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Let's regulate short-term let platforms like Airbnb before tourism kicks back in, says housing minister

Housing and tourism departments are in discussions about platform regulations.

Minister Darragh O'Brien says illegal evictions should be reported.
Minister Darragh O'Brien says illegal evictions should be reported.

DISCUSSIONS ON HOW Ireland might regulate short-term let platforms like AirBnb are underway between the Department of Housing and the Department of Tourism. 

Regulations in the area that came into effect last year only allow home-sharing where a house is a person’s primary residence and is within designated ‘rent pressure zones’.

Since last July, home-sharing – where people rent out a part or all of their home for a period of time, usually to tourists who are visiting the country – can only operate under strict limits which can be monitored by local authorities.

In an interview with TheJournal.ie, Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien said he formally wrote to Tourism Minister Catherine Martin on progressing the issue, and a senior officials group has been set up “to do a bit of work on it”. 

“Now is the time to do it,” said O’Brien, explaining that with tourism being virtually non-existent due to the pandemic, now is the time to make changes.

“I really think there’s an opportunity. Look, there is a role for short-term letting in our hospitality sector, of course there is, but it can’t be disproportionate. 

“You see them in cities like Galway, where there’s an real oversupply of them. The regulation of short term letting platforms, I think is a very important thing that we should be doing.

“I’ve had initial discussions with Minister Catherine Martin, that were pretty positive. I think, really now’s the time to do it before tourism kicks back in,” he said. 

His predecessor Eoghan Murphy had wanted to bring in regulation of the platform, at the same time as enforcement rules, but said it was a matter for the Department of Tourism at the time. 

Sinn Féin housing spokesperson Eoin O’Broin said there should be a State obligation on the companies, such as Airbnb, to share information on lettings with local authorities, as it would make the council’s work of enforcement “a lot easier”. 

Despite the new regulation, he said people can still look on a number of other platforms and see the properties that have been advertised.

He said Dublin City Council need to check property owners have applied for an exemption or planning permission which would allow them let their property, and if not, hit them with enforcement notices.

He said the companies should also be obliged to share their customer and booking information with Revenue, so as to ensure everyone is tax compliant. 

Buying up short-term lets

Previously, O’Brien said the State planned to buy up properties that, before the pandemic, were for rent on short-term letting platforms. Many properties were lying empty.

There has been an increase in the number of rental properties available in Ireland and elsewhere as former short-term lets came back on the market amid the travel restrictions.

“I actually tried to buy a number of them as Minister for Housing. We got some, but not as many as I would have liked,” he said.

He now believes regulation of the platforms themselves is the way forward, saying that while enforcement regulations were brought in by the last government, under Minister Murphy, they were not backed up with the resources they needed to carry out the enforcement.

O’Brien said funding and resources have now been given by his department to the local authorities.

“But we need to go a step further by regulating the platforms, in my view,” he said of their focus going forward. 

Government’s housing plan

While last week’s Cabinet meeting was dominated by the announcement that Covid-19 restrictions were to be re-imposed after Christmas Day, other important pieces of legislation dealing with housing were also approved, and perhaps went under the radar somewhat.

Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald has consistently asked where the government’s affordable housing plan is, telling the Dáil recently that it was promised in September.

The housing minister disagrees with the Sinn Fein leader that this government isn’t serious about tackling the housing crisis. 

In fact, O’Brien is making big promises about making a dent in the housing crisis next year. 

On affordable cost-rental, he said 400 tenancies will be available in 2021. In the Dáil recently, McDonald pointed out this was 50 less than was previously promised in the Budget.

“These are people above the social welfare threshold and who are working, and the rent will be a minimum, and I say a minimum, 25% below market price, with a long term lease. So this is a whole new model of housing delivery,” said O’Brien.

When asked when people will actually be living in these cost-rental homes, he said from the middle of next year. “So, from July or August, that type of period. We need to get the legislation through but I’ve already put the call out because the call is basically for approved housing bodies to bring forward their schemes. And those schemes have to be ready in 2021.”

“We’re going to be oversubscribed, but I need to start it next year,” he added.

Affordable housing

Affordable housing on council or State-owned land or what’s called the service sites fund, will deliver over 6,000 homes, said the minister.

Under the fund, €310 million is already available to provide enabling infrastructure to support the delivery of more affordable homes on local authority lands.

Despite this, the fund hasn’t delivered one home.

“Some will in 2021… but we need to accelerate the delivery fast, so I’m making some changes in this bill that I got approved today to the service sites fund, to make it easier for councils to deliver affordable homes,” said O’Brien when asked about this.

Another item on the minister’s list for next year is the government’s cost-equity model – a plan that will see the State take up to 30% equity in a home with a first-time buyer.

“People who are renting right now are paying through their nose. They can’t afford to save enough to get a mortgage,” he said. The minister committed to bringing the bill to the House in the first quarter of next year, with the aim of getting that scheme up and running by the end of Q2.

Equity scheme

In the first year, he wants to finance about 2,000 affordable homes under the purchase equity scheme.  “I’ve always been very clear and as a party, Fianna Fáil has always been very clear. We believe in home ownership. I make no apologies for that. I think it is an honest and just aspiration for people to have,” he said.

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Explaining how it might work, the minister said if a single person or a couple have applied for a mortgage and they’re approved for €250,000, but the house that they need is €310,000, the government will bridge the “affordability gap” of around €20,000.

“They can apply for the shared equity mortgage, shared equity loan, so the state will take that equity up to 30% of the house, it could be less, it could be 10%. And you’ll simply pay a service and charge on that when you sell the house.

“Yes, the state gets that piece back. But there’s no obligation on you to do so, and you pay a servicing charge in real terms. It’ll help people, ” he said. 

Some have criticised the plan, saying it could hike up house prices, while others said the UK scheme resulted in some people not repaying the state loan section of the mortgage.

While the UK scheme is not identical to the Irish plan, O’Brien said it did see a 15% increase in supply.

The Help-to-Buy grants of up to €30,000 will stay in place right through next year, said O’Brien, who added that he sees the grant and the equity scheme “operating alongside” each other.

The affordable scheme, which will be part of the Housing For All plan which will be published next year, should be up and running by June or July 2021, said the minister. 

Any “potential issues” of people not repaying sections of the loan “will be walked through in the guidance that we publish”, he said.

The housing minster confirmed that the government will not meet its target on the delivery of social housing units this year, due to the impact of Covid-19 and the shutting down of the constuction sector in the first half of the year.

Targets missed

Under the Rebuilding Ireland plan, a delivery of over 11,100 new social housing homes through build, acquisition and leasing programmes is promised, with over 7,700 to be delivered through construction mechanisms.   

While he said the government has made up some lost ground, the target will be missed. O’Brien said that 2020 will only achieve around 75% to 80% of the 11,100 target – so between 8,325 to 8,800, by his estimation.

While the number of people accessing emergency accommodation has seen a slight decrease between October and November, the minister says the figures are still too high.

Amidst this, Focus Ireland has called on the government to introduce a broader eviction ban until April 2021. Its CEO Pat Dennigan raised concerns about linking the eviction ban to Covid-19 restrictions.

Last month, the ban on evictions and a rent freeze for those in financial trouble was extended until at least April.

The minister said if illegal evictions are happening, they need to be reported.

“I take that very, very seriously. This department does, and the other agencies. I haven’t had it brought to my personal attention. I had one a number of weeks ago, that I referred on and is being investigated,” he said.

“No one, no one should go into rent arrears because of losing their job during the pandemic, “added, O’Brien, adding that supports are in place, and if people are worried about going into rent arrears, they can seek protections through a self declaration on the department’s website.

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