Mark Cunningham says he hated having to tell his 18-year-old daughter to move out of their home.
She wasn’t throwing parties or doing anything wrong, he says. She just wanted to get a job. “Ah, it’s horrible, it’s horrible,” he says. “We have had massive, full-blown arguments.”
The family was homeless around six years ago and now rents a house with help from the Housing Assistance Payment. They have been on the social housing list for six years.
But Cunningham says that if his oldest daughter starts to work her income could mean they would make too much to be eligible for social housing, and he worries they could miss a chance at a permanent home.
“It’s got to the stage, she knows now,” says Cunningham, dressed in his black work combats and boots, as he shifts in his chair. She will leave home for the sake of her younger siblings, he says.
A Dublin City Council spokesperson says that is not how the HAP scheme works and that they don’t reassess incomes and remove families from the list.
A Department of Housing spokesperson also said: “Such households are not subject to a re-assessment of eligibility, there will however, be adjustments in their differential rent if their income changes.”
One issue is a belief among some HAP tenants that they will have to go through a reassessment.
Another part of the problem is that the social housing income limits haven’t been raised in years, says Social Democrats Councillor Mary Callaghan.
They were last set in 2011, says a recent Department of Housing review of the income eligibility limits, and since then average rents in Dublin have gone up 89 percent.
Callaghan says the divergence in eligible incomes and affordable rents has pushed loads of people into a no man’s land.
They earn more than the threshold for social housing but still not nearly enough to afford to rent privately in Dublin so they either can’t find a home, or have little left over to live on after paying their rent.
A single person in Dublin earning at the social-housing income threshold would need to spend 60 percent of their income to rent privately, says the Department of Housing review, which was published on Monday.
The review says that there is at the moment no relationship between how much people can earn and be eligible for social housing, and how much it costs to rent in the private-rental sector, and no logic for the band thresholds currently in place around the country.
Mostly though, it recommends more research as to what to do about it.
According to a Department of Housing statement, that extra research will be done by the Housing Agency by the end of 2022, which will develop options for a new eligibility model.
Starting to Twig
There have been a few blazing rows in the house in the last few weeks, says Cunningham.
His daughter didn’t get her first-choice college place and she decided she would reapply next year instead of accepting her second choice, he says.
He didn’t agree with that decision, he says, but he had to accept it. “I can’t force my child to do something she doesn’t want to do.”
But then she decided that she was going to get a job. “It started twigging on to me,” says Cunningham. He works in construction supplies and earns around €26,000 a year, while his partner gets a small amount of social welfare, he says.
The income cap for a large family with three adults, beyond which they would not be eligible for social housing, is €42,000 in Dublin City.
Even if his daughter earned around €20,000 a year, the family would be over the income threshold, he says.
The rules of the HAP scheme can cause confusion, especially since HAP tenants are treated like council tenants in some respects but not in others.
According to Citizens Information, households on the social housing list are reassessed before being allocated a permanent social home, to make sure they are still eligible.
But a council spokesperson said that: “HAP tenants are placed on the Transfer List and are not subject to an income re-assessment for eligibility purposes.”
The council doesn’t remove HAP tenants from the housing list if their family income increases, they said. (Just as council tenants don’t lose their permanent homes if their income goes up.)
But Cunningham says that as he understands it, if the family was to be offered a home while his daughter was working or shortly afterwards, they would be reassessed according to the previous year’s income. They wouldn’t get the house, he says.
Who Should Qualify?
Cunningham says he doesn’t know what the income threshold should be for social housing, or even how much income a family would need to pay full rent in Dublin these days.
“You can’t put a figure on it now because it is still going up,” he says.
At the moment, who qualifies for social housing depends on where in the country they live. Different councils fall into bands with different thresholds.
The Department of Housing’s review of income eligibility in social housing – which was guided, it says, “by the principle of reserving housing assistance for those unable to provide for accommodation from within their own resources” – says those bands, set years ago, are now illogical.
Rents have grown at different paces in different places, and there are only seven councils in Ireland where a single adult earning at the relevant income threshold would be able to find average accommodation at less than 35 percent of their income.
In 17 local authorities, they would have to pay over 40 percent of their income on average accommodation, including over 60 percent in the four Dublin local authority areas, it says.
“Those earning just one euro above these incomes are not eligible for social housing support,” says the report.
But while Dubliners are the most squeezed, the report recommended immediate changes in the eligibility threshold for five rural counties, and said that more detailed research is needed for others.
For the five rural counties, the report says that lifting the threshold may be expected to increase the social housing waiting list.
But “as there is no parallel increase in the provision of social houses in these [local authorities], there will be no increase in exchequer expenditure in terms of direct housing provision”.
Spending on HAP may go up, it says, given those households would now qualify for that but that’ll likely be toward the lower end of cost increases. As “it will likely not be possible for all those seeking HAP accommodation to source it”, the report says.
It recommends, when it comes to Dublin and the other councils, that detailed research is done looking at getting rid of the bands.
“And introducing a system such that there is a closer relationship between the cost of sourcing accommodation and the income eligibility thresholds,” it says. In other words, tying eligibility to the affordability of local rents.
Potential problems include how to then ration the finite stock of social housing, administrative burdens, and the cost implications of the move, it says.
The report honed in on one-person households, who account for just over half of all households qualifying for social housing but without their housing needs met, and make up a disproportionate number of those who are homeless.
HAP limits may need to increase for single-adult households, the report says, to expand the universe of possible units available. (The report doesn’t mention any concerns about the possibly inflationary impacts from HAP.)
“Possible means of encouraging the construction of one-bed units should also be considered,” the report says. It isn’t clear if it is talking about one-bed social homes, or private rentals.
In late 2020, Dublin City Councillors said they wanted to expand access to public housingto all who wanted it, but as a transitionary phase they would like to make it available to households on incomes of up to €50,000 for a single person and €75,000 for a couple.
The main problem is that the council doesn’t have the homes. Dublin City Council had 29,523 households on its social housing waiting lists in January this year.
The council has consistently failed to meet its building targets by large margins and as of mid-2022, it had built just 7 percent of the homes it had said it would.
A Precarious Social Home
Cunningham’s family includes three younger children aged 6, 10 and 15, he says. The family was homeless for a few months around six years ago, he says.
That experience made him nervous and he finds it stressful to hear news of landlords selling up, he says. “I live day-to-day wondering if I’m going to be thrown out. I’ve done well – six years in one house.”
He is grateful to have a house through the HAP scheme, he says. But he is six years on the housing list and he hopes to get a permanent home eventually.
On Monday, Cunningham wrote to Dublin City Council to say that his 18-year-old daughter was moving out. She will move in with relatives in Ballymun, he says, and then commute from Ballymun to Ballymount for work.
In the end, his daughter made the decision herself, so she wouldn’t affect the family’s chances of getting a permanent home. “She is actually moving out because she wouldn’t do that to her younger siblings,” he says.
His daughter is lucky in that she can move in with relatives, but she shouldn’t have to. “It’s not right, it’s absolutely wrong, she shouldn’t be treated like that,” he says.
He also worries, he says, that he could face the same problem again in three years’ time, when his son turns 18.
[UPDATE: This article was updated at 2.38pm to include a response from the Department of Housing as to what the rules are supposed to be around reassessments for social housing for household receiving the Housing Assistance Payment, and to delete a reference to the a different rule around HAP reassessments from a government audit report.]