traveller culture is maintained in its original form.
The allocation of Traveller families to settled estates should be done with the agreement of immediate neighbours and tenants because past experience has shown that many problems arise when this does not happen. Allocating a dwelling to a household is an executive function but, notwithstanding this, it is important that the executive consults elected members, officials of the relevant health authorities and other interested parties who possess a wealth of local knowledge. In cases where this does not happen, the results are self-evident.
This important Bill aims to improve services and develop sustainable communities. It provides local authorities which enhanced powers to deal with anti-social behaviour. I welcome the significant amendment to the definition of “anti-social behaviour” as set out in section 1(1) of the Housing Act 1970 to include, under four different headings, violence, threats, intimidation, coercion and harassment or serious obstruction of a person, behaviour which causes any significant or persistent impairment of a person’s use or enjoyment of his or her home and damage to or defacement by writing or other marks of a property, including a person’s home.
The provision of one-off housing for persons or families should always be an important element of housing policy in order to allow personal and family needs to be considered separately. This is particularly true in rural Ireland, where many sons and daughters have been forced to live in towns and settlements far from their parents and roots. The time has come when we should consider maintaining people from rural areas in their own communities, particularly those who live in isolated areas or who have elderly parents.
Section 11 replaces section 56(2) of the Housing Act 1966 and empowers the housing authority to provide and maintain services ancillary to housing developments, including roads, shops, playgrounds, places of worship and sites for schools and other facilities. It is important this section is also applied to the voluntary and co-operative housing sector and projects undertaken through public private partnerships on behalf of housing authorities. These provisions will ensure that all future developments provide essential services.
The screening regulatory impact assessment prepared by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government for the Bill states that the scheme aims to source good quality rented accommodation, provide greater housing security for persons with long-term housing needs, reduce dependency on supplementary benefit allowances and long-term housing benefit, secure a greater social mix through the geographical disbursal of housing needs and contribute to better value for money for the State in the provision of long-term housing solutions. I hope these worthy aims will be achieved. In essence, the scheme proposed in the Bill addresses many of the concerns expressed by NGOs in the housing sector regarding rent supplements. They claim that rent supplements provide no security to tenants, subsidise poor standards of accommodation and create unemployment traps due to conditions on employment. Under the rent allowance scheme, rent is assessed under local authorities’ differential rent schemes for other forms of social housing. The RIA identified the following as barriers to initial take up of the rental accommodation scheme introduced in 2004 — the poor quality of some private-rented accommodation; the unwillingness of some landlords to join RAS; households living in overcrowded conditions; and a shortage of supply for particular types of accommodation in some areas at reasonable rent levels.
Another issue addressed under section 39 is the resale of properties. Section 39 lays out the resale conditions of the scheme. It allows for resale at any time, so should not act as a barrier to future housing options or be inflexible regarding changes of circumstances. In relation to resale and repayment of a portion of the value to the housing association, section 39(7) allows that where the purchaser has made “material improvement”, this may be taken into account in calculating the proportion repayable. The Bill provides the housing authority with first refusal to purchase the property on resale, and gives it power of approval for any other potential purchaser. This power can be used, inter alia, to refuse resale to those who have engaged in anti-social behaviour.
Although there is no specific provision in the 2008 Bill providing for a review of the incremental purchase scheme, the RIA states that the scheme will be subject to a pilot phase in a number of housing authorities before being implemented more broadly. The pilot phase will be managed and reviewed by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Thereafter the Department will continue to monitor and review progress in implementing the scheme. Another issue is the sale of flats.
The proposed incremental purchase scheme does not apply to the sale of new flats or apartments. Section 36(2) specifically excludes from the incremental purchase scheme the sale of any dwelling that is “a separate and self-contained apartment in a premises, divided into 2 or more apartments, which would require arrangements for the upkeep of common areas, works or services other than by the purchaser”. Perhaps this is an area that needs to be kept under review.
Deputy Eamon Scanlon: This Bill provides a modern framework for delivering social housing. The legislation in this area dates back over 40 years and the Bill will give effect to the social housing reform measures that are detailed in the policy document published in 2007, “Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities”. That document set out a vision for the development of the Irish housing sector over the next ten years. It looks at delivering quality sustainable housing in a strategic manner. It also looks at building sustainable communities and improving the quality of life for all.
Food and shelter are a basic human necessity and the Government has an obligation and a duty to assist those who are unable to help themselves. Fianna Fáil in government has a proud tradition of looking after the less well off and the enactment of this Bill carries on that tradition.
