The flames are licking at my ankles and I can’t see my daughter but I can hear her coughing. She’s four. I wonder if I could fit my shoulders through the attic skylight. Standing on my tippy toes I feel the chair wobble under my legs and push up. The draught will bring the flames higher but at least I can grab her in my arms and sling her on to the roof.
This is the scenario I imagined when I visited a mother and child who contacted the Society of St. Vincent de Paul earlier this year. Although we had been in this building before we had no idea that the landlord had also turned the attic into a lodging space. The steps to the attic were loft stairs, worn, steep and austere.
In this space the mother and her daughter shared a mattress behind a semi-partition. The living space was floored with old lino. A small table, a stool and chair made for the furnishings. An old aluminium sink and stove made up the kitchen. On the partition wall an electricity meter sprang wires, like snakes in Medusa’s hair. Blackened extension leads crossed the floor. At the other end of the space a flimsy door hid a small toilet, and maybe a sink.
While this was the worst case of poor housing we had seen in our visits it is not the only such property that defies housing regulations. A Dublin City Council survey published in April found over 90% of the 1500 bedsit properties inspected were below standard and unfit for habitation. With almost 100,000 households waiting on local authority housing is it any wonder that people fall prey to rogue landlords?
Rent supplement is a support for people living in private rented accommodation who cannot meet the cost of their accommodation from their own resources. Many landlords are reluctant to accept tenants who rely on rent supplement, and the payment is often far below market rents for an area. Anecdotally SVP continues to hear of people topping up their rents in order to secure better accommodation. These top-ups are paid out of limited household funds for food and other essentials. New housing supports such as the Rental Accommodation Scheme (RAS) and the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) are making small but significant steps into improving the options available to people who have a long term housing need but our expectations must be higher. . We must ensure that those most vulnerable - people with mental health issues, people with addictions, people who have been homeless, people who put up with poor standards because they feel they have no choice - are not trapped, sometimes literally, in housing that fails to meet even the most basic standards.
Back to the attic space, the mother and daughter, and the fire. I can fit my shoulders through the skylight and so lift my weight off the chair to look out. Had I flung my daughter out first she would have had no way of holding on to the slates of the steep roof and would have fallen at least 12feet on to a flat felt roof. Of course that would have been burning too.
SVP helped this family to leave the property as soon as possible and reported the property to Dublin City Council. But there are many more like it. We are facing a housing crisis which is being worsened by the cuts and austerity that have been implemented over the past number of years. Make Your Voice Heard – please support our campaign to end austerity at www.svp.ie/yourvoice.