I welcome the Bill. It gives us an opportunity to look at the whole situation, namely, the big housing waiting list, estimated to be 100,000 people on local authority lists waiting for social housing. It also gives us an opportunity to discuss how to utilise the NAMA properties to help to deal with waiting lists and the provision of housing. Local authority rents have a certain impact on property taxes and council finances, whether the council is imposing charges on tenants or absorbing them onto its own balance sheet.
I support what has been said about the new tenant purchase scheme mentioned by the Minister of State. I hope she might consider a situation whereby voluntary housing tenants could buy out their homes. I have been raising this issue for a number of years, as has Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl, who is to publish a related Bill. People in voluntary housing often believe that no allowance is given for the length of time they are in a house. They believe their rent should be going towards a house purchase or to have some such provision. If we continue the way we are, most tenants will go to the local authority for housing, hoping they will one day be able to buy the house they get. Meanwhile, we are in a kind of limbo situation. People are waiting for a new tenant purchase scheme to see if they might get a better deal than what is offered by the current scheme.
I refer to homelessness. I have written to the Taoiseach’s office in respect of the campaign by many housing non-governmental organisations for the right to a home, in an attempt to have this proposition added to the second phase of the Constitutional Convention. I hope it will be debated at the convention because it is an important issue. I also welcome the commitment by the Minister of State and the Government to end long-term homelessness by 2016. We should focus more on preventive measures in respect of homelessness. In particular, we need more housing units in our major cities and towns where this has been a very serious issue for some time. There was very little about young people in the policy document published by the Minister of State. I do not know if we have complete figures for those who are looking for housing because of youth homelessness. I hope the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, will look at that issue in particular, as was mentioned by Government.
The Simon Community has stated that every week in Dublin up to 50 new people are turning to homeless services, which gives a clear indication of the scale of the crisis. I hope the Government will give a commitment to deliver a road map, as it has stated it will do. In recent times we had a briefing from Focus Ireland on the effect of the half-rate social welfare payment for young people, especially those experiencing homelessness. It was a very useful briefing but I understand that on the foot of parliamentary questions from Deputies and other inquiries made, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, has argued that this is primarily a housing issue and not the primary responsibility of her Department. This is like the chicken and egg situation – which comes first? I hope the Department of Social Protection will look again at the situation of claimants aged under 25 years of age so that an income can be provided for those people. At present, the reason given for the reduction in the payment is that there should be an incentive for young people to take up training or work experience but it is most unfair that this decision is affecting their opportunities to get housing. I am told the Minister, Deputy Burton, is to have a meeting with the relevant people in her Department, provisionally dated for 8 May. I look forward to that and hope we can resolve the problem.
We have seen headlines such as: “Galway’s homeless are homeless longer than they should be”, which comes from the non-governmental organisation, COPE. It makes the point that many people in Galway city are ending up homeless for much longer than they need to be because of the shortcomings in the rent supplement system caused by increasing cap levels. This has made it very difficult for people to get accommodation. I hope the Department can simplify the application process and allow social protection officers to have discretionary powers in regard to the exceptional payments that can be made available. That was the difference in the past; community welfare officers had more discretion. Now that they are under the Department of Social Protection I do not see them having that discretion, which is very regrettable. A submission has been made to the Department of Social Protection by COPE Galway and the voice of its client forum. I hope the measures they propose will make it possible for people to secure affordable accommodation in the city.
If I may, I will give some figures on rent levels in Galway city. Some 17 of the 162 properties advertised fell within current rent cap levels and these accepted tenants on rent supplement. The survey found that one-bedroom properties in particular were in very short supply, the average rent in the city was €630 per month and the monthly rent cap for a single person household for this property size is €450 and €540 for a couple. The situation families face in finding housing within the rent cap levels is no less challenging, with an average monthly rent of €762 for a three-bedroom property which is well above the current rent supplement of €700. One of the COPE Galway people stated:
Our experience in working with and supporting those who are homeless or at risk of homelessness to find accommodation is that rents are simply too high for people depending on rent supplement. This is resulting in people being homeless for much longer than is appropriate or necessary.
This situation is causing great distress for people. I am informed that in some instances people are entering into informal and illegal arrangements with their landlord to pay top-ups from their income support in order to make up the difference and secure housing. I hope the Department of Social Protection will look again at rent caps and revise the levels and that we can have a better situation in the future.
I refer to NAMA, as mentioned by Deputy Cowen. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, stated that 2,000 housing units would be made available in 2012 to people on social housing lists. I hope we will see a dividend from that.
I understand that only 203 properties have been acquired from NAMA to date, with a further 65 units in negotiation. This is a very small number in when compared with the numbers in need of housing.
Previous legislation dealt with the action plan for homelessness; anti-social behaviour strategies; objective methods for assessing need and allocating housing; and a more effective management and control regime for tenancies. Rent assessment has given rise to major concern because methods appear to vary between local authorities. The lowest level for the differential scheme is 10% in South Dublin County Council and the highest is 22% in County Offaly. That reflects the discretion allowed to local authorities. Members should hold their respective councils to account on the rents they are charging.
I thank the Minister of State for introducing this technical Bill and hope we will have an opportunity in the near future for a full debate on housing, homelessness and the difficulties faced by young people who are homeless.