“Some people put pillows on their windowsill,” says Gayle Cullen, the chairperson of Oliver Bond Residents Group. “Some people use cello tape.”

As winter draws in, many council tenants in this flat complex, as in others across the city, start to really feel how much heat they lose through their old single-glazed windows. 

Standing outside on the grounds of the large brick housing complex, designed by Herbert Simms and built in 1936, Cullen points up to the white windows. 

They all look similar but some are double-glazed, she says, because before new tenants move in the council refurbishes their homes, bringing them up to standard.

Long-term residents, meanwhile, are stuck with single-glazing, unless they can get credit union loans and replace the windows themselves.

Council staff want to help, says Cullen, who sits on a regeneration forum including representatives from Dublin City Council. “You have people on the ground that are trying to do their best.”

But the council staff have told her that their budget won’t stretch to replacing all the windows in Oliver Bond, she says, which has almost 400 homes. 

Whether they are pleading for new windows or other basic maintenance, social tenants often report being told, year after year, budget after budget, by the council that there just isn’t the money for it.

The government’s strategy, Housing for All, includes a goal that councils pivot to more planned maintenance – but without detail on how that would be sustainably funded. 

Cullen says that, as she sees it, the Department of Housing controls most of the purse strings. So she wants them at the table for the discussions at the regeneration forum, she says. 

“Everything we are talking about has to go back to the department,” she says. “We need to know where we can find this funding to make people’s living conditions decent because it is our human rights.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing says there is central government funding available under its retrofit programme to replace windows and doors if it will bring the housing up to BER rating of B2 or the cost-optimal equivalent. 

Dublin City Council didn’t respond in time for publication to queries about how many homes in the city have single-glazed windows or how many households are waiting on new windows. 

Should the council ringfence rents?

Council tenants frequently complain about serious issues with maintenance and a slow response from the council when they arise. 

“It is definitely an issue we see frequently in our free legal advice clinics,” says Mary Heavey, housing solicitor at Community Law and Mediation. Some people who attend the legal clinics are living in “grossly inadequate standards of social housing”.

Like tenants in Queen Street near Smithfield, who have long protested that the conditions in the complex are dangerous, with major leaks and glitchy electrics among faults. 

Despite an electrical fire in 2019 – the ESB couldn’t say for sure whether it was related to the leaks or not – the complex isn’t scheduled for any regeneration. 

In 2018, UCD academics Aideen Hayden and Michelle Norris authored a report, The Future of Council Housing, examining how social housing is funded. 

One change they recommended was that councils should ringfence rents collected from social tenants and spend that money on social housing maintenance and management, says Hayden. 

“There is a lack of clarity around where the rents that local authority tenants pay go,” she said. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said that it is an objective in its Housing for All strategy that councils ringfence rental income for social housing maintenance.

Labour Councillor Dermot Lacey says he thinks that Dublin City Council does spend the money it collects from rent on housing maintenance. “We largely do,” he says. “Housing income goes into housing expenditure but it is nowhere near enough.”

Social Democrats Councillor Mary Callaghan said the same. “I know that the cost of maintaining our social housing, as far as I know, exceeds the income we get from social housing.”

But that isn’t clear from the figures. Over the past few years, Dublin City Council has upped the amount that it spends to maintain its social housing. 

In 2021, it spent an estimated €73.5 million on maintenance and improvement of social homes, according to the council budget. Last year, it spent an estimated €77.6 million. And this year, it set a budget of €85.7 million. 

But that is still millions shy of what social housing tenants pay to the council in rent each year. In 2021 that was €92.4 million, and in 2022 it was €93.1 million, show budget documents.

Cullen, of the Oliver Bond Residents Group, says she also thinks the council should ringfence the money it collects in rent to use for maintenance. 

She pays €600 a month for a two-bedroom flat, and many long-term residents have been paying rent for decades which adds up to a lot of money, she says. “I can’t see how we are not being looked after.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said that allocating a sufficient budget to housing maintenance is the responsibility of the council.

Councillors are due to agree the council’s budget for 2024 in the middle of November, but most of the money is already tied up and allocated, they say. 

