Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he is not “unduly concerned” if the Coalition becomes a minority government following Sinn Féin’s planned motion on the lifting of the eviction ban after the St Patrick’s Day recess.
The Taoiseach was speaking to reporters in Dublin on Friday after some backbench TDs raised issues about the decision to lift the eviction ban, which is due to expire at the end of this month. Sinn Féin has signalled plans to force a Dáil vote on the matter when it resumes again from Tuesday, March 21st.
The Fine Gael leader said the decision not to extend the ban was a difficult and emotive issue that the Government “thought long and hard and agonised on”.
He also said he did not believe enough had been done regarding tax breaks for landlords, and that the Government was working on proposals in advance of the next budget to encourage them to stay in the rental market.
The Irish Times reported on Friday that just 13 homes, out of more than 400 offered to Dublin local authorities by landlords exiting the market, were bought in recent months under the tenant-in-situ scheme. Under the scheme, restored by Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien last April, councils are empowered to buy homes offered by landlords who are selling up and where their tenant is in receipt of the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) or the Rental Accommodation Scheme (RAS).
Since Monday’s announcement that the eviction ban would not be extended, the tenant-in-situ scheme has been cited by both the Taoiseach and Mr O’Brien as a key mechanism to protect the poorest households from homelessness in the event of termination notices, and that 1,500 homes would be bought under it this year.
Mr Varadkar said the scheme had not been availed of “to the extent that I would have liked by local authorities”. He also said the figure of 13 homes “wasn’t the full story”, with “a couple of hundred actually being looked at at the moment and no decision is made”.
“My message to local authorities, to councils, to city and county executives, chief executives in particular, is that we want this done,” he said. “The money is there and we will pay for it, and the best thing you can do to reduce the number of people who are homeless and in emergency accommodation is to prevent them becoming homeless in the first place, and this is the mechanism that we want local authorities to use.”
Mr Varadkar said the eviction ban did not work and the number of people in emergency accommodation had risen every month it was in place, adding that it was a decision which was “hard to defend” and “certainly isn’t going to gain any votes for the Government parties”.
He said there was a “very big” housing deficit following a prolonged period when “banks, the economy and the construction industry crashed, when we just didn’t have enough houses built for the best part of eight years”.
“That has left a very big deficit, and it’s going to take time, a lot of time, no matter who the Minister, no matter who’s in government, to close that deficit,” he said.
Mr Varadkar said progress was being made with 30,000 new homes built last year, but that housing supply was “a very difficult problem”.
The Taoiseach added that he backed Mr O’Brien when questioned by reporters. Mr O’Brien had “one of the hardest jobs in Government, as did Alan Kelly, Simon Coveney and Eoghan Murphy before him”, Mr Varadkar said. “I think it is a little bit simplistic to say that you appoint any one individual as Minister and they’re going to be able to solve the housing crisis.”
Earlier, Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe said leaving the eviction ban in place beyond the end of this month would mean “less rental accommodation available in the future”, as well making it more difficult to “get out” of the moratorium.
“I’m very much aware of the very difficult consequences that a decision like this could have,” Mr Donohoe told RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland. “But I ultimately believe that if the moratorium was extended we would have less rental accommodation available in the future. And the challenges of today will become even harder tomorrow.”