Into the lion's den
Minister of State with responsibility for Housing, Damien English, faced a barrage of questions from local councillors when he dropped into the council chamber in Wexford last week during a visit to cut the ribbon on a €1.6 million social housing development. David Looby reports
Minister of State at the Department of Housing Damien English answered a series of 31 questions from councillors about housing issues in the county at the monthly meeting of the body.
The Minister attended the County Council meeting following a stop-off in Enniscorthy, where he had cut the ribbon on a new €1.6m social housing development.
Cllr Malcolm Byrne said the demand for affordable housing schemes in County Wexford is enormous. He said there are people ending up on council housing lists who shouldn't be there, adding that Gorey residents are paying very high rents. Mr English said local authorities, including Wexford County Council, have to do some research into the availability of housing schemes.
Cllr Byrne asked why it takes two years during a four-stage process for a local authority from original plans to reach construction, suggesting that local authorities could get involved. He sought a commitment from Mr English that his department would support any building initiatives put forward by the body, adding: 'In north Wexford we have seen some disastrous large scale developments.'
Cllr John Fleming said measures need to be put in place to encourage builders to get back building. Cllr Barbara-Anne Murphy said at a time of economic growth the government should be building houses.
Cllr Lisa McDonald said houses should be built far quicker. She said Wexford County Council's building programme is delayed by all the processes involved. '59 weeks is too long. How come Dublin can come along with a tender worth €950m to build rapid build pod houses?'
Cllr McDonald said it doesn't make sense for the department to keep redesigning new schemes, project by project, when excellent housing estates have been built. 'We need to cut the red tape to deliver the houses quicker to the people. The private sector doesn't have the same moral obligation. The process is the problem, not the time frame. If the houses are good enough for Slippery Green or Enniscorthy they are good enough for other areas.'
Cllr McDonald called for an increase in Housing Assistance Payments allowances saying they are nowhere close to meeting the average rents in the county. 'HAP is a very long-standing temporary solution and it's not working in Wexford town or in Gorey. In Wexford renting a three-bed houses costs €1,000 on average. That's not workable on a limit of €565 and I know it's worse in Gorey. A lot of people wouldn't have the personal skills to deal with this. We need an increase in HAP limits in this county.'
Mr English said 38,000 people are using the HAP scheme nationally. 'For the majority of them it's a good solution. It gets them into a house until they get a permanent home. I accept there are pressure zones and we do track this all the time.'
He said 20 per cent can be added on to HAP payment limits, adding that most of the time the payment add on is 16 per cent. 'I have seen the statistics in Gorey where it's an issue.'
Mr English said the reason it takes 59 weeks to get houses built is due to the processes of designing the houses and estates, acquiring land and the Part VIII planning process.
'If it can be done in 30 weeks we are all for that,' he said.
Cllr McDonald said: 'You are talking about people who are engaging in HAP. I am talking about people who are not reaching the limit and who are in dire straights.'
Cllr Johnny Mythen called for the system to be changed whereby councillors can be notified about tenants who are moved into estates.
He said tenants with a history of drug or anti-social behaviour issues are often moved into old, established estates.
'They could be putting in a gurrier who will wreck the place overnight.'
Mr English said Data Protection is an issue, adding: 'But we need to find a solution to this.'
Cllr Mythen sought a tick box on application forms for social housing granting permission to elected members to access information including the names of the persons and addressees of the housing units that are allocated to the successful applicants.
Cllr McDonald said: 'The HAP scheme needs to be a lot more robust. You should be treated the same way.'
Cllr Michael Sheehan said tenants are being made homeless because their landlords are deciding to renovate their houses or pass them on to their children, with a view towards selling them on or going back into the market at a higher rate.
Cllr Sheehan said €1.25 billion is being allocated to a new housing agency.
'We are looking for every opportunity for the council to advise the department of social housing. It's the last bastion that councillors can have a significant contribution in.'
He said first time buyers grants should never have been abolished as it allowed social housing tenants to get onto the housing ladder.
HAP is the last bastion.
Cllr Davy Hynes said Ozanam House has always been there for men who are going through family break ups.
Cllr Tony Walsh the HAP scheme forces people on low incomes to compete in the private rental market with people on high incomes, calling it a disaster.
Mr English disagreed, saying: 'I meet people every week who are on HAP who are very happy. It's wrong to say that it's not working and it's unfair on the housing team who are working at the front-line day in, day out. It's not all rosy for landlords either.'
Cllr Walsh acknowledged that council housing staff are working 'tirelessly'.
'I know they do work tirelessly and I think it's a thankless job. Outside of all the efforts they make it's a well publicised disaster out there, which is no reflection on the staff. They are playing catch up. HAP is unfair in many senses.'
Mr English said tenants are getting a raw deal in County Wexford from private landlords, 'with or without HAP'.
Cllr Tom Forde called on the minister to ensure that at least 20 per cent of houses in estates are social and affordable housing on all new developments.
'The current provision is only 10 per cent, however developers can opt out of this. Will the minister remove opt outs to truly enable more social and affordable hosing on all new developments?'
He asked what the minister is doing to ensure that survivors of domestic abuse are being protected by law and supported to secure a home and place to rebuild their lives.
Cllr Forde also called on the government to build more student accommodation.
Mr English said an additional 7,000 student apartments are being built. 'In the last year we had 5,000 new builds and 5,000 are being constructed today and another 7,000 have gotten planning. It won't be enough to solve the problems but it will help.'
He said any developer building a new estate has to provide 10 per cent social and affordable housing to local authorities, adding that there were changes to law in 2017 which provide clear guidelines in relation to a blanket support for domestic abuse victims when it come to allocating housing.
Cllr Mythen asked several questions about NAMA. He called for the government under the Rebuilding Ireland Programme to stop excluding family income supplement payments as they are putting people over the limit by as little as €2,000. He also called for the deposit to be reduced to 3 per cent.
Mr English said: 'The Central Bank are approving plans. I can accept these protections can be difficult to manage. We need to stick to what the Central Bank plan is.'
The Help to Buy scheme is helping people, Mr English said. 'We don't want people on low paid jobs to have high mortgages for 30 years like in the past. I do understand that it is regarded as extra wage.
Mr English said the Repair & Lease Back Scheme whereby property owners are given a €40,000 grant to improve their accommodation to be leased to the public within five years has had a very low take up, adding that the councils have a role in promoting this.
He said not every property in NAMA is suitable for social housing.