Dáil debates Labour Bill to provide greater security of tenure to renters and provide for rent certainty

The Labour Party is bringing the Bill before the Dáil as the number of individuals and families being squeezed in the private rented sector grows daily, as their level of insecurity and fear of homelessness also grows. It comes in the week when we expect to hear that the number of people, including children, who were homeless last month is likely to be close to 10,000. We now live in a country with thousands of children in homeless services.

Four organisations that work at the coalface, Barnardos, Focus Ireland, Simon Communities and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, highlighted the hidden homeless who are living with relatives, without autonomy, adequate space or security. Fergus Finlay of Barnardos has estimated that there could be 20,000 or more in that category.

It also comes on a day when it has been revealed by Mel Reynolds that the number of local authority homes built last year was not 780 as previously claimed but 394 because turnkey houses bought from private builders were included in the figures. It comes a week after the review of rent predictability measures. It is quite limited in its proposals. The Minister intends to bring forward legislation in June to amend the residential tenancy legislation. I would urge that it be more ambitious and comprehensive than what is proposed.

The fact is that fear and insecurity are rife among our fellow citizens who are renters, whether through choice or necessity. Most people who are being made homeless end up that way because their rents have been hiked up or they have been put out of their privately rented accommodation because their landlords have said that the home is needed for a family member, that the place has to be done up or that it is being sold.

The main purpose of this Bill is to address the real and distressing circumstances in which people find themselves. It is urgent that there are the kinds of protections that are the norm in other European countries. Many of us know people living in Germany, France and other European countries where there is a substantial suite of measures that protect renters and allow them to make a long-term home in rented accommodation. It is quite the norm in many other countries but we are not in that space. We have many accidental landlords and much insecurity. I would be particularly concerned about older people who are living in rented accommodation and who are very worried about their futures. I have met some representatives of older people and that is a particular worry now with which we should concern ourselves. I am also very concerned about children.

I published the Housing (Homeless Families) Bill on behalf of the Labour Party, and it was accepted in this House. It is designed specifically to consider the needs of children who are in homelessness and where they are simply described in the legislation as dependants of adults who are homeless rather than having the kind of rights children need in their own right. For example, they need to have play space, to be near their friends, to have places to eat, places to do their homework and all of those activities that are so important for children. They need to be specifically catered for by the housing authorities and by the State.

The anxiety and misery endured by families and especially children needs to end. We have had many debates on housing and we all know that more supply of housing for people at all levels of income is crucial. That goes without saying. We particularly need more social and affordable housing. I raised with the Taoiseach again today the need to use the 700 or so publicly owned sites for social and affordable housing rather than for private profit. I was disappointed when he talked about the social mix and that he indicated the private was very much part of it. If affordable purchase is part of it, that housing will be private too and they will be people with jobs and incomes. I do not accept the level at which local authorities now appear to want to involve the private sector in publicly owned sites.

While we wait for this supply to ramp up, the private rented market will be the only space available for so many families with different needs and, in most cases, limited income. It must be made a safer, more secure space for those people.

The Constitution contains property rights but they are supposed to be balanced with social rights and the needs of the common good. I strongly urge that, in the homelessness crisis, the common good needs to be served by giving people the kind of certainty and security their counterparts in the rental sectors in most European countries have. This needs to happen in a comprehensive way. The drip feed of change that has happened so far does no service to tenants or landlords.

An example of an area that is outside the rent pressure zones is my city of Limerick. There is constant speculation that Limerick may be included in the rent pressure zone the next time around, and the Minister’s predecessor suggested that when he was in Limerick some time ago, but it has not been included yet. It is an incentive for landlords to put up the rent in advance of the possible inclusion of an area in the rent pressure zones. The drip feed is not helpful and the proposal in our legislation that would include the whole country as a rent pressure zone would eliminate that problem.

The Labour Party is presenting this Bill as a comprehensive measure to provide security of tenure and rent certainty to tenants. It is designed to protect people from losing their homes in the context of soaring figures relating to homelessness. I welcome the indications of support we have received from other parties and Members and the fact that the Government has indicated it will not oppose the Bill. We know that a large number of Bills have been sent to the Select Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government for Committee Stage, including the Housing (Homeless Families) Bill, but what we all want to achieve is the implementation of the measures we have been proposing. What I and the Labour Party want to achieve is the implementation of the measures contained in this Bill without delay. I ask the Minister to consider incorporating them into his Bill which is due to be published quite soon, and he might clarify that.

