Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien said the Government had provided for “additional emergency accommodation” to help soften the impact of the eviction ban’s end.
Given a list of possible last-resort options tenants could be left with during an interview with RTÉ's Prime Time, Mr O’Brien said, “I’m not in any way saying to people that they should sleep in a garda station or in a car in any way, shape, nor form.”
“We have provided additional emergency accommodation. That was one of the reasons that we brought the [eviction] pause in for last winter, to be able to give us the space to provide more because there were pressures on emergency accommodation.”
He earlier said that the decision to allow the moratorium to come to an end “wasn’t taken lightly”, admitting that it “could very possibly” increase homelessness.
In the face of severe Opposition criticism he insisted the Government has taken the “responsible decision” to let the moratorium lapse due to the impact keeping it could have had in terms of reducing the supply of homes in the private rental market.
With most landlords saying they are exiting the market and selling properties due to high taxes and low profit, the Minister told Prime Time his Government would bring “meaningful measures” to the rental sector aimed at retaining them and protecting tenants.
“Further intervention will lead to a further flight of properties which leaves less capacity for the sector,” he said.
Proposals have included a law change to require landlords to offer their property to tenants first when selling, and a “cost rental backstop”, developed with Approved Housing Bodies (AHBs) and local authorities to provide a backup for those who do not qualify for existing rental supports.
The eviction ban’s phase-out, announced on Monday night, drew harsh criticism from within the Coalition, with Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan describing it as “completely the wrong decision” and accusing party leader Eamon Ryan of failing to “speak to our policy” of retaining the ban.
Responding to the Opposition during Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil on Tuesday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the “finely balanced decision” was made in “the overall public interest” and while extending the ban might have provided “respite” in the short-term “it actually would have made things much worse in the medium to long-term”.
Mr Varadkar said the moratorium had not been effective in reducing homelessness, with the number of people provided with emergency accommodation by the State increasing every month for which the ban was in place.
The Fine Gael leader also said it was beginning to create “a new form of homelessness” with people unable to move back into their own properties after returning home from abroad and that leaving the moratorium in place would have discouraged new landlords coming into the rental market.
Speaking at a press conference, Mr O’Brien, a Fianna Fáil TD, also cited legal advice in explaining why Cabinet took the decision to allow the ban to lapse while outlining efforts to increase emergency accommodation in recent months and plans to develop measures to help tenants and landlords.
The ban is to expire on a phased basis from the end of March. It was due to be approved by the Cabinet on Tuesday morning.
Some renters will still be protected into June but so-called ‘no fault’ evictions will be allowed to start again for others over April and May depending on the length of the tenancies.
Speaking in the Dáil, Green TD Patrick Costello called on the Government to publish the Attorney General’s advice, cited as a factor in the decision not to continue to moratorium indefinitely.
“I call on the Government to publish this advice and let’s test it, better yet let’s continue the eviction ban and test it in court,” he said.
In response, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the AG’s advice was that private property rights are subject to the common good but it would be “extremely difficult” to justify a permanent, rather than temporary, moratorium.
He added: “We made this as a decision as to what we thought was the right thing to do as a Government, it wasn’t because the AG told us that we could or could not make the decision.”
Sinn Féin housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin described the shift as “cruel and heartless”, while housing charities warned of increased homelessness in the short term.
“We know there are few options in the housing market for families and individuals who are threatened with termination. They’re worried about losing their home,” John Mark McCafferty, chief executive of Threshold, said.
Mr Ó Broin told the Dáil it was a “shameful decision” and that Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and “now the Green Party have abandoned renters”.
“You’re throwing them to the mercy of a totally dysfunctional market a dysfunction created by 11 years of Fine Gael in Government, propped up by Fianna Fáil for the last six years and now joined by the Greens, and whose leader has been accused by his own Dáil colleague today of abandoning his party’s values and policies,” he said.
The Dublin Mid-West TD said from April there would be a rise in homelessness, rough sleeping and the “the prospect of families with children being referred to Garda stations for a safe place to sleep”.
New Social Democrats leader Holly Cairns said it was “unbearable” listening to Mr Varadkar trying to defend the “indefensible”. Ms Cairns said the decision to lift the eviction ban in the middle of a housing emergency had “condemned potentially thousands of individuals and families to homelessness”
Mr O’Brien said that an estimated 2,700 notices to quit were paused during the moratorium from the end of October last year though he does not yet have updated figures from the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB).
These are due to be published soon.
He said not all notices to quit result in evictions and some happen for reasons like people moving to different properties.
Mr O’Brien said it is “important to say no cliff edge in that space” and “We’d always calibrated it that it would be a phased exit from the moratorium which was taken for exceptional circumstances.”
Asked at a press conference if he accepts lifting the eviction ban is going to increase homelessness Mr O’Brien replied: “It could very possibly.
“That could be the case and that’s why this decision isn’t taken lightly.”
He said there is a need for an increased supply of housing across social, affordable and private purchase homes as well as in the rental sector.
Mr O’Brien defended the Government’s efforts to boost supply and said there are 37,000 homes at various stages of construction at present and schemes to encourage more houses and apartments to be built.