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Three months back, hopeful tenants were interviewed to see if they would score a place in Harold’s Court on Parnell Road near the Grand Canal.
But they’re yet to move in, says Sinn Féin’s Críona Ní Dhálaigh. She sought answers from Túath Housing, the approved housing body (AHB) that bought the block of homes in April, she said at the full council meeting at the start of November.
But phone calls and queries went unanswered. She was unable to tell her constituent, a woman with young children, what her options might be, and what steps she might consider next, she says.
Ní Dhálaigh says the woman she spoke to had no news or guarantee of when the home would be ready for her. “She took another offer,” she says.
Hundreds of approved housing bodies manage tens of thousands of homes across Ireland, many in Dublin, and government housing policy has been to back that growth.
But while many Dublin city councillors say they admire their work, they are also complain that they have fewer powers of oversight, and can be of less help to social housing tenants who are housed by approved housing bodies, rather than directly by the council.
A Larger Role
If her query had been to the council about social housing, it would have been different, says Ní Dhálaigh. “I would have made a phone call on the Monday and would have by Wednesday at the latest an update.”
Túath say they cannot give out information about tenants to third parties without explicit permission from tenants because of data protection rules.
“Unless a tenant wanted councillors to advocate for them, that’s fine,” says Fiona Egan, policy and projects advisor at Túath Housing. But it has to be in writing from the tenant, she says.
Ní Dhálaigh says she hasn’t heard back from Túath. The council and approved housing bodies need to come up with protocols to make sure they talk to councillors, she says.
Approved Housing Bodies are not-for-profit housing charities that provide, build, lease and manage housing. They come in different sizes. Some are small and niche; they manage fewer homes and offer specialised support.
Others provide a much larger number of homes. Túath has more than 4,000 social homes, its figures show. Currently in Ireland, there are 548 approved housing bodies, managing about 30,000 units between them.
AHBs fall into different categories depending on how big they are. Túath is in “Tier 3”. Tier 3 AHBs are those with over 300 homes, receives loans from the Housing Finance Agency, private finance or other sources and has plans to increase their stock, according to the Housing Agency.
In Rebuilding Ireland, the central government’s plan for housing and homelessness, AHBs play a big role.
In the Daíl, the former Minister for Housing, Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney said the government estimated that under the Rebuilding Ireland plan, AHBs would build approximately 4,700 units and acquire “or directly lease over 20,700 units” by 2021.
Michael O’Brien, a Solidarity councillor, says that while AHBs scale up and account for a bigger chunk of social housing, oversight of them has not.
Comptroller and Auditor General Séamus MacCarthy has raised concerns about oversight of AHBs too, given that are funded almost exclusively by the state, are only compelled to sign up to a voluntary regulatory code, and can operate according to their own “constitutional arrangements” which can differ per body.
Proper oversight should be in place, rather than the voluntary code currently in place, he says, in an annual report. Especially since much funding comes from the exchequer.
Túath bought the block of 23 vacant apartments at Harold’s Court for €8.75 million with funding through the government’s Capital Advance Leasing Facility (CALF).
CALF is just for AHBs, giving them finance which they can use to borrow more, either private finance or through the Housing Finance Agency (HFA) and use that money to build, buy, or do up social housing.
“They [AHBs] are becoming more in vogue because of the fiscal rules which limits the finance that the councils can raise,” says Solidarity’s O’Brien.
Changes to how spending by AHBs is counted in government accounts may change that. But Túath’s Egan says “to date this has not affected our delivery as access to funding is still available and this year we are on target to deliver over 800 new homes nationally.”
Last year, between acquisitions and building, AHBs built or bought 330 homes for social housing in Dublin City Council’s catchment area, according to Department of Housing figures.
As the voluntary housing sector expands, Workers’ Party Councillor Éilis Ryan forsees a couple of problems.
“The thing is that’s fine at the moment as the organisations are quite good,” says Ryan. But councillors don’t “have any control over how they manage things”.
At the moment, the Department of Housing can “tend to be able to say, ‘You have to allocate people according to this, or you have to charge rent according to this rule, that you can’t sell,’” she says.
However, she says in the UK, housing associations became more corporate once they started borrowing on the open market.
That gives AHBs more flexibility to follow their own policies. “Some might do that really well, others might not. We don’t have any control over it democratically and it makes the whole process undemocratic,” Ryan said.
Housing associations in the UK have also been selling off stock in well-off areas to fund social housing in other neighbourhoods, the Guardian has reported.
Many of the 548 approved housing bodies around Ireland at the moment are inactive and should be struck off the register, the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report for 2017 says.
There are so many bodies that consistency is an issue, too. Some are more responsive that others to queries, councillors say.
“I do think it very much depends on the local person in charge,” says Labour Councillor Alison Gilliland.
She struggles with some, she says. “I think one of the big issues is communication between the local manager and the tenants.”
Tenants may say that a manager hasn’t given them a timeline for when they will carry out a maintenance request, she says. “It’s very much dependent on the initiative, the experience and the interpersonal relationships between the local manager and her local tenants.”
In 2013, a new voluntary regulation code was drawn up which AHBs could sign up.
A Housing (Regulation for Approved Housing) Bill was drawn up in 2015, too, which was deemed “priority legislation” for the Oireachtas’ autumn 2018 session.
The new bill would create an independent regulator for AHBs as well as providing a regulatory framework.
“It’s about time,” says independent Councillor Mannix Flynn. The state pays piles of money to these bodies.
“We’ve no proper oversight and no proper reporting mechanism and we don’t have a standard statutory oversight,” says Flynn. “It’s ridiculous.” (Tenancies do fall under the remit of the Residential Tenancies Board.)
Flynn said he would like to see tenants of AHBs trained “to become members of the board” in order that they can oversee themselves the management of their own homes.
Ní Dhálaigh says she admires the work done by AHBs. But she agrees with Flynn that the council should have a greater role in how they work. “I would like to sit down and work out some protocols,” she says.