I am delighted to have a brief opportunity to speak about this important Bill. It is long overdue. It is probably about 30 or 35 years overdue and it certainly does not go remotely far enough to vindicate tenants’ rights and create a fair rental market in this country but even the small steps in this Bill are welcome as an attempt to begin to remedy the worst deficiencies in tenancy law and to face up to the horrendous circumstances of many tenants.
Over the past couple of years, I have liaised with the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisor trying to frame a Bill with a similar thrust but in many respects it was very difficult to introduce one because of the necessity some felt to include a regime of administrative sanctions, which the Minister has included in section 7. There was a fear that landlords engaged in criminal activity and treating tenants very badly could not be prosecuted if they had been fined previously under an administrative regime.
The Bill is intended to give effect to the strategy for the rental market pillar of the unfortunately failing Rebuilding Ireland strategy. It will amend the Residential Tenancies Acts 2004 to 2016 and bestow greater powers on the RTB for investigations and sanctions. It will increase notice periods, strengthen Part 4 tenancies and provide for the registration of tenancies annually, among other things. On the latter point, there has been much criticism by agencies such as Threshold and others in that the Government had the opportunity to introduce a real-time register but has not been willing to do so thus far.
Back in mid-December, I spoke in strong support of the Solidarity-People Before Profit Anti-Evictions Bill 2018 and was very happy to see it proceed from the House to committee. That Bill’s provisions would have given much greater security of tenure and extended notice periods. The Bill would have forced landlords to pay compensation to tenants being evicted due to family members moving back into the accommodation unit and it would have introduced other improvements.
Earlier this week, I, like many Deputies, was keeping a close eye on the housing and homelessness trends. I sent out a brief statement on the approximately 8,000 homeless children. This figure is based on the official figures of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, the figures of the Department of Justice and Equality on direct provision, and the figures of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs on domestic violence refuges. Earlier this week, we heard from respected medics in Temple Street that the increase of 29% in children with “no fixed abode” attending the emergency department is linked to the inappropriate living conditions in which they are being accommodated. Behind each of these figures is a real child. Many are very young and many are infants. They are experiencing deep trauma on foot of the lack of security and stability they would experience in something as fundamental as a safe, permanent home. Like the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, I meet many of those affected at my weekly information clinics. As with the whole House, I am ashamed of how the Government is treating them – a lost generation with lost childhoods. I am sure we will hear from them in 20 or 30 years, when some of them will be in this House looking back over this period.
On Monday, I was struck when the Taoiseach spoke of his own failings in this regard. He tried to embrace the famous Democratic Programme of the First Dáil and indicated we must do better. The reality is that neither he nor the Minister is doing well enough. The rental market and the unaffordable rents are directly linked to the increase in homelessness, particularly family homelessness, in Dublin, yet the Government has been moving at a snail’s pace to begin to address this matter as part of addressing the overall housing crisis. To get this far, it has taken three years of continuous debate and questions to the Minister, the Taoiseach and his predecessor in this House.
The number of households in the private rental sector increased dramatically, by 64%, between 2006 and 2011. In 2017, we learned that almost 19% of the total population were living in rented accommodation. Some 30% of all occupied households were tenancy households.
I also noticed in one of Threshold’s reports that 45% of those tenancies were paying 30% of their income in rent and an astonishing 14% were paying 50% of their total income in rent. These are dismal figures in the record of the Government and the previous austerity Government. Single people and lone parents are over-represented in the private rental sector and this has always been the case. As rents continued to increase for 25 or 26 consecutive quarters, they reached a peak 30% higher than during the Celtic tiger boom in 2008. Much is made of the daft.ie rent index reports in comparison to the RTB rent index, with the Government, of course, preferring the one that shows the lower increases. The important aspect to note, however, is that both indices report relentless increases.
Average rents in Dublin are now more than €1,600 per month and other cities such as Cork, Galway, Limerick and even Waterford are also experiencing significant increases. Of course, RPZs were deliberately introduced without any way of monitoring or regulating them. They were a PR stunt by the then Government. With so many exemptions, landlords have been able to flout the 4% increase rule when they wish.
