My party has been very strong on the importance of developing a strong social and private housing sector. Our spokesperson, Deputy Cowen, launched a policy document earlier this year which stated clearly that every citizen has a right to a home and there must be an all-out effort to tackle the spiralling waiting lists in social housing and the supply shortage in the private sector. We are falling way behind on the estimated 25,000 units needed per annum. We hope the Government will, as the Minister has undertaken to do, implement a new home building programme through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, transfer National Asset Management Agency units into social housing, develop housing associations and encourage sustainable levels of construction.
There is a serious issue of homelessness in this country, which I raised by way of a Topical Issue matter only last week. I emphasised during that debate that this problem is not unique to Dublin, although it is very serious there, and there are a range of proposals from different sources to tackle it. COPE Galway, for instance, has proposed an allocation of €500 million for the social housing building programme, with a portion of that ring-fenced to tackle homelessness, particularly in the context of the 2016 Government target to eliminate long-term homelessness and the need to help people who are sleeping rough. I also referred to the proposal from Dublin City Council that prefabricated buildings be installed on derelict or vacant sites to house homeless families. There has been significant opposition to that proposal, largely because most people would favour permanent housing for families. The Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, has spoken about refurbishing housing, particularly vacant units in Dublin. I hope the Government will give serious consideration to these options. The chief executive officer of ALONE has indicated that 25% of calls to that organisation related to the housing needs of older people. It is a measure of the seriousness of the problem that more 4,700 older people in this country are in need of housing.
We now have a situation where 156 families, including 341 children, are living in Dublin hotels. Brother Kevin Crowley, founder of the Capuchin Day Centre for Homeless People, has warned of the urgent need for emergency accommodation in the city. He pointed to the cessation of the night bus service, the provision for which included ring-fenced accommodation. I hope the very vulnerable people to whom Brother Kevin referred will not be pushed to the bottom when it comes to dealing with the housing crisis. Every effort must be made to identify housing solutions that could meet their needs.
Several speakers referred to NAMA’s role in addressing the housing shortage. It would be an important step in the right direction if every local authority were to establish a dedicated NAMA transfer unit. There has certainly been a shortfall in terms of what was expected from NAMA in this regard. It would be most welcome if more of its properties could be made available. A proposal by the leader of the Green Party, Eamon Ryan, regarding the use of timber-framed housing would offer a speedy way of providing comfortable and warm accommodation in a sustainable way.
It is a cause for serious concern that the chief executive of the Merchant’s Quay Project observed recently that homelessness in our society was becoming acceptable.
NAMA is one of the largest property companies in the world and has a major bearing on the recovery of the property market and construction sector by the manner in which it does its business. I understand the agency is working with local authorities, and the Minister referred to housing units that are in the process of being transferred to local authorities.
It is frightening and worrying if we are going to throw our hands in the air and not tackle the situation. COPE Galway is saying that about 112 families, including 246 children, are either homeless or at risk of homelessness. In Galway city, where people are waiting ten to 12 years for houses, we must act quickly to ensure their concerns are dealt with.
The Department of Social Protection has a policy of setting maximum rent levels under the rent supplement scheme. It is not based on a review of average rent levels but rather on a view that households on rent supplement should be restricted to the lower end of the rental market. The current review plans to push such households deeper into the bottom end of the market. There is no good reason it should be related to the proportion of the total rental market occupied by households on rent supplement and I hope that will be looked at. Over the past six years, we have attempted to drive down the cost of rent supplement but Government policy has undermined the rent supplement system, so it is no longer reliably providing households with the capacity to sustain their homes.