Tuesday, 31 March 2009
Dáil Eireann Debate
Deputy Mary Upton: I was addressing the matter of homelessness and the reason this important issue is not adequately addressed in the Bill. I would like to see it addressed in a holistic way rather than in the current piecemeal fashion. While the issue deserves much more time, there is a number of other matters to which I want to move on.
I refer to what I call the explosion of apartment blocks throughout the city of Dublin but in particular in my constituency where there has been an inordinate level of that type of development. When people told me these apartments would become the tenements of the future I wanted to disagree with them but it was more in hope than in confidence and, unfortunately, they are beginning to be proved correct. We have a very large number of apartments and there is planning permission for further development of apartment blocks on what are derelict sites with little possibility of any development taking place on them in the foreseeable future. There is also a large number of empty apartment blocks.
There is scope for much improvement in this area. The problem I fear is that a great deal of damage will be done to the local communities, and to the environment, if these developments do not go ahead. Very little consideration has been given to the requirement for infrastructure around these apartment blocks in many cases. I refer again to my constituency. There is little reference to, or acknowledgement of, the need for transport infrastructure, traffic management or schools, and little consideration given to the growth of new populations in the area. The developments, with a few notable exceptions, were born out of greed, where the defining principle was to squash as many apartments as possible into the smallest possible space, with no storage facilities and tiny bedrooms in predominantly single bedroom apartments. The outcome of this short-sighted approach is that a transient population has developed, living spaces are cramped, there is no encouragement for families to stay put and management companies are dysfunctional. This approach to housing reflects the now well-established cosy relationships between builders, bankers and this Government.
Many of the apartments and houses in new developments remain unoccupied. This presents an opportunity for local authorities to buy some of them to address the housing needs of the communities. This approach must be teased out. Apart from considering the investment involved, there must be careful planning to ensure a social mix is achieved and that the quality of housing on offer is good. We must not walk into the trap of buying out and propping up the failed developers. Any decisions taken to alleviate the housing shortage must be addressed from the viewpoint of the tenant or owner and not from the rescue package for a developer. The situation has now developed where affordable housing costs more in some cases than houses available on the open market and, therefore, the entire affordable housing scheme must be revisited.
Section 22 provides for an element of standardisation in defining how houses should be allocated by housing authorities. While it may be desirable to have a degree of flexibility at local level, it is most important that there is a transparent system in place to ensure the criteria that define one’s entitlement to housing are rigidly adhered to. There also must be transparency when refusal of housing occurs. I have encountered many people who feel aggrieved because they have been refused a house or a flat and cannot establish a reason for that refusal.
Deputy Joe Costello: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. It is worthwhile legislation that provides a framework for the delivery and management of social housing and gives effect to social housing reform in terms of “Delivering Homes Sustaining Communities”. Any legislation, however, should start with a recognition of the right to a roof over one’s head. It must be established that every citizen has a right to a home.
Many Deputies have received documentation requesting that the legislation include the recommendations contained in “The Way Home: A Strategy to Address Adult Homelessness in Ireland 2008-2013”, the Government’s new homeless strategy, that would place on a statutory footing local homeless fora and action plans, with a responsibility on the local authorities and housing agencies to ensure they would meet their commitments in housing terms. Those of us who have been dealing with local authorities, housing agencies and the homeless would like to see a legally binding commitment whereby those who are in charge of providing services deliver them adequately, efficiently and in a reasonable timescale.
In my constituency or that of Deputy Upton, one will see flats and houses boarded up and left unrepaired. There are complexes that have been run down, with unacceptable levels of anti-social behaviour leading to swift deterioration, making life miserable for large numbers of people. These are services where there is a requirement on the local authority and housing agencies to ensure complexes are maintained to a high level but they are services that will not be delivered unless there is a legal obligation to do so.
The Bill should ensure the homeless are housed within a reasonable time. During the glory days of the Celtic tiger, the number of homeless increased because the rule of the market was let rip and the private sector did the ripping. Land banks were sold by local authorities to the private sector and private development boomed while local authority development stopped. The housing and homeless lists have as a result increased. That is the sad fact.
Now the boom has turned to bust and we saw recently how the regeneration programme under public private partnerships went belly up in many Dublin City Council areas. The same has happened elsewhere. That happened because there was no coherent approach and the money was not spent in the right place or in a targeted way to allow local authorities to carry out work. They could have done it through contracts that allowed for control over design, delivery and resources. Many complexes could have been regenerated but have been ruined by anti-social behaviour.
The Government proposes to examine the bad debts that exist and set up an agency that would deal with the disposal of property and sites that are now worth only a fraction of what they were when the banks gave out major loans to buy them. These debts have caused the toxic nature of our banks. Is it not possible to provide a mechanism for local authorities to buy back some of those properties or land banks that were sold to the private sector and, therefore, there could be a regeneration by the local authority of the necessary social housing in a planned fashion? Is this not the time to provide the country with a land bank for social housing in the future? If the money was forthcoming from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, this would present the opportunity to buy land and property at bargain basement prices because, otherwise, these sites will be bought at such prices by the developers of the future. We should note how Irish Glass was bought and sold to the docklands consortium for more than €600 million, and what is happening to the Beamish and Crawford site in Cork, where Heineken suggested it would turn the oldest brewery in the world into an interpretive centre but now it will be sold off. All sorts of vultures will be circling to grab these prime locations for bargain basement prices. Why should local authorities not have the resources to purchase such sites and replenish local authority housing stock for the future?
It is time to re-examine the Kenny report and introduce some of its recommendations. The idea the market rules supreme, unfettered and untrammelled is gone. Development land must be for homes for people, not property portfolios. In the past, rezoned land developed an exorbitant profit value. Should we not be regulating the property market? It is not unreasonable that land for development purposes, once rezoned, should retain its market value with only a 25% mark-up. That should be the only advantage a property developer gets, no more. The common good must rule supreme in this, above that of any individual speculator or developer.
These are provisions that should be introduced in a housing Bill, particularly when we look back at what has happened. It is sobering when one considers the property boom was once at the centre of the Celtic tiger economy but was also the cause of its collapse. A regulatory system is needed that benefits people rather than private individuals or consortia. Any developments in this Bill must take into consideration the lessons of the first major economic boom and bust episode in our history.
The current economic situation provides an opportunity for repairs and maintenance to be carried out to existing local authority housing stock. It also provides an opportunity for homes to be properly insulated, so that it does not cost an arm and a leg to heat them, and extensions to existing homes for the disabled and those of enlarged families. This is an opportunity for reviving construction in the local economy.
As Deputy Upton pointed out, the affordable housing market needs to be addressed. The prices for many of these affordable homes are off the wall. Why would anyone get involved, particularly considering the conditions laid down by local authorities, in purchasing an affordable home when one can buy a house in the private sector for less? The local authorities have not responded to the changed circumstances. This is where direction should be coming from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government so that people will avail of affordable housing schemes.
Deputy Áine Brady: Housing grants available through local authorities, which are mainly funded by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, provide an important facility and incentive for people to upgrade their homes. They also provide an opportunity to provide employment in the construction sector. Works carried out under the housing grants generally use local employees and suppliers and can be in effect a local mini-stimulus package.
A revised suite of housing adaptation grant schemes was implemented in November 2007 to facilitate the continued independent occupancy of their own homes by older people and people with a disability following a review of the former disabled persons, essential repairs grant schemes and special housing aid for the elderly, administered by the Health Service Executive. The revised schemes target the available resources to those in most need, streamline operational and administrative procedures and ensure equity and consistency of operation across all local authority areas.
Three new schemes were introduced. The housing adaptation grant for people with a disability, which replaced the disabled persons grant scheme. The mobility aids grant scheme which provides grants to cover a basic suite of works to address mobility problems, primarily but not exclusively, associated with ageing. The housing aid for older people scheme which amalgamated the old essential repairs and special housing aid for the elderly schemes with the aim of improving the existing housing conditions of older people.
