Families being excluded from social housing waiting list due to ‘badly worded’ circular, advocates say

Councils applying rigid interpretation of departmental note covering income limits, housing advocates say

Councils are using a “very badly worded” circular from the Department of Housing to exclude families from social housing despite their incomes falling below qualifying thresholds, housing rights advocates are warning.

They say a circular issued in March last year is also being used to refuse homeless families emergency accommodation. The impact is being described as “unacceptable” and “really harsh”.

The circular, which centres on how a household’s income is calculated, is titled Social Housing Support Household Means Policy 2021. It says: “The determination of whether an applicant household meets the income criteria is based on a calculation of their preceding 12 months’ net average income before the date of receipt of application.”

Councils are applying a “rigid” interpretation of this, says Aoife Kelly-Desmond, managing solicitor with the Mercy Law legal charity. “They are looking back at an applicant’s average income over the preceding 12 months, even where their current circumstances have changed and their income is below the qualifying income threshold.”


Annual income limits of €25,000-€42,000, depending on the local authority and household size, have not changed since 2011.

“The results can be really harsh,” says Ms Kelly-Desmond. “If a person is blocked from entering, or is removed from, the social housing list they are also unable to claim HAP [Housing Assistance Payment], meaning they could be without any housing support for a period of months even though their current income is far below the threshold.

“Even more concerningly, we see many local authorities use eligibility for social housing as a ‘proxy’ for eligibility for emergency homeless accommodation.”

Getting worse

Opposition housing spokesmen Eoin Ó Broin of Sinn Féin and Richard Boyd Barrett of People Before Profit say they have had multiple cases in their clinics over the past 15 months. “It’s absolutely shocking and it’s getting worse,” said Boyd Barrett.

This application of the circular appears to contravene both the 2011 Social Housing Assessment Regulations, which provide “discretion” to review an application where there are “changes in household circumstances”; and the 1988 Housing Act, which says a person “shall” be regarded as homeless when “unable to provide accommodation from [their] own resources”.

While Ó Broin “fully” understood the need for consistency in income assessments, he said: “It is simply unacceptable that people whose income is clearly below the income thresholds are excluded from social housing support because of a very badly worded circular. I have written to Minister [for Housing] Darragh O’Brien and his officials urging them to amend the circular to ensure a degree of flexibility.”

Ms Kelly-Desmond said: “At a minimum the circular needs to be amended to return discretion to local authorities to consider a material change in circumstances when assessing applications for social housing.

“It must be made clear it is not applicable to emergency homeless accommodation.”

A Department of Housing spokesman said: “Social housing is a long-term support for households with continuing, long-term difficulty meeting their accommodation needs. Assessing an applicant’s net average income over a 12-month period provides a comprehensive picture of their current and previous income and allows for a fair and realistic assessment of long-term need at the time of application.

“Applicants may reapply for social housing support at any time, and rent supplement may also be available to help meet shorter-term needs. A person does not need to be eligible for social housing to access homeless supports.”

‘I said we’d be on the streets with two kids and was basically told it wasn’t their problem’

Sandra (not her real name) reunited with her partner in February after a period apart. The couple have two young children, one with special needs and autism.

Despite their income falling below the €38,000 limit for their family size for social housing in Dublin, South Dublin County Council told them last week they were not eligible. Nor can the now homeless family get Housing Assistance Payment (HAP). They were also initially refused emergency accommodation.

She says that although she and her partner were apart, she was living with her parents and receiving the One Parent Family Payment of €208 plus €80 per week for the children — about €15,000 per year. When she and her partner reunited in February, she stopped receiving this. He earns “a good bit less” than €38,000 a year as a labourer.

They moved out of her parents’ home due to overcrowding and had been moving between family and friends’ homes. In April they applied for social housing and HAP.

Concerned about the delay in processing their application, they contacted their TD, Eoin Ó Broin, who contacted the council.

“Last Friday someone called from the council. She said, ‘I’m sorry to tell you, you are over the yearly income threshold for social housing’.” She was told their combined incomes over the year up to April was more than €38,000.

“I was trying to explain to her that I don’t get One Parent Family Payment any more, and we have a child with special needs. I was basically pleading with her. I asked about emergency accommodation and she said, ‘Well, as you know, you don’t qualify, so there is nothing we can do.’ I said we’d be on the streets with two kids and was basically told it wasn’t their problem.

“I felt my mouth drop into my stomach ... I just thought, ‘What are we going to do?’ We can’t afford to rent in Dublin ... Our income would only cover rent, nothing else. And the fact they were denying us emergency accommodation was a knife in the back.”

Following intervention by Ó Broin and Mercy Law, they have been offered emergency accommodation in the city centre but cannot apply for social housing or HAP until February 2023.

“I just feel lost, stuck,” says Sandra. “My child’s meltdowns are getting worse. My older child is asking every day, ‘When are we going home, Mammy?’ It feels like there’s no way forward for us.”

South Dublin County Council did not provide a comment.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times