The priority afforded to housing by this Government was articulated in Towards 2016, the national development plan and the Government’s statement on housing policy, “Delivering Homes, Sustaining Communities”. The Bill sets out the role of housing authorities in providing housing services, including the provision of social and affordable housing support, across a range of schemes for the purposes of meeting a household’s need. It puts housing services plans on a statutory footing and also ensures that stakeholders are given the opportunity to comment on draft plans.
While the Bill does not alter fundamentally the distribution of housing functions across the different levels of local government, it provides for better planning and integration of services by providing for housing services plans which take a broader strategic perspective at county and city level. The Bill ensures, when assessing local housing needs, that attention will now be paid to the national strategy. This is to ensure that communities are built that meet the diverse needs of the residents, are safe and inclusive, well planned and well run.
The Government commitment under the social partnership agreement, Towards 2016, was to achieve 27,000 social housing “starts” over the three year period 2007-09 as a whole, not 27,000 in each of the three years. In terms of delivery, we set out to reach the first one third of this 27,000 unit target — or 9,000 starts — in 2007, the first of the three years in the target period. By end-2007, the target had been exceeded with a total of 9,061 starts achieved across the local authority and voluntary and co-operative housing programmes and the rental accommodation scheme. Last year saw significant delivery under the main housing programmes. The target is a further 9,000 social housing starts this year, which will be a remarkable achievement in the current economic climate.
Of course the financial crisis means that more people than ever will require housing assistance. In 2009 €1.54 billion in funding was secured for social housing as well as an additional €80 million under the capital loan and subsidy scheme for voluntary housing projects. To further meet demand, recently a new long leasing initiative was launched, under which authorities will procure properties on long term leases of ten to 20 years to meet demand for social housing. A fund of €20 million has been made available and will, I hope, help reduce waiting lists for social housing. The Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Michael Finneran, has said he expects that through this measure at least 2,000 additional homes will be leased this year.
There are measures and funding in place to ensure that the Government supports the less well off and is committed to meeting their housing needs. Of course the recession means there is a greater demand for social housing while public finances are under greater pressure than ever. This Bill, however, is evidence of a commitment to addressing these needs and to putting them on a better legislative footing.
As regards some of the initiatives, the home choice scheme is an excellent measure, but the €40,000 income limit is somewhat restrictive in rural areas and is holding people back. I have spoken to the Minister of State about this on a number of occasions. People in rural areas find it difficult to reach that €40,000 income target. The scheme has great potential, but many of those who could avail of it at a lower income scale can now buy three-bedroomed semis in rural areas for €140,000 or €150,000. They do not need €280,000, so perhaps the officials and the Minister of State might have a look at this.
As regards affordable homes, from my experience in respect of the areas I represent, the scheme has worked well in certain areas while not so well in others. The take-up was not sufficient, for instance, as regards some 12 affordable houses built in my home town — and that was in the good times when house property prices were running high. The local authority had to take them back into its stock and allocate them to people on the housing list. The scheme will work in towns close to the centres of population such as county towns or even seaside villages, but in my experience not in the small villages.
The shared ownership scheme has been excellent and has worked very well. When I was a local authority member I had contact with a good many people who got onto the housing ladder under that scheme. After two or three years people who avail of the scheme normally buy out their properties. At least they have been able to get onto the housing ladder because of the scheme. In recent times, however, I notice that some people have availed of the scheme whose circumstances have improved. I know of two cases where a person is paying half mortgage and half rent, and because circumstances have improved the rent now nearly comes to €300 a month. Taking the two payments together, those people now find themselves paying more that they would have had to pay, with a straight mortgage. I wonder whether the Minister of State might take a look at that, perhaps, with the local authorities. The numbers are not large, but nonetheless such people are trapped into a situation whereby they are probably paying up to €600 a month, whereas they might have to pay less with a straight mortgage from a local authority. They would not then need to pay rent, and whatever is being paid comes straight off the mortgage balance.
As regards voluntary housing agencies, I was involved in a local organisation which built 28 houses for elderly people. It was a fantastic scheme and those people came in from rural areas to live in the town. We were very fortunate that the site was close to a nursing home, the church and railway station. It has given those people a new life and as they move on, new people move in. However, families living in these voluntary housing scheme houses cannot, unfortunately, buy their homes. Irish people like eventually to buy their own homes but the tenants of these houses are unable to do so. Perhaps some way should be found to give them the opportunity to do so.
People are delighted to get such a home. They get that home because they face certain financial circumstances. However, when their circumstances improve, their rents go up. However, they are in a catch-22 situation because even though their circumstances have improved, they can never own their homes.