The revised schemes are administered by the local authorities and are funded by 80% recoupment available from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It is a matter for local authorities to provide for the remaining 20% contribution in their annual Estimates. Local authorities will be notified of their combined capital allocations immediately following the publication of the 2009 Revised Estimates. Individual capital allocations are being determined on the basis of available resources, local authority expenditure in 2008 and anticipated levels of activity in 2009. It is, therefore, important that local authorities take note of the impact on their drawdown from the previous year has on their proposed spend.
It is a matter for each local authority to decide on the specific level of funding to be directed towards each of the schemes from within the combined allocation notified to them by the Department and to manage the operation of the schemes in their areas from within the allocation. In light of the high level of demand under the grant schemes, local authorities are requested to operate the schemes on a prioritised basis. Particular consideration should be given to applicants requiring adaptations to facilitate discharge from hospital or alleviate the need for hospitalisation in the future and those applicants requiring improvement works to facilitate the continuance of care in their own homes.
The total estimated demand by local authorities for the operation of the housing adaptation grant schemes for older people and people with a disability in 2009 is over €140 million. However, this estimate includes applications that have been assessed as eligible, as well as applications not yet assessed and the projected intake of new applications during the year.
Funding for the schemes has been accelerating every year with expenditure increasing from some €13 million to almost €95 million between 1997 and 2008. Approximately 86,000 older people and people with a disability have been assisted in remaining in their own homes and communities for as long as possible. In many cases, the grants have prevented premature entry to residential care. Expenditure in 2008 amounted to €94.9 million with some 12,000 grants paid.
On foot of a decision taken in February 2006, it was decided to transfer the administration of the special housing aid for the elderly scheme from the Health Service Executive to the housing authorities. It arose on foot of a recommendation made in the report, Core Functions of the Health Service, which stated a more integrated service and better value for money may be achieved by transferring responsibility for the special housing aid for the elderly scheme to the local authorities, who already had responsibility for the essential repairs and disabled persons grant schemes. The scheme has been funded through a task force under the aegis of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
It was agreed between the Department and the Health Service Executive that the special housing aid for the elderly scheme would be discontinued from 1 August 2008, with all claims on hand at that date to be processed by the Health Service Executive. The Department provided €14.7 million to the Health Service Executive in 2008 for the operation of the scheme and it is expected that an allocation will be made shortly in respect of remaining claims on hand. All new applications for home repairs and improvements with effect from 1 August 2008 are directed to the local authorities under the provisions of the housing aid for the elderly scheme.
To ensure the adaptation grant schemes continue to provide a seamless response to the housing needs of vulnerable groups, the Department is committed to undertaking an evaluation of the new regime following the first year of implementation. The evaluation, which has recently commenced, is being undertaken by the Centre for Housing Research. It will provide for a call for submissions from interested parties and focus groups; and interviews with housing practitioners and front line local authority officials, occupational therapists and relevant statutory agencies and non-governmental organisations. The special housing aid for the elderly task force will be also consulted. Interviews will take place with contractors in sample local authority areas. A postal questionnaire of all successful applicants of the schemes in 2008 will be followed by interviews with a sample of successful applicants and unsuccessful applicants. An analysis will be made of the take-up of grants vis-à-vis the profile of older people and people with a disability in local authority areas. A determination will be made of prioritisation systems in operation locally, and a profile will be drawn up of the nature of works and level of grant aid awarded. It is expected that a final report will be available by June 2009.
Many people in Kildare have benefited from the housing grants. The improvements brought about to their homes as a result of the investment has helped to improve their lifestyles and ensure a greater level of comfort in their homes. Given the reduced construction costs, I should also point out that the value that can be now extracted for the housing grants will be significantly enhanced over and above what could have been obtained a couple of years ago.
While I have concentrated on only one element of it, the housing Bill is a comprehensive package to deal with many issues related to housing policy. I refer to issues such as the further provisions for the functions of the housing authority to provide for the making of housing services plans and to provide for the making of an anti-social behaviour strategy. I commend the Bill to the House.
Deputy John Browne: I thank Deputy Brady for sharing her time. I welcome the Bill. I always get worried when told a Department has decided to carry out a re-evaluation of a scheme because it usually means it will reduce the amount of money available or it will withdraw some schemes, which would be of concern.
I support what Deputy Brady said about the grant system. The essential repairs grant, the disabled person’s grant and the re-roofing grant are essential to allow elderly people to remain in their homes. The problem with the grant system is that, first, there is not enough money and, second, the councils are too slow in carrying out the assessments. That is an area in which the Minister of State with responsibility for housing should take a direct interest. He should ensure adequate moneys will be available in 2009 to meet the demands. It is preferable that older people and people with disabilities remain at home rather than go into nursing homes or hospitals. It would be more financially beneficial to the Department and local authorities for people to remain at home.
The housing aid for the elderly scheme was, as Deputy Brady said, abolished on foot of a recommendation in 2006. I disagreed with the decision at the time and I retain that position. FÁS was closely involved in the housing aid for the elderly scheme and many good works were carried out around the country, especially in my county. The scheme had a two-fold policy. It solved the problems of elderly people and people with disabilities by building bathrooms, re-roofing houses and building extra bedrooms where that was essential but it also retrained and re-skilled young people who wanted to qualify as carpenters, bricklayers or electricians. With so many young tradespeople out of work again the scheme should be reconsidered. I hope the Minister of State with responsibility for housing and the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Coughlan, will consider the reintroduction of this scheme. Perhaps it would have to be administered through county councils. That scheme was worthwhile and should be considered.
Although it would add a cost, I believe people building two-storey houses should be obliged to put a bedroom and bathroom downstairs. That should be compulsory. It is costly for local authorities and the Department to provide those facilities as people get older and it would be preferable to include them when houses are being built. We introduced compulsory bathrooms downstairs to cater for people with disabilities and other people confined to wheelchairs. We should now consider making a downstairs bedroom compulsory. I urge the Minister to seriously consider the matter.
We have all been lobbied by builders from around the country. A total of 35,000 new houses that were built remain unsold and the Minister for Finance is anxious to get money into the coffers. The builders made the point that if those houses were sold in the next two years it would generate €1.1 billion for the Exchequer. We must consider incentives and how we can encourage people to get back into the buyers’ market. People are not buying houses currently as they feel house prices will drop further. I know that to suggest tax breaks currently is akin to using a dirty word in some media quarters, but a once-off, targeted €15,000 new-house grant over a one-year period would bring people back into the market, and we should seriously consider that option.
The Minister for Finance, and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and local authorities should be able to put together a package to encourage people to buy their own homes. In addition, local authorities should become involved in buying some of the houses that are available. Significant numbers of people are on the housing list and 35,000 houses that were built remain unsold. Surely there are enough brains within those three areas of responsibility to come up with a policy that would enable local authorities to acquire a substantial number of such houses on a rent-to-buy system or on a rental system for allocation to people currently on the social and affordable housing lists.
Most people who have applied to buy an affordable house tell me they are no longer affordable. The Minister must examine the matter. I am aware that local authorities in Dublin are considering the issue but it needs to be done on a countrywide basis because some of the prices that local authorities paid for affordable houses no longer apply and the Exchequer or the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will have to help local authorities to sell off the houses at current market values, not the value at the time the properties were acquired.
I accept tax incentives are not flavour of the month but I still think there is an opportunity for a targeted regeneration of run-down areas in villages and towns. The urban renewal scheme was very successful in the past. It worked well in my town of Enniscorthy and in Wexford, Bunclody and a number of smaller towns in County Wexford. However, we still have run-down areas and the Minister should consider a targeted regeneration scheme. As Deputy Brady indicated, that would encourage builders to get back to work, and to provide jobs and opportunities for young people.
We were expecting the Minister of State with responsibility for housing to make an allocation in February, then March. I accept the budget is due next week but I urge the Minister to make the allocations to local authorities as soon as possible. A substantial housing stock is available and there is an opportunity to buy houses at a reduced price. If local authorities have the money they should buy those houses, as many builders currently want to sell them. Good value for money is available at present and the Minister should allocate the money as soon as possible.
