Last month saw the largest ever monthly increase in the number of families living in emergency accommodation in Dublin. I put this to the Taoiseach. The Government must first accept this is an emergency and secondly act to help people, many of whom are in the position they are in due to nothing other then austerity and economic reasons they had no involvement in creating.
Here is the full transcript of my Leaders Question;
Maureen O’Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
I am moving on to a serious and urgent issue that dominates the work of many of us in the House, especially in the Dublin and greater Dublin areas. I am talking about the issue of housing. We see individuals, couples and families facing rent increases of anything from €100 to €400 per month from landlords. It is not because major renovations or adjustments have been made to the accommodation, it is because it is a landlord’s market. There was a great urgency and energy about the meetings called by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, before Christmas, but last month saw the largest ever monthly increase in the number of families living in emergency accommodation in Dublin. In March, on 60 occasions, there was no accommodation for families assessed as being homeless.
Inability to pay market rent is identified by many organisations as the reason for this. That includes the low maximum rent levels under rent supplement. Last week in a reply to Deputy Ó Cuív, the Tánaiste outlined the new protocol under which people are dealt with on a case-by-case basis by community welfare officers. Some 4,000 cases were renegotiated. They were the lucky ones, but I am not sure that is the most efficient or dignified way to deal with this issue. What about those who did not get their cases renegotiated? Many of them had to resort to topping up the rent using some of their social welfare payment. We know that is against the rules for rent supplement, but it also eats into the household income. It brings the household income below the minimum level and will eventually lead to further homelessness and further pressures on the accommodation supply. There are at least 90,000 people on social housing lists and rent supplement is the only option for them until the new housing comes on stream. In January 2009, the rent supplement rate for a family with two children in Dublin was €225 a month higher than it is today. I am asking for a reality check on rent supplement and on the carte blanche that landlords have to increase rent, which is partly caused by the mortgage repayments of the buy-to-let landlords, and also that we take account of prevailing market conditions.
Enda Kenny (Taoiseach, Department of An Taoiseach; Mayo, Fine Gael)
The Government is acutely aware of the problems Deputy O’Sullivan raises, not just in Dublin but in other locations around the country, particularly the larger towns and cities. That is why the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has set out a whole strategy to deal with social and affordable housing, with a €4 billion programme between now and 2020 to deal with the provision of 35,000 new dwellings over the next few years. No matter what happens, the situation cannot be dealt with until adequate numbers of houses, apartments and accommodation blocks are provided. That is why the pressure arises here.
The Deputy is aware of the pilot schemes with the housing assistance programme, which mean that people will not lose their entire social welfare benefit when they get a job, and the opportunity for community welfare officers to make individual arrangements where this applies, as she mentioned. Dublin City Council rejected one of the decisions the Minister for Environment, Community and Local Government had made in respect of further temporary accommodation in O’Devaney Gardens. These are ongoing problems. The argument about increasing the rent supplement plays even further into the hands of landlords. That is why it has been necessary to allow community welfare officers to increase the rent supplement being made available in individual cases when people are in trouble. Everybody understands this and nobody wants to see what has happened over the last five or six years continue. We cannot, and will not be able to, deal with it until more houses and accommodation are built. In that respect, I am glad to see that the construction sector is moving. It is up by 11%.
The programme has been set out by the Minister on behalf of the Government, with money on the table. The construction industry, the contractors and the builders must now get moving. It also requires the planning authorities to give the go-ahead for many of these schemes. There is no argument about the sincerity of the cases Deputy O’Sullivan raises or the difficulties people have. Nobody wants to see families in hotels or bed-and-breakfasts when they should have the opportunity to have their own home. That is where the focus of Government has been and decisions have been made to allow this to happen but like everything else, it cannot happen overnight. The change in the code of conduct in circumstances where people are in trouble and are being moved out by a landlord where community welfare officers may increase rent supplement in individual cases is a measure to tide us over for a period of time. It is not where we want to be. This cannot be sorted out until sufficient accommodation is provided in Dublin or other cities and large towns around the country.
If the strategy were working, we would not see increasing numbers of people ending up homeless. That is the reality. Rent supplement should not be used as a mechanism for market manipulation. The current arrangements are not keeping rents down. If rent supplement is not being re-examined, one must consider intervention at the other end, namely, some kind of rent management or rent control. I am struck by two ironies. One is that €5 million is going to these shareholders mentioned earlier, when that €5 million could do so much for the housing and homeless situations. I am also struck by the irony that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Reilly, issued a fine policy statement on parenting and family support last Monday week. It outlined the Government’s commitment to better outcomes for all children. It stated: “supporting parents and families is the best way to improve outcomes for children”. How can we equate that fine, idealistic statement with what is happening? There are 911 children in emergency accommodation in Dublin, and over 1,000 if we take in the greater Dublin area. Those children are being moved from their homes, their friends and, in many cases, from their schools, so they must change schools or must travel long distances back to their school. They are away from their after-school activities and supports. It is having a negative effect on the mental and physical well-being of those children. The current system cannot continue. It is heart-breaking to listen to people facing homelessness and particularly to listen to their children. There is a need for front-line services to be able to act before these families and individuals become homeless. There is a need for another emergency meeting. I was with the Minister yesterday when he opened state-of-the-art accommodation in the north inner city. That took 15 years from conception to inception. Families cannot wait 15 years. There is a need for more emergency measures now to prevent more people becoming homeless.
I agree completely with the Deputy. It is not justified in any circumstance that people should have to wait that long. I cannot stand over that. The property market in general has not returned to any kind of normality following the total collapse of this system some years ago. In the greater Dublin area, we will have to provide serious numbers of new houses, apartments and accommodation for people. At one end of that, the Minister has already notified local authorities of their allocation for social housing and the opportunity to get building those accommodation units while at the other end, there are opportunities for the private sector to build serious numbers of houses to cater for the demand.
However, the Minister has made it clear that he will not legislate for rent controls. These have very adverse consequences and if such legislation were even contemplated, landlords would inevitably tend to raise rents now in anticipation of it. Arrangements have been made for advance notification and for discussion with the community welfare officer if that is necessary where a person becomes aware a landlord wants to move him or her on. In those cases, individual arrangements can be made for particular increases in the supplement to deal with the circumstances. However, if the Government decided to legislate for rent control, the situation would be worsened and rents would be higher.
Róisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Independent)
That is not true.
The answer is to deal with the accommodation problem, namely, the lack of houses. On the social end of that, the Government has put its money on the table and given instructions to the local authorities while at the other end, the opportunity is there for the private building sector to get down to work. We need to an increase from the 8,000 houses completed last year to 25,000 a year.