Vulnerable households dependent on housing assistance are being victimised by landlords and refused housing despite such discrimination being illegal, research published on Thursday finds.
The unfair treatment, described as "prevalent" in the report from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (Ihrec) is particularly targeted at single-parents, Traveller, Roma and refugee households, and those headed by disabled people.
It is perpetrated by private landlords, letting agents and advertisers, says the report, “Housing Assistance and Discrimination – A Scoping Study on the ‘Housing Assistance Ground’ under the Equal Status Acts 2000-2018”.
Chief human rights commissioner Sinead Gibney said it was clear "much more needs to be done to tackle systemic discrimination" against these households, most of whom were "desperately" in need of housing.
Discrimination against households in receipt of rent supplement or the housing assistance payment (HAP) has been illegal since 2016 under the Equal Status Acts. Cases can be brought to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).
Since 2016, queries to the commission on the housing assistance ground have accounted for the largest, or second-largest, proportion of all about discrimination each year.
Drawing on WRC case files, an online survey of about 50 tenants and semi-structured interviews with stakeholders the report says it aims not to capture the scale of the issue but “the broad characteristics and dynamics of housing discrimination”.
Of the 97 complaints about discrimination on the ground of housing assistance that proceeded to investigation at the WRC between 2016 and 2020, 58 per cent were upheld. Of the total, 66 were brought against landlords, 25 against letting agents, three against advertisers and three are unknown.
Responses to the allegations at the WRC show several acknowledged “they had declined to engage with or offer tenancies to HAP-eligible prospective tenants.
“Some respondents simply reported being unaware of the legal obligation not to discriminate . . . while others in this cohort said they couldn’t comply with the regulatory requirements associated with the HAP scheme.”
Many who experienced discrimination told report authors landlords or agents did not explicitly refuse HAP but found “other ways to discriminate in a more ‘subtle’ manner” making it difficult to prove.
“This includes landlords asking prospective tenants about the source of income that will be used to pay the rent. Once the prospective tenant informs the potential landlord the rent will be paid via HAP, the prospective tenant does not hear back from the landlord or estate agent,” said one.
People with disabilities
A housing advocate said many HAP-eligible tenants “expect to be rejected at viewings, if they get a viewing, or to not hear back from the landlord or agent as soon as HAP is mentioned”.
People of colour, especially trying to leave direct provision, or people with disabilities, dependant on HAP, were found to be disproportionately excluded from the private rental market.
Sitting tenants too, who become eligible for HAP or rent supplement, faced discrimination, including notices to quit or landlords refusing to fill in the necessary forms.
Among reasons given for not wanting HAP tenants were that they were more likely to be “bad tenants”, that the HAP system was too bureaucratic, and that HAP was below market rent.
Survey participants said the discrimination resulted in anxiety, stress and depression, with humiliation, shame, upset and “a sense of worthlessness” being among terms used, while 18 per cent became homeless as they could not find a landlord that would accept HAP or rent supplement.
The report identifies issues, such as not being able to get the landlord’s home address to notify them of a complaint to the WRC, as barriers to accessing justice.
It refers to “the unequal power dynamic between tenant and landlord which can compromise a person’s ability to contest discrimination”. Recommendations centre on strengthening tenants’ positions. These include clarifying the discrimination ground, better supporting them to access justice and raising awareness among key groups of their rights.