I understand some local authorities have large amounts of money in the bank. They should be encouraged to spend some of it on the purchase of houses. There is no point in having money in the bank at present as there is very little return for it, but one would get good value from house purchases. Local authorities should consider that option.
Local authorities have not always been upfront in regard to the provision of the 20% or 25% that is required for disabled person’s grants or essential repair grants. The Department allocated substantial moneys for such projects, but the local authorities reduced the moneys they would invest. That is not good enough. It is important that disabled person’s grants, essential repair grants and other grants available to people with disabilities and older people are available on request, almost. I accept that local authorities have had to prioritise areas over the past 18 months because of inadequate funding. However, if it is essential that the Minister with responsibility for housing makes reductions next week in the budget — hopefully, he will not have to — he should not interfere with or reduce the moneys available for essential repair grants, disabled person’s grants, roofing grants or grants for any of the areas so beneficial to people suffering from disability or older people. If cuts are required, they should be made in some other area of the Department and grants in the areas I have mentioned should be increased. Deputy Áine Brady mentioned the number of people on the application list for housing. We need to make inroads on that as quickly as possible and to look after the most vulnerable people in our communities. I urge the Minister to ensure that this area of funding is protected, enhanced and increased. This is essential.
I welcome the Bill as it gives us an opportunity to discuss housing and issues about which we are concerned. I urge the Ministers for Finance and for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and local authority and county managers around the country to come up with a solution with regard to the 35,000 built but unsold new houses. We have a huge number of people on council housing lists. Surely, the Ministers, local authorities and county managers have enough ingenuity and modern ideas to come up with a plan. Rather than have these houses remain unsold and unoccupied, they should find a way for local authorities to take them on board and allocate them to people on housing lists.
Deputy Catherine Byrne: I welcome this Bill. The housing situation has reached crisis point. Sadly, the country’s wealth in recent years did not translate into improved housing standards, did not see those most in need being allocated social and affordable housing, did not see viable regeneration projects being delivered as promised or a reduction in homelessness on our streets. Instead, we saw developers and banks grow richer and richer, while the ordinary person on the street was priced out of the market. We saw an abundance of exemption certificates allow social and affordable housing units to be sold off as private units at crazy prices. We saw thousands of people being encouraged to take out huge mortgages on over-priced homes miles from their place of work and we saw our homeless population grow.
We are now stuck with a long list of failed schemes. First-time buyers are forced to reject affordable housing as it is no longer affordable; young people are unable to get on the property ladder because they can no longer secure a mortgage as a result of the credit crunch; public private partnerships have been dissolved; regeneration projects have failed; thousands of apartments lie empty around the city; and millions of euro of taxpayers’ money has been spent on rent supplement for sub-standard accommodation.
A statutory assessment of housing needs is carried out every three years by all housing authorities in accordance with the terms of the Housing Act 1988. The most recent assessment took place in March 2008. This showed that there were just over 56,249 households in need of social housing support, an increase of almost 30% on the corresponding figure in 2005. In February, Daft’s rental report revealed that rents in Dublin south city are down 10% and the total number of properties available to rent today is twice that of this time last year. With rental properties flooding the market, tenants should seize the opportunity to renegotiate their rent with their landlords. Many tenants are in a good bargaining position, given the greater choice of more affordable rents on offer.
This Bill presents a golden opportunity for reform of the rent supplement scheme. While this scheme serves a good purpose in the short term, supporting individuals and families who might otherwise not be able to afford their rent, it is open to abuse, especially when it comes to money being handed over to unscrupulous landlords who do not maintain their properties to basic living standards. The lack of checks and inspections on such properties means that valuable funds are being paid for sub-standard accommodation right across the country. Although rents have decreased by an overall 12%, rent supplement payments have fallen by just 2%. Clearly, adjustments should be made to ensure that the Government does not pay over the odds and line the pockets of wealthy landlords.
Expenditure on rent supplement was €392 million in 2007 and €441 million in 2008. What does this huge amount of money actually pay for? I have seen where people receiving rent supplement are forced to live in totally sub-standard flats and houses. Landlords must be made accountable and answerable for the state of the properties for which they are being paid handsomely by the State. Last week, I received a letter detailing the comments of a number of residents living on a particular road in Dublin South-Central. There are 72 houses on the road in question. I will read two excerpts from the letter.
The conditions in which these people are living are a disgrace. The problems relate to ten of the 72 houses on the road. These ten houses are owned by the same landlord. None of the houses is of a decent living standard.
I am aware that from 1 February, new minimum standards for rental accommodation came into effect. I sincerely hope that local authorities take their role seriously, inspect rental properties and ensure that the new minimum standards are implemented and complied with. I also hope that these standards will be applied to accommodation which is covered by rent supplement.
I welcome the provision in the Bill to give a legislative basis to the rental accommodation scheme, RAS. This scheme is more transparent than rent supplement and is a better solution for people with long-term housing needs. It requires proper standards to be met and compliance with regulations and provides tenants with a better choice of properties deemed acceptable by the local authorities. Unfortunately, the uptake of the scheme has been quite slow. This is partly due to the low number of landlords signing up for the scheme. It is also important that RAS approved properties are dispersed throughout the city. We must work hard to avoid creating new ghettos that will breed antisocial behaviour and other social problems.
The provision for the incremental purchase scheme in the Bill is also welcome. Unlike many European countries, we do not have a tradition of long-term renting in this country. Rather, people strive to own their own homes where possible. The current home ownership schemes run by local authorities have had some success in allowing people who might not otherwise have been able to own their homes to do so. Unfortunately, the major failure of this Bill is the failure to include provision for the sale of local authority flats and maisonettes to long-term residents. The Minister must clarify the position on this in the Bill and make provision for existing tenants and households, regardless of the type of property they are living in, such that they can benefit from the incremental purchase scheme. We all know that tenant purchase is available for people living in houses. Therefore, why not for those in flats and maisonettes? It is a fact that there are many residents in flat complexes in Dublin South-Central who would welcome the chance to buy their homes outright from the local authority.
I recently sent a questionnaire to the residents of the main flat complexes in Dublin South-Central. The aim was to find out for how many years individuals and families have been living in those complexes. The survey gave me an opportunity to determine whether the residents would be interested in buying their own homes. Of approximately 600 questionnaires sent out, I received 238 replies. Of these, 164 people, or 69%, said they would purchase their homes if given the choice, and just 74 people, or 31%, said they would not. Many of these council tenants have lived in the complexes for years. My findings show that 32% of people surveyed have lived in their flat or maisonette for more than 20 years, with no legal stake in or claim to it. In quite a few cases, two to three generations of the same family have lived in the same flat complex, and this obviously creates a sense of attachment to the community where one puts down roots.
Rents in local authority flat complexes are still quite high in some cases. Almost half of those individuals I surveyed pay between €40 and €80 euro per week in rent, while a quarter pay over €80 euro per week. In spite of relatively high rent, many people must put up with poor living conditions, such as dampness, the availability of only one socket in a kitchen, which socket is supposed to supply every electrical gadget, no proper kitchen presses in which to store food and no storage places for anything. Giving the tenants the opportunity to put their money towards buying their homes outright cannot and should not be put on hold due to legal complications. I understand there were obstacles to this but surely the legal issues should be resolved at this stage.
I know a number of residents in my area who have lived in the same flat for over 40 years. They have been good tenants and, had they been able to buy their houses in 1998, as was the case with those in houses, they would not have had to pay, a number of times over, what they would have paid by way of mortgage repayments. They are caught in limbo because of the lack of legislation, which means they have no option to buy their homes and are still paying relatively high rent to the council. We must afford them the right to own their own homes, as we do for everyone else. Where there is a will there is a way, but there is obviously no will at present.