Constitutional rights to property and the protection of that property are often quoted when we are trying to come up with solutions to the ever-worsening housing crisis but in reality Bunreacht na hÉireann allows for the use of property for the public good to trump private property rights. Many speakers, including the Taoiseach, made this very point on Monday afternoon at our 100th anniversary sitting. Unfortunately, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, which are so much in debt to landlords and in which so many landlords are represented, have always preferred to create situations to increase the profits of landlords rather than protect the well-being of tenants.
Over the past 100 years of our Republic we have experienced lengthy periods of rent controls. Prior to 1981, under the 1960 Act there was a rent control regime. We know that type of regime could have been introduced. The Minister could introduce this. As my Sinn Féin colleague said, the Minister could state that for three years we will have no increases until housing supply is increased to 25,000 per year.
I tabled a question to the Minister last week that was not reached and I am still not clear on how many houses are being built. The most recent dismal figure I saw for 2018 was 12,000. In 2016, when Deputy Fitzgerald was Tánaiste, she told me 25,000 houses were to be built in 2018. That is still dismal. We have so many plans, particularly for social housing and affordable housing.
We know there are excellent rental regimes around Europe, where tenants have greater security of tenure and, in many cases, indefinite leases. There is a housing crisis in many countries, apart from Finland because it introduced a regime whereby it does not have the appalling homelessness that exists in so many other EU countries. This crisis is because the commodification of the fundamental human right to shelter. Nevertheless, there are improved rental markets in our neighbouring European countries. For example, the rental sectors in Scandinavia, France, Spain and Germany are much better regulated. People might say the Bill is a small step along the same road. In Germany, 40% of people live in the private rental sector. I know that Government policy in Ireland is trying to steer people away from home ownership and towards longer rentals but, to do this, a properly functioning rental sector is needed.
I recently read a book, which is in the Oireachtas Library, by Professor Barrie Needham, who teaches planning in the Netherlands. The book is Dutch Land-use Planning: the Principles and the Practice, which was published in 2014. It clearly shows the Dutch go in for a lot of project planning and the major planning that is necessary for a country the size of Leinster and Munster with a population of 17 million that continues to grow. It is slowly trying to increase its land mass. It has evolved many systems to manage planning and a sustainable supply of housing. Professor Needham states that even there, the developers of market homes seek a profit margin of 30% or 40% and do not care whatsoever about social housing. This is the experience we have had with many of our developers over the past number of decades.
During the week, we had the welcome announcement by Facebook that it is to increase its workforce by 1,000 but where will these additional workers live? If Brexit-related jobs come to this country – and let us hope that over the next eight or nine weeks the fairly frightening prospect of a no-deal Brexit does not happen – it will be another difficulty to produce the additional homes. The Government will have to deal with this in its final days in office.
Section 3 in Part 2 amends section 19 of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 and sets out the conditions for a substantial change in the accommodation that can render it exempt from the RPZ increases of 4% per year. This is a welcome amendment and means that at least half of the dwelling must undergo renovation. There have been reports of landlords just throwing up a coat of paint or putting in a new suite of furniture to qualify but this will now not entitle them to the exemption. The Minister probably read Threshold’s critique of the Bill. It rightly outlines concerns regarding this in the analysis it shared with us this week. The definition of increasing the number of rooms needs to be clarified to ensure existing rooms cannot merely be partitioned. The exemption from the RPZ increase limits when the BER rating is improved has also been highlighted by Threshold as a concern because it seems as if a landlord could introduce a small change and, thereby, be exempt. I agree with Threshold’s suggestion that the definition should be that a property must be brought up to at least a C1 energy rating in order to improve the home and benefit the tenant with home energy costs. Section (3)6 makes it an offence to not comply with the section. If a landlord provides false or misleading information it will also be an offence.
Section 5, also in Part 2, amends section 41 of the 2004 Act and relates to Part 4 tenancies. A Part 4 tenancy is where a tenant has been in a property for more than six months and then becomes entitled to remain in the property for up to six years with termination of lease only on certain grounds. Section 5 provides for the extension of a Part 4 tenancy after six years have expired and this is welcome. It will remain a Part 4 tenancy and will not be restarted after six years with another six-month period; it will continue as a Part 4 tenancy with those protections.
