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Fine Gael housing spokesperson John Cummins Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews.ie
Policy Matters

'Great in theory, but the reality is different': FG housing spokesperson on the eviction ban

John Cummins said there is “no question” that homelessness remains the biggest challenge in housing.

WELCOME TO POLICY Matters, a series from The Journal that takes a deep dive into the ideas and solutions proposed by Ireland’s politicians on some of the biggest issues of the day.

As part of the series, The Journal sits down with different spokespeople from across Ireland’s political parties to take a deeper look at what they believe needs to be done across areas like housing, health, the environment and childcare.

Last time around, we spoke to the Green Party’s Francis Noel Duffy who outlined what he saw as the government’s success on housing so far. He also shared his frustration with how the Greens are conveyed in the media, and told us how he believes that reinstating the eviction ban would be akin to a communist state.

This week, we hear from Fine Gael’s housing spokesperson, Senator John Cummins. 

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WITH JUST OVER a week to go until Budget Day 2024, Finance Minister Michael McGrath likely has his mind made up on where the money will be directed. 

But on housing, Fine Gael’s housing spokesperson John Cummins was tight-lipped on what he would like to see at the Department of Housing. 

Instead, he would only say that keeping small landlords in the housing market needs to be treated as a priority.

The Waterford senator did say, however, that if there is any tax relief introduced for landlords, it needs to be conditional on them staying in the market for a defined period of time. 

He pointed to calls from the Irish Property Owners Association for a reduction in the rate of tax on rental property income from 40% to 25%, as well as other suggestions that the tax relief on the Rent a Room scheme be expanded. 

“There’s a number of options, but I’m clear that we do need to put measures in place that will encourage more landlords to remain in the market, and encourage more to come into the market as well,” Cummins said.

Now aged 36, Cummins has been in politics for most of his adult life. In 2009, he was elected to Waterford City Council at the age of 21, and by the time he was 25, he became the youngest ever person to serve as Mayor of Waterford.

He unsuccessfully contested the 2020 general election in Waterford, losing out partly as a result of the successful ‘Vote Left Transfer Left’ initiative employed by opposition parties. 

Cummins, who has been in the Seanad since April 2022, now serves as Fine Gael’s housing, local government and heritage spokesperson. 

It was put to him that the housing situation in the country has deteriorated since Fine Gael entered Government in 2011. 

During that time homelessness figures have spiraled, rents have continued to soar, and first-time buyers have been faced with a mounting squeeze as house prices continue to edge upwards. 

A recent ESRI report showed that in 2019, more than one-in-four young adults aged 25-34 in Ireland remain living with their parents, with this figure likely to have increased since. 

In response, Cummins told The Journal that Ireland has come far since Fine Gael entered Government 12 years ago, and that people should recognise this.

He noted that in 2013 and 2014, Ireland was building fewer than 4,500 houses a year, compared to the 30,000 that the Government is confident will be built this year. 

“I would love to be able to say we can get to 40,000 houses tomorrow and we certainly need to get to those numbers. There are constraints on the sector but we are on the right trajectory,” Cummins said.

He pointed to strong mortgage approvals, an increase in housing commencements and an increase in planning permission approvals, and said that schemes like Help to Buy and the First Homes scheme are “doing the job they have been designed to do”.

“There is tangible progress, but obviously on the rental side, we need to see a significant increase in terms of cost rental homes for individuals and families,” he said.

So far, the delivery of cost rental homes – that is, affordable rental accommodation for those above the threshold for social housing -has been limited to just a couple of hundred units annually.

The rent for cost rental homes must be at least 25% below regular market rents in an area.

Rolled out in 2021, 440 cost rental homes were delivered that year. According to the Government, 700 more units expected to be delivered this year, with an overall aim of delivering 18,000 by 2030.

Cummins argued that more local authorities need to step into this space, as cost rental has largely been delivered by Approved Housing Bodies and the Land Development Agency to date. 

“Local authorities have been focused on social housing delivery. And that has always been their primary delivery target. And now, Government has asked them to step into a space that they haven’t been in before. 

“I don’t think there’s any question that we need to see more.

It’s based on the Vienna model, we know that it will work.