I welcomed the affordable housing scheme most sincerely when I was on the city council and I actually sat on one of the committees. The scheme represented a real opportunity for many young people who could not afford to buy a home. I refer in particular to young couples who invested in the scheme in the belief they could continue to live in accommodation of a good standard without being cheated.
Recently, I read that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, is to allow local authorities to sell properties from the affordable housing scheme stock on the open market in an effort to offload the units. I am in favour of people being able to buy their own homes but believe this move is grossly unfair. Has the Minister considered all those young people who have bought under the affordable housing scheme and who will have to make clawback payments ranging from €40,000 to €80,000 if they ever want to sell their homes? These people participated in the scheme in good faith and are now at a complete disadvantage because the clawback will not apply to new home buyers. Bearing in mind the question as to what is affordable, the affordable housing scheme is now a joke. I call on the Minister to withdraw the clawback requirement in respect of all affordable housing and give young people an opportunity to own their homes, as was supposed to occur when the scheme came into being.
With regard to management companies, many young couples are being fleeced by considerable management fees of up to €3,000 annually. They have no advice, they go to meetings at which they offer their views and there is very poor maintenance and poor waste management. This needs to be addressed.
I welcome the inclusion of the antisocial behaviour provisions in the Bill as a positive development. Sadly, in recent years, no community has escaped the torment and threat of antisocial behaviour on its doorstep. Even my community has seen tragedies. Communities have been torn apart by a few mindless thugs who are intent on causing trouble on our streets. It is, therefore, very important that the new antisocial behaviour strategy be implemented properly and that all tenants be informed that they must comply with the rules as set out by local authorities.
Most people living in a community have respect for other members thereof. They are law abiding citizens who want a quiet, peaceful life and who want to contribute to the community. Sadly, I have seen many people being tormented by a minority who have no respect for person or property. I have noted great frustration among the staff in local area offices over the time it takes to effectively tackle antisocial behaviour among some of their tenants. This Bill ignores completely the problems experienced by private tenants owing to antisocial behaviour. I have experienced many cases in which private tenants were victimised and terrorised by neighbours. They had no choice but to go to the Garda, which often makes circumstances even worse. This is a major loophole in the legislation and must be addressed.
I recently met neighbours who have been tormented by the people living next door in private rented accommodation. The neighbours have, after two years of trying to deal with the problem, decided to sell their home. That this was necessary is a disgrace.
With regard to housing regeneration projects, I want to say a few words on St. Michael’s estate and O’Devaney Gardens. I heard today that six regeneration projects in Dublin are to be suspended indefinitely and there are doubts about funding for another three. The regeneration of St. Michael’s estate in Inchicore was to bring new hope and new housing and, above all, a new social agenda for the area. For such communities, the regeneration projects were long awaited and there was genuine excitement over residents having a chance to participate in the process of rebuilding their communities. However, there may be light at the end of the tunnel for the development of St. Michael’s over the next seven years. I hope the project goes ahead to give people an opportunity to have somewhere to live and be part of a community.
That there is no reference to homelessness in the Bill is really incredible. We need a firm commitment from the Government that it will improve homelessness services and focus especially on reducing the number of homeless individuals. It is important to identify those people with a serious housing need and ensure they are not abandoned to a life on the street.
The most recent figures show there were 2,366 adults in the homelessness services in 2008. This represents a 4% increase over the figure for 2005. There are currently just over twice as many men as women accessing homelessness services — 68% versus 32%. The majority of homeless people who call to my clinics are single men. They are on the homelessness list because they have nowhere else to turn. The majority are being placed in transition housing, which is totally unacceptable and unsuitable. They need to be accommodated in long-term accommodation and they need stability and hope, in the absence of which they can suffer from serious health problems, including depression, and a lack of self-esteem.
This Bill affords a great opportunity to include provision for ending long-term homelessness. The Government’s homelessness strategy, The Way Home — A Strategy to Address Adult Homelessness in Ireland, 2008 — 2013, was published last August. However, unless the measures outlined in this document are given a legislative basis in this Chamber, it will be just another glossy document left on a shelf to gather dust. We need to consider people’s long-term housing needs and not only provide emergency accommodation in the short term.
I compliment the voluntary housing agencies that participate in many projects in Dublin, such as the National Association of Building Co-operatives, Circle Voluntary Housing Association, Clúid Housing Association and Habitat for Humanity Ireland. I have a long established connection with the latter group. When I was Lord Mayor, I opened in Ballymun the first development by Habitat for Humanity Ireland. I have been very impressed with how the association is run.
I congratulate the organisation Alone which was founded by Willie Bermingham in 1977. It is an excellent voluntary organisation which provides shelter and accommodation for those in need, especially the elderly. These organisations do great work but they cannot do it alone and should not carry the can for local authorities.
Deputy Charlie O’Connor: I welcome the opportunity to make a brief contribution on this important Bill. This is an occasion on which I can speak comfortably about Tallaght and my wider constituency because this is where my experience of housing is based. I remind colleagues that I was a member of the local authority from 1991 and I miss it. Much of my work still concerns housing issues and they remain of great interest to me.
I am sorry the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Finneran, is not present because I wanted to compliment him on his work and to wish him well in the lead up to the budget next week. As other speakers have stated, it is important that we support the work of the Minister of State and other Ministers. Everybody has a point of view on where Government funding should be used. I have an interest in the brief of the Minister of State, Deputy Martin Mansergh, who is in the House, because I am anxious to have a new Garda station in Tallaght.
With regard to housing, the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, has the support of all colleagues in fighting his corner and trying to ensure that money is made available to continue to properly fund social housing and other housing programmes. Last week, I brought to his attention my upset at newspaper reports that 291 proposed homes in South Dublin County Council’s programme for Tallaght were being axed. I understand this is not the position but I await confirmation. It is important that we continue to provide homes through local authorities and other schemes where people cannot get their own accommodation.
I lived in the inner city many years ago. My family waited patiently for a Dublin Corporation house and then we lived in Crumlin. Much of what crosses our desks on housing, including a number of provisions included in this Bill, concerns issues with which I grew up. I am glad to be able to bring my life experience to my work as a Deputy for a major population centre. I am very happy about the experience I obtained over many years. Mr. Frank Feeley, the then city manager, told me a long time ago that I would survive as a politician because having been a member of the county council for only three or four weeks in 1991, I criticised Dublin Corporation. I did so because in those days Dublin Corporation had provided 5,000 houses in the Tallaght area but there was no accountability or public representation and we had to fight our corner as far as these issues were concerned.
The Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill contains a number of important provisions. It makes further provision for the functions of housing authorities. It provides for the making of housing services plans and the carrying out of social housing assessments for the purposes of social housing support and the allocation of dwellings. It also provides for rental accommodation arrangements and for the management and control functions of housing authorities. In addition, it provides for the making of antisocial behaviour strategies. It also makes further provision for tenant purchase of dwellings by incremental purchase arrangements. For these and other purposes it amends and extends the Housing Acts 1966 to 2004, the Housing Finance Agency Act 1981, the Planning and Development Act 2000 and the Civil Registration Act 2004. It also provides for other related matters.
I wish to address a number of issues, some of which were already mentioned by colleagues. I listened carefully to my fellow Dubliner, Deputy Catherine Byrne, when she spoke about homelessness. It is very important, even at this stage, that the Minister listens to those representing people affected by homelessness. There is a strong view, which has been represented to me throughout my constituency, that the question of homelessness should be addressed in the Bill.
I have mentioned often that I live in Tallaght and thank God Tallaght has developed hugely over recent years and we are a city in all but name. However, despite the progress and the good things that have happened, which I have listed often so I will not test the patience of the Ceann Comhairle by doing so now, there are still gaps in services. I am very unhappy that there is still no provision in Tallaght, which is the third-largest population centre in the country, to deal with those who are homeless. There is no hostel. I have stated on many occasions that we send people with such a problem to Dublin city on the bus. That is not right. In this context I compliment the Tallaght Homeless Advice Unit, an organisation based in Tallaght village which does its best to cater for those who are homeless and provide them with information and resources to deal with their situation. I strongly support it.