Section 7 amends section 66 of the 2004 Act and relates to notice periods. The new subsection (2A)(b) provides for the landlord to remedy an incorrect notice and re-serve it as a remedial notice within 28 days of a determination order. Threshold has also outlined some concerns about the section and says that the phrase “notice period to be given” instead of “lawful notice period” could lead to abuse of the section. This is something the Minister can address on Committee Stage. It seems that tenants may be left with only 28 days to vacate a property, which is not at all sufficient in the current climate.
Subection (2A)(c) substitutes the notice period table for a new table, whereby some notice periods have been extended. Tenancies under six months will still be entitled to 28 days’ notice. For tenancies of between six months and one year the entitlement will increase from 35 days to 90 days. Tenancies of between one and four years will have a notice period of 120 days whereas prior to this legislative change each year was entitled to a different notice period, of 42 days, 56 days, 84 days and 112 days, respectively. Notice periods for tenancies of five years and over remain the same as what was set out in the Residential Tenancies (Amendment) Act 2015, whereby five to six-year tenancies will be entitled to 140 days, six to seven-year tenancies will be entitled to 168 days, seven to eight-year tenancies will be entitled to 196 days and tenancies of eight or more years will be entitled to 224 days. Section 7(3) provides for the Minister with responsibility for housing to review these changes, complete a report and lay it before the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Section 12 amends section 134 of the 2004 Act, and provides for the registration of tenancies at the start of the tenancy and annually. This will mean that a landlord does not just register a tenancy once but every year, and tenancies in place prior to the commencement of the section must also be registered. There will be an annual fee of €40.
I notice there has again been some significant criticism of the provisions for the rent register. Many of us had been hoping that the Minister would introduce legislation analogous or close to similar legislation in the UK. I note that Threshold has again expressed disappointment that a dwelling-specific rent register was not created. That was supposed to have been under consideration in the early stages of this Bill. It is regrettable that it is not present now and that we do not have a dwelling-specific rent register. Section 17 provides for the enforcement of the requirement to keep the information updated. It will be an offence not to comply with a notice served by the RTB.
Section 18 of the Bill inserts a new Part 7A, relating to complaints, investigations and sanctions, into the 2004 Act. It sets out the interpretations and definitions for this part, the powers of an authorised officer, such as the ability to enter and inspect a premises etc. The new section 148AA, which deals with an appeal to the Circuit Court against the decision to impose a sanction and other similar sections are all important in creating some kind of administrative system of invigilation. That will ensure that the fundamental points of this legislation, and the better points in the earlier legislation going back to 2004, are actually implemented.
Section 19 of the Bill amends section 151 of the 2004 Act to insert a paragraph referring to the new Part 7A and section 20 of the Bill inserts a new section 164A after section 164 of the 2004 Act regarding the authorised officers and decision makers who will be appointed for the purposes outlined in Part 7A. The senior Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has left the Chamber. I welcome the Bill and I will be supporting. I still believe, however, that it is far too little and very late given the current situation of our desperate homelessness crisis. Hopefully, the provisions in this Bill will make a certain amount of difference to the lives of tenants.
It will need to be accompanied by a strong public awareness programme and campaign to ensure tenants are aware of their improved rights. It will, of course, also need to provide the necessary resources to the RTB to ensure implementation and enforcement. I note in a reply to our colleague, Deputy Shortall, in March, that the Minister said there were then 55 staff in the RTB and eight vacancies. With the new responsibilities now being given to the RTB and the strengthening of its remit there will clearly be a need for it to have more resources so the organisation will be able to fulfil its stronger role in addressing the rights of tenants. The RTB’s strategic plan for 2018 to 2022 lists organisational supports as a priority. I urge the Minister to commence all sections of the Bill at the earliest juncture to avoid further fall-out from our malfunctioning rental market. I also ask him to listen to the criticisms made by Members of the key parts of the Bill and to the issues that have been raised by stakeholders. I refer in particular to organisations such as Threshold which have long campaigned for a number of the improvements contained in this Bill.