“Our Conference is supporting a family - parents and three children, with school related costs and food deliveries. No rent allowance to help with rent of €€850 per month in a two bedroomed house. There are no curtains, badly worn and dangerous floor covering, no basket in the fireplace, and the central heating is not working. The rent was raised to €1,100 per month and the family had to leave as they could not afford to pay.” - SVP Member, East Region, September 2016
2016 brought signs of the continuation of a strengthening economy. Unemployment figures fell to their lowest levels since August 2008 and the Economic and Social Research Institute forecasted a growth of 4.8 percent for the economy. In stark contrast with this however, was the continuing rise of those on the housing waiting list and those who are homeless.
According to the Social Housing Assessment carried out by the Housing Agency in December 2016, the total number of qualified households for social housing at the end of 2016 stood at 91, 600, an increase of 1,728 (+1.9%) from 2013. When this figure is broken down further, almost half (47%) of households have been qualified for social housing support for more than four years, with one-fifth (21%) qualified for more than seven years – in 2013 the equivalent figure was 9%.
In addition, as we entered 2017 the number of people homeless in Ireland passed the 7,000 mark for the first time as the crisis continues to deepen. Latest figures show that 7,148 people (including over 2,500 children) were in emergency accommodation in the week before Christmas 2016, representing a 91% hike on the figures seen just two years previously.
Every week our members are visiting those experiencing the harsh impact and reality behind these startling statistics. Low-income households are struggling to keep up with rising rents, and face the threat of eviction due to being unable to keep up with the rents or precarious tenancy tenures. Often hesitant to raise issues with landlords, SVP members are also reporting cases of families living in housing that is of extremely poor physical standards, including cold and damp as well as unreasonable withholding of deposits by landlords.
Last Autumn, in an effort to raise awareness and SVP’s concern at the housing and homeless crisis as well as the lack of social housing in Ireland, SVP launched the ‘Hidden Homeless’ campaign. The campaign focused on drawing attention to those people and families living in hotels and B&Bs, made homeless by increases in private rented sector rents and also people making do with poor quality rental units or ‘sofa surfing’ in the homes of friends or extended family. The conditions are often poor quality, overcrowded or expensive.
The National Economic and Social Council estimates that between 25-30 percent of households in Ireland require some support in meeting their housing needs. A number of initiatives are available for those needing support, from provision of social housing to social housing supports to low-income tenants. One of the initiatives for those in need of longer-term support is the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP). The Housing Assistance Payment is currently available across the country and will be available in Dublin from March 2017. While there are several positives to HAP, such as tenants being entitled to work full time while retaining their support (though dependent on their level of pay), and enhanced rules around regularity of inspection, there is typically a significant gap between the rents that landlords are seeking and the maximum payable under HAP.
Of great concern for those SVP is working with, is that when a person takes up HAP, the local authority deems that the housing need has been met and as a result, the person is taken off the waiting list for social housing, unlike with Rent Supplement. While tenants can opt to go on the transfer list when in receipt of HAP, so that they could transfer to social housing at some point in the future, we don’t know how this is working in practice. This is a real risk for those availing of HAP, as social housing offers greater security of tenure and affordability to tenants than HAP and is a more appropriate mechanism for meeting long term social housing needs. HAP is private rented accommodation support and as such has no guarantees with regard to security of tenure or affordability, unlike social housing provided by a local authority or approved housing body.
“We have been living in a B&B in west Dublin in ‘emergency ‘ conditions for over four months. My four children, partner and myself. All in one room that has two beds for me, my partner, and the two eldest -- a girl of seven and a boy of five. Our one-and-half year old has a cot and the nine week old baby sleeps in a basket. There is also a fridge which one of the staff in the B&B gave us last week. We had no choice but to accept emergency accommodation. I have tried to find a house to rent but when landlords hear that we are on rent supplement and have young children they are not interested. I have been on the housing list for seven years.”
- Letter from a parent experiencing homelessness supported by SVP
There are maximum limits which the Department of Housing will pay HAP for, depending on the area and household size. While HAP and Rent Supplement limits were increased last year, these limits still fall short of the level of rents being demanded by landlords. If a household is unable to find a home within the limits they might decide to pay the difference themselves. This can result in people taking on a tenancy that they ultimately cannot afford and are at risk of losing. It can also result in people prioritising their rent payments and going without food, heating and other essentials.
Housing and homelessness are consistent and pressing needs that are being raised by members across the country. Improved affordability, increased rent certainty, security of occupancy to tenants and improvements in quality of properties are clear priorities. While recent initiatives around rent regulation are welcomed, these however must be introduced in conjunction with measures to increase the supply of housing across all tenure types.
There is a concern over the current direction of Government policy that finds those unable to access social housing relying on the private rented sector. From listening to our members, it is clear that there is an urgent need to return to the large scale provision of social housing by local authorities and approve housing bodies in order to realise a lasting solution to the housing and homelessness crisis.
SVP’s Social Justice Team will continue to engage the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government on the above issues, working with them to come up with sustainable solutions to the housing crisis.
Social Policy Development Officer
More by Jennifer Thompson