I receive quite an amount of correspondence from various groups, as I am sure do colleagues, including from St. Mary’s Priory, which makes the case for legislation to make a commitment on homelessness. Even at this stage, I hope the Minister will acknowledge and examine this. He has acknowledged the correspondence he has received from many colleagues with regard to the MakeRoom group which has organised an online campaign on homelessness. The group makes strong points and I hope the Minister takes them into account.
A number of colleagues raised issues which I feel strongly should be provided for in this Bill. We all receive representations from many groups and young people with regard to the operation of apartment management companies. All of our constituencies have had problems with these. Over recent years throughout Dublin South-West and in Tallaght there has been a huge increase in the development of apartments. In some cases this has been good and in others it has not. If one walks around Tallaght or any other place, and Deputy Catherine Byrne spoke about Crumlin, one sees a huge number of apartments lying idle. Nobody lives in them or uses them and this causes all sorts of problems, including antisocial behaviour. I wonder where this will end. I want to be positive about Tallaght but if one walks around Tallaght village, the new town centre area and a number of the estates one will find vacant apartments.
Where apartments are occupied I receive huge numbers of calls, as I know colleagues do also, about the operation of management companies. I hope the long-promised legislation on these issues will be fast-forwarded because many people are asking us to address this issue. It is very unfair that young people under much pressure, in good times as well as in more demanding economic times, receive fewer services than those to which they are entitled. In general, management companies seem to be very difficult to deal with. Not a day goes by that I do not receive inquiries in this regard. It is time that various Departments put their heads together and introduce legislation to deal with this problem. I hope this will be sooner rather than later.
Colleagues made reference to tenant purchase, another area in which I am interested. It is important that we support the view that families should be assisted as much as possible in owning their own homes. That was my view all those years ago when I was reared in Crumlin. That was my view when I moved to Tallaght and when I became involved in community life and then political life.
There was a time when the Government introduced a grant to assist people to leave local authority houses and to go to other places. I will not dig this up again, but it took families from local authority estates who were doing well, contributing to the local economy and the local community fabric. It is very important to encourage people to own their local authority homes as much as possible. Every effort should be made by the local authorities to ensure that people do that. I know the Minister is keen on this and we should encourage it.
The question of antisocial behaviour is something that concerns us all. When I was small, I did not quite understand what it meant, but I know now that it is not just a modern phenomenon, even though it seems to have got worse. Where a family is living peacefully in a local authority estate, its members should not be hassled by people, have stones thrown at their windows, have their cars interfered with, have graffiti sprayed on their walls and so on. It is not happening just in my community, but everywhere in every county. Different colleagues will tell stories about antisocial behaviour. It is important that the local authorities are given as much power as is necessary to deal with this. I do not want to throw families out or penalise them, but where decent families are being hassled due to antisocial behaviour, it is important that action is taken. It should be done in a fair way. There is now talk about antisocial behaviour in every single community in the country, so it is important to get the point across.
There have been stories in all our newspapers about graffiti attacks in different situations. We are used to seeing graffiti on walls, but houses are now being attacked in some communities. There was an incident in Old Bawn recently where people sprayed graffiti on the walls of houses in the area. I know we see graffiti everywhere we go in the world, but that does not make it right. The local authorities and the Garda Síochána must understand that writing graffiti is a serious crime as far as the communities are concerned. I believe Senator Harris was quoted this morning as saying that sterner action should be taken for crimes against the person. I will certainly not disagree with that. He also made a point about crimes against property, but I would say to him that antisocial attacks on property upset people. It is right that they are condemned, and I am not a bit afraid to condemn them.
I spoke earlier about the need for people to be accommodated. All of us who deal with housing list applications are aware that the emphasis is always on catering for family units, which is fair enough. The number of three bedroom houses being funded is greater than the number of two bedroom and one bedroom apartments. There is not much of an argument against that policy, except for the fact that there are different groupings of families that need to be catered for. The separated fathers’ group, which is based in Tallaght but which is known to many people in the region, makes the point about single fathers. It is very difficult for local authorities to concentrate on one group rather than another group, and it is certainly not popular to concentrate on a group to the extent that more formal family units are eliminated from the list. However, it is a demand on the services in this modern age, and it is important to state this. The local authorities need to grapple with that challenge. I know it is a difficult challenge and it is far more prevalent today than it was ten or 20 years ago. I do eight advice clinics every week in my constituency, and the number of single fathers with that problem has increased.
Local authorities used to have a scheme which was known as “accommodation in lieu”. If an application was received from somebody who was already in a family but needed his or her own accommodation, such as a single parent, a provision existed whereby a local authority could allow accommodation in lieu to be built on to the house. The applicant could then live close to the family home. I know there were reasons given when it was discontinued, but I still get inquiries about this. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, who has just joined us, will know that we must continue to look at a range of innovative schemes to ensure that local authority housing stocks remain strong and that people who have a clear need for local authority housing are still facilitated. I hope that somebody will look at that. I do not want to turn the clock back, but if there is a challenge——
Deputy Charlie O’Connor: Why would I do that? I am a forward thinking Fianna Fáil Deputy, so Deputy Durkan would not want me to talk about the past. I take it that the Chair will protect me if I need it.
Deputy Charlie O’Connor: We should understand that even in the good times, there were demands for local authority housing. If we are now in more challenging times, it is important to take account of that fact. If the challenging times are to continue, they will put pressure on families and this issue will be dealt with in the Fine Gael Party Bill tonight, and was dealt with in a previous Labour Party Bill. The question of assistance for those families will have to be a priority. The Opposition Deputies should not believe that there is nobody on the Fianna Fáil benches who would share some of their views on this question.
Deputy Charlie O’Connor: I am an ordinary community worker. I spend my time in my constituency and hear what people say and I am not afraid to represent those views, or to represent the views on social inclusion I have often expressed. There is a very strong sense of social inclusion as far as this Bill is concerned. I look forward to the passage of the legislation and I wish the Minister and the Minister of State well.
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: The Housing Act 1966, the City and County Management (Amendment) Act and the Local Government Acts laid the basis for good housing policy and action and a good response by the local authorities to the housing need. Unfortunately, many changes have taken place. Many of the principles of those Acts have been set aside. Experts have been called in. Consultants were called upon to advise Governments in the past ten years regarding how the situation might be addressed. Unfortunately, as is the often the case when consultants are called in, the results are only as good as the degree to which the consultants are experts and only an expert can determine when an expert should be called in.
I am dismayed at the way the housing situation has degenerated in so far as the local authorities are concerned in recent years. The number of family size homes now being built is very limited. In my constituency, the possibility of acquiring a three bedroom house is remote. There are 3,700 families on the waiting list. Some of those families have been on the waiting list for the past ten years and some of those families will be on the waiting list until their children are teenagers. I cannot understand how the Government has remained altogether immune and impervious to the fact that this has taken place. I cannot understand why it has taken until now to introduce a housing Bill to somehow address some parts of the problem.
In recent years there has been a failure by Government to recognise the true housing situation. There was urgency on the part of the Government to divest itself of all responsibility for any action which might be construed as being a means of resolving the housing problem. It opted out. It stated the private sector should take the necessary action. It reached over to its friends in the private sector and requested they do something about it, but nothing occurred.
The whole culture in the area has completely changed. Under the 1966 Act, there was an onus and responsibility on local authorities to provide housing and the funding for housing to ensure those who were first time house buyers would be able to afford a house. Where did that go? It is long since gone, lost and forgotten. In the past ten years there has scarcely been a single instance where one could acquire a truly affordable house. What has occurred? The voluntary sector moved in. In the absence of Government policy and because of the laziness of Government to address the issue, the voluntary sector was called in. What has taken place? I do not blame voluntary organisations for this because anyone would do the same thing, but they received a 100% capital grant to build houses. They acquired free sites. The voluntary agencies own those houses for ever. Some of them are now the largest landlords in the country and some own up to 4,500 houses. The tenant can never buy those houses. I acknowledge there are references in the proposed legislation to address some of the issues, but I do not believe the Bill will properly address them.