“It will ultimately compete with the private rental sector, which in time will bring rents down,” Cummins said.

More broadly, Cummins said he knows that homelessness is the biggest challenge in housing.

“There is absolutely no question about that,” he said. 

Again, he pointed to existing schemes and the delivery of social housing and reiterated that work is ongoing to “tip the balance” so that more people are exiting homelessness than entering it. 

Oireachtas committees

However, Cummins also said that he is frustrated by the poor take-up of government schemes by some local authorities – such as the Repair and Lease scheme, which was set up to bring vacant properties back into use as social housing.

Under the scheme, owners of vacant properties can have the cost of necessary repairs paid by the local authority or an approved housing body (AHB), and then lease the property to the local authority or AHB so it can be used for social housing. 

According to Cummins, over half of all Repair and Lease units, nationally, have been delivered in Waterford.

He gives the example of a former Little Sisters of the Poor nursing home, which was derelict for over ten years and brought back into use to deliver 71 units for people over the age of 55 a few months ago.

Cummins pointed out that about half of those who moved in did so from bigger council-provided properties, while the other half came from the private rental sector, with these properties “now freed up for other people”. 

“Everything is interconnected in housing, but it’s about using all of the tools that Government have put in place for the local authorities and the AHBs, and really pulling them all together that is going to have the impact.

“And we are seeing the impact now in places like Waterford,” he said.

But why the slow take-up of the scheme with other local authorities? 

When quizzed by TDs and Senators at the Joint Oireachtas Housing Committee, Dublin and Cork City Council executives claimed that the €60,000 made available in funding per property was not sufficient. 

Cummins said this shows the impact of Oireachtas committees, as this information was then relayed to the Department of Housing which increased the funding to €80,000 per property last month. 

On the inner workings of the Oireachtas Housing Committee, Cummins spoke highly of his fellow committee members.

“In fairness, we have quite a good working relationship, not just the government parties but cross-party. I talk to Cian [O’Callaghan from the Social Democrats] and Eoin [Ó Broin from Sinn Féin] all the time.

All of us have the same goal here, which is to increase the supply of social affordable, and private housing.

“How we go about it, sometimes we differ,” Cummins said, citing their differing views on the Help to Buy scheme and the First Home scheme as an example of this. 

Eviction ban

One of the most glaring differences in policy positions among the Government and the opposition on housing recently has been the lifting of the eviction ban – with Sinn Féin, the Social Democrats, the Labour party and People Before Profit all calling for it to be reinstated. 

On this, Cummins backs the party line – “it sounds great in theory, but the reality is quite different”. 

He claimed that it stemmed the issue of homelessness for a period, but in general “didn’t actually result in less people going into homelessness”. 

Housing and homeless charities largely disagree with this, with Focus Ireland recently saying that it is likely that the lifting of the no-fault eviction ban was partly responsible for the continued increase Ireland has seen in homelessness figures this year.

Cummins likened the no-fault eviction to rent freezes and said they are great in theory, but in practice, the reality is “quite different”.

He cited Berlin as an example of this, where a rent freeze was struck down as illegal on a constitutional basis after 12 months. 

But landlords in Berlin are still bound by a separate, federal restriction that means they cannot increase rents by more than 10 per cent above a local benchmark rate when taking on new tenants. And there are also limits on rent increases on existing contracts.

However before the law was deemed unconstitutional, Cummins pointed out that there were 50% fewer properties available on the rental market in Berlin as a result of it. 

“So you have to weigh up everything in terms of the impacts of decisions that you make.

“And if it protects some people, but impacts other people from being able to get a rental property, you have to look at everything across the board,” Cummins said.

Despite what Cummins described as a positive working relationship with the other parties, he again backed the party line – that Fine Gael will not be going into coalition with Sinn Féin after the next general election.

“The leader has been quite clear that Fine Gael will not do business with Sinn Féin. Not based on any historical things, it’s based on their current policies and what they will do to the economy,” he said. 

Recent polling continues to place Sinn Féin’s popularity significantly ahead of Fine Gael, but Cummins remains hopeful that the public will give Fine Gael another term come the next election. 

And when that comes, will Cummins be throwing his hat in the ring for a Dáil seat again?  He is unequivocal about this: “Absolutely.”

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