There are now an estimated 100,000 people on the country’s social housing list. Here is one of them, who didn’t want her name used.
Living on rent supplement in a two-bedroom apartment with her young daughter in north Dublin, she’s been on the city council’s waiting list 14 years.
There are about thirty people ahead of her on the list; it’s been that way since 2012. She doesn’t know when she’ll be housed, but reckons she could be waiting another six years, by which time her daughter will be old enough to join the list herself.
Last year, Dublin City Council scrapped its points system for determining social-housing allocations. The new system is made up of three bands of priority, which takes into account length of time on the list.
The top band includes homeless people, those who are displaced by fires or floods or other disasters, and those who have exceptional medical grounds, whose illnesses will be helped by a change in housing. The second band includes those living in overcrowded dwellings and those with previously awarded medical or welfare points. And the third band is everyone else.
So if our woman on the housing list, who is in the third band, has been waiting for 14 years on the list, why will she be waiting six years more?
The answer is both complex and simple at the same time. The simplified version: colossal demand is being met by paltry supply.
“No Political Will for Social Housing”
Last year, the Irish Times reported that 3,000 people joined the Dublin City Council social-housing waiting list, bringing it to just under 20,000. People Before Profit United Left Councillor Pat Dunne, a member of the council’s housing committee, claims that figure is now over 21,000.
According to figures from the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government, the total number of local authority housing units completed by local authorities in 2014, for the entire country, was just 158. That’s the lowest in 45 years. Even in the height of the recession in the 1980s, the lowest number of completions in a year was 768, in 1989 – almost five times as many as last year.
Between 1985 and 1989, more than 17,000 social housing units were completed. Between 2010 and 2014, the number was just over 2,600.
Even adding in the numbers completed by voluntary non-profit bodies, there were still more than three times as many houses built in the five years up to 1989 as there were in the five up to 2014.
“There’s effectively no political will for social housing,” Dunne says. “There was a decision made in the last twenty years, rather than the state building social housing, it would be left to the private market. People who would normally be entitled to social housing would have their rents subsidised by the state.”
Our woman on the social housing list is one of those people whose rent is subsidised by the state. By her reckoning, her 14 years of rent supplement has cost the state more than €150,000.
According to Dunne, Dublin City Council has 27,000 vacant properties or “voids” in its portfolio and a small percentage of these are void at any given time.
Our woman on the social housing list says that, with the money the state has spent on her rent supplement, it could have done up at least ten of those and housed her in one.
In November, Environment Minister Alan Kelly announced a €3.8 billion plan to build 35,000 social housing units by 2020. This was welcomed with cautious optimism from various housing and homelessness charities.
But in May, optimism turned to scorn with the minister announced part of phase one of the Housing Strategy, which will see 1,700 social houses built by 2017 at a cost of €312 million.
Homeless campaigner Peter McVerry said the number was “insignificant” and that he’d be embarrassed if he were the minister. Kelly responded by saying he hadn’t heard McVerry “say one thing positive yet in relation to anything”.
The promise of 1,700 houses is better than none, but, given the numbers on the waiting list, McVerry’s comments are hardly surprising.
Our woman on the list says the minister’s plans won’t make a dent. People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett is of the same opinion. He says Kelly’s plans won’t even keep pace with the number of new housing applicants joining the list this year. He’s right.
Dublin City Council’s plans are a little more ambitious. Combining efforts with “approved housing bodies”, it expects to see 2,700 new units come on stream for Dublin by 2017. These include new builds, acquisitions and refurbishments.
Dunne’s understanding is that Kelly’s latest announcement will bring the figure up by 123 units. But of the plan itself, he is sceptical.
“If you take new builds, these include flats that have been demolished, like the 79 new flats for Charlemont Street, that’s just replacing units that were already there,” he says. “All you’re doing is replacing something that has been demolished.”
The expectation that people have is that these new builds are new schemes but they are just regeneration, he claims. “So it’s bringing us back to where we were.”
This will be no comfort to Lisa, a mother of four, and her partner, who are currently living in a two-bedroom apartment. Lisa has been on the housing list for eight years and, during this period, has been homeless on three separate occasions.
She became homeless for the first time four years ago, when she had to leave her mother’s house with her young daughter and younger son, for personal reasons. They were housed by the council in the Sunnybank Hotel, Glasnevin and then moved to a guest house in Clontarf.
She couldn’t take it at the guest house, she says. There were heroin addicts staying there and it wasn’t a place for children. Her daughter had to go live with Lisa’s mother. “She hated me for it,” Lisa says.
After moving to England with her son to see if she could do better, Lisa came home again six months later. She moved back into her mother’s house, but couldn’t claim social welfare because the house was overcrowded. So she became homeless again.
She was placed in Flynn’s B&B on Gardiner Street for a while, then moved back to the Sunnybank Hotel. In the meantime, she’d met her partner and become pregnant. They stayed in his nanny’s house for half the pregnancy, but had to move again because it was too crowded. It was back to the Sunnybank for Lisa, her partner and her two kids. From there, they were moved to accommodation in Blackrock.