Another issue is the definition of affordable. What does affordable mean? Is a dwelling affordable by virtue of being lower in scale than the market price, or is it affordable by virtue of the fact that it should address the housing need of a given individual? Let us also bear in mind such a person’s ability to repay. In other words, I refer to the sustainability of the loan.
In recent years, we carried out an experiment in my constituency whereby we challenged the local authority to make sites available to those on the local authority housing list at the same price the sites were being made available to the voluntary sector. That was a challenge, but it was legal under the legislation. We succeeded until the various ministerial bodies, bureaucrats, consultants and all such “crats” became involved and decided to close off that loophole and charge a meaningful fee for the sites. Previously, we would have acquired the sites for free, for £1 or €1, which was done. What resulted was local authority houses of good quality were provided on foot of a local authority loan to people who had no other means of obtaining a housing loan. Such people are in those houses to this day. Their loans were sustainable and they were able to live there even in the highly inflationary environment which was in place in the housing sector.
We had to change our approach and move in different direction because the loophole was closed off. The next step was to identify how to deal with the new situation emerging and how persons on the local authority housing list could obtain a loan whether through the shared ownership scheme, the SDA, severely disadvantaged area, scheme and whether they would qualify under one or the other. We discovered it was possible, but with somewhat greater difficulty. Again, we succeeded in securing the building of several houses. The cost of these, even in the past two years, was no more than between €140,000 and €165,000, which was quite an achievement.
The local voluntary groups were obliged to purchase the site and they were subject to a clawback. Deputy Catherine Byrne mentioned the clawback already. I cannot understand the purpose of the clawback. It permanently punishes the unfortunate person who falls into the category of housing need. Such people will never put together a deposit to move out because if they ever make a profit it is taken from them by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Such people cannot move anywhere. It would have been very simple to say the housing need of a given person is met and if that person sells the house to another person at a later stage the housing need is still met and the person has the ability to use their deposit or whatever profit is made — in some cases a loss would be made — to move on to different accommodation. It used to be the case that there was a clawback for local authority sites and housing and each case had to be approved by the local authority. However, that procedure was disbanded because it was holding up and restricting the extent to which a person could sell his or her house on the open market and move on with satisfaction.
During the time of the Celtic tiger the one group of people seriously neglected was those dependant on a first housing start. Such people remain set aside. Some of the most recent schemes have an entitlement and an upper limit of €280,000 or €300,000. In the present market those who took up these schemes are not looking forward to a positive future. I do not know where we are going, but we must consider more carefully to what we commit people.
I refer to tax incentives in the housing area. They completely skewed the housing system and took the emphasis away from those in need. Why was it not possible to provide tax incentives to produces houses for first time buyers? That would have been simple. Incentives were introduced for speculative purposes and to encourage investment and investors, which is fine. However, we now know the difficulty with that approach.
I refer to another occurrence in recent times which must be addressed urgently. Deputies referred to the degree of antisocial behaviour taking place. I recognise action is proposed in the legislation. I do not know whether that action will be effective, because legislation to address this issue was previously introduced and nothing occurred. There are local authority housing estates in some parts of the country and in my constituency where the existing long-term tenants wish to move out. In some cases, people who have purchased their homes have moved out because they can no longer tolerate antisocial behaviour. What is the reason? The local authorities do not seem to be trying to ensure that people appointed to tenancies in some housing schemes recognise their serious responsibility, which affects their neighbours.
The voluntary housing sector is also affected. It cherry picks by skimming, not scamming, the list of housing applicants. Its allocation policy is not subject to local authority or transparency requirements. Having cherry picked several times, there is a tendency to wear down the core and the social fabric of the housing schemes. Those who have lived in a scheme for a number of years find themselves isolated. In some cases, by virtue of the shortage of housing available to local authorities, they find that undesirables have been located among them. By “undesirables” I mean people involved in drug dealing and other antisocial activity. This serious matter has damaged the social fabric of countless housing areas.
I wish to raise an issue relating to a number of points made by other Deputies, namely, meeting the needs of those who have been entrusted to our responsibility. I refer to people with, for example, special needs who receive disabled persons grants, DPGs, and those who are in need of essential repairs grants. Currently, grants from local authorities have been frozen because they are awaiting a Government decision on what should occur next. It is sad that people who, in many cases, are elderly or are young and have special needs still find that they must travel upstairs without assistance. Their disabled person’s grant, DPG, applications are being assessed or it has been indicated to them that assessments will be carried out at some point. Does anyone understand what this is like for the applicant? How does placing someone, often an elderly person, on a long waiting list and telling him or her that we will consider the case next year or at the end of this year, depending on the availability of funding, resonate with that applicant? He or she may experience a shortage of funding, but what about civilised society’s recognition of the person’s special needs — his or her inability to live a reasonable quality of life in his or her home — and the system’s failure to respond positively?
I do not know what the outcome will be, but every Deputy has a list as long as his or her arm of people who keep reminding us that they have made applications for DPGs. Local authorities have told them that, because of the current financial situation, the grants have been put on hold. Life itself is being put on hold as far as I can see. The Minister sitting across from me knows full well that efforts should be made as a matter of urgency to deal with these special needs cases. While it might not receive the same amount of good publicity, this scheme generates as much employment as other schemes that will likely be before the House in the not too distant future and some of which are before us already. If possible and notwithstanding any proposals in the Bill, will funding be made available to deal with the DPG issue as a priority?
I wish to discuss the economic needs of the house building sector. The building industry has suffered a severe setback in the current economic climate. Approximately 70,000 families are seeking accommodation on local authority and affordable housing lists. Bringing these two inter-linked areas together is a necessity, as one can resolve the other. How to do so and the logistics involved are matters for the Minister and his Department, but I am uncertain as to whether the Bill goes even a fraction of the way. It is not enough to say that we do not have enough money. We will never have enough to carry out the type of attack on housing needs that is required. We never had it or the will to do this in the past, which is the sad part.
Once upon a time, most local authority members, many of whom were Deputies, would meet four or five applicants for affordable home loans on a weekly basis. Sadly, that time is past. What is affordable? How affordable is a mortgage of €250,000 or €300,000 to someone who applies for a loan from a building society, mortgage company or so on in the public or private sector? It is not.
As I stated at a committee meeting today, I had occasion in recent weeks to attend court to give evidence on behalf of an unfortunate constituent whose house was being repossessed. I am annoyed by how people must go to the various financial institutions before a local authority will consider him or her. The unfortunate constituent’s family was given a loan by a mortgage company amounting to approximately 200% of the family’s then entitlement. It was a question of matching the loan to the house price. This practice was unsustainable, as has proven to be the case. The family’s house will be repossessed and, when placed on the market, will not be sold. The family’s credit rating will be damaged by the selfishness of the mortgage company, which has piled compound interest charges and penalties upon the original low interest rate to such an extent that it will be impossible for the person to extricate himself from his situation.
The question of affordability must be examined, particularly given that local authorities have on their hands a fairly large number of what are deemed to be affordable houses. Does the Minister know what is happening? Some houses on the same estates are on sale at prices lower than those being offered to applicants by local authorities. How can this be? It is a regular occurrence in every local authority from Cork to Dublin and from Kildare to Carlow, Meath and so on. I do not understand why the penny has not dropped and someone has not said that the applicants must be treated with fairness and that prices be decreased to a point at which they are at least in keeping with today’s market values. Otherwise, further problems will be created by people entering negative equity situations, particularly if they have gone to the private sector for their mortgages. How much time have I remaining?
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: In the final analysis, we should pay particular attention to the needs of first-time buyers, those in an income bracket who would previously have applied for ordinary annuity loans, SDA loans as they were called or housing finance agency loans as they were called in the 1980s.
