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In 2011, Lasma Rasimes collapsed at work in Eurospar. She woke up in hospital. Doctors said that she had a slipped disc in her back, she says.
She had to give up work and go on invalidity pension. “I loved that job,” she said, on Thursday.
That was years ago but she was never well enough to return to work. Because she’s dependent on social welfare, Rasimes has a low enough income to qualify for social housing.
She’s on the lengthy Dublin City Council list for a home but, in the meantime, she relies on the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP), a subsidy for renters which the government says is “a form of social housing support”.
But those in real social housing pay what’s known as a differential rent to the council, which is €25.65 weekly for a person on a basic social welfare payment.
Rasimes, meanwhile, shells out most of her social welfare of €220 per week on rent, leaving her with around €40 a week to live on.
She eats her dinner in the Capuchin Day Centre, a charity that provides free meals in Smithfield every day, she says. “That is life.”
Next month, Rasimes faces another rent increase. It would leave her with nothing once she’s paid her electricity bill, she says.
In her 50s, she is desperate to avoid homelessness. “I am just happy I have a roof over my head,” she says. “I don’t want to go into a homeless shelter.”
It’s not just the bill to the state – reaching an estimated €479.73 million for 2020 – that has grown in recent times, as those awaiting slow-to-come social housing are propped up in private tenancies with HAP payments.
The cost for those reliant on HAP has also gone up in many cases, pushing tenants into debt and poverty as they struggle to cover “top-ups” to landlords and scrape together deposits.
Tenants are also responsible for the annual four percent rent increases, including those who are on basic social welfare payments.
“Unsanctioned and unaffordable ‘top-ups’ leave families and individuals with limited financial resources for food, clothing and utilities forced to make stark choices between paying rent and putting food on the table,” says a spokesperson for Threshold.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing didn’t respond in time for publication to queries about the scheme sent on 4 November.
A Growing Cost
Rasimes used to live in a €500-a-month studio on North Circular Road, until she was served a notice to quit in 2017.
Her deadline to move came and went. She couldn’t find anywhere close to her price range, she says.
Because she was low income and at risk of homelessness, the council granted her the higher rate of HAP, known as Homeless HAP. That meant €990 towards rent.
But still, she says, the cheapest place she was offered was a one-bed in Dublin 8 for €1,550.
Terrified of becoming homeless Rasimes decided to take the hit. She put most of her social welfare payment towards the rent.
She didn’t realise there would also be annual rent increases, she says.
Since then, her monthly rent has climbed to €1,637.50. “Of course it keeps going up,” she says. She told the council, she says. But her subsidy hasn’t gone up.
Now she pays €22 rent to the council weekly and a “top-up” of €637.50 monthly to her landlord. Most months she has €154.50 left over, with bills still to pay from that.
Recently she got a letter from the estate agent telling her her rent will rise again on 1 December, going up to €1,692 per month.
On 17 September, with the help of a friend, she wrote a letter to Dublin City Council, explaining that almost all of her social welfare payment will soon be going on rent.
She sent a photo of the handwritten letter by email and attached proof of her income and documents from the estate agent showing the rent increase.
The HAP section of Dublin City Council wrote back and said she should write to the Homeless HAP section.
She found a studio flat that was cheaper, she says, but it was €1,300.
She wanted to move but when she phoned Dublin City Council she was told that if she moves apartments, she will lose her Homeless HAP subsidy and get a lower rate, she says. So she would still have a massive top up to pay.
“I don’t know what to do at the moment I try not to think about that, Christmas is very soon,” she says.
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said that if the tenant is already getting the maximum subsidy, which Rasimes is, they have to pay the rent increases.
“The maximum rent limit for a single person in Dublin is €660pm. This would increase to €792pm for mainstream HAP and €990pm for Homeless HAP when full discretion is applied,” says the spokesperson.
“Local authorities are not permitted to exceed these limits under any circumstances.”
It is recommended that a household only pays 35 percent of their income towards the rent and the council does an “affordability assessment” if the top up is more than that, says the spokesperson.
