Poorest face 'substandard housing' due to rent caps

Tue, Aug 7, 2012, 01:00

CUTS TO rent allowance are forcing the poorest tenants into accommodation that does not meet legal minimum standards, and others into homelessness, housing organisations have said.

In January, Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton said the rent being paid by people on rent supplement was too high in some areas and issued new maximum rents tenants could pay. The personal contribution a tenant would have to make was also increased from €24 per week to €30.

Tenants themselves would have to renegotiate rents with landlords. If they could not achieve lower rents, their supplement would be stopped and they would have to find alternative accommodation.

The department pays about €500 million a year in rent supplement to 97,000 tenants in the private rented sector – about 30 per cent of the households in the sector. The new caps, it estimates, should save €22 million a year.

The new maximum rent for a single person ranges from €300 per month in Longford and Leitrim to €475 per month in the four Dublin local authority areas.

A couple with three children can pay up to a limit of €400 a month in Leitrim, or €900 in Fingal and €950 in the rest of Dublin.

The department said last week: “It should be stressed that there will be no instance of homelessness due to these measures.”

However, according to Fionnughla McLoughlin, assistant manager with the access housing unit of housing charity Threshold, the rates are now so low that eligible accommodation often does not meet legal minimum standards and some people lose their homes.

Regulations for rented housing introduced in 2009 state each unit must have its own sanitary facilities, along with modern standards for food storage, food preparation, refuse and laundry, ventilation, lighting and fire safety.

Ms McLoughlin said the access unit, which helps homeless people or those at risk of homelessness source accommodation, is taking three times as long as it did six months ago to find accommodation for people on rent supplement.

“We are just about sourcing single rooms in Dublin 3, 7, 1 and 2 under the new cap,” she said. “A lot of the time it’s not meeting minimum standards. You’re into shared toilets, shared bathrooms, lack of ventilation, damp, pull-out beds. There’s no point having these standards if the rent that can be paid won’t pay for them.”

Focus Ireland’s director of advocacy Mike Allen also said there was “no doubt” the “recent restrictions in rent supplement have contributed significantly to some people losing their homes.

“These cuts have also made it more difficult for people who have become homeless to move on into appropriate accommodation.”

Ms McLoughlin said in many cases landlords were “at rock bottom in terms of what they’re charging” and unable to reduce rents further. “We assisted a lady recently who had to move out of her home, with her two children, for the sake of €80 a month.”

People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said he deals with “streams of people facing homelessness as result of these cuts”. He said if the department was serious about reducing rents it should introduce some form of rent control. “What we have here is another austerity agenda-imposed attack on the poorest people in society.

“We’re organising information meetings across the city for people trying to stay in their homes, and they are packed. Many tenants don’t have the confidence, or aren’t in a position, to negotiate rent reductions with landlords.”

A spokeswoman for the department said a previous rent review in June 2010 coincided with national rents falling by 4 per cent.

“Everybody in the private rental market benefits when rents fall, not just people on social welfare. Feedback from the department’s officials dealing with rent supplement is that landlords, for the vast majority of cases, have complied with the new limits, with only isolated examples of rent supplement tenants being forced to relocate.”

'The balance I have achieved here took a long time'

JOCELYN BRADDELL (79) has just had her rent allowance reduced by by the Department of Social Protection. She has, however, had no rent reduction from her landlord, and so must make up the difference out of her pension.

She is relieved that she can remain in her home but she will have less than €90 a week to live on once her electricity and phone bills are paid. She pays €125 week for her one-room home in Dublin’s Rathgar and rents another tiny room, in which she paints, for €50 a week.

A letter from her community welfare officer (CWO) some months ago told her she would have to renegotiate her rent down to €475 a month and, if she couldn’t, “alternative accommodation must be sought”.

And so followed anxiety-filled months as her home was “inspected” by the CWO and she tried to get a rent reduction to comply with the new rules.

“I asked the landlord if he could reduce the rent. I said we also had the option of telling a lie to the welfare officer [that he had reduced the rent] and I would pay him the balance privately, but he declined to tell a lie like that.”

She was told to fill in a form with her landlord confirming a rent reduction and that failure to return it would “lead to a suspension of your rent supplement”, the letter from her CWO said.

She wrote to Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton and lodged an appeal with the Department of Social Protection’s appeals office.

Last Wednesday she was told her rent supplement was to be reduced from €90 to €77.40 per week. She also gets a pension of €226 a week. Her combined bills come to about €40 per week, leaving her a little less than €90 a week.

Ms Braddell rents a room at the top of an old Georgian house. She has a single bed in one corner, a cooking and sink area behind a screen in another. She shares a bathroom with a neighbour and has a small electric radiator for heating.

She brought up her four grown children alone after her marriage ended, and gave up the local authority home they had in Wicklow when they left home, feeling it wrong to keep it on her own. She rented a small flat on the Dublin quays and took up painting.

She moved into her current home, which is near one of her daughters, about 10 years ago.

A large window looks over a garden. Her bright, Knuttelesque paintings cover the walls, while hundreds of books fill shelves and home-made puppets hang from the mantelpiece. Clothes on hangers are on a line in the room.

“I try not to hang them in the wardrobe as the back wall is damp,” she said.

“I am happy here. The light is perfect for painting. The balance I have achieved here took a long time. At least I can stay here. I shall have to try and sell some of the watercolours to make ends meet.

“I am speaking to the newspaper because I know so many people on rent relief will be afraid to speak up. We are the lowest strata of society. The system is at fault. They have cut my rent relief but they haven’t tackled the landlords.”

She is sympathetic to her landlord, however, whom she describes as a “decent man doing a valuable social service”.

“This is a wonderful place to live and he is a good man,” she said.