While that is out of the equation at present, there is an urgent need to bring it back and to ensure that one protects those families that now are applying for loans, affordable or otherwise, in order that they do not find in four, five or six years time, that they will be obliged to sell their houses at a loss. There are various reasons for this into which I cannot go at present and I will conclude by thanking the Cathaoirleach.
Deputy Frank Fahey: I welcome the introduction of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2008 and I congratulate the Minister and Minister of State on the work they and their departmental officials have done on this Bill. The reforms proposed in the Bill are timely, particularly the powers given to the Minister to issue policy directions with which housing authorities must comply and guidelines to which housing authorities must have regard in the performance of their statutory duty. I also welcome a new power for elected members to make housing service plans for delivery in their areas of social and affordable housing supports, in line with housing strategies in the development plans. Such plans will be implemented through a three-year programme drawn up by managers and will be rolled over every year.
Moreover, the fact that the Bill makes provision for a number of important social housing supports is significant. I refer to a comprehensive statutory framework for the provision of rented social housing through leasing or contract arrangements, notably the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, that was introduced in 2005 and which involves housing authorities progressively taking responsibility for accommodating people in receipt of social welfare rent supplement who have a long-term housing need. Under RAS, the housing authority pays the rent to the landlord on behalf of the tenant and the tenant pays an income-related rent contribution to the statutory authority. This highly significant change is greatly to be welcomed.
I refer to the new incremental purchase scheme, whereby existing social housing tenants and households that qualify for social housing support are helped to become owners of houses that are newly built by local authorities and voluntary and co-operative bodies. Full ownership of the house is transferred to a household on purchase of an initial share of the equity. The housing authority or body charges the property for the proportion of the equity not paid for and releases this charge in equal proportions for each year that the buyer occupies the house until the charge is completely eliminated. The incremental purchaser can resell the house at any time but must pay the housing authority or body that proportion of the proceeds equivalent to its prevailing charge share of the equity. I welcome this initiative in particular.
The main problem with local authority estates down through the years has been the fact that many local authority tenants who were paying rent ad infinitum simply were not concerned or interested in the upkeep of their houses. On the other hand, many good tenants looked after their houses well and ensured that the costs of maintenance and so on to the local authorities were kept to a minimum. However, particularly on foot of the fairly significant buy-out of houses under the tenant purchase schemes, many tenants who held on to their houses did not really concern themselves in any way with the proper upkeep of their homes. All Members know of local authority estates in every town, city and village in which it is clear there are a number of tenants who have no interest in or regard for the houses in which they are living and who always are on Members’ constituency lists seeking support and help in the maintenance of such houses. I welcome the concept in this scheme whereby people are encouraged to take ownership of their house by degrees and compliment the officials and Ministers involved in this initiative.
The new range of powers given to the local authority or its elected members also is of great significance. Easily the most important of these new powers is that enabling the elected members to adopt strategies for the prevention and reduction of antisocial behaviour in the local authority housing stock. Members have sought such a provision for many years. Antisocial behaviour by local authority tenants should be dealt with in a zero tolerance way. The definition of antisocial behaviour has been extended to cover graffiti and damage to property, bringing it more into line with regard to legislation on Garda behaviour orders. I welcome the extension of the existing antisocial behaviour powers of housing authorities, notably the power to seek excluding orders against individual household members to cover accommodation provided through both rental or leasing arrangements, notably the RAS and incremental purchase. For far too long, behaviour that is unacceptable in any sphere has been tolerated among a small percentage of local authority tenants nationwide. All Members know the families involved. I could name those families in Galway who give constant difficulty and trouble to their neighbours, the local authority, the Garda, the social workers and everyone else. It is time that we had proper legislation to deal with such people and when dealing with this issue, a zero tolerance approach must be taken.
It is extremely important also to put in place preventative measures to try to ensure that families that are dysfunctional or that are experiencing difficulties are assisted in an appropriate way to enable them to live in a house or within a community. During my time as Minister of State with responsibility for youth affairs and for children, I found the difficulty often was due to the personal circumstances of the family. In such families, the mother involved, through no fault of her own, may have been obliged to cope with a large family or a husband who was alcoholic or absent. Some tenants experienced great difficulty when trying to deal with some of the ordinary everyday issues of life. We must ensure that proper co-ordinated and joined-up support is given to such families. We do not do so at present. Although it is critically important that the agencies involved should get their act together, I am satisfied that this has not happened and is not happening.
I can point to examples today in Galway city in which serious issues exist within families that are not being addressed because of the lack of proper joined-up thinking between the agencies that visit such households. Members will note that this is what happened in the infamous case in County Roscommon. Before this welcome legislation is applied, we must ensure that supports are provided to families who are finding it difficult and who in many respects are dysfunctional.
I recall a Garda chief superintendent in Neilstown who visited me one day while I was Minister of State with responsibility for children. He gave me the names of ten young delinquents and told me they would be the best criminals in Dublin in five or six years time. I had an examination carried out on these young lads, who were nine, ten, 11 or 12 years of age. However, in the company of the chief superintendent concerned, I visited the mother of the most notorious of the aforementioned kids. On the chief superintendent’s arrival at the mother’s door, she welcomed him as they knew each other. He interviewed her in my presence about the difficulties she was having. One of the points she made to him was that were she to make tea for everyone who visited her every week, she would be making tea all day, such was the number of different agencies and officials who were visiting this woman to try to be of support to her. Such was the lack of co-ordinated, joined up support that is essential for these families, some of these agencies did not even know that some of the other agencies were visiting the same house. My first appeal to the Minister is to ensure preventative initiatives are set up and that gardaí, the HSE, those in education, social workers and so on deal with dysfunctional families in a co-ordinated way.
When I published legislation on children I visited New Zealand to see the system there, which is the best in the world. We copied the legislation so that all agencies would deal effectively with families that had difficulties. I am not satisfied that this legislation is being implemented as well or as effectively as it could be. It is not a matter of resources, there are sufficient resources, but inefficient action is being taken by the agencies involved. If there are situations where families are not prepared to play ball, where children, teenagers, fathers and mothers have total disregard for their neighbours, the community, the local authority and the law, we must act tough. We must act in a no-nonsense way on drug and alcohol abuse. It is sad to hear stories of neighbours of dysfunctional families and the kind of misery they must put up with because some families are out of control and disrespectful to everyone. This is an initiative with which I wholeheartedly agree. This Bill would be worthwhile if there was nothing other than the power to deal with antisocial behaviour in it.
We are not spending money wisely on rental subsidy. I recently tabled a question on the number of families in receipt of €800 or more in monthly rental subsidy. The reply indicated some 13,000 families, which is money down the drain. Families receiving sums of more than €800 per month in rental income subsidy should be put in a house immediately. I recommend to the Minister of State with responsibility for housing to capitalise rental income subsidies and purchase houses in the current market. This would be more cost effective for the Exchequer. One can buy houses in parts of the country for as little as €130,000 for a three bedroom or a four bedroom semi-detached house. It would make more sense to buy out houses across the country and put people on large rental income subsidies in those houses. We could give them ownership and make them pay back some contribution on a continuing basis. That would make far more sense because rental income subsidy is putting money into the pockets of the owners of the houses. The support continues ad infinitum because these people cannot, by and large, get houses. I do not know the bill for the rental subsidy but it is larger than it should be. With the housing market in the condition it is in, now is the ideal time for local authorities to buy out houses. In Galway, the local authority bought out houses at high prices in the past few years. Now the houses have dropped in value. I do not blame local authority officials, who did not know what would happen any more than anyone else. Notwithstanding the difficult financial situation, one of the better ways to save money is for the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to switch from the rental subsidy to buying out the houses instead.