Struggling to Pay
A spokesperson for Threshold, the housing advice charity, says it is getting more and more calls about HAP.
“HAP has increased in size and pace since 2014, when it was first piloted. But, the HAP limits have remained stagnant since 2016 and therefore do not reflect current market rents,” says the Threshold spokesperson.
The top-up shouldn’t be more than 30 percent of household’s net income, they said.
A Threshold survey of HAP recipients last year found that 48 percent were paying top-ups ranging from €20 to €575 per month, directly to their landlord.
“More worryingly, of those who were happy to disclose the amounts they pay, 20% were paying more than 30% of their net income on rent and a further 10% were paying more than 40% of their net income,” says the Threshold spokesperson.
Darren Darley set up a GoFundMe page to finance his rent top-ups, he says.
Darley says he has been in emergency accommodation for 18 months. He became homeless after a violent attack on the street left him with a brain injury and he couldn’t work, he says.
He was only recently approved for the Homeless HAP scheme. “The paperwork and process involved is a nightmare,” says Darley.
Still, he needs to add to the €990 he would get from the state.
One studio he saw recently was a converted box room with a microwave and a shared bathroom, he says. The rent was €1,250.
He wants somewhere where his daughter can stay too, he says. “Some of the places were absolute kips, I need to get something decent.”
Scraping Together a Deposit
On a busy Facebook group for tenants and landlords on the HAP scheme with 11,000 members, some say they’ve lost out on homes because they couldn’t come up with deposits.
It’s down to tenants to pay the deposits on HAP properties, say guidelines for the scheme.
In 2018, Victoria Macaria and her partner were sleeping in the living room in his mother’s house when she became pregnant with their first baby.
Macaria was working in a call centre. Her partner was a student at the time.
They joined the Fingal County Council social housing list, she says, but are way down at 1,250 in the queue.
They were granted HAP in the meantime and were lucky to find a place for €1,500 a month, she says.
She and her partner had to borrow money for their deposit on a three-bed rental home from parents, she says.
“We were lucky we were able to borrow from family,” she says. “Not everyone can do that.”
In the end, Intreo refunded the deposit money they had borrowed from family members. (Others report that this was not refunded to them.)
“Under HAP, local authorities do not pay deposits or rent in advance,” says the council spokesperson. “In some cases, tenants who qualify for HAP may also be eligible to apply for assistance from the Department of Social Protection.”
Macaria and her partner didn’t just have to borrow money for the deposit. They also had to rack up some debt to cover the first few months of rent.
The deal was that HAP would cover a good chunk of the rent of €1,500 a month, she says. They pay €65 per week to the council and a top-up of €250 per month to the landlord.
But getting on to the HAP scheme was far from straightforward with piles of forms to fill in and proof to gather. “It was horrible,” she says.
They did the paperwork but didn’t realise there was a delay in the payment being processed until after they moved into the house.
Macaria earns around €2,000 per month so they used her wages to pay the rent and bills for the next three months. Groceries, nappies, and toiletries all went on the credit card.
She says she was told by staff in Fingal Council Council that the rent subsidy would be backdated, and she’d get that back, once the HAP application was processed.
But that was wrong, she says, and the money was never back paid.
A year on, Macaria and her partner still owe around €3,000 on the credit card, she says.
She expects a Christmas bonus from work soon. “Even though we have two kids now, instead of buying presents we are putting it all to the credit card,” she says.
Macaria wants to see written terms and conditions for the HAP scheme, detailing in what circumstances the subsidy is back paid, she says.
“A 12-week delay is not unheard of or unusual, but delays are dependent on the relevant local authority,” says the spokesperson for Threshold.
HAP is paid from the date that all the correct documentation and paperwork is submitted, in full, says the spokesperson for Dublin City Council.
After that, the council processes the application in 10 to 15 working days they say.
Macaria says they are still staying positive. “Thank god we have a house for [the children] because the house is really nice.”