Before I go through the detail of the Bill, I want to cite a few of the many individual stories we have heard, which make a huge impression in terms of the reality of people’s lives. This morning when the groups, Barnardos, Focus Ireland, Simon Communities and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, got together, they gave a number of examples of people who are in hidden homelessness. I want to quote from two people who are in hidden homelessness because they lost their private rented accommodation. One of them is Jenny and her Mam. I will not read their story in full but this will give an understanding of their circumstances. Jenny is seven years old. She shares a single bed with her Mam in a small room in a house share. All of Jenny’s clothes and toys fit into two drawers under the bed. There is a TV in their room and a fridge for some food and snacks. Jenny is the only child who lives in the house. The other grown-ups who live there stay up late each night playing loud music and sometimes shouting. There are often visitors coming and going until after midnight. Jenny makes up excuses whenever her friends ask can they visit her house. She has not told any of them that she shares a bed with her Mam or that she eats her dinner on the bed every night.

Jenny can still remember when she and her Mam had a home of their own. It was a nice apartment with a bright kitchen where Jenny used to eat breakfast every day. They had to move out of the apartment as the building was being refurbished. Rents in their town had increased so much that all Jenny’s Mam could afford was a single room in a house share. Her Mam said it would only be for a little while, but Jenny has had two birthdays since they moved in. That is an example of two people who had to move out of their home because they were told the accommodation was being refurbished. That is one of the measures we address in our Bill.

The other example from which I want to quote is the story of Laura, Noel. Barry and Sam. Laura, Noel and their two sons, Barry and Sam, aged eight and five, became homeless when their landlord decided to sell the property they had been renting for the previous eight years. They frantically looked for alternative accommodation, but there were hundreds of people eager to take the few places that were available to rent. The family have been on the housing list for nine years but they have had no offer of a house in that time. Once their eviction date came, faced with moving the family into emergency accommodation, Laura and her husband, Noel, decided instead to split the family up. Laura and the boys moved in with Laura’s parents and Noel moved in with a friend. Their dog, Blondie, was sent to live with a relative in another county. Over a year later the family still do not have a home of their own and continue to live separately.

I will give an example from my constituency of a person I know quite well whom I will call Catherine, even though that is not her name. Even though she is living in one of the suburbs of Limerick that has very high rents, she does not qualify to be in a rent pressure zone. This is one of the areas the Minister needs to address. Rent pressure zones take in entire local electoral areas, and the local electoral area in this case contains rural as well as urban areas. The rents are much lower in the rural areas, so that does not help the people who live in the suburban areas.

Catherine is working. She is separated with two children. She was given a huge rent hike that she was not expecting which she simply could not afford. She tried everywhere to get something affordable and in the end had to move far outside the city, far away from her job and from the children’s school, which was the only option she had having tried whatever she could to get appropriate accommodation.

This is an example of the problems for a city such as Limerick that is not included in the rent pressure zones. I urge the Minister to look at that particular measure. It was to be covered in the review but I did not see anything in the documentation I have that would indicate that this is being done.

In the time I have left I will go through some of the detail of different sections of the Bill. I will not go through them in chronological order but I will address the different themes.

On rent certainty we propose, as have many other Members in the House, that rent should be linked to the increase in the cost of living and it should not go any higher than the consumer price index. We also propose that the rent pressure zone should apply to the whole State. Not only are cities, such as Limerick, in trouble in this context, it also affects peripheral areas just outside existing rent pressure zones.

We propose a number of measures on security of tenure, one of which is that the sale of the property should not be allowed as grounds for the termination of a tenancy. The fact that a landlord is selling the property should not give him or her the right to evict the tenants. The National Economic and Social Council in its report on the rental sector in Ireland said:

Removing sale as a reason for ending a lease would significantly improve secure occupancy and the Council recommends that this be adopted for Ireland. One view is that this could reduce the price that those selling rental properties could achieve, compared to the price with vacant procession. On the other hand, the more the Irish rental system is driven by longterm yield, rather than changing asset prices, the higher the value purchasers will put on properties with an existing, secure rental stream.

There are two sides to that argument. Refurbishment would need to be substantial before a person should be asked to move. This was one of the examples that I quoted.

Where it is claimed that the property is to be used for a family member, we propose that this reason should not be as wide as it is, such as, for example, when a niece or a nephew can be said to need the property. We want to tighten this up to the immediate family such as spouse, partner, children or stepchildren.

We want to see longer Part 4 tenancies. Deposits should be no more than one month’s rent. We are aware of landlords who ask for two or three month’s rent. We also want to see the deposit protection scheme come in within six months. This is already provided for in legislation; I published it when I was in that role. The previous rent information should also be available to new tenants, so they know what the rent was and they know if it has been raised illegally.

We propose that receivers have the same duties as landlords. Many people are in tenancies under a receiver and they do not have the rights that other tenants have, such as to have the property maintained and so on.

This is a summary of the Bill. I very much welcome the support that has already been indicated. These are practical measures to protect renters. The Government will not oppose the Bill but I really want to see these measures implemented to protect the people who, more and more, are in really precarious situations in the private rented market.

The Labour Party

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