Trying to provide housing stock to meet waiting lists has not been successful. There have been significant increases in the amount of money available to local authorities but, equally, local authorities were caught by spiralling prices in the construction and rental of houses. When I was a member of Cabinet I showed that a three bedroom house could be built in Galway for approximately €100,000 at the time. The same houses were costing the local authority €220,000 or €230,000, which made no sense. There is now an opportunity, with the landbanks around every town and village around this country, for innovative thinking where the Government, the banks and the local authorities can provide new housing stock, built out of the ground, for a very cost effective price. This would provide housing stock to deal with the significant waiting lists cost effectively and would be an opportunity for employment for the construction industry. I appeal to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Minister of State with responsibility for housing to examine the opportunity that exists and to move before it is too late.
As sure as I have these pages in my hand, the price of houses will increase. I have previously said that there is excellent value at the moment. As soon as confidence returns the overhang in the housing stock will be reduced and this will happen quite quickly. One can borrow €200,000 and the repayment, taking the tax free allowance into account, is far less than €700 per month. We never had a situation where a young person could borrow €200,000 and have such repayments. Interest rates came down since I checked the price and they are due to be reduced again in the next couple of weeks. A person can buy a house with a mortgage of €200,000 for somewhere between €600 to €700 per month. That is far better than renting the same house. There is an opportunity for the Government but it will not be there forever. As sure as prices have collapsed, they will increase. I urge the Ministers involved to address this.
A section of the Bill deals with improving standards of maintenance and management of local authority houses. This is long overdue. It enables housing authorities to manage and control dwellings provided under a contract or lease between the authority and the housing provider. It strengthens the legislation considerably. Section 30 enables housing authorities to delegate management and control functions to a designated body and empowers the Minister to make regulations on the terms, procedures and monitoring of the designated body. Section 31 deals with rent schemes and charges and empowers the Minister to make regulations governing matters to be included in rent schemes. Section 35 concerns moneys owing to housing authorities and provides for interest to be payable and the setting off of money due from the local authority against money owing to it. This is a good arrangement.
It is past time to remove the block that exists in the affordable homes scheme, whereby people must pay back the amount of subsidy. With house prices as they are, the price available to a purchaser of an affordable home should not attract a clawback. That would immediately enable many people to go ahead with affordable homes.
With regard to social housing and the need for people on lower incomes to avail of such stock, we must put in place, as outlined in the Bill, an effective mechanism whereby people on lower incomes can have a rental purchase arrangement so they can finally buy out a house. I have no doubt that we are now in a time when we can improve our local authority housing practice and I hope this legislation will be the main tool in doing that. I compliment everybody involved with the Bill and am fully supportive of it.
Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Ar son Shinn Féin, cuirim fáilte roimh Bille na dTithe (Forálacha Ilghnéitheacha) 2008. Cinntí dearfacha a chabhróidh le seirbhísí tithíochta an Stáit atá i gceist sa reachtaíocht seo sa chuid is mó. Is trua é, áfach, nach ndéanann an Bille déileáil níos iomláine leis an cheist ríthábhachtach seo, go háirithe sa chomhthéacs ina bhfuilimid ag obair faoi láthair. Is mór an trua é go bhfuil roinnt bunábhair in easnamh sa Bhille. Is féidir linn an fhadhb sin a leigheas, áfach, má chuirimid na leasuithe is gá chun cinn ar Chéim an Choiste. Is féidir leis an Aire a leasuithe féin a moladh nó leasuithe an bhFreasúra a ghlacadh. Measaim gur chóir don Aire an deis seo a thapú chun reachtaíocht níos iomláine agus níos foirfe a achtú agus córas tithíochta níos cothroime a fhorbairt sa Stát seo. Ba cheart dúinn bheith in ann léiriú os comhair an domhain go bhfuil ceann de na seirbhísí tithíochta is fearr againn. Tá bealach fada le taisteal againn sula shroichimid an phointe sin. Tá mé chun iarracht a dhéanamh impí ar an Aire déileáil, ar Chéim an Choiste, leis na ceisteanna móra gur chóir dúinn a réiteach sa Bhille.
One of the key areas which this Bill fails to address is the question of homelessness and it is disappointing to see such a Bill published only a month after the publication of the Government strategy on homelessness, The Way Home. We have all been lobbied recently — and the Minister in particular — by the MakeRoom campaign and I encourage people to continue this lobbying. It is an indication that the public is concerned about the issue and is looking for us to address the shortfalls in the Bill relating to homelessness.
Lobbying in this way leads to a participative democracy, although some people seem to be afraid of it. There was talk recently of restricting e-mails to Deputies and Ministers but such talk is against the policy of open democracy. That some are afraid of dealing with the public in such a fashion is an indication that lobbying is having an effect.
I would like to see legislative commitments outlined in The Way Home strategy included in this Bill. Placing local homeless fora and action plans on a statutory footing would, I hope, ensure that all local authorities and statutory agencies would have to meet their commitments under that strategy. I have one word of caution, as we are still waiting for some local authorities to deliver on their statutory commitment to produce Traveller accommodation in their areas.
It is interesting that, to quote from the Green Party document on homeless and Traveller accommodation, the Minister’s party policy is that if local authorities continue to fail in their obligation to deliver and implement Traveller accommodation programmes, the Green Party will consider sanctions against the local authorities which fail to meet the requirements. I am looking forward to the Minister, Deputy Gormley, introducing those sanctions in this legislation as it goes through Committee Stage. It is scandalous that at this stage, some local authorities have not addressed their commitment.
On the issue of homelessness itself, recently Sinn Féin’s Dublin MEP, Mary Lou McDonald, initiated in the European Parliament Written Declaration 111, the aim of which is to promote an end to street homelessness by 2015. The declaration was passed by the Parliament last year and I hope this Government and others in the EU will live up to the commitments and strategy included in that declaration.
We in Sinn Féin believe homelessness is the most acute denial of housing rights in our society. The fact that the Government cannot bring itself to propose an adequate legislative definition of homelessness in this Bill, let alone keep its own commitments to combat the problem, is an indictment of an appalling Government which has no regard for those people who sleep in doorways off our streets and in lanes at the back of shops or restaurants, many of which are frequented by Ministers and the infamous bankers we hear so much about these days.
The Government has done nothing to realistically help address the homeless people living in emergency accommodation, shelters, hostels and bed and breakfasts. Homelessness is a real-life manifestation of social exclusion and poverty, as well as an inadequate supply of secure and appropriate social housing. If this Bill is left unchanged, it will do nothing to rectify the problem.
Official data significantly underestimates the real extent of the problem of homelessness and this Bill will not change the Government’s indifference to this plight. For example, I was made aware last year of a large number of unemployed Polish men living rough in tents in the Phoenix Park for a while. Although this is no longer the case, with the current recession how long will it be before this happens again? Street homelessness is on the increase despite the good work of many voluntary groups. That is why the strategy must be fully implemented and put on a statutory footing.
I also have reservations about the proposed new definition of social housing, which will now include dwellings under the rental accommodation scheme, RAS. It is our view that the RAS has a role in addressing social housing problems but it is also our firm belief that the provision of social housing funded by central Government via the local authorities must be the central element in any successful housing strategy. Once a person is renting through the rental accommodation scheme, he or she is effectively housed, according to the local authority. Why should the taxpayer continue to subsidise private landlords through this scheme when it would make far better sense for the State to provide those in need with the social housing accommodation they require?
I mentioned Traveller accommodation earlier. This Bill is a missed opportunity to remove the disproportionate provisions in the last Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act in 2002, which criminalised Travellers living on the side of the road where no alternative is available or where local authorities had failed to deliver on the Traveller housing strategy commitment.  I ask the Minister to even at this stage consider removing that provision on Committee or Report Stage.
There are currently nearly 60,000 families on the social housing waiting list and this number will continue to escalate at a rapid rate, particularly given the State’s dire economic circumstances, of which Fianna Fáil is also trying to wash its hands. This will happen unless current levels of social and supported housing provisions are dramatically increased. Sinn Féin did not accept homelessness nor did it accept the glib attitude of the Government parties towards those who were homeless during the booming years of the Celtic tiger. We will certainly not entertain the idea that it is now okay not to deal with the issue.
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