As a public representative, I know there are many single fathers who, for one reason or another, find themselves homeless. They are not regarded as a high priority by the local authorities, although I know it is very difficult to house everybody. There should be some policy in respect of such people. Quite a few of them, perhaps through their own fault, find themselves with no home, in particular people who are unemployed. They find it difficult to get accommodation and they are very low on the needs scale in local authorities. Sometimes they can find it very difficult to get rent allowance. Will the Minister of State consider doing something to alleviate some of the pressures on those people?
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill which is long over due. I am glad it has come to the House to be debated. The issues raised in it are very important and in a constituency such as the one I represent, many of them are hugely important and need to be addressed immediately, if that could be done. We have a long waiting list for social housing and we have the same problems with management companies that prevail in many other areas. There are issues around anti-social behaviour, which I wish to address specifically, and homelessness. In fairness, all these issues are addressed in the Bill but they could certainly be identified in the area I represent.
I am disappointed that the purchase of local authority flats has not been addressed. I welcome what the Minister of State said, that the Attorney General will comment on it and this will be available before the Bill goes through the House. Much of the local authority housing in my constituency is represented by flats from the Liberties to Kilmainham to Inchicore and so on.
The issue of the purchase of flats has been on the agenda for a long time for these people. Many of them have been tenants for many years and have paid much rent over that time. They feel discriminated against in comparison to perhaps other members of their family who have a local authority house and an entitlement to purchase it. There is an urgency about giving these people the opportunity to purchase their flats, if they so wish. I understand there are legal problems but these must be overcome as quickly as possible. I hope that happens before the Bill goes through the House.
I wish to address the issue of anti-social behaviour because, unfortunately, it has been particularly relevant to me in the past couple of weeks as a result of specific incident. It is a problem which plagues many communities and I welcome the fact that it is being addressed, to a certain extent, in the Bill. I do not want to identify a particular location or area, because that would be unfair, but I want to identify ongoing anti-social behaviour of a very serious nature in my constituency which is causing quite a number of problems.
It reflects a combination of landlord greed, inaction by various authorities, social deprivation and drug-related problems. When one packages together all those problems, one can clearly see that we have a huge difficulty in trying to address this issue. The houses are privately owned and rented. The people renting them have multiple social problems and, unfortunately, they have attracted to the area many more people with similar problems. Drugs and alcohol, prostitution and violence have been reported to me as ongoing problems in that immediate area.
There are two sides to this problem. First, the tenants must be considered. Who inspects the apartments and decides that funding is to be made available from the State coffers to pay that landlord to provide these absolutely appalling bedsits, which is the only way to describe them? What agency should inspect them? The level of inspection is very low — I believe approximately one in ten properties is inspected. This is simply not good enough because this problem is ongoing. It allows the landlord to collect his rent on a regular basis because it is paid by the State and it would appear that no questions are asked. The poorest and the weakest are being allowed to live in effective squalor. They suffer from drug or alcohol addiction and, as I said, prostitution and violence are not uncommon.
The second aspect to this scenario is that the neighbours who live in the vicinity are also exposed to the consequences of this appalling behaviour on a regular basis. They are intimidated, the area is strewn with rubbish, the gardens are rat infested, their children are afraid and the elderly will not go out in the day, never mind in the evening. It is no exaggeration to say that they live in fear of their lives. I admit it is a slightly extreme example but everything I have said is absolutely accurate. I would be happy to provide the Minister of State with more detail on this and would welcome his intervention, which might be very worthwhile.
Arising from that is the next issue of homelessness which I am happy is being addressed in the Bill. An argument could be put forward by many who are aware of the situation, and with some validity, that at least these people have accommodation. If these bedsits and flats are closed down, where will these unfortunate people go? That raises an issue around the services provided for these people, including providing them with backup for their alcohol and drug addiction problems and with a decent level of accommodation. Unfortunately, all these issues are linked. There is some validity in the question that if this block of houses is closed down and these people are thrown out, where will they go? That is part of a major social issue as well as the homelessness issue.
I appreciate the issue of homelessness is a complex one. The reasons for it are complicated and cannot simply be dismissed or sorted out in one fell swoop. Nevertheless, they must be addressed. Homelessness arises for a variety of reasons. There is a social responsibility to minimise the effects of it on the poorest and the weakest. The official figure shows the number of homeless stands at approximately 5,000, but it is likely to be significantly greater than that because estimating the numbers at any given time is almost impossible and many of these people are under the age of 18. There are two issues there — the number of homeless and the fact many are under the age of 18.
The issue of homelessness has been on the agenda. Many people have written reports on it and there is an endless number of documents on it. The failure is the lack of any comprehensive approach to addressing it. I refer to the effort made after Christmas to provide temporary accommodation for homeless people. This was driven by the temperature.
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