Programme Prevents Homelessness, But Too Few Know About It

Yesterday afternoon, Minister Alan Kelly launched homeless charity Threshold’s first annual report of its Tenancy Protection Service in Dublin.

For the most part, Threshold’s service helps tenants get a discretionary increase in rent supplement so they can afford rent hikes and stay out of emergency accommodation.

“Without this vital service, the number of homeless families in Dublin would be significantly higher and the homelessness crisis would be almost unmanageable,” said Fionnughla McLoughlin, the manager of the service.

Thousands have been saved from homelessness, Threshold said. But the success of the service also raises a question: if tenants at risk of homelessness because of inadequate rent supplement can get a top-up to their rent supplement, why are many still being priced out?

Keeping People in Their Homes

In its first year, Threshold says it has prevented nearly 3,000 people from becoming homeless and increased 744 rent supplements to do so.

The charity says it has a 99 percent success rate; in cases where it hasn’t managed to convince the government to increase somebody’s rent supplement, it has rehoused people and negotiated with landlords.

“It is a very cost-effective way of preventing homelessness,” said the charity’s chairperson, Senator Aideen Hayden, who was also in attendance. “The figures speak for themselves.”

Saving these 744 tenancies through increased rent supplement cost Dublin’s four local authorities just €0.76 million for the year. This comes in at less than half the price of housing 361 families in emergency hotel accommodation for a month, which cost €1.58 million in July.

Threshold considers the scheme such a success that today it called on the government for permission to expand the service beyond Dublin and Cork, particularly to Dublin’s commuter towns and Galway.

Kelly said that was a good idea. “We need to extend it. It’s working very well,” he said. “At a government level, there is no silver bullet regarding solving this crisis . . . We need to create more preventive measures.”

Who’s Getting an Increase?

Some tenants apply for a rent-supplement increase with the help of Threshold, others go straight to the Department of Social Protection.

At the start of this month, 1,075 increased rent supplements were awarded to people helped by Threshold. An additional 1,309 were helped directly by Department of Social Protection, according to department figures.

Altogether, 9.6 percent of Dublin’s rent-supplement recipients have received top-ups.

The rent-supplement scheme is supporting around 65,000 people nationwide this year at a cost of €298 million. Roughly an extra €7 million will be spent topping up these supplements for 3,500 households around the country.

The Department of Social Protection didn’t give details on what factors go into the decision on whether a tenant gets a top-up. It is up to staff at local social welfare offices.

“Each tenant’s circumstances are considered on a case-by-case basis, and rents are being increased above prescribed limits as appropriate,” said Fiona Breen, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Protection.

Countrywide, it is mostly Dubliners who are granted the advantage of these top-ups to keep roofs over their heads. In Cork, only 1.7 percent of rent-supplement recipients are receiving increased payments – that was only 126 tenants. In Galway, it was only 1.6 percent, or 53 tenants.

The increase in homelessness has been particularly acute in Dublin due to fast-rising private-sector rents. The latest quarterly rent index from the Private Residential Tenancies Board also showed a two-tier rental market emerging between Dublin and the rest of the country.

That’s probably why Dublin accounts for a higher percentage of discretionary rent-supplement increases than elsewhere.

Rents in Dublin have risen 9.6 percent since last year, representing an average rent increase of €110 per month for houses and €118 for apartments. Outside of Dublin, annual growth in rent was significantly less, at just 5.3 percent.

Sparse Pickings

Since 2011, rents in Dublin have increased 34.5 percent according to Daft.ie’s Rental Report.

But despite this price hike and calls from homeless charities, the government has said it will keep rent-supplement limits at 2013 levels. Part of the reason for this may be a fear of knock-on inflation.

Rent-supplement limits for Dublin are already higher than for other areas. But they won’t get you very far.

They start at €350 for a single person in shared accommodation and go up to €1,000 for a family with three children. There is very little available in the city within these price brackets.

On Monday, we looked through the 1,457 properties to rent in Dublin on Daft.ie to see how many of these would be available to Dubliners relying on the rent supplement.

We excluded accommodations specifically for students – there were four – as well as the six adverts that blatantly stated “RENT ALLOWANCE IS NOT ACCEPTED”.

We included bedsits with just a single bed which couples could afford. But we excluded properties that only couples on rent supplement could afford, which said “no couples”.

For families with two children or more, we looked at homes with more than one bedroom.

After all this, we found only 28 homes suitable for rent-supplement recipients in the city.

Nothing was available for singles or couples looking for shared accommodation, with €350 and €400, respectively, to spend each month.

Slipping Through the Net?

Threshold’s figures from yesterday suggest that without discretionary increases for Dublin tenants, the homelessness epidemic would be as much as three times worse than it is now.

Yet the number of homeless people in Dublin has more than doubled since August of last year and homeless charities have said that many have lost their homes because landlords increased their rents above the supplement’s limits.

But how are people still becoming homeless because of inadequate rent supplement, when rent supplement can be increased?

Much of the Threshold Tenancy Protection Service’s role is to promote and streamline a service that has always been available.

But even now, people are unaware of the service and are not contacting Threshold, said McLoughlin, the manager of the tenancy service. This means people are still losing their homes because of insufficient rent supplement, she said.

Mike Allen of Focus Ireland, who works with people who have already become homeless, agrees that lack of awareness is the biggest problem.

“Our sense is that the Threshold service is helping significant proportions, but many people are still slipping through the net, they don’t hear about it until it’s too late . . . or not at all,” he said.

The increases in rent supplement that the Department of Social Protection is giving out – often 20 to 30 percent – show how out of sync the supplement is with market prices, he said. He called on the government, once again, to increase the rent supplement for everyone.

Breen, of the Department of Social Protection, said that people in receipt of rent supplement who are at risk of losing their tenancy due to rising rents should contact their nearest social welfare office or Threshold as soon as possible.

Author:

Louisa McGrath: Louisa McGrath is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at lmcgrath@dubinq.com.

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