A diktat that half of available social housing must go to homeless people has ended, in part because of a belief that people were making themselves homeless on purpose.
But we don’t know how social housing will now be allocated, and what the effect will be on the number of homeless families in emergency accommodation.
Minister for Housing, Planning, and Local Government Simon Coveney has ended the ministerial directive that obliged the four Dublin local authorities to allocate half of their tenancies to homeless and other vulnerable households.
The power to decide who is given social housing has gone back to officials at local authorities.
The Origins of the Diktat
The directive, which was put in place by former minister Alan Kelly after the December 2014 death of Jonathan Corrie, who was sleeping rough near the Dail.
It was originally intended to run for six months from January to July 2015, but was extended again and again, until the end of April this year.
Some homeless charities, like Focus Ireland, saw it as one of the most progressive steps Kelly took to address the homelessness crisis.
This directive extended to homeless households that had been awaiting social housing support since 2014, and vulnerable groups such as applicants with mental or physical disabilities or health issues, as well as people leaving state care or situations of domestic violence.
While talks on forming a new national government rumbled on in April, the directive lapsed and the the new minister, Coveney, decided not to resuscitate it.
In the Oireachtas recently, Coveney said that when the directive was extended in February, the Department for the Environment had asked the Housing Agency to review it.
The review found that the directive did increase the number of allocations to homeless households, but that that was mainly because of the allocation of 2,700 vacant council properties (“voids”) by local authorities since the introduction of the directive, said Coveney. Now, there aren’t many voids left.
Given the shortage of housing too, he decided there wouldn’t be any more significant allocations and so the directive wouldn’t make the same impact it has been making to date.
The Housing Agency’s review also said that the directive meant other households on the social-housing waiting list suffered, and so it shouldn’t be revived.
The chair of Dublin City Council’s Housing Strategic Policy Committee, Sinn Fein councillor Daithí Doolan said he agrees that people on the housing list suffered from this directive.
“The problem is that people who are on the transfer list or people who are on the normal housing list continue to languish on the list with no chance of moving,” he says. “So those people would be living in pretty appalling conditions as well — not dissimilar to B&Bs and hotels.”
The directive was brought in without any consultation, he says, and no matter what percentage of allocations are given to homeless families, it’s not fixing the city’s housing shortage.
“What we’re really doing here is moving the chairs around the Titanic,” he said.
A Nudge into Homelessness?
The Housing Agency wasn’t the only body that gunned for an end to the directive.
In April, Dublin City Council Chief Executive Owen Keegan wrote to then minister Alan Kelly on behalf of the four Dublin local authorities, and asked him not to renew it.
As he saw it, the directive had spawned a troubling side effect.
“It is our view that this requirement is now having the effect of encouraging some households who are in housing need and who are awaiting social housing to enter the ‘homeless’ system in the mistaken belief that this will hasten the allocation to them of a social housing unit,” he said.
“In some cases the accommodation being exited by these households is superior to the emergency accommodation that can be made available,” he said.
Dublin City Council’s Press Office did not respond to a query asking if there was proof that this was happening and neither did the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.
In the letter, Keegan asked for the council to be allowed to return to the system whereby homeless households are prioritised under its own allocations scheme.
(Incidentally, when we requested all correspondence between Keegan and the Department of Environment about housing since last November, under the Freedom of Information Act, this letter is the only thing we got.)
While Keegan may support the new minister’s move, some charities that advocate for the homeless don’t.
Last month, Focus Ireland made a submission to the Oireachtas Committee on Housing and Homelessness. It said that while the 50-percent directive was unsustainable in the long term, at least 30 percent of allocations in Dublin should continue to go to the homeless for the next few years in an attempt to tackle the crisis.
The charity’s research found that in the past less than 10 percent of social-housing allocations were made to homeless households, despite their status as a “priority” group. (Figures varied between local authorities.)
Dublin City Council did not respond to questions about how they plan to allocate social housing now that the directive has been lifted.
In his letter to Kelly, Keegan said that Dublin City Council would continue to report on allocations to the homeless and continually review the matter.
Right now, most councillors are refusing to stand over the housing allocations list, since, for data protection reasons, they can no longer see who is housed.
“The allocations list is a blank now,” says Doolan, the Sinn Fein councillor. “I have to trust the management to make the right decision.”
When the ministerial directive came into place in January 2015, there were 493 adults with 780 dependents living in emergency accommodation, according to figures from the Dublin Region Homeless Executive.
Last month, there were 1,218 adults with 1,847 dependents living in emergency accommodation. Despite half of all the city’s allocations going to the homeless, the figures more than doubled.
With the directive gone, and Coveney’s assertion that there are no more homes for Dublin’s local authorities to allocate, these figures may well increase again.
“As things stood the previous increased proportion of allocations to the homeless still meant an average wait time of a year-plus in emergency accommodation,” said Anti-Austerity Alliance councillor Michael O’Brien. “And that waiting time was set to increase . . . as the amount of people presenting as homeless increased.”
There has to be regard to those who have been waiting on the housing list, some for more than a decade, he said.
But how, O’Brien asks, is the system going to cope as more people present themselves as homeless and it gets tougher and tougher to find them even an emergency hotel room to live in?