Housing (Miscellaneous) Bill 2014

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the legislation. Housing is a basic human need and right. All efforts of Government, and all of our energies must be directed to ensuring that people who are not in a position to purchase a home have access to one, and those who are have access to affordable housing. Those are reasonable requirements in a civilised modern society.
I welcome the passage of this Bill through the House as, without doubt, it represents the most radical reform of public housing support for decades. I salute the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, for her excellent work on it and for its pioneering, radical nature.
We are all well aware of the inherited challenges in the provision of social housing in this country. According to the chief executive officer of Respond, Ned Brennan, in 2008 the official social housing need assessment found that 56,249 households were in need of housing. In 2013, this number had increased dramatically to 89,872 households. That begs the question of how we arrived at this situation, bearing in mind that during the Celtic tiger years house construction was at an all-time high. Addressing the question, Mr Brennan found that during the Celtic tiger years, up to 20 new homes per 1,000 of the population were constructed – the highest average in the EU. We went mad building but fewer than two new homes per 1,000 of the population were built for social housing.
One of our commitments, under the programme for Government, was to address this appalling problem. Budget 2014 allocated €30 million to the State’s house building programme, promising to deliver 500 houses. A further €10 million was allocated for the unfinished housing estate resolution, which is one of the great difficulties in our society and is probably the most appalling and grim legacy of the excesses of the Celtic tiger. The Minister of State should be commended on the sterling work she has done to achieve such a significant level of funding, in the context of many competing pressures.
Today’s legislation is very long overdue and there are many welcome measures in it. Part 4 of the Bill, which encompasses sections 33 to 48, introduces the new housing assistance payment, HAP, to replace the current rent allowance system. The new HAP system will streamline housing support between tenants, landlords and local housing authorities and bring all State social housing services under the one umbrella. That is an excellent development which will be embraced by county councils. I am proud to say that Cavan County Council has an excellent housing department which cited the need for this for many a day and will embrace it.
Local authorities are in the best place to determine housing needs, at local level and this legislation equips them with the necessary resources to respond to housing needs and housing emergencies, within their jurisdiction. Under this new legislation, the local authority will assess the housing needs of a person who wants to qualify for HAP. Once the person is assessed as having a genuine housing need, he or she is free to source private, rented accommodation.
Under section 41, when a rental agreement is made between the tenant and the landlord, HAP is paid directly to the landlord, through the local authority and not by the tenant. There are many merits in that, for example, the local authorities will be vigilant and will spot rack-renting and the difficulties it poses. That is very important. The direct payment has the advantage for some tenants who might have bad financial management skills of not posing the difficulty for them of receiving money that is not theirs to spend. It is much more simple and straightforward. The payments will be made monthly by electronic funds transfer. The tenant will be required to pay a rent contribution to the authority, calculated in accordance with the authority’s differential rent scheme. Having a certain practical knowledge of this area, I know this will be attractive to landlords who will not have to interface with tenants about rent. This will bring more attractive properties into this sphere and make them available to tenants who might not otherwise get them. People who come to my constituency office say they cannot access private housing because they receive or will receive rent allowance. Some landlords have an in-built opposition to that. This is a significant aspect of the legislation.
There is a huge amount of common sense, practicality and workability about this legislation and that is one facet of it.
For households who depend on social welfare for their income, the deductions will be made at source, similar to the current system. In other words, the payment by the tenant, if it comes from social welfare income, will be deducted at source. That has obvious merits from many perspectives. It is better for the tenant in question in that following this deduction he or she will be in receipt of his or her disposable income and can manage accordingly. I am pleased there will be no change in this regard, as it makes the transition of powers to the local authorities easier for all concerned.
In the interests of minimising confusion for tenants in receipt of rent allowance , the intention is that this method of rent collection will be introduced in the first instance for households qualifying for assistance and for new local authority tenants, with the procedure being extended over a period to cover all local authority tenants. In other words, it will be incremental and, in the first instance, will be available to new tenants. This is a wise move by the Minister as it ensures a smoother transition for all parties when the time arises. Given that there are arrangements in place, it might not be a good idea to introduce radical change overnight that could cause stress and confusion, distort matters and create homelessness.
There is an important provision in Part 5 of the legislation that enables the Department to recoup rental arrears directly from source. We cannot forget that this scheme is largely being funded from the public purse. If recent years have taught us anything, it is that money does not fall out of the sky. Public funds are a finite resource and that is the reason it is vital to have such a clause in the legislation. I welcome the assurance that the deductions that may be made in this instance from weekly social welfare payments will not exceed 15% of the total amount of social welfare payable to the tenant. The logic and humane reasonableness of that provision is obvious. I know the Simon Community and the Circle Voluntary Housing Association broadly welcome this provision as they believe it will help tenants to manage their weekly household budgets to a greater degree and will help some tenants to avoid going into arrears in the first place; it will act as a type of deterrent. For all of us paying the household charge or other charges, deduction at source has an appeal, an attractiveness and a user friendly dimension.
Focus Ireland, which does excellent work on behalf of homeless people, has raised an important point. It believes that deductions should be outlined in full to tenants before they are made, in other words, tenants should be fully informed about their duration and what they will mean for them, and the household should be given the opportunity to get independent financial advice in this respect. Tenants could contact the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, and get advice, even if they wanted to settle their payments if they were in a position to do so. I suggest to the Minister that the inclusion of a clause such as this in the legislation may be a possibility on Committee Stage to create a legislative imperative for such information to be available to tenants and for a prescribed code of practice to be available in that respect.
