Homeless crisis in need of urgent action

Landlords are raising rents and cutting off housing options to families

Sat, Apr 26, 2014, 01:00

A new homelessness is emerging, growing in number and with children at the centre of it.

Where the homeless population has traditionally been dominated by single people – single men in particular – families with children are now presenting to agencies in increasing numbers.

According to Bob Jordan, director of the Threshold charity, who has been working in the sector for more than a decade, for the first time “families with two, three and four children are falling through the net”.

They include the plight of 36-year-old Sabrina McMahon who, along with her three children, had to live in her car for the past week after a series of temporary housing arrangements broke down.

Dáithí Downey, deputy director of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, which oversees homelessness services across Dublin’s four local authorities, said yesterday that while there have always been some families with children presenting, “the scale of this has intensified since September last year.

“Families are facing increased rental costs in a tightening and volatile housing market which is squeezing large numbers of people out of once-stable housing options.

“With the revival of capital values in the open housing market comes an expectation on the part of landlords that they can seek higher rents.

“This is particularly a matter of income inadequacy where families are unable to absorb rent increases. It is a massive crisis.”

As well as rent increases in the private sector, the caps on rent allowance from the State mean the payment is too low to meet rents in many areas, and an increasing number of landlords won’t accept rent allowance. Households on marginal incomes are simply being priced out of the rental market.

On top of this, practically no new social housing is being provided.

There are 96,000 households on the national housing waiting list – compared with 56,250 in 2008; 48,400 in 2002; and 28,200 in 1993.

The longest waiting list is in Dublin city, where 16,170 households are on the list, followed by Cork city with 6,400, followed by South Dublin County Council, which has a waiting list of 6,217. Households are being advised they face waits of up to a decade before they will get a home.

Single parents with children account for one-third of those on the housing waiting lists.

‘Drop in the ocean’
In the past fortnight Minister for Housing Jan O’Sullivan announced a €15 million fund to renovate 952 long-term vacant council houses and flats to bring them back into use in the coming years – a welcome step but a “drop in the ocean” in the words of homeless and housing charities such as the Simon Community.

In the absence of social housing, families on low incomes are dependent on the private sector and a State rent allowance.

While landlords are entitled to review rent every 12 months, the Department of Social Protection reviews the rent allowance caps only every 18 months. They were last reviewed in June, and all those working in the housing sector say they are too low.

In Dublin, the cap for a single person is €520 a month, or €350 a month if sharing accommodation. The cap is €920 a month for a couple with two children. In Cork the cap is €485 a month for a single person and €725 for a couple with two children.

To rent a two-bedroom apartment in the capital can cost upwards of €1,200 a month.

Where both these options have failed, local authorities are using hotels. The most recent figures suggest up to 170 families in Dublin are being accommodated in hotels.

It is a solution which the Homeless Executive has described as a “last resort” and one which Downey says promises “no happy outlook” for families. But even hotels are proving more difficult to source. As the tourism season picks up, rooms for homeless families will become “more scarce”.

Agencies working in this area are calling for an “energetic and substantial” response to the crisis. Among the measures they say are urgently needed are rent controls or the index-linking of rents; more discretion for community welfare officers when deciding on applications for rent allowance; and an immediate review of rent allowance caps.

Social housing
In the medium to long term, they say a higher proportion of any new housing must be ring-fenced for social and affordable housing, and all are calling for a substantial investment by the Government in building new housing.

There is also a dearth of knowledge among tenants about their rights. The Dublin Homeless Executive will soon begin a public information campaign on tenants’ rights, pointing out among other things that a landlord must give written notice of a rent increase; rent increases can be reviewed on application to the Private Residential Tenancies Board; and if a landlord wishes to move back into the property or sell it, they must give a tenant between 21 and 112 days’ notice, depending on the lease.

“Tenants must get more assertive, more stroppy, get good information and hang on in there,” says Downey. “No matter how bad or difficult a tenancy, there is no future for your family in a hotel.”