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There are now more than 11,200 households supported by the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) in the city, says a Dublin City Council spokesperson.
That’s still less than half the number of households living in permanent social housing, which stands at close to 25,300.
But the number of those reliant on the subsidy has boomed in the five years since it began to be rolled out at scale.
HAP is designed to mirror social housing.
The income limits to qualify are the same. And just like tenants in council-owned social homes, tenants on HAP pay a differential rent to the council, meaning they hand over the same percentage of their income, and as their income increases so does their rent.
Once tenants move into a tenancy supported by HAP, they are considered to have had their housing need met, and so are moved off from the faster-moving social housing list onto a slower-moving transfer list.
Yet HAP tenants are not always treated the same as tenants in council-0wned social homes.
In particular, many of those on the scheme say there is no clear source of information on when councils may reassess their incomes and decide they are now making too much to be eligible – and cut them off from the payment, or drop them from the social-housing transfer list.
The Department of Housing spokesperson didn’t directly respond to queries about why the rules aren’t clearly published online for tenants and whether tenants have a right to access information more easily.
“Further information for tenants and landlords is available on individual local authority websites and at http://hap.ie/,” they said.
But the terms and conditions of HAP on the dedicated website don’t address these issues.
Scrambling Between Tenancies
HAP tenants are considered social housing tenants under the law, so they should not face income eligibility reassessments while in a tenancy, says Sinn Féin TD and housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin.
Problems can arise if they lose that tenancy and their income has increased above the eligibility threshold, though, he says.
If they can’t find a new home, then face homelessness, are no longer entitled to Homeless HAP and they lose their position on the social-housing waiting list, Ó Broin says. “It is very unfair.”
“In a standard case where the applicant is on HAP, when they move from HAP to a council tenancy they should not be reassessed,” says Ó Broin. Likewise, a tenant can transfer to another HAP home without facing an income reassessment.
But if the tenant is unable to find another home in time and they become homeless, then they will no longer be a HAP tenant, says Ó Broin. After that they can be reassessed for income eligibility and potentially removed from the social housing list.
This happened in one high-profile case last year, he says, which he and People Before Profit/Solidarity TD Richard Boyd Barrett raised in the Dáil.
“If you are knocked off the housing list, as many are because you exceed the income threshold, you are not entitled to HAP either,” said Boyd Barett in November 2021.
Ó Broin says he knows of a care worker who was homeless with her child.
She picked up extra shifts during Covid-19 and then found herself over the income threshold for social housing, he says, so she was then no longer entitled to Homeless HAP and was effectively stuck in emergency accommodation.
“If you are on a very modest income, which this woman is, you have no way of exiting homeless services,” he says.
As the housing crisis deepens, a wider range of people are at risk of homelessness, says Ó Broin, and more will find themselves trapped outside the social housing income thresholds but still unable to afford to rent privately.
Spokespersons for both Dublin City Council and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council said that after a HAP tenant becomes homeless they can remain eligible for HAP for six months, without being reassessed.
“If an alternative tenancy is not secured within a 6-month period, a reassessment of income may take place,” says the spokesperson for Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.
That six months grace period might not apply in every local authority area, as the Department of Housing says it is up to councils how they manage their transfer lists.
Ann-Marie O’Reilly, policy officer with Threshold, a housing advice charity, says the rules should be changed so that if a tenant loses their current HAP tenancy and can’t find a replacement in time they should keep their place on the social housing waiting list.
“Your social housing eligibility shouldn’t end in that instance,” she says.
HAP tenants shouldn’t be punished because the landlord is selling up, she says, or because the HAP scheme has failed to fulfil the promise to be a form of social housing.
“You have an entitlement to social housing unless you break the rules,” she says. “Your peer in their local authority house living there for 50 years never has their income assessed.”
Clinging to the List
On a Facebook group with 48,000 members, HAP tenants and landlords from different parts of Ireland recently expressed different views about how the HAP scheme works.
Some said HAP tenants could never be reassessed. Others said that they could in limited circumstances such as when they lose their home and look for another home. Others still said it had happened to people they knew who had lost their home and gone into emergency accommodation.
“From my experience, you need to remain under the income limits for both Social housing and Hap,” said one HAP tenant from Wicklow, who forwarded an email from Wicklow County Council, which she read as confirming that.
“If you receive NTQ [Notice to Quit] and have left the HAP scheme and your income has increased your income may be assessed in regards to social housing supports,” it says.
“If the income is over the threshold for your family income you will not be eligible for future social housing supports,” says the email.
The tenant took that to mean that if she lost her current private rental property and her income had increased, she would no longer be eligible for HAP or social housing.
She turned down an offer of a better-paid job, based on that understanding because as a lone parent she couldn’t risk losing social housing support and being worse off, she said.
What the council meant though, was that if she lost her current tenancy and couldn’t find another one in time, she could then face reassessment for income eligibility.
At the end of last month, Mark Cunningham, a HAP tenant in the Dublin City Council area, said he feared that his family would be removed from the social housing list if their income went over the social housing eligibility threshold.
He had asked his 18-year-old daughter to move out when she started working, he said.
Both Dublin City Council and the Department of Housing have stressed that in cases like Cunningham’s, the council wouldn’t reassess his income and that his fear is totally unfounded.
“Such households are not subject to a re-assessment of eligibility,” said the Department of Housing spokesperson.
“No we don’t, is the complete answer,” said Mary Hayes, director of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, at a meeting of the council’s housing committee on 12 October.
A family on the HAP scheme won’t be removed from the social housing list even if they go over the income threshold, said Hayes at the housing committee meeting, last week. “There is a lot of misinformation.”
O’Reilly, of Threshold, says that councils can reassess income for the purposes of setting rent but tenants should not be reassessed to determine if the household is still eligible for social housing. “The intention behind HAP is that it is a form of social housing.”
The only exception to that principle that she is aware of is that the legislation does allow for a HAP payment to be reduced, if family size does, she says.
That’s the rule that affected another HAP tenant, April Mooney, in June 2022.
She was shocked when Dublin City Council told her she would have to leave her home after her father passed away because she was no longer entitled to the family HAP rate, she said at the time.
Mooney says she knew she could be evicted by a private landlord while claiming HAP, but she didn’t expect to be effectively evicted by the council. “It doesn’t matter who you are, you are not safe,” she said. “There is no security with HAP.”
Uncertainty and Fear
Cunningham says lots of HAP tenants are confused by the system. “They are not making it clear,” he says. “It is very dangerous.
He always thought that his income could be reassessed and he has turned down chances to up his salary as a result, he says. “I’m even frightened to do overtime,” he said last week.
Ó Broin, the Sinn Féin TD, said: “The system is super complex and nowhere are the rules written down in a single place for people to understand them.”
The problem, says Ó Broin, is “how absolutely impossible it is for tenants to be able to navigate the intricate complexity of a labyrinth-like system, particularly when there are anomalies”.
There is also a question around whether different councils are doing income assessments in different circumstances, leading to even more uncertainty for tenants about what the process is supposed to be.
O’Reilly, of Threshold, has heard of cases where HAP tenants were reassessed for income eligibility by councils when allocating permanent homes, she says. “There is nothing in the legislation that allows for that. But the practice varies.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing pointed to the legislation, which says: “A housing authority shall not be required to carry out a social housing assessment in respect of a household in receipt of social housing support that is seeking to transfer to, or to avail of, another form of social housing support.”
“Households in a HAP tenancy are not reassessed for social housing income eligibility,” they said.
They also said that the management of the transfer lists – which are council waiting lists that allow tenants to move within social housing, including from a HAP property to a real social home or between HAP properties – was a matter for each local authority.