In many ways, this Bill places the spotlight on the tenant and his or her responsibilities. There are, however, important elements in the legislation that deal with the responsibilities of the landlord, and these are critical. We cannot have burdens only on the tenant and none the other way.
Part 4, section 40, ensures that no local authority will be able to make a rental payment to a landlord unless the property it wishes to rent out is fully compliant with building regulations and other statutory standards and that the landlord is tax compliant. There are a number of merits in that provision. It is right that the landlord be tax compliant from a public policy and public good perspective and it should not be otherwise if he or she is availing of public moneys. That is a sine qua non. It is also correct that the right standards of housing would be available. Those of us who do constituency work and interface with people on a daily basis will know that there are bizarre, bleak and sad examples of not only rack-renting but rack-renting in the provision of awful accommodation to vulnerable people. It is important that there is a legislative disincentive to doing that. I am pleased with the provision in that regard..
Just as there are bad tenants, there are also bad landlords and many honest tenants find themselves locked in unfair tenancy agreements. Under this legislation, where the landlord fails to produce evidence of compliance, within the prescribed period, the tenant is still protected. The authority may continue to pay rent allowance in respect of the dwelling for a further prescribed period to allow the tenant time to source another dwelling. An significant issue to bear in mind is that many rents are far too high. They are bizarrely high and landlords can sometimes take the State provision as providing an excuse or a carte blanche for charging any level of rent or providing any type of accommodation. Vigilance is needed in this respect. This is an important clause as it provides tenants with a safety net and a period of grace, allowing them time to find accommodation that is suitable for their needs. In other words, it will guard against them being put out on the street over night.
I want to refer to the scaremongering around the area of repossession in regard to the legislation. Part 2 outlines the termination of tenancy agreements for tenants in breach of its terms. There is great emphasis placed on anti-social behaviour in the legislation and section 7 deals specifically with this breach. Anti-social behaviour can have a detrimental effect on an individual who experiences it. It can adversely affect their quality of life and their feelings of safety and security. This part of the Bill references the Housing Act 1997, for its definition, where it states that behaviour such as drug dealing, criminal activity, violence, threats or intimidation towards neighbours, verbal or physical abuse and noise pollution are issues that can affect tenancy, and rightly so. We all know of the scenario of the neighbour from hell who makes life difficult for people and takes down the tone of an estate. I have the privilege and great honour of representing people in a large number of local authority estates, interfacing with them and meeting them on a daily basis. The majority of those people are excellent tenants; they are civic-minded, great community people and everything about them is good. One or two people can take down the image of an estate and cause great difficulties for the broader community. This provision is only right and timely.
I take on board Deputy Wallace’s point. I am sure we would all agree that one does not solve social problems with a punitive dimension. Nobody on the Government benches is suggesting that and nobody in this House would be so facile as to suggest that. That is not implicit in the legislation. All the initiatives, such as early childhood education and other initiatives through SOLAS and various schemes are still necessary to alleviate poverty, to deal with hardship and to provide opportunities, and they will have to mirror and operate in parallel with this slightly punitive dimension where people cannot engage in anti-social behaviour. Of course one must deal with the root causes. I would take that to be a given rather than something on which we need to be lectured or reminded about.
Under this legislation, it is proposed that in circumstances such as this, the housing authority may issue a tenancy warning to the tenant, outlining the reasons for the breach, requesting specific action and proving an opportunity to rectify it. In some cases, where there is blatant non-compliance, the housing authority has the power to issue an order for repossession and-or an exclusion order. Reassurances are given that a tenancy warning will be in place and so on. The Minister has that right and everybody has a civil right. With rights come responsibilities and that is what is implicit there.
I want to deal with a significant and important aspect of the legislation, namely, the fact that tenants will be in a position to buy out their houses.
In 2012, tenants who wished to purchase a house were offered a 3% discount on purchase. However, that scheme fell into abeyance. Under the new scheme, eligibility is based on household income rather than length of tenancy, which is fair. The legislation requires tenants to have a minimum income of €15,000 and may qualify for discounts of 40%, 50% or 60%, based on their income. I do not accept the thesis outlined earlier that this causes difficulty. In my experience people who buy houses become very proud of them and become very committed to the welfare of the estate and the broader community. I accept a certain number of people sold their former local authority houses at crazy prices when we had the housing bubble and that some very good people left those houses. In some instances, sadly, they might have got into mortgage difficulty now caused by the housing bubble. It was an unavoidable and unwelcome by-product of the Celtic tiger. However, the principle of people being allowed to buy out their houses is a good one.
I also accept that we should, through planning law and taxation measures, require people who bought land for building purposes to build on it and not squat on it, if one likes. While it is not germane to this legislation, Government will need to act on that matter. It should be attractive from a planning and taxation perspective to build on land or sell it on to someone who will. That is an important aspect. We cannot allow a return to the bizarre housing prices that existed. That was discriminatory and excluded people. That issue needs sorting which can be done through planning and taxation.
The Bill is excellent to the extent that it rationalises and puts a sensible structure around the provision of assistance to people to gain accommodation when they need it. It also provides for tenant purchase and places necessary responsibilities on landlords. If that were matched by an effort to make the planning and taxation systems unpalatable for those who squat on building land, we would be in business and we would have achieved a considerable amount. This is a major first step.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website