Lacey said that, fundamentally, councillors only have discretion over small pots of money and not a substantial enough amount to transform the maintenance of social housing. “It’s so minor it would be irrelevant.”

There isn’t much room to manoeuvre, he said. “In theory, the councillors set the budget, but they don’t really.”

Green Party Councillor Janet Horner says she thinks that so much of the council’s budget goes on staff salaries that it is difficult to move money around. “I don’t see pools of money that we can tap into.” 

Cullen says there have been improvements at Oliver Bond House. Until this year, there were serious issues with dampness and mould. 

But council staff recently treated many homes for dampness and fitted vents. “That has made a big, big difference,” she says. 

The council has promised a full renovation of the complex, but some tenants won’t get that for 25 years, says Cullen. They shouldn’t have to go without double-glazing until then, she says. 

Where else could money come from?

There are other sources of funding for social housing maintenance and improvements, aside from council rents, that come straight from central government. Those are mostly for big-ticket changes. 

The Department of Housing gives the council grants to fund retrofitting and energy efficiency measures, “regeneration” meaning the full refurbishment of old complexes, and to do up “voids” which are empty council homes that are between tenancies.

The department’s Energy Efficiency Retrofit Programme “provides for a range of measures such as attic insulation, external wall insulation, windows and doors and the installation of a heat pump”, said a spokesperson.

That work can be done on vacant or tenanted properties and it is up to the council to decide, they said. 

Dublin City Council has been tapping into that retrofit pot of money. 

Seventy-nine percent of council homes have had retrofitting work done on them, said Shane Hawkshaw, a senior council engineer, in May. The council has also been assessing its flat complexes, to see which should be prioritised for deep retrofits.

Another stream of money from the department to councils to do up the empty social homes or “voids”.

That there is central funding for this between-tenants renovation is why longer-term tenants told there is no maintenance money have found themselves gazing through draughty single-glazed windows at new neighbours with sparkling double-glazing.

Lacey, the Labour councillor, says the Department of Housing recently cut how much of the council’s bill it will cover when the council is renovating an empty home for a new tenant. 

They used to give the council 65 percent of the cost but they cut that to 25 percent and plan to cut it again to 20 percent, he says. 

A spokesperson for the Department said that those percentages aren’t accurate. “There is no specific subvention at the percentages referenced.”

But they didn’t explain whether the voids budget is being cut or why.

They said that together with councils, the department is “working to transition from a largely response and voids-based approach to housing stock management and maintenance to a planned maintenance approach”.

That is another objective in the Housing for All strategy, they said. Councils will need to carry out surveys of the condition of all their housing stock and develop “strategic and informed work programmes in response”, she says. 

Lacey said the impact of cutting the voids funding as construction costs climb will simply mean fewer homes are done up. “That means we will be refurbishing fewer voids than previously.”

The Department of Housing spokesperson responded to questions about how it will move towards planned maintenance and whether it will increase funding for it, saying: “Work is ongoing whereby the implementation of an ICT asset management system is currently in progress.”

Hayden, who co-authored the report on social housing, says the solution to funding maintenance of social homes that they put forward went beyond ring-fencing rents and into how to fund planned maintenance. 

The current system leads the council to focus on “response maintenance”, she says, responding to requests from tenants to fix things. But “the proper way to maintain housing stock is to do planned maintenance”, says Hayden. 

That means compiling stock surveys, ensuring that homes are up to standard and consistently upgrading them as required, she says. 

They recommended that the government take a long-term view and start moving all public housing onto a cost-rental model. 

“The rents levied should be at a rate that covers provision, management and maintenance,” says Hayden. A Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) subsidy could then kick in to help cover rent for those who can’t afford it, she says. 

That change would allow councils to cover all necessary costs and also crucially would let them borrow to build more homes, including at times in the cycle when construction costs are lower, she says. 

Introducing that big change to the social housing system wouldn’t be easy, says Hayden. “This kind of change requires unified political consensus.” 

Laoise Neylon is a reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at lneylon@dublininquirer.com.

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