There were some complications with the pregnancy and there was a worry that Lisa might lose the baby. Luckily, she didn’t, but the council allowed her to move back to her mother’s temporarily, where she’d still receive her payment, until she found alternative accommodation. She managed to secure a two-bed apartment, where they’ve been living for more than a year now.
Lisa and her partner share a box room with a double bed and no room for a wardrobe. Her three children share the other bedroom. Her eldest girl, who is 13, now sleeps on a mattress by the window because there’s not room for a third bed.
Lisa’s just had another baby, a little girl. There are now six of them in a cramped two-bed apartment.
She’s been looking for houses to rent for the last six months, searching desperately, but coming up with nothing. She’s even looked at houses in Meath.
One landlord agreed to let the family a house, but then Lisa got a text three days later from the landlord saying, sorry, but she’d rented it to someone else.
Because of their overcrowded situation, Lisa falls in band two, but there are more than a hundred people ahead of her on the housing list. When does she think she’ll be housed? “They told me nowhere anytime soon.”
According to a study conducted by the Housing Agency last year, 80,000 residential units would be required between 2014 and 2018 – 16,000 a year – to meet demand. Almost half of these, it claimed, are required in Dublin and the surrounding areas.
This would only meet the minimum requirement. The “Review of Irish Social and Affordable Housing Provision” by the National Economic and Social Office in 2014 claimed there were nearly 50,000 people on rent supplement who were not on the housing waiting list. “Their need may be short-term, but they are a group who can’t afford to pay for accommodation from their own resources,” it found.
And with rents rising 20 per cent in the last two years without a rise in the cap of rent supplement, it is likely that a substantial number of this group will have to join the list.
The Housing Assistant Payment (HAP), piloted by Limerick County Council and then rolled out to selected housing authorities in 2014, will eventually replace the existing long-term Rent Supplement. It is for people who have a long-term social housing needs and are on the waiting list.
Although HAP is administered by local authorities, recipients will not be council tenants. They will have to find their own private rented accommodation. Then their rent will be paid by the council directly to the landlord, and they will have to pay a weekly differential rent to the council, based their household’s weekly income.
According to the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government, HAP was set up to allow all social housing supports to be assessed through one body.
Unlike rent supplement, which is generally not payable to people in full-time employment, HAP will allow people to work full-time. The income they earn will determine the amount they pay in differential rent.
Our woman on the list, the one from the beginning who didn’t want to give even her first name, dreads the HAP scheme. “The HAP is leaving you in rented accommodation for the rest of your life,” she says.
“They want everyone on the list to go on HAP,” she says. “They started with the homeless people, but next it’s the waiting list.”
Under the scheme, the tenant enters into an agreement with the landlord, which is subject to the same regulations as the private-rented sector under the Residential Tenancy Act 2004. “If the landlord decides to sell up in the first year, I’ll be out and will have to move somewhere else,” she says.
She’s had to move before, and her daughter had to change schools because of it. She worries that once on the HAP scheme comes in, she’ll be moving around for the rest of her life, never settling.
She’ll be trying to avoid HAP long enough to get her house. But that could be another six years away.
Since homelessness has top-priority status on the waiting list, would she be tempted to walk out of her accommodation and make herself homeless, get put up in a hotel, and get moved up the social housing list?
“You do be tempted,” she says, but ultimately she feels it’s too much of a risk. She might not get a hotel – it could be a hostel, and then she’d have to find somewhere for her little girl to stay.
The fact that it has crossed her mind shows how desperately she wants a home of her own.
That the most vulnerable and disadvantaged are housed quickest makes sense, but with so few houses coming available, economically it doesn’t.
According to the National Economic and Social Office’s review, the yield from local-authority rent has been too low to cover construction and maintenance costs. The total local-authority rental income in 2012 was €329 million, an average of €3,133 per dwelling.
One of the reasons for the low return, the review claimed, was residualisation. This is the concentration of more lower-income and disadvantaged tenants in social housing. These tenants will be paying the minimum amount of differential rent.
The proportion who could pay more or are at the higher end of the limit is declining. If there was adequate supply, this would not be the case.
Our woman on the list doesn’t work at the moment because, with the way the rent supplement works, she thinks she’d be down money if she did. If she was living in a Dublin City Council social house, she could work a full-time job because her rent would be set proportionally to what she earned.
“That’s what people want,” she says. “They want homes. They want to be able to work. Nobody wants to be stuck on the social welfare, not being able to make ends meet from one week to the next.
“I’d love a house where I could get a full-time job and not have to worry, just have a settled home where me child can set down roots, and have a neighbour that she can always live beside, like we had when we grew up. I knew all me neighbours on the road and if there was anything wrong you know who you can contact. You can’t anymore because you’re not in the house long enough to set down those roots.”
[Editor’s note: In line with our corrections policy, this article was updated on 19 June at 12.04pm with two clearly marked corrections. We apologise for the errors.]