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Seanad debate on housing policy

The Seanad held a debate on housing policy, in the course of which senators raised government policy and performance in the area of homelessness (Dail Eireann, Debates, 28th March 2012, 598-622).  Introducing the discussion, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government Jan O’Sullivan spoke of how, in current housing policy, ‘new ideas and fresh thinking were absolutely essential and the delivery of a radical new policy framework sooner rather than later was urgently needed’.  There were escalating housing lists as more and more people found themselves in housing distress.  The government had published a housing policy just three months after taking office, one which emphasized choice, equity and quality outcomes.  


Future social housing provision, she said, would see a greater reliance on the voluntary and cooperative sector.  Already these bodies had built up considerable expertise and credibility, demonstrating an ability to manage housing in a cost-efficient and effective manner.  Last year had seen the initial acquisition of NAMA properties by Cluid and she anticipated more.  New ventures would include mixed tenure communities with a blend of social allocations and private disposals.  Cait Keane (FG, labour) spoke of how new building would not be the order of the day any more.  €691m was available under the social housing investment programme in 2012, with capital funding for €390m for house construction, regeneration and improvement: ‘we are on course to deliver between 3,000 and 4,000 additional units of social housing’.


Jillian van Turnhout (ind, Taoiseach nominee) told the Seanad that she wished to speak about the homeless and people with disabilities and set her comments in the context of a 25% increase in the gap between the richest and poorest in 2010 and a rise in the risk of poverty from 14.1% in 2009 to 15.8% in 2010.  The problems of homeless people had never been solved during the boom and she was concerned that their specific needs would be further sidelined now.  She quoted Focus Ireland figures of 5,000 people homeless, including 1,500 children, a quarter under 12.  The previous government had a target to end long-term homelessness by end 2010, but that was not achieved.  She felt very strongly about the need to end long-term homelessness, not only because of social justice but because it saved money.  It cost €30,000 for a bed in emergency accommodation, but as little as €14,500 to provide a home, even in Dublin.  Now it was deemed unacceptable for a person to be in emergency accommodation for up to six months, but the majority of homeless people were there for over two years and some had been there ten years.  There were 2,500 individuals in emergency accommodation in Dublin city alone and she had heard of children doing their homework out of the side of suitcases.  She calculated that the cost of emergency accommodation came to €38m and found it unacceptable to continue to use it on a long-term basis.  


Jillian van Turnhout spoke of how 3,000 homes were needed nationally to end long-term homelessness by 2013. Given that only a few hundred homes had been delivered over the past three years by all the local authorities and housing associations nationally, how were we going to deliver them?  In 2007, over 9,500 new social homes had been provided in the state, but by 2011 that figure dropped to between 3,500 and 4,000.  Aideen Hayden (Lab, Taoiseach nominee) added that there were now almost 100,000 in mortgage arrears; 100,000 on the housing waiting list and 100,000 in rent supplement.  She criticized the minister of state for not even mentioning homelessness in her introductory remarks.  Standards and regulations in private rented accommodation were not upheld by local authorities and she did not believe the matter could be rectified other than through a certification system: ‘a person cannot walk into a restaurant without there being a certificate on the wall indicating that it is fit to eat in.  We should not be putting people in homes that are not fit to live in’.   Similarly, David Cullinane (SF, labour) likewise spoke of the huge drop in investment.  Local authorities were not building a significant number of new houses and housing waiting lists were increasing.


The minister of state, Jan O’Sullivan, told the Seanad that she shared their concern about homelessness and that was why funding had been ring-fenced, even though it had been difficult to do because of the cuts.  Housing policy now was not about developers any more, it was about people living in homes that the government was trying to provide for them.  They wanted to get rid of the poverty traps whereby people were afraid of losing their rent allowance, onto a scheme that was similar to the local authority differential rent scheme, get people out of poverty traps and into the opportunity to work.  She also spoke of meeting voluntary housing organizations which hoped to take over vacant houses and provide social housing for those who needed it, for there was ‘scope for the voluntary, community and cooperative sectors in these situations’.  Support for the voluntary housing sector under the capital assistance scheme this year was €70m and they intended later in the year to issue a multi-annual call for proposals that would involved asking local authorities to set out their priorities for social housing and some of that would be administered through voluntary housing associations.  She then spoke of how in Limerick she would establish an office of regeneration separate from the local authority housing departments, a directorate with its own staff and so on.  Ballymun had been a different model, at even more distance from the local authority.  It was winding down and would probably conclude in 2014.  Other areas of Dublin were in urgent need of regeneration and the department hoped to move some money into those areas: ‘we have been truing to learn from both the Ballymun and Limerick models to establish whether we can put in place the best possible systems to deliver’.


Separately, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local government, Jan O’Sullivan, informed the Dail that she planned to develop a new regulatory framework for approved social housing bodies, addressing such issues as governance, independent scrutiny and policy, but in the meantime a voluntary code would be finalized and agreed in coming months (Dail Eireann, Debates, 8th March 2012, 727).   She later announced that her department was now undertaking an audit of the 130,000 units of the local authority social housing stock so as to better inform future targeted interventions (Dail Eireann, Debates, 8th March 2012, 671).  


She also announced that the Centre for Effective Studies had been commissioned by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to undertake a high level review of the Youth Homelessness Strategy as the basis for a new framework for the next five years (Dail Eireann, Debates, 8th March 2012, 677-8). 


The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government informed the Dail that 2,000 homes had now been identified as potentially suitable for social housing in a total of 15 local authority areas, but concentrated in Dublin and Cork (Dail Eireann, Debates, 8th March 2012, 639; 675).